Everybody, and I do mean everybody, that we met who had been to Porto said that we must visit the city. People raved about it. It was highly recommended for its food, culture, beauty, and friendly people, so we made Porto our first stop in Portugal. Unfortunately, we only had a day to spend there, but that didn’t keep us from experiencing as much of the city as possible.
A little about Porto
Situated on the Douro River estuary and the northwest Atlantic coast, Porto is the second-largest city in Portugal, behind the capital city, Lisbon. It is also very old; the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with evidence of Celtic settlements as early as 300 BC. Porto was settled by the Romans and became an important commercial port. Its ancient city center, one of the oldest in Europe, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Porto is also a hot tourist destination and was designated the 2014 “Best European Destination” by the organization of the same name. It was a European Capital of Culture in 2001. It has much to offer, including the charm of its old city center as well as waterfront shopping and dining, a winning professional soccer team, temperate weather, and proximity to the ocean and beaches. Visitors can also sample the city’s most famous export–port wine, which is exclusively packaged in and exported from the Porto suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia. Neither of Dale nor I had tried port before, but we took a tour of one of the port houses and found this sweet drink to be quite delectable. We’ll talk more about the tour in our next post.
Our day in Porto
We love to walk the cities we visit. It’s one of our “things.” Porto was no exception, but the hills did slow us down a bit. Much of it is built on (or into) the cliffs that overlook the Douro River. Since we had just finished hiking the Camino del Norte–which had more than its fair share of hills–Porto was probably easier for us than it would be for some, but it was one of the most challenging European cities we’ve walked. Fortunately, there are public transportation options for those who want to avoid most of the hill-climbing.
We started our walk in Vila Nova de Gaia, where we were staying. Vila Nova de Gaia is across the Douro River from the Porto city center. There was a lovely walking path along the river, and even though it was fairly early on a Sunday morning, many people were out running and biking. The Porto Marathon was also taking place. Vila Nova de Gaia is home to all of the port caves, or wine cellars, and to the port houses that prepare the wine for market, so we would be returning to explore this area later in the day.
Ponte Luis I
In order to get to the heart of Porto, we crossed its most iconic bridge, Ponte Luis I (Luis I Bridge).
Porto is nicknamed The City of Bridges, and it has six bridges that span the Douro River and connect it to Vila Nova de Gaia. The Luis I Bridge is one of its most famous. It was named for Portugal’s King Luis I and designed by the engineer Teófilo Seyrig, who was a student of Gustave Eiffel’s. Eiffel was originally Seyrig’s partner on the project but he and Seyrig had a dispute and Eiffel dropped out. Seyrig completed development of the bridge solo, and it was inaugurated on October 31, 1886. It has two over-lapping decks and a great iron arch. I found during my research that the given length of the bridge varies depending on the source, but according to the signage next to the bridge, it is 291.25 meters (1283 feet) in length, and at the time of its construction it was the longest of its type in the world. It has the distinction of still having the biggest iron-forged arch in the world. The upper deck is used by the Porto Metro System, but we used the walking path on the lower deck to cross the bridge.
Despite his disagreement with Seyrig, Eiffel later returned to Porto to design another iconic bridge, the Ponte Maria Pia, which is considered by some to be his first masterpiece and is now designated as a Portuguese national monument.
The travel guides all recommend that visitors take a boat trip on the Douro to see all six of Porto’s bridges. I’ll admit that we’re not a fan of boat trips, having found them to be a disappointment in other European cities, but then again, we’re walkers and love to see cities on foot, so a boat trip certainly might be worthwhile for others, and it’s a very popular way to see the city. Here’s a link if you want to learn more about Porto’s bridges.
Avenida dos Aliados
Our first stop after crossing the bridge was the Avenida dos Aliados (Avenue of the Allies, named to honor the allies of World War I) and the Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square). The city’s tourism website describes this avenue and plaza as “the heart of Porto.” Porto has always been an important center of commerce, and the avenue is lined by impressive buildings that house municipal buildings, banks, and upscale hotels. There are several cafes, including the historic Guarany Cafe, originally opened in 1933. During its heyday it drew artists, writers, and intellectuals. Closed for many years, it was recently renovated and reopened and was described as a must-see on Trip Advisor, so we stopped there for breakfast. The Guarany was indeed charming inside and out, and the weather was gorgeous, so we found a table outside on the patio and enjoyed people-watching and eating a leisurely breakfast. But we were surprised at how expensive the meal was. All of the aforementioned people who recommended Porto to us raved about how affordable it was, but in our short time there we found that Porto’s prices for hotels and food were on par with many US cities and much more expensive than, say, Spain. Granted, the Guarany was no doubt a touristy restaurant in a touristy area, and Porto is a tourist destination in and of itself, but things were more expensive than we’d expected.
Another thing we discovered at breakfast was that Portugal’s coffee is uber-strong. We didn’t think anything could be stronger than Spain’s coffee, but Portuguese coffee took the potency up a notch, and we were in trouble if we had more than a few cups! One day I made the mistake of drinking a cafe con leche in the afternoon and didn’t sleep at all that night. Yup, that’s some strong coffee.
Clérigos Church and Tower
Revved up on caffeine, we headed to one of Porto’s most popular tourist attractions. The Igreja dos Clérigos (Clérigos Church, or Church of the Clergymen) is a baroque church with a tall bell tower called the Torre dos Clérigos. The church was completed in 1750, with the tower being added several years later. The torre is 348 feet high and can be seen from many points in Porto.
Visitors are allowed to climb the 240 stairs and access the bell tower. We decided to take that challenge and were rewarded with 360 degree views of Porto, the red-tiled rooftops of the old city center stretching in all directions.
Exploring Porto’s old city center
We spent the rest of the morning exploring the old city on foot while making our way toward two of the city’s most beautiful churches, Sé do Porto and Igreja da Ordem de São Francisco. With its many centuries-old buildings, Porto is very atmospheric. It just feels old. Because it’s such an ancient city, you see a wide array of architecture, from romanesque and gothic to baroque and modern. Many of the buildings were covered in azulejo, or traditional Portuguese tin-glazed ceramic tile, which added splashes of color to the landscape. It also contained remnants of fortified city walls that are a thousand years old. The streets are narrow and crowded with buildings, and wandering aimlessly through the maze of alleys might just get you lost (and who knows what you might find). Much of the area seemed to be in a continual, gradual state of decay, and some of the oldest houses are in danger of collapsing. But even the dilapidation contributed to the city’s charm, as if Porto is embracing the side effects of its age and settling in to watch another millennium or two go by.
Here are some of the highlights of our walk:
Things that we would like to have seen:
We thoroughly enjoyed strolling through this fascinating city, but we had a port tour to get to, so there were many things on my must-see list that we missed. (It should also be noted that we were visiting on a Sunday, and some of the places were closed.)
- Porto’s Lello & Irmão Bookstore has been described as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and it’s rumored that J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto for a while, received her inspiration to write Harry Potter when visiting this store. Lello & Irmão was on the top of my list but was closed on Sundays.
- The Pálacio da Bolsa used to be Porto’s stock exchange headquarters, and it is filled with stately rooms of varying styles and themes and is open for tours. The Arab Room is apparently something to see. I Googled it, and yes, it looks spectacular. Unfortunately we just didn’t have time to go.
- Casa da Música (House of Music) is a cutting-edge concert hall and city icon built in 2001. It is the only concert hall in the world that has two walls made entirely of glass.
- Porto has a very successful professional fútbol team, the FC Porto. We don’t really care about soccer, but for those who do, there’s a FC Porto Museum, and you can also tour Dragão Stadium, the team’s home.
- Ribeira, along the Douro riverbank, is a cluster of buildings considered the heart of the old city center. It has been converted to a commercial center with many shops and cafes, and the area was packed with people on this sunny Sunday afternoon. People also catch river cruises here. We passed it on our way up the hill but didn’t have a chance to stop for a meal.
Even though we only had a day to see Porto, we experienced enough to come away with a sense of why so many people feel this city is a European gem. We hope to go back one day and see some of the things that we missed and maybe wander around long enough to get lost in its ancient city center.