With so many beautiful European destinations contending for your travel time and budget, it can be hard to make a choice. However, Porto is one city that deserves to be considered seriously. Below we capture some of the reasons why you should visit Porto.
Porto, European Best Destination 2017
Oporto (Porto) in northern Portugal is the country’s second largest city and is where the mighty Douro River embraces the Atlantic Ocean.
Portugal is currently benefitting from a tourism boom. Although the Algarve remains popular among tourists seeking traditional beach holidays, those searching for more cultural experiences are flocking to other parts of the country, including Lisbon and Porto.
This growing trend was confirmed when Porto was recently voted in a poll by worldwide travellers as ‘European Best Destination’ for a holiday or city-trip in 2017. Porto is a destination that provides good value for money; perhaps one reason for this recent recognition.
Porto – European Best Destination 2017 Official Video from European Best Destinations on Vimeo.
The Douro meets the Atlantic
Our Porto visit began with a walk through the lush-green Parque da Cidade do Porto. Time didn’t matter as we enjoyed this expansive space, filling our lungs with fresh air and watching runners and dogs get their exercise.
Picking up the scent of the sea, we followed it to the ocean beach. From Castelo do Queijo, an old military fort overlooking the beach, we found a broad walk which wound its way along the coast. An old man sat among the rocks enjoying a packed lunch. We respected his space as he enjoyed what looked like a well-worn spot.
History records great empires rising or falling around great rivers. Think Nile (Egypt), Tigris (Mesopotamia) and Danube (Rome). The nucleus of the historic kingdom of Portugal reportedly began around the banks of the Douro River.
We followed the coastal walk as far as we could, past fishing boats, gardens and old forts until we got to the point where the Ocean merged with the Douro River. It was beautiful to see this easy transition from river to ocean and humbling to watch one force giving life to another.
Porto’s historic city centre
Porto has ‘character and charm’ and we can truthfully say this with a straight face.
With its mix of different architectural styles (including Baroque, Moorish, neo-classical and neo-Gothic), the centre of Porto has a strong heritage feel. Like a wise old man, Porto gives off a feeling of authenticity, of a city that has lived in a different time but wears its age with grace.
Portuguese travel writer Sandra of TripprBlog captures this feeling when she describes Porto’s city centre as having a ‘no BS personality’. In Porto, what you see is what you get.
While travelling through Morocco, Malta, and Spain we have identified common design threads between Portugal and these other cultures. One common design feature is the use of hand-painted tiles (azulejos) in buildings. This unique feature highlights the Arab influence on the Iberian Peninsula pre-15th century.
Porto wears its blue and white azulejos with pride. The masterpiece at Porto’s São Bento train station is a must-see on any visit to the city centre.
We came across another striking display of azulejos at the Capela das Almas, a building which sits on the corner of Rua de Fernandes Tomas and Rua de Santa Catarina. The building’s outer walls demand attention and encourage the visitor to spend some time admiring this stunning example of ancient street-art.
Our route took us past the historic Livraria Lello bookstore.This intimate bookstore is one of the oldest in Portugal and is remarkable for its distinct neo-Gothic staircase and stunning interior.
Pulled by curiosity, we joined the queue of tourists to get in. Most of us spent time taking photos rather than purchasing anything. It seemed like a waste of a such a beautiful space that it has become more of a draw for J.K. Rowling fans rather than a place for serene literary inspiration.
We ended our self-guided walking tour at the 18th century, Baroque style, Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos. Approximately 75m tall and located on a hilltop, it is one of the tallest buildings in the region.
Following a taxing climb up 222 very steep, narrow and winding steps, we claimed a spot among a gaggle of excited tourists and enjoyed 360 degree views of red clay rooftops, church spires, narrow streets and the Douro river.
HDYTI Tip: Porto is a walkable city and is one reason why you should visit. Budget up to five hours for a self-guided tour OR consider breaking this up over a few days depending on your pace and schedule.
Gateway to the Douro Valley
Some of the world’s greatest discoveries have happened by accident and port wine may be one of them. Folklore suggests that 17th century British merchants mixed brandy with wine from the Douro region to preserve it during transit and from that ‘innocent’ recipe, a new discovery was born.
Northern Portugal, particularly the area around the upper Douro Valley is the famous wine-producing region where port begins its journey and is a UNESCO World Heritage region.
In the city of Porto, the majestic Dom Luis I bridge proudly straddles the Douro linking Cais de Ribeira on the north bank to Vila Nova de Gaia on the south where many of the renown wineries have wine cellars where the port wine is aged.
Despite the appeal of a tasting tour of the wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, we were keen to follow our ‘wine noses’ to find out more about the provenance of port wine. We decided to venture out of the city and into the beautiful Douro Valley.
Booking our tickets in advance, we boarded the train from São Bento station and headed to Pinhão, a journey of under two hours. Leaving Porto behind, the train snaked its way into the Upper Douro valley, revealing a more rustic Portugal.
Thick vegetation teased us with glimpses of the river. Eventually, the hills began to reveal centuries-old, hand-cultivated wine terraces. They reminded us of Sri Lanka’s scenic Nuwara Eliya tea plantations.
HDYTI Tip: Douro river cruises are another reason why you should visit Porto.
With many quintas (wine estates) to choose from, we selected Quinta do Seixo, home to the Sandeman brand of wines, sherry and port. A 5km taxi ride from the station seemed to take forever as our driver slowed to a crawl while navigating the narrow, cliff-hanging roads leading up to the estate.
With our nerves still intact, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Douro, cutting through the valley and giving life to the man-made wine terraces. The beauty beneath us disguised the climatic extremes that are characteristic of the region; extremes which give the grapes thicker skins and enhanced flavours.
Following a short tour of the estate’s facilities by the Sandeman Don, we ended up in the bar which overlooked the river. There was nothing accidental about the carefully blended vintage, ruby, tawny and white varieties of port we enjoyed tasting.
HDYTI Tip: If all you want is to drink the wine, stay in Porto. However, if you want to smell the vegetation, feel the soil, and be immersed in wine culture, then head into the Douro Valley. Some quintas offer accommodation and local excursions.
Why you should visit Porto
Adrian Bridge, CEO of Porto luxury hotel The Yeatman and The Fladgate Partnership (owners of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft port houses), strongly believes in the tourism potential of Porto and the Douro Valley.
He suggests to journalist Angelina Villa-Clarke, that although increased tourism will inevitably bring change, he believes that the region will retain its charm due to ‘the people, the ambience, the architecture and the true sense of place’.
Back to Porto, we yielded to the magnetic pull of the River Douro and spent our last night enjoying traditional Portuguese cuisine by the colourful and vibrant Cais de Ribeira quayside.
As darkness fell, the Ponte de Dom Luis I lit up. Across the Douro, the giant illuminated signs of the wine lodges in Gaia announced their presence, giving flame to our growing love for port wine.
There are many reasons why you should visit Porto and the best part is, you don’t have to choose just one!
The links below provide additional information about planning visits to Porto.
Wine tasting tours in Porto, by Wine Tourism Portugal
Exploring the Douro Valley by Julie Dawn Fox
Why not go now! Search for cheap flights to Porto
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