Porto is the second largest city in Portugal. It is becoming more and more popular in the recent years. The old town was listed as world heritage site by UNESCO in 1996. This beautiful city is built on a gradual slope with red colored tiled roof and building featuring the pretty patters of Portuguese tiles. Although many of the cities oldest buildings are abandoned and are at the verge of collapsing, it adds to another character to the city. Being one of the cheapest European cities to visit and still have great food and great views, Porto is definitely becoming one of the most popular city destinations in Europe. In 2017, Porto is rated as third affordable travel destination in the world! See the list here.
JK Rowling- the author of Harry Potter, lived in Porto for 18 months just before she published the first book in the series. At that time she was teaching English during the day and spent most of the night writing story of the wizard boy in a café called Majestic Café. Like Café Tortoni we visited in Buenos Aires, Majestic Café is also listed as the top 10 most beautiful cafes in the world. For that reason, Porto is an important city for many Harry Potter fans.
Personally we felt that Porto is a very relaxing city to walk around. If you were here purely to tick Porto off the list, the city could be visited in just one day. There are quite a few famous churches and cathedrals in the city. However we personally felt the mass amount of abandoned buildings close to the old city center was what was truly unique.
What began to catch our attention as we began to wonder about in this city was the amount of abandoned houses we saw. We soon realized that these abandoned houses were everywhere! Most of them were found in the city center. This really caught us by surprise as we thought the second largest city in Portugal would be bustling and wealthy. It shouldn’t be full of empty houses left in shambles. The government and tourism industry of Portugal had painted a picture of Porto quite differently to the one we actually saw. We really enjoyed the city and there were heaps of other beautiful touristy spots to see and walk around. However we were more excited to introduce a different side of Porto that we didn’t know about until we visited!
We stayed in a suburb called Vila Nova de Gaia, which is directly across the river from Porto city center. Even though place was only 15 min walk to the city center, the accommodation in this area was significantly cheaper than the city center itself. There were quite few famous wineries on this side of the river and of course Porto is famous for it’s Port wines! As we walk into the city center from our accommodation, we would pass the very famous Ponte Luís I bridge in Porto!
Although our Airbnb was quite nice and refurbished, the accommodation was located next to a huge abandoned mansion. Since our building was slightly elevated, we could look straight into the abandoned block. There were over-grown grass and the iron fences were all rusted. Many of the windows and tiles were shattered and the place simply looked haunted. This was our first encounter with an abandoned building in Porto. We soon found out that there were many more abandoned buildings like this in the area.
When we crossed Ponte Luís I Bridge on the second day, we had our second surprising discovery. There was a spectacular carpet of vines growing over a huge patch of abandoned buildings directly under the bridge. It was really beautiful in it’s own way and we haven’t really seen anything like before especially in the city center. The vines were also sprouting purple colored flowers at this time of the year. We were instantly in-love with this view and the city. However, the more we looked at these buildings, the more we pondered on what happened to all these buildings at such a prime location in the city.
Porto from Ponte Luís I Bridge (Video)
I’m sure most of the tourists were as curious as we were at this point , especially after seeing so many abandoned buildings. These are prime real estates in the city center and they are all abandoned! We instantly looked up the reasons online and we summarized most of the information we have read through below.
During the Global financial crisis, the world was focused on the bankruptcy of Greece. Most of us didn’t realize that Portugal was also going through a difficult period. In 2011, Portugal received a bailout from the EU to prevent bankruptcy. This alone does not explain the mass abandoning of houses. When we visited Athens in Greece in 2015, we did not remember seeing that many abandoned houses there. Although we did saw a crazy amount of graffiti in Athens city center.
In 2011, around 18.8% of the houses in Porto were abandoned and that means 1 in 5 houses were empty! Even the capital Lisbon had around 15% of houses being abandoned. The Financial crises caused many companies to become bankrupt and many Portuguese left their cities to find jobs in other countries!
One of the main reason for people to abandon their houses is because even if they want to sell their houses, they couldn’t. Not many people had that extra cash to buy these properties and there weren’t many foreign investors willing to invest in a country going bankrupt. As a result, more and more buildings were left abandoned! The Portuguese government did try to improve the situation by releasing 2800 “Golden Visa”, aiming to increase foreign investment. The Golden Visa is basically permanent residency in Portugal, which can be obtained when foreign investors purchases a property in Portugal. 80% of these were Golden Visas were taken up by Chinese investors hoping to gain a residency in Europe.
Fortunately in recent years, budget airline Ryanair began to fly to city of Porto. The government took advantage of that and began to advertises Porto as a great destination to visit. This helped to increase the volume of tourists visiting the city and opens up opportunities for local investors to renovate these abandoned buildings to be rented out to tourists as Airbnb or apartments. Stubbornly there are still many building restrictions in Porto which prevents the appearances of buildings to be changed excessively to retain the heritage looks. Hence renovation of these building were still quite costly.
In the early 20th Century, Portuguese government introduced a law to protect the poor. This law makes the raise of rent impossible and the landlords cannot evict their tenets either. This is good for the tenets in the city as they could live in the center extremely cheaply and in some cases, only 20 Euros a month in rent. Since the landlords are clearly not getting enough rent for their investments, they choose to not fix or renovate their properties. These properties are simply left to rot. Hence we often see houses in extremely bad shape still being occupied by tenants who have been living there for a long time.
The row of houses underneath the Ponte Luís I bridge left us the deepest impression. Besides being surrounded by abandoned buildings with wild vines growing over them. We kept seeing extremely poorly maintained houses being occupied. These buildings would have had a glorious past as they were built quite well. However they are now all abandoned due to bad circumstances. Whilst we were under the bridge, each passing train leaves a loud and uncomfortable rumble which would easily drive some people mad. No wonder most people who can afford to live somewhere else has long left.
Some of the houses still retain their facades, but it is only an empty shell. It’s quite an unique sight and we felt like we were walking in an apocalyptic movie set in Europe. It is hard to grasp the idea that we were walking in the city center of the second largest city in Portugal that’s so different to what we saw in postcards.
The younger generations are choosing to rent or buy houses in the outer suburb, as the rent and the cost of living would be cheaper. This further worsens the issue of vacancy in the city center. When most of the surrounding building were left to shambles, most people would choose to move away. The only people remaining in the area are tenets who are living off their cheap rents. With the renovation cost being so high, most land lords still choose to leave their houses in ruins.
We clearly aren’t the first tourists that are fascinated by the mass amount of abandoned buildings in Porto. As soon as we looked online we saw many people were asking the same questions. There is even a company called The Worst Tour which takes tourists to see the “Real Porto”. In this tour the company takes you to see the abandoned building and allows you to understand the story behind these crumbling bricks and concrete.
“The Worst Tour” is not very popular with the Portuguese government as the government is trying very hard to improve the image of this city. The tourism industry wants the world to see Porto as a relaxing beautiful olden harbor city, not a city full of abandoned crumbling buildings. Personally I felt that these buildings is what makes Porto truly unique. Seeing these crumbling buildings in Porto is like seeing the Fevela in Rio, they reflect the history and culture of the city.
Of course Porto still has it’s beauty and the tourism industry has really picked up in the past two years. The Portuguese government is reducing the amount of new constructions. Hence more Portuguese are beginning to fix up these old shamble houses to rent out or live in. With tourism industry picking up, there are better jobs available in the city center and more people are willing to moving back into the city to live.
We were fully fascinated with these abandoned buildings and we felt that we must share our experience with more people. This article is not meant to be negative, we just want people to explore beyond the touristy side. Hope that you would understand Porto more when you visit this beautiful city.