Why you should care

You can learn as much about a city by looking at its underbelly as you can by checking out the museums.

Forget about postcard landscapes, pretty monuments, majestic cathedrals or fancy food markets. Instead, why not take a tour of a city’s saddest, seediest, sickliest run-down corners?

It might seem an odd proposition, but that’s precisely what The Worst Tours offers in Porto.

Portugal’s second largest city was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO and is known for its picturesque views and world-famous wine. But the financial crisis has also had a harsh impact on its architecture, and that’s what Worst Tours focuses on: the less photogenic, run-down areas.

We want to show the city that tourists couldn’t find otherwise.

This peculiar service is the brainchild of three unemployed architects from Porto, who refused to emigrate, like many of their friends, and instead chose to show visitors what austerity measures have done to their beloved hometown.

“We want to show the city that tourists couldn’t find otherwise. To travel is to engage with the real city, and not only the bright and clean tourist circuits without any contradictions,” says 39-year-old Pedro, co-founder of the tours and a passionate guide who wears small glasses and carries a bag full of maps and clips of old documents and essays.

Some might say tours like this don’t help the image of a city in dire need of attracting tourism to get out of the economic slump, but its founders argue that their goal is not to put anyone off. Instead they want to show the need for urban regeneration.

These unconventional tours have become popular with people of all ages and nationalities, from retired Americans to young Australian backpackers. “They are people who want to see another kind of city from our personal point of view,” says Pedro.

Worst Tours is the opposite of a conventional tourist trap — and not only because the guides genuinely care about what they talk about.

Worst Tours is definitely not horrible.

For starters, the walks are free — though tips are encouraged — and instead of heading for the touristy landmarks, visitors have to walk away from the spotless and shiny town center to venture into decrepit parts of the city.

Actually, it’s just a short walk. Just beside Porto’s main shopping avenue, Santa Catarina Street, appear the first bricked-up, bankrupted stores. Abandoned buildings border the river Douro, sitting empty, now home to cats and seagulls. Even popular markets like Bolhão and Bom Sucesso look fatigued as they struggle to stay open and fight the pressure of privatization.

The walk, which takes around two hours, breezes past countless dusty “for sale” signs and political graffiti covering dilapidated facades, with messages like “Bancos, Banqueiros, Bandidos” —“Banks, Bankers, Bandits.”

Still, it’s not all as depressing as it sounds. Porto is stunningly beautiful. The tours show visitors some great secrets like tascas — cheap local eateries —and inspiring examples of ingenuity in the face of the economic downturn. They include a squat inside an old primary school, a haunted-looking abandoned mall transformed into a rehearsal space for local bands and an ancient outdoor public washing place now used by families who can’t afford washing machines.

In all, Worst Tours is definitely not horrible. The tours offer a strange but successful mix of architectural expertise and history lesson that feels like roaming the streets with a local friend.

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