Porto, a Safe Haven

Visit Porto in 48 Hours

Words: Susana Ribeiro
Photos: Daniel Rodrigues

Ask any local, even the most well-travelled, which is the most beautiful city in the world and they will tell you it is theirs, without hesitation: Porto. If we had to define the city in a short sentence, we would say: Porto is! Simply that! Porto is. It is simple, it is authentic, it is charismatic, it is hospitable, it is warm, it is moving, it is romantic and fun.

The city stretches out along the River Douro towards the Atlantic Ocean, displaying its historic buildings, the area classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, six bridges spanning the river and a City Park, which is the only one with a seafront in Europe. The city is key to the history of port and has renewed itself for tourism, maintaining its historical aspect and opening its monuments to tourists.

How should you start your visit? In order to have an overview of the city, the first suggestion is to climb to the top of the Torre dos Clérigos tower. On a blue sky day, when the view is better, you can climb the 240 steps of this monument, designed by the architect Nicolau Nasoni, to get a view over the narrow streets that surround this venerable district.

And it’s from up there that you can see other points of interest, like Livraria Lello & Irmão bookshop, which is a few metres away. The store that has been considered one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world has a red staircase waiting for those who like to read. Just opposite Torre dos Clérigos tower is the Portuguese Photography Centre.

Once a prison — where politicians, writers and other more or less well-known individuals were imprisoned — the building became the “home” of Photography and a museum that hosts temporary and permanent exhibitions.

Although Torre dos Clérigos is an easy starting point to choose, selecting your subsequent steps on a visit to the city can be difficult: would you rather go straight to the river or see it from a viewing point? I’d say we go somewhere nearby — in Porto, everything is nearby — to discover one of the most beautiful gardens in the city: the Crystal Palace! Here, there is a stunning view over the River Douro, following its meandering path to the estuary. If the weather is nice, enjoy all the spaces in the garden — you can even have a picnic, since ducks and peacocks are among the animals that walk freely in this green space — and if the weather is bad… just go a little further down to visit the Romantic Museum. The building, in the middle of the Crystal Palace, is now a performance hall and it has also become the latest viewpoint, with guided tours to the top.

Now the visitor to Porto is ready to go down to the train station, also considered one of the most beautiful in the world due to its tile panels, which relate important episodes in the history of Portugal. The São Bento Station is, in itself, a mandatory photo stop.

When you stop for lunch, take the opportunity to try the francesinha. Outsiders look at the mega sandwich and say, “How is it possible you can eat it all?” But believe me, dear tourist, you’ll need this extra dose to tackle the ups and downs of the city. The hot sauce adds the finishing touch, but if you want you can order it on the side. In winter, gastronomic recommendations also include Porto-style tripe, cozido stew or octopus fillets with octopus rice. That is, if you don’t want to choose one of the “one thousand and one” cod recipes that are on restaurant menus.

From São Bento you can see the imposing Porto Cathedral. And, right next to it, we walk over the Luís I bridge — watch out for the Metro, which also passes along there — and we have the best view over the Douro. The end of the day might be better on the other side of the bridge: at Jardim do Morro or Serra do Pilar, both on the Vila Nova de Gaia side, famous spots for watching the stunning sunset.

On your way back to the centre of Porto, take a stroll through Santa Catarina and stop at Bolhão Market — although still under construction and at a location that is not its original one. There you can try the regional produce: preserves, cheeses, fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. On this route, the Café Majestic is also a stop-off point for a trip back in time, as it has kept the style of the 1920s, the Belle Époque, and the glamour of times past. It’s where a coffee and a French toast — or another cake, like a pastel de nata (custard tart) — can be a good snack after a few kilometres of walking around the city. Close by are two churches with tile panels that delight everyone: the Capela das Almas chapel, which intersects rua de Santa Catarina and rua Fernandes Tomás streets, and Igreja de Santo Ildefonso church, with over 11 thousand tiles on its façade.

The choice can be difficult at dinner time: from traditional to modern restaurants, from international cuisine to Michelin stars, Porto is, without a doubt, a gastronomic destination. There’s also much more on offer, if you want to remain in the city centre. If you enjoy taking in a show, check the schedule for the Coliseu do Porto, Teatro Rivoli, Teatro Nacional São João or even Casa da Música venues, and experience the culture that enriches this city.

While the sunset suggestion has already been made for Vila Nova de Gaia, on the Porto side Jardim das Virtudes park fills with a faithful audience that sits and contemplates the sun setting into the sea.

The nightlife begins in the Baixa area where many bars, mainly in the area around Galerias de Paris, have different propositions: a cocktail, a glass of wine or the simple beer, which is called a fino in Porto. Besides bars, there are discos where you can practise your dance steps.

And we leave the Ribeira area, the cellars and port for the second day of this itinerary. If you are having trouble finding a hotel…this district gives you a good excuse to wake up: when you open the curtains, your eyes are already on the River Douro. Staying in the Ribeira of Porto means you are in an area that is protected, full of history, and classified as Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 1996.

If you stay in Ribeira, it will also be easier to board one of the cruises that follow the Six Bridges route. These trips help you relive the times when port was transported in traditional boats — the Rabelo boats — and you’ll also discover the banks of the river all the way to the mouth of the Douro.

Is it possible to spend 48 hours in Porto without going to Vila Nova de Gaia? It is! But for any tourist, a visit to the cellars where port, one of the most famous drinks in the world, is stored, is a must! There are countless cellars and they all show the production process and provide a taste of this wine. The grapes used to make port are grown in another area classified by UNESCO — the Alto Douro Wine Region, which is about an hour’s drive from Porto.

In Ribeira, every corner has a history, from the French Invasions to the Discoveries, and is linked to different Portuguese kings. Here you can visit the City Museum — Casa do Infante, which recounts local history, and discover the stunning Igreja de São Francisco Church, which is a national monument. You can also visit the Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace), with its beautiful rooms.

We also make another trip (in time) from Ribeira to Foz do Douro: by tram, a traditional form of transport. By the way, here’s a fun fact: Porto was the first city of the Iberian Peninsula to have trams circulating on its streets.

When we arrive at Foz do Douro and alight near Jardim do Passeio Alegre park, another city seems to emerge, facing out to sea; even the architecture is different.

The tram stops and we can walk the entire length of the road along the seafront, which has countless terrace cafés and restaurants (also with interior rooms, prepared for Porto’s colder days) where we suggest you stop for lunch.

Not far away is the renowned Serralves Museum — always featuring new exhibitions — a cultural space that deserves a visit for several reasons, including its beautiful and extensive gardens and also its cultural and architectural importance.

If you are visiting the city in hot weather, it’s best to go out in the morning with your swimsuit on. Porto’s beaches are inviting and extend all the way to the seafront of Parque da Cidade park (and you can visit the Forte S. Francisco Xavier fort, better known as Castelo do Queijo), which is another perfect place to end the day and watch the sunset. It’s only natural that you end this day thinking, “I should have stayed longer in Porto!” The city, which they call Invicta [The Undefeated], awaits
your return!

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