After spending several days in Lisbon, we ventured North to Porto. The second largest city in Portugal (after Lisbon), Porto is located on the shores of the Douro River and the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the oldest European cities. The historical center was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996. Like Lisbon, Porto is steeped in charm, history and art. Porto is also the capital of Port wine production and surrounded by the Douro River Valley which is home to internationally acclaimed Portugese vineyards. Port wine is produced primarily in the cellars of Villa Nova de Gaia area. Wandering the hilly, narrow streets or the cobblestone alleys where the port wineries are, experiencing the incredible restaurants and watching the port boats dotting the Douro make for an incredible experience in this charming town.
Porto has played a major role in Portugal’s old and modern history. The city dates as far back as 300 BC. In 1387, King John I married Philippa of Lancaster in Porto creating the military alliance between Portugal and England. The Treaty of Windsor is actually the world’s oldest recorded military alliance and inspired NATO. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Porto contributed to the Age of Discovery with a thriving shipbuilding industry. In 1414, Prince Henry the Navigator began in Porto his voyage to conqueror Northern Morocco. During the 18th and 19th centuries Porto became a major industrial center and grew in size and population. The port wine industry flourished.
Porto has long been known as a city of bridges. In 1806, the city built its first permanent bridge (Ponte das Barcas) which collapsed three years later. In 1841-43, the Ponte D. Maria was built. This bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel (creator of the Eiffel tower). This railway bridge is beautiful. Today visitors can walk over it, drive over it or take the train. We walked on both the upper and lower level. The views from the upper level are amazing! Despite the hills (and there are many) I loved wandering and exploring this city.
Street art and azulejos (tiles) dot the city buildings; my kids loved these unexpected works. Seeing a modern piece on a building next to beautiful azulejos connects the old history to the modern history of Porto. On a small street behind my hotel, I stumbled upon this work, “Half Rabbit,” by Bordalo II. This artist from Lisbon is known for creating works of art from “waste.” He uses other people’s waste to create these fabulous abstract works to raise social awareness about sustainability. With the street art, medieval architecture, and the wineries Porto has a very different vibe that Lisbon. I loved it! But like Lisbon, the people are friendly, open and hospitable.
One area that is a must to wander around is the Avenida dos Aliados. This is the heart of the city. It is a long, sloping boulevard (like the Champs Elyse) with a central promenade surrounded with grand buildings from different eras. Many government buildings are located here My favorite spot to check out (which sounds crazy) is the McDonalds Imperial. This is considered to be the most beautiful golden arches in the world. It is housed in the site of the former Imperial Café, a historic café from the 1930s. The building is a National Monument. McDonalds retained most of the art deco details inside including the stained-glass ceiling and chandeliers. Outside, a large eagle hangs over the door which had been the symbol of the Imperial Café. It is worth checking it out; I couldn’t believe it was a McDonalds.
The Yeatman Hotel
The Yeatman Hotel is nothing short of spectacular! After a leisurely drive from Lisbon, we arrived late in the evening and were wowed. The hotel is built into the side of the hill; the lobby and bar are located on the top floor with rooms five floors below. For a lover of luxury this hotel is the place to stay. But true wine connoisseurs will also love this hotel. Throughout the hotel, art work, decoration, and even the architecture, highlight the importance of the port wine in Porto. I loved the display of how the various corks! The Yeatmen the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant, provides a comprehensive wine list as well as a fabulous gastronomic feast for foodies.
Located on the hill of Villa Nova de Gaia, the hotel has incredible views of the river, Porto, and the bridge. Every room has this stunning view. It is also surrounded by the Porto wineries. Taylor Port is located steps from the hotel. Each room is named; ours was named for Taylor Port. Our room was located on the 5th floor on a beautiful lawn giving us direct outside access to the pool via small flight of stairs. I highly recommend this suite. it was so spacious and had ample room!One of the most incredible things about the hotel is the outdoor pool. Recently it was voted best hotel pool in Europe. It’s easy to understand why! The free formed infinity pool offers guests unparalleled views as well as a café and bar. We spent one afternoon lunching and relaxing by the pool.! In addition to fabulous rooms and amenities, The Yeatman staff is incredibly helpful and friendly. For the ultimate in luxury and sophistication in Porto, the Yeatmen Hotel is THE place to stay.
Livraria Lello Bookstore
The Livraria Lello bookstore is a must see for Harry Potter fans or for any lover of books like me! JK Rowling lived in Porto in the early 1990s where she taught English. She used this bookstore as her inspiration for the staircase and library for Hogwart’s. It’s not a museum but an actual working bookstore. Due to its popularity, it cost 4 euro to enter the store. If you purchase a book, however, your money is returned to you. We purchased two baking books for my daughter. The bookstore is one of the oldest in Portugal founded in 1881. The store is really incredible with its amazing architecture (featuring Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau and Art Deco Elements) and stained glass ceiling (with the motto Decus in Labore and the owners monogram) But it is the swirling, forked staircase located in the center of the store that is the true masterpiece. Take a walk up it to the second floor and look down. You will notice tracks in the floor. These were for the carts used to move the books around the store. Walking through the bookstore you will feel like you have stepped right into Harry Potter World.
Church of Sao Francisco
Located in the historic district, the Church of Sao Francisco is one of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture in Porto. Ironically, the interior is the exact opposite decorated in the ornate Baroque style. The current church was begun in 1385 and completed in 1425. The simple Gothic design was a common style for various religious orders. This church was established by the Franciscan order dedicating it to St. Francis of Assisi. During the 15th and 16th centuries, many notable Porto families created altarpieces and burial crypts in the church. In the 18th century the interior of the church was stripped and redone with the ornate, gold gilt of the Baroque style. These altarpieces are some of the most incredible in all of Portugal. Wandering through the inside of the church can be overwhelming. My favorite altarpiece was “The Tree of Jesse.” Located on the North side aisle, this polychrome wood altarpiece represents the family tree of Jesus. The work features 12 kings of Judah connected through branches of the tree that are represented through the body of Jesse (considered the father of King David). At the top of the tree is Joseph with the image of Mary and Jesus right below him. The altarpiece is very busy but truly amazing.
Festa of Sao Joao do Porto (The Festival of St. John of Porto)
We were lucky to be in Porto on June 23-25. This is the date of one of the most important feast days in Porto, the Feast of St. John. Porto becomes a city of lively celebration on this day with some really fun traditions paying tribute to St. John. The festival has been held for more that 6 centuries but in the 19th century it achieved the status it has today. The party begins in the afternoon and last until the following morning. Thousands of people come to the city to celebrate; by midnight there were almost 1 million people lining the river edge. We were so excited to participate.
Throughout the afternoon, stands are set up to purchase both basil plants and plastic hammers. Most Portuguese will purchase the basil (some of which come with a good luck poem placed in them). The plants are placed at doorways or in windows for good luck. We got into the spirit with this next tradition.
Plastic colored hammers are used to tap people on the head as they walk through town. Some people also use garlic flowers (a more traditional hammer) to tap people. We had so much fun as we walked through the streets using our hammers on happy festival goers! Street concerts and dancing occurs everywhere. The city feels truly electric. Sardines are also grilled on the street all over the city so be prepared for that smell. The evening ends with a large fireworks display at midnight over the bridge. Some brave festival goers celebrate all night ending their party with a 9 am swim in the ocean.
We decided to have dinner at an incredible restaurant called Flow which was high on the hill just on the boarder of the historic center. It was the perfect choice! The décor was so cool with a hint of Mediterranean and Moorish influence. We were excited for our meal and were pleasantly surprised when we sat down. Of course, basil plants dotted each table! We were immediately brought a plate of several delicious Portuguese delicacies which we dug into. We waited and waited for our menus to order only to find out that on Feast day there were no menu- just a traditional meal served. And oh, what a meal it was- meat, sausage, sardines, cabbage soup, and other traditional plates were served over five course. This was one of the best meals I had in Portugal.
No one can visit Porto without a trip to one of the Port houses. The Yeatman is literally right next door to Taylor’s Port but also surrounded by many other Port lodges. Walking the narrow hilly, streets of Villa Nova de Gaia we uncovered many different wine spots all open for tours or tastings. One night we went to Graham’s Port Lodge for dinner, a five minutes taxi ride from the hotel. Graham’s restaurant, Vinum, is really cool looking inside with a direct view to many barrels of Port. We were lucky to sit on the glass enclosed porch which had a view of both the Graham’s vineyard but also of all of Porto. This meal was fantastic. But the staff at Vinum were beyond friendly. After dinner, our waiter brought out a small taste of their port for us- very delicious! For a wine lover, it is a must to check out several of the lodges and lots of tastings. We loved the tastings and tours.
Just like in Lisbon, azulejos appear throughout the architecture of Porto. I had two favorite spots to check out the magnificent tile décor! The Se do Porto (Porto Cathedral) is one of the oldest Romanesque Catholic Churches in Portugal. Built between 1110 and the 13th century, the church features a façade of two towers topped by 2 crowned cupolas, 2 buttresses, a rose window and a crenellated arch. The barrel vault ceiling, the nave and the altar are fabulous. But it’s the Gothic Cloister filled with stunning azulejos that is a must see. These 17th century baroque tiles were created by the artist Valentim Almeida. One set depicts the Life of the Virgin while the other depicts scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The tiles decorate both the covered first floor as well as the second floor. The top floor also provides a great view of the bridge and the outside of the nave, the buttresses and roof of the church.
The Sao Bento Train Station is one of the most beautifully decorated stations. We were in awe of the tiled murals. There are 20,000 tiles decorating the walls! The station was built in the 19th century on the site of the 15th century Benedictine Convent of Sao Bento de Ave Maria. The artist, Jorge Colaco, created the various murals between 1906-1916. The upper friezes depict the history of transport of man in Portugal. They are astounding. The medallions on the wall entering the station also feature romantic scenes and allegories associated with the railway. Historical events are depicted on the lower parts of the walls. The azulejos are gorgeous.
Porto is a must visit for anyone heading to Portugal. We were lucky to experience the Sao Joao Festival which I highly recommend if it fits into anyone’s travel plans. But even without the festival Porto is wonderful city to explore and experience! The Port wine, the art, the architecture, and the incredibly friendly people of Porto make a visit to this city so enjoyable. Combine all of this with the uber luxurious Yeatman Hotel and a visit to Porto is an incredible trip!