Big City Charm: Visiting Porto, Portugal
Though Porto has largely been relegated to secondary status after its bigger sister Lisbon, it has big city charm. Today, there are several reasons to visit a city both historic and modern. One of the oldest European centers, it is currently one of the major urban areas in Southern Europe.
Historical artifacts and documentation place the earliest activity in Porto at the 4th century — not too shabby. Among other notable periods in the city’s timeline, it has served as an important commercial port, stronghold in a military alliance between Portugal and England, and a key foundation for Portuguese shipbuilding. Due to its historical significance, Porto was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The Porto Cathedral, completed in the 13th century, remains the city’s oldest surviving structure.
The Douro River
The Douro is one of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, and old Porto is located along its outlet. To many, Porto’s waterfront evokes old-world charm. Here you’ll find cobblestones, medieval relics, colorful buildings, and a bounty of outdoor cafés – all kissed by sun. Enjoy the Douro River in one of two ways: sit at a café and watch boats float past, or take a boat tour and view the city from the water. Got time? Try both.
A trip to Porto wouldn’t be complete without dabbling in these spirits. Interestingly enough, European Union Designation of Origin guidelines state that only port from the Douro valley in the northern provinces of Portugal may be called port. This fortified wine is typically red and a sweet companion for desserts, but can also be found in a multitude of varieties. The Douro valley region was also established as a protected region in 1756, making it the oldest defined wine region in the world. Take a walk across the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia and visit any of the dozen port houses that offer tours and tastings.
There are no shortages of bridges in the Porto area, and a cruise along the Douro affords spectacular views of two of the most well known: the Ponte Luís I and the Ponte Dona Maria. The Ponte Luís, also known as the Dom Luís Bridge, was completed in 1886 and connects Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia. Scenes from the top deck — reserved for pedestrians and a metro line — are particularly rewarding, though not for the faint of heart: it’s 591 feet and can shake a bit. The Ponte Dona Maria, also called the Maria Pia Bridge, was completed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, that guy from the Eiffel Tower) a few years earlier in 1877 to be used as a railway bridge.
Architectural marvels abound in Porto, with one of the favorites being São Bento Railway Station. Here, blue and white tile panels inside the station portray both scenes from the country’s history and the history of transportation, while its exterior calls to mind 19th-century Parisian architecture. Other highlights of the city include the Torre dos Clérigos, the bell tower of the Baroque Clérigos Church that was built in the mid-1700s and that can be climbed for a small fee, and the Igreja de São Francisco, a prominent Gothic church known for its elaborate interior.