Porto: the authentic taste of Portugal
Porto is for some years one of the most popular destinations and now that I’ve been there I understand why. It is a authentic city, nestled in the hills, with a riverfront that separates it from another city full of Port wine cellars, with a gigantic and strange bridge, with trams that clamber up and down, wonderful museums, lots of modern architecture, beaches and sea just a stone’s throw away, all with a unique atmosphere and the authentic taste of Portugal. As if all this were not enough, it is a particularly economical and accessible destination and has become even more so since it is connected to low-cost flights. The only shadow that remains to me on this city is to understand why someone obstinately calls it Oporto and not Porto.
Have you ever said Porto? Not me! I always called it Porto and I always thought that Porto was the Portuguese name. Mistake! The correct name in Portuguese is Porto. So “Oporto” from where does it come out? It seems that it is all a linguistic misunderstanding that derives from a misinterpretation of the Portuguese “o Porto” that foreigners have misunderstood in Oporto. And so Oporto is used in English to indicate the city of Porto. However, I would say that it is the case to abolish Oporto and pass all to Porto, what do you think? But let’s go on…
There are plenty of things to see in Porto. So I point out those that are the main attractions that I think you should visit in the city. And since I cannot choose the one I liked the most, I list them in an order that will be chosen scientifically by chance.
Igreja do Carmo
Considered by almost all the most beautiful example of the city’s azulejos, it is in all respects a very beautiful and very photogenic church: especially on the outside where it is completely covered with white and blue tiles depicting scenes from the Carmelite Order’s foundation. The curious thing is that it is practically set against another church, the Igreja dos Carmelitas Descalços.
The ancient soul of Porto snouts in the alleys of the Ribeira, a picturesque neighborhood overlooking the banks of the Douro. Tall and colorful buildings close together, almost to hold on to avoid falling. This area is very nice for a walk, maybe in the late afternoon to drink something in one of the many bars that alternate on the Cais da Ribeira riverside or in the evening, when a thousand lights illuminate the Dom Luis bridge and the whole area is full of atmosphere magic. Perhaps not everyone knows that Ribeira has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dom Luis I Bridge
The Dom Luis I Bridge which connects Porto with Vila Nova da Gaia is a symbol of the city. It certainly does not go unnoticed, given its size. If at first sight it reminds you of something, I’ll give you a little help: maybe it’s drawing back to your mind the image of the Eiffel tour. And indeed there is a reason: Théophile Seyrig, the Belgian engineer who designed it, was a pupil of Gustave Eiffel. The bridge allows the crossing of the Douro on two levels: the lower part is crossed by vehicles, while the upper level is dedicated to rail vehicles. The pedestrian crossing is possible on both levels: in the lower one you can admire the height and the strength of this magnificent structure, while on the upper level you can enjoy a splendid view over the whole Ribeira area.
Vila Nova de Gaia
Vila Nova is not a district of Porto, but a city in itself. Given the proximity (just cross the bridge on foot) and the very high concentration of Port wine cellars that are on this side, it is unthinkable to complete a visit to Porto without making a stop here. Like the opposite side of the Ribeira, here you will find a beautiful riverfront from which you can see numerous barcos rabelos, the characteristic boats used for transporting port wine. Once here, however, do not miss a visit to one or more cellars for a tantalize wine tasting. But I am sure you will already know this.
São Bento Railway Station
That of São Bento would be a very ordinary station if it were not that the entrance hall to the station is completely covered with azulejos: an exuberant joy of white and blue that impressed me although I am a person who by definition hates everything that has minimally to deal with trains.
Igreja Sao Francisco
I was pleasantly surprised by the church in Sao Francisco. I would not have imagined it so beautiful. Admission is on payment and includes a visit to the museum. It is a beautiful Franciscan church, initially bare in perfect Franciscan style then, over the centuries, has been adorned and covered with gold and more. I have to say that once in there I said: wow! Inside the photographs are prohibited, so if you want a confirmation of my words, you will have to go and see it live.
Palacio da Bolsa
Not far from the Church of Sao Francisco, here is another little gem of Porto: the Palacio da Bolsa. Even here the entrance fee is on payment but the guided tour is included. Tours in English, French, Spanish and of course Portuguese. If you can, first go to inform yourself about the tours with free seats and timetables. When I went there I had to settle for the tour in Portuguese, because the one in English was complete and the next one would start after a few hours. Not bad, the beautiful halls of this building have made up for the fact that I did not understand almost anything about what the guide explained, which also he seemed nice.
The Lello bookstore is famous among Harry Potter fans who literally go into raptures when they visit. But I have to tell you the truth: this bookshelf has nothing to do with Harry Potter, it was not an inspiration for the book and was not used for filming the film. It simply has furnishings that are very reminiscent of the film’s settings. And in fact the large scale that stands out in the center of the store is spectacular and I’ve also appreciated that I’m not really a fan of the fantasy genre. Given the large number of tourists, to get to see the library you need to buy an entrance ticket. Once in the shop, the few euros you have paid for entry will be refunded if you buy a book. Otherwise trust me that this money are well spent.
Casa da Musica
Casa da Musica is another of Porto’s attractions that have conquered me. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, it is a modern auditorium with futuristic lines but hides small surprises inside it, such as the most beautiful azulejos room I’ve ever seen. Mirrors, straight lines, modern forms, this auditorium is a dream if you love modern architecture and, once again, photography and instagram!
Se do Porto
The Se do Porto guards the city from above, as if to protect it and, thanks to its location, it is clearly visible from many parts of the city. It is worth a visit to admire its beautiful Romanesque interiors, but also for a look over the city.
Among the many things to do in Porto there is also going in search of street art. It is everywhere, even if the most beautiful and big pieces are a bit off the most classic tourist paths. But even during your visit, just look around to discover small works. The art of graffiti here is not evident, you will not find giant painted walls, it is much easier to meet small drawings or micro installations on the street, such as those you can meet in Rua das Flores or Rua Bombarda.
Where to Stay
The Torel Avantgarde establishes a new level of hospitality in Porto and its name fully represents its philosophy. The concept of Avantgarde originates originally from the building, which comes from the Estado-Novo period of the 1940s. But like the avant-garde artists themselves, the owners wanted to create something completely new: a place where art is not just an addition, but the protagonist of the place. Everything in Torel Avantgarde is done strictly by hand in Portugal, from the beautiful stools that line the cozy breakfast area, to the incredibly comfortable beds that embellish every bedroom. This is a place where quality prevails, and the result is Portuguese opulence. Although art plays a leading role in this structure, it is only when you enter in the rooms that you have the real impact with the Avantgarde philosophy, thanks to the original paintings and details that line the stairwell and the door of each suite inscribed with the name of an influential artist. In fact each of the hotel’s 47 rooms has its own unique identity which is named after famous artists and decorated accordingly.
All are celebrations of particular creative and experimental spirits (from different periods), including Portuguese icons such as José de Almada Negreiros and Fernando Pessoa and international luminaries such as Coco Chanel, Marcel Duchamp and Janis Joplin. For all the hungry guests the Torel Avantgarde has its own private restaurant, which offers spectacular views of the Douro River and the beautiful town of Vila Nova de Gaia along its banks. The Digby restaurant offers a range of tasty dishes in a relaxed yet sophisticated setting, with ambient lighting creating an intimate atmosphere, perfect for couples wishing to enjoy a peaceful evening together, as well as for larger groups. Here, the focus is on Portuguese gastronomy with a contemporary twist, blending local and national quality ingredients with unique flavors, all to create a unique menu.
The Balsame Spa is a quiet place where therapists are available to meet your every need. When the weather is not on your side in Porto, what could be better than spending the afternoon with a relaxing massage? With a Turkish bath and sauna, you can extend your Zen experience for as long as you like. However, the hotel offers a rectangular outdoor pool with its comfortable sunbeds, an ideal place if it is sunny outside.