Christmasy weekend in Porto

After a long time, we had a long weekend off from work. Since we haven’t really “traveled” anywhere in a few months, we decided to take advantage of it and flew to Portugal to the beautiful riverside city of Porto (or Oporto).

As I have blogged in the past, we flew there really cheap, courtesy of RyanAir. It is interesting to note that Portugal is in a different time zone from Spain. If you look at a map, you will notice Spain is in line with Britain, Portugal and Morocco and should be on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In fact, it was. However during the 1940s, to show his loyalty to Germany during the Second World War, Spain’s dictator changed the time zone to align with Germany’s.

After we landed, we set our clocks back an hour and set off to our city center apartment. I must mention here that the Honey Bee and I have traditionally been highly skeptical of Airbnb. However, after months of pondering, we decided to try it. We booked a beautiful apartment, right in the middle of the historic district, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The entire building is owned and run by a mother-son duo and features comfortable modern apartments. They even bring a variety of warm fresh-baked breads to your door every morning. For those thinking about visiting, I’d strongly recommend you consider it (Mouzinho 134).

At check-in, we were welcomed with a delicious cup of sweet local Porto wine and given a detailed introduction to the city and its sights. Something I learned that surprised me was that up until 10 years ago, the historic district was in shambles and was overrun by drug traders and gangs. However, the advent of low cost airlines opened up new routes to Porto that brought in hordes of tourists, injecting new life into this part of the city, and rejuvenating the local economy.

During our 2.5 days there we saw, did, and ate & drank a whole lot. However, to simplify things we’ll focus on what we consider musts for visitors. So here’s our list of the Top 5 things to do in Porto:

1) Capela das Almas & Rue Santa Caterina: An unlikely location, the church is located on the bustling and central Santa Caterina Street that is lined with shops and restaurants. The street itself is a great place to hang out, grab a drink in the evening or simply window shop.

When you come upon the church, it is almost by accident since you expect to see another shop or mall or restaurant where it is. Located right in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, it is like a little sanctuary in the midst of all the chaos. The entire outside of the church is beautifully adorned with blue tiles typical of Porto (azulejos) depicting the lives of various saints. From the inside the church was the simplest and most basic we visited, but it is also where I felt the most at peace.

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2) Igreja do Carmo & Igreja dos Carmelitas: These churches are built alongside each other. They are two distinct churches, but form one unique structure. It is interesting to note that the 2 are separated by a very very narrow house, put there to prevent any mixing between the monks and the nuns. The latter was built in the 17th century and the former in the 18th. As can be expected, both churches are grand and ornate from the inside and dwarf visitors. The exterior walls of the Carmo church are also adorned with blue and white azulejos depicting scenes of religious historical importance.

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3) Porto Bridge Climb: Started close to 6 months ago for those of a slightly daring disposition, you climb the arch of the Arrábida Bridge. This bridge was built in 1963 over the Duoro River and connects Porto to the neighboring town of Gaia. It rises to a height of 52 meters and offers a clearance of 70 meters above the river. When completed, its main span of 270 meters was the largest of any concrete-arch bridge in the world.

Our guide Pedro, one of the nicest people you will ever meet, gave us an introduction to the bridge, briefed us on the safety instructions, harnessed us to the safety line and accompanied us up to the top of the bridge. The view from the pinnacle takes your breath away. You see the city on one side, and the estuary where the Duoro River feeds into the Atlantic Ocean on the other. You see the river flowing some 70 meters below you, and airplanes flying overhead. You even see birds flying in formation, swooping underneath the bridge. I would strongly recommend you reserve an evening visit so as to enjoy the sunset from this vantage point.

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4) Dom Luís I Bridge & Cais da Ribeira: Another one of the 6 bridges in Porto, this is a double-decked metal arch bridge over the Douro River that also connects Porto and Gaia. At the time of construction in 1886, its span of 172 m was the longest of its type in the world. While amazing to look at any time of the day, a night time view transports you to another world. At night, the bridge and its surrounding banks come alive with beautiful multicolored lights and lasers.

A walk along the Cais de Ribeira, which literally means the neighborhood on the waterfront, goes hand-in-hand with the river and the bridge. A night time stroll after dinner and drinks at one of the restaurants mentioned below is an absolute must, not just for romantics, but for anyone who comes to Porto.

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5) Livraria Lello: Although the bookstore has existed in various forms in different locations across Porto, this bookstore was built in 1906. It is one of the oldest book stores in Portugal (and probably the world) and is consistently rated among the top bookstores in the world.

You wouldn’t be wrong in wondering why tourists would choose to visit a bookstore? Well, apart from the carved wooden ceiling, the beautiful stained glass roof, and a grand staircase straight out a fairy tale, it just so happens that JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter Series, visited this bookstore often. Turns out she taught English in Porto and this store is reported to be an inspiration for her writing.

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Porto is a beautiful place with lots to see. So while not all the places worth visiting made it onto this list, heres some more to-dos that you might want to consider if you have the time: Praça da Liberdade (Porto sign), Clérgios Church & Tower, Palácio da Bolsa, Porto Cathedral & São Bento Station.

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Restaurants: You will undoubtedly find a lot of great restaurants & bars on TripAdvisor like we did. So instead of an exhaustive list, let me just mention our 2 favorite spots:

  • Wine Quay Bar: A rustic little bar by the riverside with great wines, appetizers, views and ambiance.
  • Mengos: Very local-don’t expect anything fantasy here. Heaven for desserts, local food and other baked delights.

Porto was a fun and memorable trip, and without a doubt we plan on returning there in the near future. If you haven’t visited already, what are you waiting for?

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