Porto is an historic mercantile city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s famous for its port wine, medieval walls and steep sided waterfront on the banks of the Douro river. We had originally planned a visit to this wonderful city for April but eventually managed to get there several months later. I hope you enjoy reading about our stay in Porto and the surrounding towns and cities we were also able to visit.
The previous afternoon we had taken a train to Manchester, bought some sandwiches and ate them on a bench in Piccadilly Gardens enjoying the autumn sunshine. After going for a coffee, we continued our journey by train to the airport for our 7.30 p.m. Ryanair flight to Porto. It was the first time we’d flown from Manchester Airport since March as our recent weekend in Pisa had been from Leeds-Bradford. Terminal 3 was exceedingly quiet enabling us to pass through security in hardly any time at all. Our flight had a few empty seats and my son and I had been lucky to have been allocated emergency exit rows, giving us more room to stretch our legs.
Our flight touched down slightly ahead of schedule and as Portugal is in the same time zone as the U.K. it was just approaching 10.00 p.m. as we headed down the steps to the Porto Metro beneath the terminal building. We had arranged accommodation in the centre of Porto near Trindade station so bought our tickets from a machine. Public transport is inexpensive in Portugal and our tickets cost just €2 each (zone 4) plus an additional 60 cents for our re-useable Andante travel cards. The journey took 25 minutes and it was then just a 7 minute walk to the Spot Apartments which was to be our home for the next 9 nights.
As the apartment reception closes at 5.30 p.m. we had been requested to check-in at their hotel a couple of doors away. We’d originally considered the hotel but decided that its sister aparthotel suited our needs better as it offered more space combined with an inclusive breakfast and maid service.
Our spacious apartment on the third floor was well equipped with a large lounge/ dining area, kitchen and separate bedroom. As it was quite late we quickly unpacked and made ourselves cups of tea before going to bed.
We felt refreshed the next morning after a good night’s rest and were soon wandering along to the Spot Luggage and Lounge five minutes walk away where breakfast was served. The cafe was attractively furnished and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast which used to take the form of a buffet but is now served to the table. There was no fear of missing out with the table service though as we tucked into juice, cheese, roast ham, scrambled eggs and bacon, freshly baked bread and croissants. The bread tasted delicious and the waiter told us that along with the croissants, it was delivered each morning from a bakery downstairs.
After returning to the aparthotel briefly we called in Pingo Doce, a local high quality supermarket to stock up on provisions as we planned to do a mixture of both eating in and out during our stay. Shopping completed, we were ready to start exploring Porto and set off on foot for a mid morning stroll. At 25 degrees it felt lovely and warm in the sunshine without being too hot for our sightseeing.
A good place to begin our self guided tour of the city was at the Town Hall on the Praca da Liberdade. This beautiful neo-classical building was constructed in 1920 and features a 70m high central tower with a large clock. Although it is not open to the public it is definitely worth viewing its exterior and then walking down the large square set out with formal ponds and flower beds. Standing majestically at the far end of the square is an equestrian statue of Pedro IV of Brazil remembered as a democratic reformer.
The surrounding neighbourhood is an affluent area containing several imposing civic buildings, designer shops, the elegant Belle Époque Majestic Cafe and the Lello Livraria book shop.
Visiting the book shop was high on my list of things I wanted to do as I adore visiting libraries and interesting bookshops wherever they might be. However my heart sank as I approached Lello as the queue to get indoors was as long as the eye could see and I imagine it would have taken at least an hour before I even reached the entrance. Sadly, I decided against visiting that day but hoped to pop back later in the week when it might be quieter. The building dates back to 1906 although the actual business is even older than that. A literary magazine recently voted Lello as the third most beautiful book store in the world with its art nouveau decor, spiral wooden staircase and stained glass skylight.
J.K. Rowling lived in Porto in the early 1990’s teaching English and wrote the first two Harry Potter novels in the city. The curving staircase is said to be the inspiration of the library at Hogwarts and this is the main reason why it is such a popular place to visit in the city. Because so many tourists were just going inside to take photos, a €5 entrance charge has been introduced and is redeemable towards purchases of books.
Our stroll continued alongside several of the historic buildings of the University of Porto and it was a welcome sight to discover a graduation celebration taking place in these days when everything seems to have gone virtual. The Natural History and Science Museums are now located in the former rectory building and in the square to one side a weekend craft market was taking place.
Porto is very hilly and with its cobbled streets it’s necessary to wear sensible footwear. We’d already covered a reasonable distance and were ready to stop for a drink so we made a bee line for McDonalds located just outside the Sao Bento station.
You might wonder why we had chosen McDonald’s when there were no end of other establishments to choose from, but we had selected there for a special reason. Fast food and fine decor go hand in hand in Porto’s former Imperial cafe, noted as being one of the most beautiful of the chain’s restaurants in the world with its art-deco stained glass windows and chandeliers.
It opened in 1995 in the former Porto coffee shop which was an icon of the city from the 1930’s. The building has retained many of its original features including ornate ceilings and a large stained glass window behind the service counter. Out on the terrace they even employ a harrier hawk handler who is on hand to scare away any pigeons and seagulls who might take a fancy to the offerings.
Next on our list was a visit to the Sao Bento railway station just around the corner. Not only does Porto boast one of the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world, it’s station is ranked in the top ten as well.
Its Belle Époque Parisian exterior leads through an arched entrance into the main concourse which is absolutely stunning as it’s decorated with 20,000 blue and white tiles covering the walls.
Artist Jorge Colaco took eleven years to complete the work of intricately painted scenes of Portuguese history, daily life and transportation. We’d planned several places to visit during the week travelling by train giving us more opportunities to marvel at this wonderful station.
Upon leaving the station we continued down hill pausing to view the Newspaper Vendor statue next to a post box. It was just a pity that someone had painted graffiti around the post box detracting somewhat from its appearance.
Some more steep sections followed until we had reached Ribeira, Porto’s riverside district on the banks of the Douro. It’s a maze of cobbled streets with pastel coloured houses in varying states of repair seemingly clinging on to the hillside.
I’d read that this district was always teeming with tourists, enjoying the breathtaking location sat at one of the many bars and restaurants lining the promenade. Tourists are sadly lacking at the moment so it was in some ways a bonus for us to not be jostled by the crowds but on the other hand, so terribly sad for all the shops and cafes relying so heavily on the tourist trade to earn a living.
Walking along the embankment is a joy to behold, my camera in overdrive taking so many photographs of the stunning setting. Spanning the river is the Luis I bridge so we walked across the lower part to reach the south side of the Douro river. The bridge first opened in 1886 and was designed by the same German engineer who co-founded the Eiffel Company in Paris.
A notable feature of the bridge is its two levels, one at the top of the arch and the other suspended below it. Both decks were originally intended to carry road traffic but nowadays the upper tier carries the Porto metro train in addition to having a pedestrian walkway. It’s 60m (190 feet) above the Doura and we planned to go up there sometime during our stay.
The next day had been set aside to fully explore the south bank but we couldn’t resist the temptation walking to the far end of the bridge from where we had the most wonderful views of Porto facing us across the river.
We then retraced our steps back along the bridge to the north bank turning right for a stroll on this much less developed section of the riverside as far as the Ponte do Infante. From there we walked up a massive cliff via steeped cobbled streets to head back into town and return to our hotel for a well earned rest after a very enjoyable first day exploring Porto.
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