About five years ago, I visited Porto on a business trip and promised to return and see exactly what it had to offer as a tourist destination. I have visited Portugal on numerous occasions since then but the closest I got to fulfilling my ambition was collecting a hire car at Porto Airport and crossing the River Douro on my way further south.
In June of this year, I booked a week’s holiday in Portugal with the aim of visiting Porto as part of a tour of the north of the country. Rather than use a hotel in the centre of the city, we decided to stay at the Hotel Solverde Spa & Wellness Center at Sao Felix Da Marinha. I had visited the hotel before and knew that we would enjoy excellent facilities, service and good food.
The only 5 star Hotel by the beachfront in the North of Portugal, the Solverde is just 2 minutes by car from Espinho City, a bustling seaside resort, 15 minutes from the centre of Porto and only 30 km from the airport.
Like most visitors, we hired a car at the airport thinking that this was the easiest and most convenient way of getting around. We had under-estimate the excellence of the Portuguese public transport infrastructure and the difficulties of congestion, and parking, in a large city.
When we told the head of reception at the hotel that we intended to drive to Porto, he quickly dissuaded us pointing out that the railway station in nearby Espinho provided a regular direct link service to Campanhã Station (in the east of the City) for international and intercity trains and São Bento Station (in the city centre) for suburban and regional services.
Taking his advice we decided to leave the car in the hotel car park and head for the station. The clerk at the ticket office explained the best travel options and we opted for an Andante Tour Card available for one or three days.
This represented extremely good value as it included our return tickets from Espinho to Porto, unlimited access to the metro, trams, some bus journeys and the funicular. When travelling you have to remember to validate the card on each journey using the machine at the station, on the bus or tram.
We had planned our itinerary ahead of our journey so that we could include visits to two of the hotels we are using in the city as part of our ‘A Three Cities Tour of Portugal’ as well as cover all the ‘must tourist’ things that are listed in most guide books. Our local knowledge and contacts, a copy of The Rough Guide to Portugal and the Official Tourist Map (free from most hotels and tourist offices) proved invaluable. Without it we might have tried to do everything in a day instead of the more leisurely two days we allowed.
Travelling by train meant that our first view of the city was São Bento Station. Not just any railway station, but arguably one of Porto’s finest buildings. The entrance hall is covered with 20.000 blue and white tiles depicting historical scenes of the Portuguese history, as well as others depicting the daily life of the Portuguese people.
From the station, it is only a sort walk to the sloping Avenida dos Aliados. The streets leading off this avenue form the main commercial area of the city. At the foot of the avenue, is an area known as the Praça da Liberdade with its pavement café’s and equestrian statue of Dom Pedro IV. It is here that we consulted our map before deciding which direction to take.
To climb up or walk down – that was the question.
To say that the centre of Porto is hilly is something of an understatement and if you do not get your bearings at the onset, the tourist trail can be difficult and exhausting. We chose to go up the Avenida dos Aliados where some of the most important buildings in the city are to be found. The top of the avenue is dominated by the PortoTown Hall with its 70 meters high tower in the centre.
On the way back, we passed the famous Torre dos Clérigose Tower. Built in the 18th century, it is one of the main symbols of the city. Opting not to climb the 240 steps to the top, we continued down to Palácio da Bolsa. Now the main office of the Porto Commercial Association, it was used as the stock exchange of the city until the beginning of the 20th century. From there we moved on to Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto) started in the 12th century, and enriched over the centuries since. From the Cathedral the steep medieval streets and took us to the Ribeira waterfront area.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site – it is the old quarter of the city with small houses once occupied by fishermen. The area is a great place to stroll around or sit in one of the waterfront cafes or restaurants and admire the river views or simply watch the world go by.
After lunch, we used Funicular dos Guindais to return to the upper part of the city from the Ribeira. This runs from the Rua Augusto Rosa near the bottom tier of Ponte Dom Luis I to the just below the Praça da Batalha. We were able to use our Andante Card to pay for the journey and, from the top, access the top tier of the bridge. A pedestrian sidewalk allowed us to walk across the bridge between Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia (Gaia). The views are spectacular, but not for the faint hearted or for someone like me who is not good with heights.
With the cultural and heritage sites under our belt, we were able to use our second day to tick off the list of things our contacts had told us we should definitely do before leaving Porto.
1. Eat a “Francesinha” and “Tripas à moda do Porto”
These two dishes are linked to the creative spirit of the people of Porto, and also to their capacity of sacrifice. The “Francesinha” is an adaptation of a French dish invented by a former emigrant, which is composed of a sandwich garnished with various kinds of meat, covered with a strong spicy sauce and also with French fries. The “Tripas à Moda do Porto” is an historic dish. During the Age of the Discoveries, the Porto inhabitants gave all of their finest meat to the navigators, keeping only the tripes (That’s why the habitants of this city are called Tripeiros – tripe eaters!). However, they were able to create a delicious dish composed of calf’s foot, bacon, pork sausage, chicken and tripes, garnished by beans, carrots and other vegetables. We did try the former but not the latter.
2. Taste the Port Wine in a wine cellar
It was the wine that made this city known worldwide. To find out more, we visited Gaia and the Calem Wine Cellar where we learnt all about the process of port wine production and indulged in some product tasting. All in the name of research of course!
3. Take a river cruise in the River Douro
From the riverbank at Gaia we boarded a “Rabelo”, the traditional boat which was used in the past to transport the Port Wine, for 50 minute cruise along the River Douro. The river is perhaps the best place to admire a panoramic view of both riverbanks and to take a closer look to the six bridges that cross the river. The experience was well worth the effort.
4. Drink a coffee in “Café Majestic”
Situated on the Rua de Santa de Catarina is the most famous café in Porto. Its Belle époque architecture is a reminder the days in which the Café Majestic was the main gathering place for painters and writers at the beginning of the century. Unfortunately, our second visit to Porto was on a Sunday and, having climbed the hills to find it, the café was closed. We joined the queue of other disappointed tourists to catch a glimpse of its magnificent interior through the window.
5. Buy a book in Livraria Lello
Considered by many as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, the Lello bookshop was built in the 19th century in neo-gothic architecture. In the interior, you can admire its Art Noveau decoration and also the famous stairway which takes the visitor to the upper level of the building. Unfortunately, it too was closed on a Sunday.
All in all, Porto has so much to offer. Even though it is the second city of Portugal, it is easy to get around and, provided that you plan in advance, it is possible to see all the sights without exhausting yourself too much. For those less inclined to walk, the excellent open deck tour buses take in all the key places of interest on both sides of the river.
Porto is one of the key venues in the ‘A Three Cities Tour of Portugal’ developed by Ambient Tours for groups of 20 or more people.