I fell in love with Porto the moment I stepped off the bus from Lisbon.
I strolled out of the bus station and onto the sunny, cobblestone street at about 3:30 PM on April 17th. Squinting from the sun, I took in the Portuguese-style buildings standing in front of me, noting the gorgeous patterns and colors. The buildings were vibrant and yet nondescript; a compelling combination. Tearing my gaze away from the city, I opened my phone and allowed Google Maps to navigate me downhill through the winding streets to my digs, Bluesock Hostels.
On this mission, I trusted my phone to guide me through some back alleyways that led me to find older Portuguese women hanging laundry out their windows, young boys playing soccer in the street, and people in cars honking for me to get out of their way. Continuing on, I soon found myself standing in front of my hostel with the most spectacular view of the Douro River resting in front of me. I knew then that I was somewhere very special.
“Welcome to Porto, Miss Herr——. Um, Hamburger? Hahaha, I’m just kidding with you.” Said the young hipster at the front desk.
“I’ve never heard that joke before in my life.” Eye roll.
Porto was named #3 Best Value City on Lonely Planet’s Best In Travel 2017 list, and as far as budget-friendly travel goes for a western European city, Porto delivers. There, I stayed at the best value-for-money hostel I have found in Europe thus far, I ate incredible food that (as long as it wasn’t along the Douro) didn’t break the bank, and I found myself wandering in great, and free, museums.
Five days of walking around gorgeous Porto, and I know I only saw a glimpse of what this small, yet vivacious, city has to offer.
Here are five highlights from five days in Porto:
The Douro River
You can’t go to Porto and not be completely overtaken by the sleepy beauty of the Douro River. Of the river I wrote in my journal, “Colorful houses and towers of all sizes jut up from the water like a fortress. It is like every window facing the waterway has a keen onlooker inside keeping guard on this precious city.”
Yeah, that’s right. I’m just as pretentious even when I’m writing for myself.
Here’s one for all the Harry Potter nerds in the house (and yes, I’m a HP nerd myself in that I have read all the books, seen all the movies, and yes I’ve been to the Harry Potter bar in Toronto, nbd.)
Livraria Lello is a neo-gothic style library and bookstore that was opened in 1906 by brothers José and António Lello. Between 1991 and 1993, Lello was frequented by none other than author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, during her time as an English teacher in Porto. The building is said to be an inspiration for her writing – and, I mean just look at this place. If it doesn’t scream Harry Potter to you, what does?
But holy shit Livraria Lello was busy when I stopped by. I stood in line for an entrance ticket for at least ten minutes, and it was absolutely impossible to get photos of the place without having a million other people blocking the view (of course, they would have thought the same thing about my presence.) If you go, try and get there first thing in the morning or near closing time. I went in the middle of the day and it was chaotic. I felt weird even standing in the aisle and trying to pick out a book to buy knowing I was blocking people trying to get past.
Also, a good thing to note is that the cost to enter Livraria Lello will be offset should you actually buy a book inside. Books are available in both Portuguese and English, so I picked myself up a copy of Message by Fernando Pessoa.
Centro Portugues de Fotografia
My photography skills are novice at best, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t totally dig the awesome camera museum and photography exhibits inside the Portuguese Centre of Photography! Located inside an old prison, the exhibit takes you through the evolution of the camera; all the way from their advent to our smartphone photography culture of today.
The place has literally hundreds of different cameras lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Even if you aren’t a photography buff, it would be hard not to stand in awe due to the sheer volume of cameras alone.
Best part? The museum is totally free!
One of my favorite ways to acquaint myself with a new city is to take a free walking tour. Tours help you meet fellow travellers, see the city, and learn things about history and culture that you would have otherwise missed. And the walking tour I took in Porto with Porto Free Walking Tours? One of the best.
I met my guide Eugenia bright and early at 9 AM at the Praca Gomes Teixeira, which was only about a 15 minute thigh-killing uphill walk from my hostel. There were a few other people on the tour with me, and once we all became acquainted and friendly, we were off.
The tour took us to all the main hotspots, including Leões (fountain of lions), Jardim das Oliveiras,Torre dos Clérigos, Livraria Lello, Praça da Liberdade, Imperial Café (now a very fancy McDonald’s that boasts an impressive chandelier), Estação de S. Bento (a must-see for all you Portuguese tile fans), Ponte D. Maria Pia (a famous bridge connecting Porto to Gaia), Muralha Fernandina, and the Sé Catedral.
In an unexpected (for me) move, our guide took us to a local cork production shop. There, I met the owner and learned about the process with which cork is made. Did you know that Portugal exports about 50% of the world’s commercial cork? True story.
And, in a move that was very much up my alley, Eugenia gave us a bit of a Fado lesson when she brought us to a local Portuguese guitar shop. Guitars used in the Portuguese musical stylings of Fado consist of twelve steel strings stung in six segments of two strings. One of the local men at the shop was lovely enough to play a few songs for us.
Saddest music on the planet.
It’s hard to mention Porto without mentioning the signature wine, Port.
Port wine is a fortified wine to which I have a very low tolerance. Before the grapes are fully fermented, wine is mixed with brandy, creating a natural fruity flavor that is easy on the gullet; a little too easy in fact. A glass and a half of this stuff as an aperitif, and I was a goner.
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