Friday, February 27, 2015

A short guide to Porto, Portugal

Ah Portugal. I have been wanting to visit Portugal for well, ever since I tried my first Portuguese tart! After dreaming of sunshine and delicious food over this winter, I finally hit the book button and set off for four days in Porto, Portugal. So, I have to admit a silly mistake I made. Whilst having a blonde moment, I thought, "Oh, everywhere in Portugal will be warmer than London..." Wrong. If you want winter warmth, trust me when I say, go further south! It was no warmer than London in Porto, however there was full sunshine for almost the whole time, so I'm definitely not complaining!

After an early flight, (remind me never to book early flights again!) I arrived with my friend in Porto, and we made our way from the airport to the city center on the metro. The metro was incredibly easy to navigate. After following the airport signs to the train station, we bought tickets with the guidance of an incredibly helpful information guy. We were about to buy four tickets, but he quickly swooped in and told us that we reload the tickets we buy on the day we need to (this also means subsequent tickets are cheaper). After hopping on the metro, it was only about 30-40 minutes before we arrived at Trinidade station and made our way to our hotel. Our hotel was on Rue da Fábrica which for point of reference, was about a ten minute walk down to the main part of the river front. 

Where to stay

I found it difficult to find helpful information about the best place to stay in Porto, so just booked the hotel based on what I thought would be a good spot. It turned out to be a really good location. It was a really easy walk to all the main sights, and around the corner from a few restaurants and shops. I would say that anything within a 10-15 minute walk from Dom Luís I Bridge on the north side of the river would be a good spot to stay, as everything seems to be located in that general area.

What to do

Before arriving in Porto, I didn't really have too much on my list to do. I just thought I would figure out what there is to do once I arrived, coupled with wandering around the city to see what I could find by chance. If you only have a short time in Porto, here are some top things to do and see:

- Wander around the old town 

Amongst all the fading and run down buildings that line the streets of Porto, there are some really beautiful gems. Many of the churches have amazing architecture and there are a few that have exteriors covered with stunning blue paintings on white tiles. For an amazing example of these tiles, visit the Porto train station. I could have stayed there staring at the walls for hours! If you just wander around Porto you are sure to find something beautiful. Stroll through the cobbled streets with a Pastel de Nata (Portuguese tart) in hand and enjoy the surroundings! And don't do what I did and order a "Pastel de Nada". Sigh...I even knew what I was supposed to say and it came out as "one nothing cake please"! 

- Go on a Douro river cruise

I got a package deal where I got a river cruise, cable car ride and visit to three Port cellars/information centres for around 15 Euros which (I thought) was a pretty good deal. The cruise lasts for around an hour and takes you under 5 bridges along the Douro river going east, and then back the other way until you can almost see the sea. You get to see Porto from a different angle and admire all the colorful buildings that line the river front. 

- Visit a Port cellar

A visit to Porto isn't complete without trying some Port right? If you walk across Dom Luís I Bridge and then jump in the cable car you will find yourself in Vila Nova de Gaia, which is where all the Port cellars reside. My package ticket included a visit to Cockburn's, Porto Cruz and one other one which I can't remember. It wasn't really worth remembering anyway! Cockburn's was great; my ticket included a tour of the cellar as well as tasting two types of Port wine. If you visit, make sure to have a quick walk through the botanical garden around the corner as well. There is a cool abandoned building there, and of course some nice gardens. After Cockburn's we visited another place which I can't for the life of me remember the name of, but it was just a building with information boards on the walls and a bar where you could go try the Port. It wasn't all that interesting and we didn't stay long. Our final stop was Porto Cruz. There was no cellars to visit or tour, but there was a terrace up the top which would have been great to have a drink at in summer, and then some interesting videos about the history of Port & Porto in the floors below. After all that Port tasting we headed back over the bridge to grab something to eat at one of the restaurants back across the Douro. If you only have limited time, I would make sure to visit somewhere with a cellar like Cockburn's as it is much more interesting than just reading information from a board and you'll learn a lot more about Port!

Livraria Lello & Irmão

I am a sucker for libraries and bookshops. Add in dark furniture, old books and maybe a giant atlas or two, and you won't get me out of there. Lello bookshop is one of the oldest bookshops in Porto, and apparently the third best bookstore in the world. I had pretty high expectations after looking at some stunning Pinterest pictures, so I guess it's no surprise that I wasn't totally blown away by it. Although quite busy with tourists taking photos, it wasn't overwhelmingly packed. The staircase leading up to the second floor looked like it could be very grand, if only there was red carpet instead of just worn and chipped red paint. I'm starting to be too fussy I was a beautiful bookstore and I hung around for a bit looking at the various books for sale and admiring the stained glass skylight. It is definitely worth a visit, but just try not to look at too many pretty pictures before you go!

- Bolsa Palace

On my last day in Porto, I visited Bolsa Palace which was a stock exchange back in the day. You have to pay for a guided tour as you can't just wander around on your own which I usually hate, however our guide was very informative and told us some interesting things that I wouldn't have otherwise known. The Arab room is absolutely stunning, and there are some interesting pockets of history within the Palace. Did you know that Gustave Eiffel (yep, that Eiffel) had an office here, with an amazing view out to Porto and the Dom Luís I Bridge? You can see his office here perfectly intact. His assistant designed the Dom Luís I Bridge too, which explains why it looks like a bridge version of the Eiffel Tower.

I would love to go back to Porto in summer, because I think it would have such a great vibe when it's warm. The advantage of going in winter was that it was quiet and there weren't many tourists around. However the Vila Nova de Gaia area was dead quiet with empty streets, which I think took away from it a bit. In summer I could just imagine people wandering down the streets with gelato in hand and then sitting along the river front to watch the comings and goings. Yes, I'll have to come see you again Porto!