I decided that I had to go and see Porto when I saw a picture of an iron bridge straddling across the river from the cliffs with colorful houses built on both sides. The picturesque cityscape was unique to me – and I wondered “Where is it?”
Unlike many European cities, Porto is hilly. Although it doesn’t have a spectacular harbor view from the peak like Hong Kong, it has a double-deck iron bridge that spans the Douro River. Standing on the hundred-year-old Dom Luis I bridge I could view seagulls soaring freely over the body of water, and layers and layers of houses making a concerted effort to Porto’s spectacular skyline.
Porto (or called Oporto) is the second-largest city in Portugal, and it is actually the oldest city in the country. The city has a vast inventory of iconic features for a day trip to Portuguese experience:
That’s what happened to me arriving in the morning…
Sao Bento Train Station
Search for Azulejos
Not so much of searching, though, because sights of Azulejos could be everywhere in Porto. Our flight landed from Paris in the early morning (really early… we left home before the sun came out) and then we took the city light rail and headed str8 to the city center, easy-breezy, and it merely took half an hour to the metro station of Bolhao. One step outside, we have arrived at the walking street Rua de Fernandes Tomas, where the Capela da Santa Catarina, (and, pigeons, too) greeted us with the impressive façade of Azulejos.
What is Azulejo?
Azulejo is painted tin-glazed ceramic tiles. They are usually in blue, and it is an important Portuguese heritage used on walls of churches, palaces, schools, train stations, etc. The drawings on the tile panels are mainly decorative (but beautiful) patterns or depiction of historical or critical events. Therefore, it has an enormous traditional and art value to the country where we, visitors, could appreciate the beauty and stories behind each masterpiece.
We walked along Rua de Fernandes towards Aliados. On route, we saw lots of shopping carts and local bakeries. As we planned to return to the street later in the evening, we continued our journey to the riverside. On the way to the bridge, we passed through the city center with a lot of photo-taking spots. In fact, the São Bento railway station is one of the most well-known landmarks in Porto, to see Azulejos as the station lobby is filled with tile panels that depict the major events of the country in the 12-15th Centuries.
The station is near vintage tram line 22 and is connected to São Bento Metro Station on Metro line D.
Enjoy lunch by the Douro and Luis I iron bridge
Luckily, we were there was a beautiful sunny day in Porto, and so we decided to look for a restaurant and had lunch by the river, sitting on the roadside. A few bistros and restaurants were lining up by the river, (obviously for tourists) but at a reasonable price.
Wanna try some local delicacies? For lunch, I had Francesinha – a Portuguese “Sandwich”, originated from Porto. Nothing fancy, it is truly a simple homemade dish made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguica, fresh sausage, steak, and roast meat topped with melted choose and a hot, sticky tomato and beer sauce. While it is not exactly extraordinary (most of them are usual ingredients), but try something local while you are in town, and feel free to leave comments if you have any recommendations!
Something about the Luis I Bridge…
Straddling across the River Douro is a double-deck metal arch bridge, connecting Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The design of the river was due to the hilly nature of both sides of the river. The lower deck of the bridge is only 172 meters long (and the upper deck 395 meters), yet it’s the longest of its type in the world. In fact, it would be quite difficult to name another bridge with two decks 85 meters apart, which has such scale and magnificent design. Not to mention the original bridge was built in the year 1886! Several upgrades and improvements have been made over the years, and now the bridge is paved for both vehicles and trams to run through.
There were a lot of fun rides around the bridge. Both up and downs. We walked up, to the upper deck of the bridge – we were stunned by the magnificent overview of the city. How do get from the upper deck to the lower deck? Walk down the stairs or take the funicular. We went down to the lower deck in a minute, and we gasped and admired the architecture of the iron bridge, and we saw the “Barcos Rabelos” (Portuguese boats) parking along the river.
On the other side of the river, we saw a booth on the bank selling tickets for ropeway cable cars which took us right back to the top of the hill. On the ride, of course, the view was gorgeous. The cable car already became a touristic attraction and a sustainable means of transport, connecting the Gaia riverside promenade to the upper deck of the D. Luis I bridge over river Douro nearby Jardim do Morro Metro station, and the belvedere of Serra do Pilar convent church. The entire trip was just about 5 mins and it is a good way to see the beautiful houses layering on the slopes on the other side of the river in Porto.
We had only a day in the city, and so we didn’t spend time getting on a River Cruise tour. I wonder if they are any good, and if anyone had done then could leave comments and share their experience?
- Funicular dos Guindais
- Teleferico de Gaia
- Douro River Boat Tour
Try Port Wine
So we were fed, we were ready to drink. 🙂
Maybe people heard about “Port wine”? And Porto is where this wine comes from. Seriously, I had no idea that Porto has so many unique and famous products and cultures. Port wine is the most famous product in Porto, which the city gave the name to the wine. We walked across the bridge, and there were a number of wineries on the south side of the river. Many of them offer wine tasting, wine-brewing tours, and stores.
We weren’t very much prepared for this part of the trip so we didn’t exactly do any research, so we kind of just going in any one of them that spoke to us. We ended up in two places. We joined a winery tour in Cálem Port Cellars, which was once the most famous cellar in the area, after that we wandered around and explored the area, we didn’t join any more tour, but we could pay a little price to try different kinds of wine at the Quevedo Power Wine. Port wine is a dessert wine, and so they are sweet – for us, we prefer something dry and crispy~
Do you like Port wine?
Port wine, originally, is produced with distilled grape spirits exclusively in the Douro Valley. While the wine is named after Porto, the biggest production is largely based on the south banks of the River Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. It is a sweet red wine, but it may also come in dry, semi-dry, and white wines. Port wine has a lot of fans and it is a very successful business for centuries, that you may have heard about this wine even you don’t know where Porto is. While wine in the “same style” is now also produced in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, India, South Africa, Spain, and the United States, only products from Portugal can call and label themselves “port” or “Porto” with the protection of the European Union Protected Designation of Origin Guidelines.
Although the wine tastes incredibly sweet, it contains about 19%-20% of alcohol, so pace yourself during the wine tasting before getting drunk :).
See Lello & Irmao bookstore and Majestic Café
We returned to the city center, and we knew we had two places to go before leaving town – The Lello & Irmao bookstore (Livraria Lello & Irmão), and the Majestic Café.
The Lello & Irmao bookstore is in the center of Porto, and it’s one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal with over a hundred years of history. The bookstore was designed by Xavier Esteves, with dark wooden walls and a luxurious and winding staircase as the centerpiece. The interior also incorporates Neo-Gothic and Art Deco elements in its design. It was just a store, and it was not big. Besides, we don’t speak Portuguese so that we couldn’t read the books inside, what we could appreciate is the delicate interior décor, climb the staircase right in the middle of the store, and inhale the smell of knowledge.
So… which one is the oldest book store in the world?
And the award goes to… Livraria Bertrand! And how knows the Portuguese respect the books so dearly? While Lello & Irmao is always named “one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world”, the oldest is also in Portugal – but Livraria Bertrand is located in Lisbon. Beauty is subjective, and I bet it is quite difficult to judge which one is more beautiful than the other; the oldest bookstore, however, is declared by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest, operating bookstore in the world in 2016 – it was founded in 1732, meaning it’s been in business for 288 years.
Back to Rua Santa Catarina, the Majestic Café was another historic café in the city, and one of the top 10 most beautiful cafes in Europe. The original pool of customers for this café was intellectuals, artists, and writers… back then, it was called “Café Elite.” In modern times, the classical interior décor of the golden days remained, and the food is for everyone. Originally designed by João Queiroz, the façade of the café has a bold and dramatic façade that demand attention. The interior doesn’t disappoint, fille with intricate wood-framed chairs, a marble tabletop, and a long banquette that is made of red velvet and embossed leather. The afternoon we went was not crowded, so we found a table right by the window and sat down. We ordered (something like – Irish coffee with a scoop of ice cream on top) – plus some Hors D’oeuvres right before our quest to the south (to the Capital Lisbon).
p.s. Somehow I just read an article on Huffington post about “5 Totally Amazing Europe Trips Under $500”, and Porto is number #3 😛
“Portugal’s second-largest city has plenty to offer by way of wine, but the art, food, and nightlife are equally thrilling enticements. Here, we focus on Vinho. Because tastings and cellar tours range from free to a few euros, they’re a dirt-cheap way to enjoy a port-soaked European vacation…….”