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10 Days in Portugal: Part Two – Porto

by Anne Assassi | 1 year ago

Visualize yourself on vacation in an idyllic European city. You sit by the waterfront with your travel partner, glasses of wine in hand, losing yourselves in the moment because the scenery is simply breathtaking.

You watch seabirds fly high into the sky and dive into the crisp blue waters to catch the abundance of fish that live there. Old-fashioned boats pass under the bridges that connect vehicles and pedestrians between deep valleys carved out by the river millennia ago.

You take in the beauty of the centuries-old houses and buildings, precariously settled on the steep slopes that line the riverfront and defy gravity. You think about the people who have been lucky enough to live there and about the people who will live there in the years to come. You’re not sure how long these structures will survive, but if they’ve lasted this long, they might last for centuries to come.

You feel like you can sit here for hours with your travel partner, maybe the rest of your life. Your only thought or care in the world revolves around how beautifully the city’s colors reflect onto the river as gradients of blue, magenta, and yellow. As the movement of the river takes on brush strokes, you feel that the city has transported you into the canvas of a great impressionist painter.

So what are you visualizing? Ah, yes – the second leg of my journey to Portugal with my husband, where most of our time was spent in Porto’s Ribeira, sitting on the banks of the Douro River and allowing the movement of the river to deliver us into the moment.

If you’ve read Part One of my Portugal journey, you will know that Lisbon captured out hearts in so many ways. But Porto was where we truly felt like we were on vacation and could soak in the essence of how it might have felt to live hundreds of years ago when life was a little slower.

Below are some of the highlights and a few tips from our experience in this magical city. If you haven’t been, you must put Porto on your itinerary now!

From Lisbon to Porto

Adrian and I took a three-hour train from Lisbon to Porto. You can fly, but it probably wouldn’t make much difference in terms of time saved.

Portuguese trains are exceedingly clean and orderly. They’re so orderly that your seating and luggage are assigned, so if you don’t understand your ticket, do ask for help! Otherwise you risk the glare of Portuguese commuters.

Having not studied much about Porto before we visited, we were surprised to find the area around the Campanhã train station is a little rough around the edges, even in the afternoon. We wondered if the city would have a rougher element than Lisbon and if we should have studied more before we arrived.

Our observation was not helped by the fact that when we hailed an Uber, the driver told us that he had to secretly pick us up behind the station. If he picked us up in front, the taxi drivers would physically fight him off of their turf and he could end up in the hospital. Yikes.

Luckily our driver waited for us patiently and with gracious Portuguese hospitality. We took off from Campanhã and within a few kilometers, found ourselves in our charming 15th century neighborhood and were immediately enchanted with Porto. A stark contrast from the train station!

A Central but Inexpensive Location

From the reviews, we knew that our Airbnb was centrally located near São Bento Station. But we didn’t know it was possible to be so centrally located in a European city for $95 per night.

After dropping off our luggage, we took a leisurely walk without expecting to visit any major sites. We didn’t have a map in hand but walked according to our architectural interests. We quickly found ourselves next to the ruins of an old fortress and saw steps possibly leading to the river, so we took them.

And by steps, I mean that there were steps upon steps that wound around homes, patio cafés, and a handful of lazy cats.

At the end of this short trek, a mere ten minutes away from our Airbnb, we learned that we arrived at Ribeira Square.

Perfect! At least we had one item checked off of our to do list on Day 1 without much effort, I thought.

Not so fast, Anne! 

Praça da Ribeira

After arriving at Ribeira Square, we realized we had no desire to go anywhere else during our three days in town. Sure, we later visited a cathedral, the monastery, fancy boutique stores, and a few restaurants outside of the Ribeira. But we knew nothing could top the time we spent by the river, glasses of port in hand, chatting with locals and tourists alike to share our excitement about where we accidentally landed.

Beyond the views of the waterfront, though, Ribeira Square will keep you occupied with tasty restaurants, live music, traditional food markets, and port wine tasting rooms.

You can basically eat, drink, and shop all day on this stretch of the water and feel extremely fulfilled with your Porto travel itinerary.

Vila Nova de Gaia

Sitting across the water from Porto’s Ribeira is Vila Nova de Gaia, where the bulk of the port cellars are located. To get there, you will likely want to walk along the bridge’s pedestrian path, although trams and boats seem to be able to take you there as well.

My husband and I have enjoyed port wine for years, so we were familiar with many of the cellars that you can see from the waterfront including Sandeman, Graham’s, and Taylor’s. Did we tour them? Nah!

We wanted to try port that you can only drink in Porto: the wines of Quinta dos Corvos.

Yep, crows are their mascots and the wine is delightful. The servers were extremely nice, knowledgeable, and taught us a bit about white port wine. Quinta dos Corvos made for quite the unique tasting room experience.

In addition to the port cellears, you will find an abundance of delicious restaurants and additional opportunities for shopping in Gaia. The views of Ribeira Square from this side of the water are equally stunning and it’s easy to spend several hours between grabbing bites to eat between a couple small glasses of port! 

The Food

We had incredible food in Porto ranging from simple tapas plates of Portuguese ham and cheese to freshly grilled octopus to arroz de bacalhau and to fine dining that included tender beef checks and fado music.

Did I mention the octopus toast? My favorite dish in Portugal for sure.

When you visit Porto, come with a big appetite for incredible foods, port wine, and be willing to stumble upon restaurants and port cellars along the Ribeira’s and Gaia’s alleyways without checking online reviews first. You will not be disappointed.

The Cats

At some point you’re going to have to head back up the steps of Ribeira Square to trek back to your apartment or hotel. If you’re like me and my husband, your main motivation to leave the waterfront is to visit the resident felines and to give them a few pets to tide them over until you return the next day.

These cats are so accustomed to humans that when you pet them, they hardly respond to human touch – they continue on sleeping. It’s as if their main purpose is to decorate the steps with their life of leisure and to remind you that time moves differently in Ribeira Square so that you can fully enjoy its moments.

By the way, I’d like you to meet Theodoro.

Yes, we named him – I’m sure he has many names. He was a little shy at first but warmed up to our cat whispering quickly. For that reason, we will always love him.

Other Points of Interest

While my focus lies within Ribeira Square, there are definitely many other sights to see, many of which we didn’t tour. You may want to research the main tourists sites for your own visit. Or not. We didn’t and we still had a great time!

Here are two other spots we checked out.

Porto Cathedral

The 14th-centruy Porto Cathedral is of course, worth your while. One of Porto’s greatest landmarks, the cathedral doesn’t take long to visit, and for a few euros, you gain admittance to the cloister, treasury, and sacristy. Built over several centuries, the cathedral as a whole is beautifully designed and influenced by the Romanesque, gothic, and baroque architectural styles.

The Monastery

Sero do Pilar Monastery is also another site that is worth visiting. Now owned by the military, it was neat to have military escorts for the tour.

If I’m being completely honest, though, you might not want to bother with the tour because it lacked in 1. A decent history lesson, 2. Content, and 3. Anything resembling entertainment.

After touring for about an hour, I really can’t recall a lot of details about the monastery’s history because the tour guide was so dull that I almost fell asleep standing up a few times! You’re also not allowed to tour 97% of the monastery due to the military’s presence there.

So why visit? The views are stunning and a tour is not required to see some of the best views. However, if you do take the tour, you will have a unique view of Porto from the top of the Monastery that is almost worth the boring history lesson.

Just make sure you’re in decent shape and not too tall and you’ll have a lot of fun taking the very narrow and winding staircase up there!

And finally, I understand Suadade!

Writing about Porto, I have a better understanding of the Portuguese word, suadade.

Suadade doesn’t translate into any other language but is a strong way to say that you feel deep nostalgia for a person, place, or an experience. The nostalgia is complicated with mixed emotions of happiness, excitement, and love that is balanced with melancholy and longing.

I feel so much suadade for Porto now that I am no longer there.

Having settled back into our busy San Francisco Bay Area lives, we miss living in the moment of the Douro waterfront so deeply that there is a sense of melancholy that we’re so far away. At the same time, reflecting on our memories brings us back the joy and happiness we felt during our stay, which rounds out this complicated feeling to be one that is very complete and very real.

So when I say that I feel suadade for Porto, it’s a longing to for a slower way of life, enjoying the moments, the scenery, and taking in the beauty that world has to offer. I was fortunate that Porto taught me this term, and will use it as an example to live in the moment as much as I can, even during my daily Bay Area grind!