My first-ever exposure to Porto was my husband’s desktop picture, carefully hand-picked from the possible millions that can be found by the click of a mouse. This had been his dream destination for a long time. But while this coastal town took the title of Best European Destination in 2014 and 2017, it often continues to fall under the stigma of a second city, one that should technically always be ranked after Lisbon.
Quite frankly, I have been guilty of this mentality. Coming straight out of Lisbon, the pastel city with blue skies, there is no doubt that getting accustomed to a town that is undeniably older and chillier will take some more time. Truth be told, there is a darker charm to Porto than there is to Lisbon. The Porto University cape uniforms (traje), combined with the Livraria Lello, the Magestic Café and the prominent gothic churches all pointed towards a very different Portugal than we had known in Lisbon.
But even as a non-Harry Potter fan, the city’s lifestyle can be easily adopted through its laid back rhythm and evening glimmer. Finally, Porto was no longer in still life. Instead, the Douro river was caressing the coast, swept by the winds and availing itself of the darkness that was falling over the city.
Teleférico de Gaia
I’ll just say it: riding 50 meters above ground is not my thing. Yet, day time, the best way to explore a new city is to get a bird’s eye view and then to explore the details. The Teleférico de Gaia (cable cars) offer views over the Douro river, the Porto cathedral, the São Bento railway station and will end at the Jardim do Morro metro stop at the top. This ride can then be followed by a walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge, 45 meters in height and not for the faint of heart.
Somewhere along the road leading back to the city centre, we crossed a deserted alleyway under the tracks. Suddenly I felt that I might have been an abandoned soul, much like the ramshackle apartments we were passing beneath the train. In any other city, these centrally-located properties might have been the most desired piece of real estate. At any point in time they might even have been full of memories and stories to tell. But here, because of the loud tram noises, they were like desolate ghost towns gathering up graffiti marks.
Despite this, there is a buzz about the centre that boasts of Porto’s coastal beauty. Street buskers are present day and night to serenade restaurant goers with their talents. And despite their (really dated) choice of songs, it seemed that people were clinging on to every lyric, something that I have never seen before.
São Bento Railway Station
On a daily basis, trains arrive and depart out of the São Bento railway station from cities all over northern Portugal. Over 11 years, 20,000 tiles were placed to create the final product we see today: the story of Portuguese royalty and battles told through blue (azul) art. It is with this kind of spell that Porto charms people from all over the world. Separated by the platform, it seems that there is an invisible dividing line between a timeless world of marvel and a world of reality that is dictated by timetables.
A Vida Portuguesa
On our walk around the Clérigos neighbourhood, I was drawn to a boutique with dark furniture and scruffy floorboards. The niks and naks of seemingly high quality led me to realize it could only have been A Vida Portuguesa, a quality boutique renowned in Lisbon highlighting Portuguese-manufactured products. If there were a way to depict saudade through product, I would imagine that this would be it. As a whole, the boutique seems to have come out of a time machine – but while each product exists in the now, many have stood the test of time. Blankets, soaps, cookbooks and household products are all waiting to make a place in someone’s home.
Palacio de Cristal Gardens
In the west of Porto lie the gardens of Crystal Palace (not to be confused with the soccer team), an urban green-space where people slow in pace to enjoy a panoramic view over Porto. Designed in the 19th century by Émille David, this romantic 8 hectare garden is admired by both locals and tourists. From the balcony view looking over the Douro river, I could understand why people are so proud of this corner of town. It is a place so lush and abundant that it acts as a peaceful oasis, away from work and stress.
While exotic tree and flower species can be admired in the forests, wild peacocks need to be shooed from bathroom stalls on occasion. And even if time is not made to visit the garden, the dome-shaped Pavilhao Rosa Mota (Sports Pavilion) and the Romantic Museum of Quinta da Macieirinha can be visited for entertainment.
Foz do Douro
I would have imagined that what started off as a rainy day trip to Foz do Douro would end up being spent indoors. Scanning the beach that faces the Atlantic, I could see large industrial boats leaving the coast for the Americas, revealing themselves only through silhouettes against the horizon. The were rocking back and forth so violently I was almost worried they wouldn’t make it. But by early afternoon the rain had eased and a walk across the romantic Pergola da Foz with lunch at the most beautiful Pizza Hut in the world made it one of the most peaceful days I have experienced in years.
It is said that in the 1930s, the Mayor of Porto’s wife fell so in love with the “Promenade des Anglais” in Nice that she wanted to have one built in Porto as well:
If you have a brave heart, you can test your courage at the lighthouse and get as close to the menacing (yet captivating) waves as you dare.
On our last day, we enjoyed the views of Guimarães, birthplace of Alfonso Henriques, born in the 12th century and first king of Portugal. Surrounded by stone buildings, cobbled streets and picturesque plazas, we felt taken back to medieval times. The city walls spoke for themselves – they felt sturdy and safe, not surprising as the town was used as a fortress against the Moors during the Reconquista. And while it has so gracefully aged over the years, it is also looking towards the future with its large university student population. As this town continues to evolve, it is the perfect embodiment of a well-preserved Middle-Age town in perfect harmony with its contemporary side.
The Guimarães Castle sits on the hills and was also used as a defensive fortress against the Moors in the 10th century. Unfortunately, the castle was closed the day we visited, but the outside is enough to give you a sense of its powerful fortification.
And so our journey came to a close. While no longer a stranger to the city, I had discovered that the mix of old and new are the reasons Porto is enchanting in more ways than one. Though there are moments it may feel lonelier than Lisbon, I suppose that alleyway quietude can be a commodity. For one, fewer tourists can mean more privacy and breathing space. It can also mean more exposure to local life, and there are several people that come to mind as I’m writing this. One cafe owner spent 45 minutes telling us about the six languages he mastered and the days when José Mourinho used to live one floor above his restaurant. It is these kinds of moments that make it possible to dream. Because if someone has achieved their dreams at some point, there is a possibility that you might, too.
Hoping you’ll get to visit,
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