Moody weather, the Doro River and UNESCO-recognized sites help make Porto, Portugal, so unique. // (c) 2012 Portuguese National Tourist Office
During the two times that I've visited Porto, Portugal, I felt as though I'd been dropped into the setting for a cloak-and-dagger espionage film. The moody overcast weather, the narrow streets of the city's historic center and the inhabitants' personification of saudade (the Portuguese sad-sweet philosophy of life) all contributes to a unique atmosphere. While Porto is as safe as any major European city, it manages an ambience of intrigue that makes a simple city walk feel dramatic.
There's a famous saying that sums up how the Portuguese feel about Porto (often referred to as "Oporto"): "Coimbra sings, Braga prays, Lisbon shows off and Porto works." Porto dates back to the 4th century when Romans ruled the day. Over the centuries, Porto developed along the hills overlooking the Douro river estuary; even today, a city stroll along the steep streets can turn into quite a workout. Notably, in 1996, Porto's historical Ribeira district was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO.
An ideal day in Porto begins with a morning of sightseeing in the Ribeira. The district drips with history, with examples of Roman, Gothic and Baroque architecture at every turn. Even so, there is a trio of must-sees: The Se do Porto (Cathedral of Porto) began construction in the 11th century and only saw completion in the 13th century. Make sure to see the stunning Romanesque rose window set under a crenellated arch. The 19th-century neoclassical Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) is celebrated for its Arab Room, which is designed in the Moorish Revival style that was all the rage in the 19th century. The Estacao de Sao Bento train station was inaugurated in 1915. The station's atrium is covered with 20,000 azulejos (glazed tiles) depicting scenes of Portugal's history.
When you've had your fill of historic sites, it's time for lunch. The citizens of Porto are known for having hearty appetites, and it's easy to find Portuguese staples, such as salted bacalhau (codfish) prepared in numerous ways. If you're the type of traveler who enjoys sampling the signature regional specialty of the city you're visiting, then seek out a sandwich called Francesinha. It's a gut-busting creation composed of layer after layer of beef, roast pork and cheese, spiced up with a beer and tomato-based sauce. If you're really hungry, the chef will top off the sandwich with French fries.
After lunch, stroll in the direction of Porto's most famous landmark, the Ponte de Dom Luis I. The wrought-iron bridge was built in 1886 and was designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, the famous architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The disciple was definitely paying attention, since the bridge is an amazing structure that resembles nothing so much as the Eiffel Tower laying on its side and spanning the Douro River. The top deck of the bridge is reserved for pedestrians and a metro line. It's a wonderful experience to take your time crossing the bridge, looking at the cityscape of Porto to one side and the port wine lodges on the opposite shore, while boats, including barcos rabelos, ply the river below. Barcos rabelos are traditional flat-bottomed boats that were used to transport wine from the Douro vineyards. Several operators have outfitted barcos rabelos to take tourists on short river cruises on the Douro.
The suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia is your destination on the other side of the bridge. Here you'll find numerous port wine cellars and warehouses from notable companies such as Calem, Fonseca, Sandemans and Kopke. Choose one and take a port wine tour, where you'll learn about the process of making port wine. In the late afternoon, with your newfound education, stroll across the street to the riverbank where numerous al fresco cafes offer a variety of ports and light meals. Settle in for a relaxing hour, gazing out at the river and the skyline of Porto as you sip your port and reflect on the day.
Cap off the evening back in Porto, at a restaurant serving traditional Portuguese fare, accompanied by fado music. Fado is so indisputably linked with the Portuguese spirit that it's now included in UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. This is Portugal's soul music, usually a singer accompanied by a guitar. Fados are filled with longing, such as these lines from the fado, Chuva (Rain):
The common things in life
Only the memories that make us hurt
Or those which make us smile