Porto’s Bolhão Market: My Favorite Food Market in Europe

Fish, Fruit, and Lots of Ladies: The Bolhão Food Market in Porto, Portugal

Bolhao Market
The market feels like a step back in time.

I arrived to the Porto airport and rushed to hail a cab. My friend Cat and I were on our way to the Travel Bloggers Unite conference, and I didn’t want to miss the first event, a valuable photography workshop with well-known Mario Cacciottolo, BBC journalist and portrait photographer.

We made it just in time, and after some theoretical advice from Mario, we were off to the center to take pictures. Out first stop was the Bolhão Market, a historical food market that was perfect for taking portraits, Mario’s specialty.

Bolhao Market entrance
The entrance to the market needs repair, hopefully they’ll find the way.

I’ve explored food markets all over Europe and even give tours of various food markets here in Madrid. But I had never heard about the Bolhão Market, and it didn’t even make my radar on my last visit to Porto in 2011. I was about to realize that I had been missing out.

I can say, without a doubt, that the Bolhão Food Market is my new favorite food market in Europe. It is one of those places that is beautifully ugly, the kind of place oozing with incredible stories, complicated histories and fascinating people. The first thing that will surprise you in the market is that almost all of the vendors are women. Nowhere else in Europe have I seen this happen. When I asked one of the women about it she told me “It’s like that here in Portugal. We women do a lot of work.”.

Pic head
The woman at this booth sold dried pig heads and other strange parts. She was so proud to have been featured in the French press one time.
Garlic booth
This woman was selling garlic and her stand was very popular.
female butcher
This woman hacked that meat like a pro.

I wandered around, still too shy to point my camera directly at the faces of these strong and tough looking ladies, despite Mario’s encouragement to do so. It felt so private and personal– and I was sure that each wrinkle on their faces had a story I just didn’t have the time to listen to. I settled with a few shots from a distance, and plenty of photos of the incredible produce and fish being sold. This was the type of market I could spend hours exploring, and all I wanted to do was stay behind taking photographs, people watching and trying to unlock the mysteries of these women in the market.

peppers and pinecones
Peppers and pinecones at the Bolhão Market.
cinnamon stick
Decorated cinnamon sticks– definitely a woman’s touch.
Watering can
Garden supplies were also abundant at the market.
Olives
Portugal offers some fantastic olives and olive oil.

I have a feeling that places like the Bolhão Market are an endangered species. The fact that all of the women were past 50 is a good indicator of this fact. Who will take over when they are gone? What will become of the market?

It is a good question to ask, and one that no one seems to know the answer to. The Bolhão Market dates back to the late 1800’s and in 2006 was declared a site of public interest, which hopefully would protect it for awhile. However, in 2007 there were talks of its destruction, to make space for a shopping mall or luxury apartments. Protests and activists have held this off for the time being, but the market is in dire need of renovations.

I loved the Bolhão Market so much that I returned my last day to take some more pictures. I strapped my 15 kilo duffel bag over my shoulder and despite this terribly uncomfortable (and likely injury invoking) stance, I headed inside to snap away for my last 20 minutes in Porto.

percebes
Percebes (goose neck barnacles) are a specialty.
fresh figs
Fresh figs are in season and these ones were amazing.
Grapes
Green and red grapes, delicious plain and the main ingredient in Port wine!
Chickens for sale
Chicken dinner anyone?
Honey
Honey is another proud product of Portugal.
Woman at Bolhao
This woman was extremely proud of her stand. She even had her picture proudly displayed with her produce!
Bolhao
The woman’s picture next to her vegetables.
Fruit stand
This is someone’s office– simple but effective.
market vegetables
The fresh vegetables in the market were irresistible.

I encourage anyone who is visiting Porto to make the Bolhao Market a priority. Whether or not food and markets are really your thing, take a minute to observe the vendors chatting and going about their craft, as they are likely the last generation of experts of their kind. It is a rare chance to travel back in time and absorb history, rather than simply reading about it and I know that you won’t be disappointed.

The city of Porto in general is scattered with these little gems of antiquity. Tucked between the blocks of modern hotels are tons of local hostels, guesthouses and apartments that are each full of their own out-of-another-age charm.

Have you ever been to a place that seems to belong to another time? Please share in the comments!

If you are interested in improving your own photography skills I highly suggest the Getting Out of Auto Ebook to help– it’s done wonders for me this past year and I used the techniques in the market.

Other Porto Posts:

Porto Sneak Peak

Giving Porto a Second Chance

Pousada Santa Marinha

 

Comments

  1. Hi Lauren,
    It was great meeting you last night. I loved coming here to leave you a message and finding this article on Porto’s market, I agree it’s just wonderful. For your next trip to Portugal north, don’t forget visiting Guimaraes, a great city (this year also European Capital of Culture) 30 minutes away from Porto with a market you won’t forget (for me, it’s even better).
    Have a great weekend!

  2. Hi!
    Do you know what days and hours the market is open? I definitely want to make sure that I visit when I go in January?

    thanks!

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