Portugal is enjoying a bit of a moment currently. Scores of travel publications have listed it as a must-visit destination and tourists are responding by planning trips not only to Lisbon, but other parts of the country as well. One of the most popular ways to experience Portugal is by taking a cruise on the scenic Douro River, which is exactly where I found myself a couple of months ago. Sailing once again with Viking Cruises, I knew what to expect from the company, but the destination was a complete mystery to me. One of the many highlights of my first trip to Portugal though was spending plenty of time in one of the country’s most popular tourist spots, Porto. I certainly wasn’t the first to be wowed by this colorful city and I know I won’t be the last, so to help plan your time in Porto I want to share some of my favorite experiences as I explored the city with Viking Cruises.
Views from every vantage point
Cruises start and end in Porto, making this popular tourist destination an important part of anyone’s cruise experience. I didn’t know a lot about the city before arriving, but I had read dozens of accounts by fellow writers all lauding the ancient city, many even naming it the best in Europe. A natural skeptic, I went into my time there with some initial detachment, but I too fell for the allure of Porto. Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities, founded in the 300s by the Romans and it’s Porto that eventually lent its name to the country of Portugal itself. Walking around the hilly city on a guided Viking hike, I found it impossible not to be charmed by the colors and sights of the historic center, while also trying to catch a view of the important Douro River whenever possible. Luckily that’s an easy feat to achieve in Porto. Built on hills surrounding the Douro River, there are scores of amazing spots from which to admire the city, but my favorite happened almost right away. River cruise ships dock across the river in Vila Nova da Gaia and tackling the short and easy walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge wasn’t just a nice way to get into Porto, but it’s from there where I enjoyed my favorite panoramic vantage point. If you don’t feel like walking, you can also take the nearby cable car that offers its own unique views of the city as well.
Food & wine
A big reason why many people choose to take a river cruise on the Douro River is for the wine, and Porto provides a hint as to why. Although wine has been produced in Portugal for more than 2,000 years, Port wine didn’t come about until the 1600s. I won’t go into what is ultimately a long story about the relationship between England and Portugal, but suffice it to say that their diplomatic friendship is the oldest in the world and Port wine has played an important role in this relationship for centuries. I’d like to say that fortified Port wine came about in some romantic fashion, but the truth is that the Portuguese developed it to better match the tastes of the English consumers. Eventually this wine, which was shipped from Porto (hence, Port wine) had brandy added to the juice during fermentation, creating a stronger and sweeter wine that was a perfect match for the palate of wealthy English clients.
There are seemingly countless ways to experience Port wine, including an optional excursion offered by Viking. Although I didn’t take it, I spoke with fellow passengers who booked the port wine dinner inside a nearby winery and for them it was the trip highlight. For something a little more laid back though, there’s nothing better than finding a quiet restaurant and creating your own wine dinner.
Porto is an intensely popular tourist destination and along with that comes a certain circuit that most people follow around town. That’s one reason why I didn’t expect to find anything strange, quirky or unusual but by the end of my time there, those off-kilter moments were amongst my most favorite. It was also a good reminder for me to always be vigilant and to enter any new city with an open mind. Granted, some of these experiences were more interesting than others, and they’re mentioned in most guidebooks so I’m sharing them not to brag about some new discovery, but to encourage you not to skip them.
McDonald’s Imperial – Before you criticize me, please first read on. Yes, I have written about the cultural importance of visiting McDonald’s restaurants around the world, but that’s not why it’s on this list. No, in Porto one of the most-visited spots is this unlikely fast food establishment in the heart of the city. This location opened in 1995 in the historic Imperial Cafe. Established as a coffee shop in the 1930s, the owners went through a painstaking process to preserve and bring back to life all of those amazing Art Deco details. Even if you don’t eat anything, it’s well worth a visit to admire the old stained glass windows and other iconic features.
Livaria Lello – Even though I consider myself to be a Harry Potter fan, I had no idea that Porto has a connection with author J.K. Rowling until my visit. The Livaria Lello isn’t just one of the world’s most stunning bookstores, it’s also rumored to have inspired many of Rowling’s depictions of Hogwarts. She lived in Porto and was a frequent customer of the bookstore, no doubt attracted by the winding staircases and other incredible architectural flourishes. The owners had a problem though. Once fans learned of the connection, they flooded the bookstore forcing out paying customers. So, the bookstore has a nominal entrance fee, which is refunded when you make a purchase. Even if you aren’t a Potterhead it’s well worth a visit because, yes, it really is that beautiful.
São Bento railway station – Another not to miss spot for lovers of design and architecture is the São Bento railway station. Inaugurated in 1916, the centrally located station is still a busy place more than a century later, but it’s not only for the trains that people visit. Lining the front vestibule are 20,000 azulejo tiles, representing moments in the country’s history as well as rural scenes showing the people of various regions. The central theme though is transportation through the ages, but more than the representations the tiles are works of art in their own right and should be high on your sightseeing to-do list.
Clérigos bell tower – One thing I love to do anywhere I go is to seek out vantage points that put me high above the surrounding city. That usually leads me to church towers, and in Porto it was the baroque Clérigos church that offered me the opportunity to climb. The tower is 75 meters high and it takes 240 steps to reach the top, but believe me it’s worth the effort. I was lucky with incredible weather that provided amazing views of Porto in all directions.
World of Discoveries – Yes, it looks hokey and yes, it was a little hokey. I was stuck though; it was pouring throughout my last day in Porto and I frankly needed something to do. I love history and wanted to know more about Portugal’s Golden Age and when I learned that they also had a theme park-esque ride, I was sold. World of Discoveries is an interactive museum that does a great job of using technology and engaging exhibits to bring to life the voyages of the Portuguese navigators. It really was an interesting museum and I did indeed learn a lot, and I even enjoyed the theme park portion of the experience. The capstone experience is boarding a “ship” and floating along learning about the parts of the world Portuguese laid claim to and how those colonies impacted life not only in Portugal, but around the world. Overall, it’s not a bad museum but it is a little pricey, so make sure you’re really interested before going.
Have you been to Porto? What would you add to this list?