Fresh off a red-eye flight from Newark airport, the taxi driver proceeded to drop me off at the wrong end of a long street where my guest house was located. On top of that, it was raining…hard. Not a good start, but fortunately things would quickly get better from there. After checking in and grabbing a quick nap to catch up on some much-needed sleep, I set out to explore the World Heritage city of Porto.
I decided the best way to get a good feel for the city was to take one of the free walking tours offered every morning and afternoon. After walking around and observing the atmosphere for a little while, it struck me that Porto has a very authentic feel about it. Unlike many other tourist destinations, it really felt like a true “working” city. As the guide put it: “Porto is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination, and the locals respond by — in the nicest way possible — not caring.”
The tour led us to many interesting places, including the Sao Bento train station, which has been described by many as the most beautiful train station in the world. I could understand why, as the walls of the station were elaborately decorated with murals made out of tile, which beautifully depicted various scenes from Portugal’s storied history. Another interesting stop was the Dom Luis I Bridge, which spans the Douro River and connects Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side. When it was constructed in the late 19th century, it was the largest metal structure in the world. That is until the architect’s rival, Gustave Eiffel, built the Eiffel Tower in Paris several years later.
In addition to these sites, Porto is not surprisingly home to some impressive churches and cathedrals as well. Foremost among these for me are the Se (Porto Cathedral), which offers great views of the city from its terrace, and the Igreja de Sao Francisco, which is the only gothic church remaining in Porto. The Torre dos Clerigos is, while not a church, at 250 feet tall one of the tallest buildings in Porto (and was the tallest when constructed in the 18th century). Needless to say, it offers fantastic views of the city from the top. Finally, during the evening I took a leisurely stroll along the Ribeira, which is a colorful collection of shops, restaurants, and cafes along the pretty waterfront.
Perhaps the most interesting attractions in Porto are actually outside of the city itself. One of my favorite excursions was a trip to the Douro Valley. A World Heritage site, the Douro Valley is where port wine originated from and is the oldest demarkated wine region in the world (a region specifically preserved for the production of port wine). The Douro Valley has some spectacular scenery as well, with green rolling hills and vineyards in every direction. Both sweet and strong, port is one of my favorite wines. I had the opportunity to see how it was made and to taste several different varieties at one of the local vineyards. In addition to port wine, Douro Valley is known for having some of the world’s best olive oil, so all in all it made for a very tasty day out.
Last but not least, I spent a day in the historic city of Guimaraes. Only an hour from Porto by train, Guimaraes is one of the oldest cities in Portugal and was home to its first king, D. Afonso Henriques. The castle where he lived was built in the 10th century is is still standing today. Nearby to the castle, the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (built in the 15th century by the illegitimate sone of King John I) is another beautiful structure and very interesting to explore.
Overall, I found the city of Porto and the surrounding region be a worthy first stop on my trip. It is chock full of interesting history and beautiful scenery. If you happen to visit this area, two of the must-do’s are to take a walking tour of Porto and visit the Douro Valley.
Next stop Coimbra: home to one of the oldest university towns in Europe.