Throughout my six weeks of travels through Portugal thus far, whenever I would exclaim my love for the country, just about everyone I met would say “But have you been to Porto?” “Just wait until you see Porto!” “You are just gonna loooove Porto!” So understandably, I couldn’t wait to get to Porto!
Portugal’s second largest city and one of the oldest cities in Europe, Porto is believed to date back to 300 BC. As my Lonely Planet states, “Porto put the Portu in Portugal,” dating back to Roman times. The historic city spills down the flanks the Duoro River, bringing to life the river that turns gold with sunset.
Up one hillside of the Duoro River is the historic Riberia district, a UNESCO World Heritage site that reeks of romance with its narrow cobblestone streets, old mansions, and baroque churches. One very cool aspect about the churches in Porto is the fact that their azuelos, or blue and white tiles cover not just the inside walls, but the outside as well. What a delight to see these giants looking like fine porcelain china jewel boxes!
Across the Rio Duoro is the area known as Vila Nova de Gaia, or just “Gaia” for short. This entire stretch along the river is home to the world’s most famous Port Cellars (more on that in the next post.) The two famous tourist districts are connected by the Ponte Luis I, or Luis 1 Bridge, inaugurated in 1886. Built of two metal trays, one upper and one lower, the bridge offers transportation on both levels. The metro runs along the top track, while traffic jams up along the lower track, with pedestrian lanes on both levels.
My guesthouse host Fabio recommended walking along the bottom of the bridge to reach the Gaia district, walking the length of the river walk, taking the cable car back across to the top level, and walking back. However, the silly 5 minute cable car ride was €5 one way! I have this hang-up where I can’t make myself pay for transportation when I am perfectly capable of walking on my own two feet, so I walked back the length of the river, then made the gut-busting climb through exhaust fumes back up to the top level to make my way back across. I have to be honest in saying I did not find “walking Porto” to be as pleasant an experience as Lisbon.
I think the highlight of my visit to Porto was the beautiful Livraria Lello, Porto’s most famous bookstore. Not only am I a lover of libraries, but I also enjoy visiting a nice bookstore. In fact, it’s the favorite pastime with Hannah, my 18 year old niece, and we often joke about how we could take up residence in the local Barnes & Noble. So I couldn’t wait to visit. Unfortunately, the bookstore has been overrun by Harry Potter fans, as it was purported to be where the author found inspiration for one of her books. Therefore, it’s now packed, with a voucher required (redeemable in merchandise) and a waiting line down the street.
I have never read a Harry Potter book or seen a movie, so don’t know beans about the storyline, but I was willing to weather the crowds to see the phantasmagorical marvel of a staircase that dominates the entire store. I went an hour before closing time in hopes the crowds would be lighter. Unfortunately that was not the case, but the security guard at the door took pity on me, and allowed me to stay past closing time while the last few customers were checking out, so I could grab a couple of fan-free photos.
Another highlight was visiting O Alfonso for Porto’s signature sandwich, the “Francesinhas.” As a long time fan of Anthony Bourdain, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage to O Alfonso, the restaurant where on his Porto episode of his show “Parts Unknown,” he proclaimed “Good Lord, look at that thing!” An obscenely rich sandwich with different types of meat layered between two thick slices of bread, completely encased with melted cheese, then covered in a rich sauce made from beer, tomatoes, and spices. Or as Bourdain put it, “Meat, cheese, fat and bread. It’s the immortal combination.” If only that had proven to be the case.
If you happened to catch the Parts Unknown — Porto episode, you might recall the two baudy fishmonger women in the Mercado do Bolhão, Porto’s most popular market, who teased Bourdain about his true “parts unknown.” Unfortunately that market is now closed for restoration. The market has relocated temporarily into a more modern building, with the stalls now looking very sanitized and sterile. Hopefully, once the original location reopens, it won’t be as void of authenticity and charm as the temporary location.
As much as I did love Porto, it was difficult for me not to compare it to Lisbon, a city that had exceeded my expectations on so many levels. Whereas Lisbon seemed light and airy and so festive with it’s beautifully patterned black and white mosaic sidewalks and pastel tiled facades, Porto’s slate gray concrete made the city feel dark and dreary, even with the sun shining. Also, while Lisbon seemed to undulate in waves of hills and valleys, the streets of Porto seemed to all flow downhill, funneling all the tourists down to the river, the main and therefore crowded thoroughfare for tourists. And of course, what goes down must come back up. Getting “up” from the riverwalk took some effort for a cheapskate like me who won’t pay for a taxi. So the end to every meal, drink, or stroll along the river had to be finished off with a steep, steady gut-busting climb up the hills to my guesthouse. Yes, there is a Metro in Porto, but the lines tend to run parallel to the river, not perpendicular, necessitating a climb just to reach the nearest station. By the time I had climbed up from the river, I may as well have finished off the walk home.
So I would have to say while I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, Lisbon still holds top rank in my favorite “city” memories of Portugal. As someone who loves to walk and explore the different neighborhoods, I found Lisbon to be brighter, more walkable, more diverse with its tourist attractions spread far and wide, rather than concentrated in one area, along the river.
Next up, the most famous aspect of Porto for which the fortified beverage gets it’s name, “Turning Wine into Port.”