The beauty of Porto is raw and understated – sometimes pure, sometimes rundown. It is found in the steep streets lined with the brightly painted walls of the old Cais de Ribeira and newer blue and white azulejo tiles of the new town and Carmo church. It is found in the jagged edges of the shore of Foz and the smooth, sleek sands of Matosinhos. It is found in the rejuvenating industrial port and the expressive bridging of the Douro river and most of all in the people, warm and vivacious, and abounding in pride for their city.
What to do:
For my first day in Porto I bought a ticket for a sightseeing bus tour. Porto is a mass of hills and the beaches are far away… so, I was lazy! I tried Yellow Bus Tours though there are several others. For less than 20 Euro my ticket was valid for 2 days on the buses of which there were two routes, both going to the coast and one also going to Gaia on the other side of the river. There was also a one-hour river cruise and port wine tour and tasting included in this ticket.
Some of the tour highlights included:
View of the Douro River and Cais de Ribeira from a viewpoint in the Gaia hills. The Cais de Ribeira consists of narrow streets starting at Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto) and winding down to the river.
Fundaçao de Serralves Museum and Park. This is a contemporary art museum on two levels but also encompasses a gorgeous (but sparsely decorated) art deco villa and acres of sculpted gardens including a rose garden, arboretum and lake. Modern art sculptures are scattered throughout the gardens.
Carmo Church in the town centre. This is actually two churches – the ornately decorated church of the Carmo monks and the spartan chapel of the Carmelitas nuns – separated by a once inhabited house of 1 metre in width!
The red sculpture shown below looking like a fishing net is a tribute to the fishermen of Matosinhos who risk their lives in the Atlantic – it is called She Changes – but is nicknamed Anemone by the locals on account of its shape…
Matosinhos was once an industrial area of mainly fish canning factories. Most are now closed but the area is undergoing rejuvenation. The beach here is stunning!
Where to Stay: There are loads of good hostels in Porto. I stayed at the lovely Porto Lounge Hostel.
Where to Eat: Fish! Eat at Matosinhos or Aveiro, a charming fishing village on the Gaia side of the Douro. You can also buy bacalhau (salted cod), a Portuguese speciality, at any supermarket.
The francesinha is a famous Portuguese sandwich meal… but I couldn’t…
What to Drink: Try the port wine cellars of Villa Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto – there are at least 15! Most offer tours and tastings – not a bad way to pass a day… I visited Cockburn’s Port at Rua Serpa Pinta. A wonderful guided tour of the warehouse was followed by a tasting of two differennt types of port (one ruby, one tawny). Very sweet and very strong!
Getting Around: Walking is possible but the buses and metro are cheap and efficient.
The 6 Bridges Douro River Cruise was sedate and extravagant – the same or better views are found elsewhere e.g. on the Gaia side of the river for free…
The Foz do Douro beaches are rocky, busy and built up. The beaches are better at Matosinhos anyway. Foz was originally a fishing village but was urbanised in the 19th C when the seaside became popular. Many different architectural styles – French, Italian and English country house – grew up and are now blended into one.
The Livrairio Lello is a supposedly famous bookshop but it really is not that special. There is no café to relax in and you are not even allowed to take photos to remember your experience there…
All in all, Porto is a beautiful city that is finding its feet – get there before everyone else!