I was in a bit of a daze when we landed in Porto at the beginning of October. We’d got up super early to get the first tube of the morning and landed in Portugal’s second biggest city at about 11am. I started to wake up as we hopped on the Metro and I’d managed to grab a Milka bar from the first vending machine I came across. Within about half an hour we found ourselves stood outside São Bento station and suddenly I couldn’t wait to start exploring and find as many azulejos and pastel de nata as possible.
When I step out of public transport or a taxi and take in my surroundings for the first time is one of my favourite moments when I visit a city overseas. I’ll have virtually experienced the city from behind the screen, thanks to the internet, Pinterest and some great travel blogs. But when you see it for yourself, in real life, for the first time, I get this sudden moment of excitement, anticipation and (often) awe at taking in somewhere completely new.
I knew from that first moment that I’d spend a lot of time looking up in Porto.
we I raced up to our hotel, dropped our stuff, and got ready to head out.
In contrast to past trips, this one was probably the least organised. Research was done, even to the extent of discovering that there are some popular places said to have inspired JK Rowling in writing Harry Potter (see this post if you’re a fan), but I had a very basic list of places I wanted to visit and no real idea what order it was best to see them in. As it turns out, I’m not sure you need to over plan a trip to Porto as (despite the steep streets) the city centre is quite small and fairly easy to navigate.
On a sulky grey day and after a few hours of travel we decided to take it easy and spend the first day wandering. We started back at the beautiful part of São Bento station.
Opened in 1916, it’s covered in beautiful tiles that date back to the early 1900s when the station was being constructed. Of course, it’s popular with tourists and you will struggle to get a good picture without finding a few other tourists getting in the way!
From there we wandered down the Rue das Flores, a beautiful street lined with a mixture of neglected and derelict, traditional and historic, and modern and new shops, restaurants and museums.
The constant contrast was one of the things that struck me the most across the whole of Porto. Whilst many claim the young have left for more prosperous cities, there are definitely some great modern places coming up and plenty of beautiful sights for travellers to see. It does make stumbling across great little places amidst historic and worn buildings part of the fun of visiting.
The Rue das Flores eventually led us to the old town.
Where the dark narrow streets are decorated with washing and are home to tiny hostels, guest houses and apartments.
After a fairly short walk from our hotel, we found ourselves next to the River Douro, where we spotted our first tram!
A symbol of the city, similar to London’s red buses, trams date back to 1872 when the first lines of “American cars” was opened in Porto.
We strolled along the river front to the colourful Riberia Square.
And passed plenty of bustling cafes.
Whilst it wasn’t peak summer or a sunny day, there were still plenty of people around.
Of course, tourist snaps are essential at this point.
From here we caught our first sight of the Dom Luis Bridge. I’d heard that it offered great views across the Douro River, so of course we had to climb it. The only problem was that it didn’t seem all that obvious how you got to the top! We managed to find a string of steps that took you through an abandoned section of town.
There was something beautiful and saddening about the decline of the area and nature creeping in.
I was fairly content with the taster and be ambled on up to the bridge, taking it all in.
It’s safe to say it was worth the climb and the view is great.
You get a much better idea of just how many Port cellars exist in the city and how big they are.
We took the cable car back down to street level, enjoying a close up of those rusty red roofs.
As with the first day of any trip our eating was a bit out of sync so we decided to indulge in a treat or two at a cake shop right next to the exit of the cable cars, near the river. Sadly I didn’t take the name down!
But it was delicious and incredibly cheap.
In case you haven’t heard of them these tasty custard tarts are called pastel de nata. According to Wikipedia they’ve been made in Portugal since the 18th century, at the time monasteries and convents used egg whites for the starching of clothes and used the left over egg yokes to make cakes and pastries. You’ll find them all over the city and I definitely had an addiction by the end of the weekend.
These treats also help line the stomach for a glass of Port.
I’ll tell you a bit more about port later on.
As the first night drew in, we watched the city start to sparkle before setting out for dinner.
We stumbled across The Wine Box and enjoyed delicious tapas and my first glass of Vinhos Verde. It’s not green wine as you might expect from the translation, but is described as a young Portuguese wine often drank shortly after bottling.
The next day involved even more drizzle but as keen tourists we were not deterred from our mission to see more of the city.
Starting at the Câmara Municipal do Porto and then finding our way to Capela das Almas.
Each panel depicts scenes from the lives of various saints and the detail is amazing.
We then climbed up to Porto Cathedral to enjoy some more great views across the city.
And even more of its beautiful architecture. Porto Cathedral was possibly one of the oldest buildings we discovered, dating back to the 12th century.
As the rain started to tumble down more heavily we sought shelter in the Chocolateria das Flores for some thick, rich, hot chocolate. Definitely some of the best I’ve had.
But being on a short trip I couldn’t stay indoors for very long and we took a random wander back to the river. I fell in love with some of the city’s dishevelled charm.
Once we reached the river again, we had lunch at The Tram Stop, and took a long stroll in search of a real tram stop and tram (which never appeared, a good reminder that Sunday service is different outside London!).
But I enjoyed the scenery far better on foot.
We ended the day with port, because I think that’s the done thing in Porto (or at least that’s what we decided). This time James and I wanted to continue our tradition of wine tasting and joined a tour at one of the cellars.
Port reminds me of both eating mince pies at Christmas and eating stilton at my friend Ed’s 30th Birthday. I was a bit ignorant of the fact that it originated from the city of Porto back in the 18th century and that port can only be produced in Portugal. Naturally it’s one of their biggest exports.
It was about €6 for the tour, which included a glass of port at the end. It was quite quick and my only wish was that we’d done a bit more research to find a tour that was a little bit more informative, particularly when tasting the port itself.
Despite waffling on and sharing a few dozen photos for only two days of our trip, on the third day the sun was shining and the city transformed. In the next post I’ll share some of my favourite sights from our stay and, for any Harry Potter fans, a place which I thought held had the best association to a feature in the books.