Discovering the beautiful city of Porto

Chapel of Souls

Setting off for the city of Porto was the most unprepared I’d felt for an upcoming trip in a long time. Being pre-occupied with work and some recent family issues had meant I’d not done my usual research on a city. I had no idea what there was to see or do, no activities booked – my friend had even booked the hotel so I had no idea where we were staying even!

Annoyingly – but perhaps conveniently – we had plenty of time to research things at the airport that morning as we found ourselves in the now expected lengthy queues to get through security. Leaving us with little time to grab breakfast and a couple of essentials from departures, it did, at least give us plenty of opportunity to flick through a Porto guidebook a friend had lent us and to look up how to get from the airport to our pretty central hotel once we arrived.

After a quick flick through tripadvisor and a few travel blogs, we also made a hasty booking for a highly-recommended walking tour of the city for the morning of our first full day there in the hope that this would throw up some ideas for places to visit or return to in more detail.

Five minutes after finally clearing security, our gate was being called and we were soon on board and ready to go. A speedy 2-hours later, we were landing. Clearing passport control quickly, we soon found ourselves in arrivals and easily navigated our way to the station to pick up the metro line which would take us to the Bolhao area of the city where our hotel was situated. Once checked in, we took a stroll, heading straight away to a nearby church which had caught our eye as soon as we exited the metro station earlier. What made the Chapel of Souls church so striking was the blue and white tiles covering its exterior. The church was just as stunning inside and definitely worth a visit.

After visiting the pretty church, we wandered down Rua Santa Catarina, a pedestrianised street lined with shops, restaurants and cafes. Here, we couldn’t resist stopping at Fabrica da Nata, supposedly one of the best pastry shops in the city to get a Pastel de Nata – the popular Portuguese custard tart-style treat – from. After enjoying our sweet snack, we continued to explore Rua Santa Catarina. Turning right further down the road, we found ourselves stumbling across the entrance to Mercado do Bolhao, a huge food market with stall selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to cooked meats, pastries, traditional sweets and much more. We spent a bit of time enjoying the hustle and bustle of the market and picking up some healthy fruit snacks for later before continuing our walk, heading south towards the Douro River.

Tired from our early start and travelling, once riverside, we found a cafe bar to sit outside at for drinks watching the World go by for a bit before making our way back towards our hotel. From the riverfront, we walked towards the Luis I Bridge before turning away from the river to climb a series of steps tucked away up the narrow back streets passing small local cafes and bars hidden from the tourist trail along the way. From here, we wound our way back to Rua Santa Catarina.

After a bit of time relaxing and freshening up at our hotel, we went looking for somewhere to eat, settling on a nearby Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner followed by gelato from one of the many dessert stores along Rua Santa Catarina.

We awoke the next morning to rain. Armed with umbrellas, we set out anyway to find the meet point of the walking tour we had booked.

Above, and below, Bolsa Palace and Infante Dom Henrique Square

We made it as far as Sao Bento station before having to turn around as the rain became torrential and despite our umbrellas, we were soaked to the skin. Deciding we probably wouldn’t enjoy a walking tour in this weather, we contacted the tour guide to apologise for our absence and transfer our booking to the next day then sheltered in a local cafe grabbing chocolate croissants and hot drinks for breakfast before a quick return to our hotel to change into dry clothes and rethink our plans for the day!

Typically, at this point the rain stopped but worried more wasn’t far behind, we decided to take a tour of Bolsa Palace, Porto’s impressive stock exchange building. Luckily, despite nt pre-booking, there were tickets left for the upcoming English-speaking tour. With a bit of time to spare before the tour began, we took a stroll around the pretty Infante Dom Henrique Square in front of the building and across to St Nicholas Church, another pretty tiled church we had spotted from the steps of Bolsa Palace.

After a quick look around the church, it was time to make our way back to Bolsa Palace to begin our tour. We were taken in a group of about 50 around the building by an informative English guide who told us a bit about the building, its architecture and its uses over the years. Our guide also gave us a bit of background on some of the history of Portugal and the city of Porto.

Sampling a Franceshino

The tour lasted about 45 minutes and after, we made our way towards another, larger church we had seen nearby, the Monument Church of St Francis. Entrance to this church and its museum was ticketed but after stepping inside, we could see it was worth every cent! The church’s ornate, intricate interiors, gilded in gold (and giving the church its nickname “The Golden Church”), are breath-taking.

After our visit to the church and its museum, we were pleased to see the sun was now shining so we walked the short distance back to the River Douro to find somewhere to sit and have lunch.

Above, riverside again, and below, on the Six Bridges river cruise

We had decided that today would be the day we tried Franceshino, a (rather large) Portuguese sandwich which originated in Porto and, traditionally, contains layers of meat including ham, bacon, sausage and steak. The meat is topped with a fried egg then sandwiched between 2 pieces of white sliced bread before being wrapped in cheese and served in a bowl of a spicy tomato sauce!

Finding a local cafe with some outdoor seating, I ordered a traditional Franceshino and my friend a vegetarian version. While I’m glad I tried it, and managed to eat a large portion of mine, it definitely sounded better than it tasted, the spicy tomato sauce especially not being to my tastes!

Full from lunch, we took a slow stroll along the riverside towards the Ribeira area and with the weather now being so beautiful, decided to take a Six Bridges River Cruise along the Douro River. This short sightseeing cruise was offered by numerous companies with booths along the river front, all selling the cruises at similar prices. Some companies offered combo tickets including Port tasting or cellar tours but we opted to just buy a ticket for the cruise.

St Ildefenso Church

Despite not pre-booking, we were sold tickets for a cruise departing in the next 5 minutes and hurried from the ticket counter to board the awaiting boat. As we sailed along the river, there was a commentary telling us about the various bridges spanning the Douro in Porto as well as some information about Porto and the city of Gaia which lies on the other side of the river. The views of Porto with its colourful buildings were really pretty from the river.

Having walked up a long flight of stairs from the river front back into the city centre the previous day, today we decided to take the Ribeira inclined railway to the top of the hill. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped to visit the Church of Saint Ildefenso, another pretty church with a blue and white tiled facade. There was a small fee to enter the church but this gave us access to the church museum as well.

After a bit of down time back at the hotel, we went for a walk towards Praca do Municipio, a square overlooked by Porto’s impressive town hall then on to Rua de Galeria de Paris, a street famed for its nightlife. Being a Thursday night and not particularly late yet, it was quite quiet out and we found a nice cocktail bar to sit inside at for a few drinks before calling it a night.

The following day, we finally made it onto the walking tour we had delayed our attendance on from the previous day.

Passing through Jardim das Oliveiras on our walking tour

Our excellent guide took us on a detailed 3-hour-plus tour of the city, showing us many places we probably wouldn’t have thought to have known about or visited otherwise – such as a McDonald’s set in a former grand art deco cafe and now said to be the most beautiful McDonald’s in the World and Sao Bento station which we had passed a few times but not though to go inside – and gave us some ideas for places to return to later including the so-called “Harry Potter” bookstore, Livaria Lello.

There was also a lot of interesting information about the city, its buildings and UNESCO World Heritage status and about the history of Portugal itself.

The tour finished back by the river and after a snack from a nearby cafe, we decided to walk back to Livaria Lello bookstore. Along the way, we made a quick call into another beautiful church, St Antonio Church just across from Sao Bento station before hiking up a steep hill to reach the bookstore again. There was a huge queue outside the store with a 2-hour wait to enter but staff explained that if we booked online, we could probably get a timed ticket to enter within the next half an hour. Luckily, we had some phone reception and managed to get online and book tickets quickly; 10 minutes later we were showing our barcodes and entering the store!

A Pastel de Nata from Manteigaria

The store was really beautiful inside and its carved wood staircase is especially worth seeing. However, it was so busy inside, it was at times, difficult to move around the store, especially along its narrow upstairs corridors.

Following our visit to the bookstore, we returned to our hotel via a stop at Manteigaria, another patisserie whose Pastel de Nata came highly recommended.

With one final day in Porto, we still had lots to fit in, including returning to a few more places we had stopped at on our walking tour and now wanted to see in more detail.

Above, making our way to the cathedral tower, and below, enjoying views over the city.

After stopping at Mercado do Bolhao to grab some fresh pastries and fruit for breakfast, we made our way back to Se Cathedral. We had stopped outside the Cathedral on our city tour but wanted to see inside. With it being a Saturday morning, everywhere was a bit busier and there was a bit of a queue for entrance tickets but this moved quickly and we were soon entering the Cloisters.

From here we climbed some stairs up one of the towers for views over the city and looked around the small museum before entering the main chapel of the Cathedral.

Above, and below, Douro River views crossing Luis I Bridge into Gaia

Next up was a walk back towards the river where we finally crossed Luis I Bridge from Porto to the city of Gaia on the other side of the Douro River. The bridge has two pedestrian walkways, one at ground level and one higher up. As advised on our tour, we chose the higher walkway and this offered stunning river views as we made our way across although we did have to be careful of the trams which also used this level to whizz back and forth.

Once in Gaia, we took a walk along the river front from where there were beautiful views across to Porto with its colourful building facades.

Porto view from Gaia

Gaia is home to most of the region’s Port Houses and we had hoped to do a tour of one the cellars but we hadn’t thought to book in advance and with it being a busy weekend, everywhere was sold out.

Above, looking across to Porto from Gaia, and below, at Sandemans Port House

Instead, we popped into the foyer of Sandemans, one of the most famous Port Houses where there was a small museum which was free to look around before visiting its bar where we sat outside in its large courtyard area overlooking the river to purchase a glass of Port to sample for ourselves.

Crossing back to Porto along the lower level of Luis I Bridge, we walked to Clergios Church and Tower. The tower is visible from points across the city and for a fee, it is possible to climb a series of steps to the top to enjoy the views.

The joined churches of Carmo and Carmelitas

As we had been to the top of the Cathedral tower earlier that day, we decided against climbing this tower but the church was free to enter so we did have a quick look inside.

Not far from here was another church which had caught our attention on our walking tour, the Churches of Carmo and Carmelitas so we stopped by for a look in here as well.

The churches of Porto had all been so beautiful and this one didn’t disappoint either. Like many of the others we had visited, there was a small museum of church treasures to look around inside too.

Having eaten a large dinner in Gaia earlier that day, we decided to visit Majestic Cafe that evening for a smaller bite to eat. Not too far from our hotel, on Rua Santa Catarina, this cafe is said to be one of the most beautiful in the World with its decor reminiscent of Parisian Cafes from the early 1900s. It is also one of the oldest cafes in the city.

Being a popular tourist attraction, the prices inside are not cheap with a tea and a slice of cake costing me as much as a full meal in many Porto restaurants but you’re paying for the experience of dining there as much as the food so as a one off, it was worth it.

I was sad to say goodbye to Porto the next day. Having no expectations of the city before my visit, I was more than impressed by what I found and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a city break.

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