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PORTO, PORTUGAL

Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, sits on the steep north bank of the Douro River, 195 mi north of Lisbon. It has an interesting port area and a charming, old-world feel to it, especially among the ocher and brown tenements stacked high on the slopes above the river. Porto's history predates the Roman occupation—in fact, Portugal took its name from the town.

There's a famous saying that sums up how the Portuguese feel about Porto (sometimes referred to as "Oporto"): "Coimbra sings, Braga prays, Lisbon shows off and Porto works."

Porto dates to the fourth century when Romans ruled the day. Over the centuries, Porto developed along the hills overlooking the Douro river estuary; even today, a city stroll along the steep streets can turn into quite a workout. Many of the medieval buildings are still in use and there is a profusion of baroque architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries. In recognition of the city's rich past, the historic center has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Porto has been undergoing many transformations in the new millennium, including opening a photography museum (housed in a 19th-century prison) and an orchestra hall. The urban regeneration has reached the Ribeira area, where scores of trendy cafes and restaurants as well as quality souvenir and craft shops have sprung up. Porto is a vibrant and increasingly cosmopolitan city.

HIGHLIGHTS

Sights—The iconic Dom Luis I bridge; the azulejo panels in Sao Bento train station; the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral; panoramic views from the Clerigos church tower.

Museums—The Serralves Museum; Palacio da Bolsa's exquisite interior design features from the 19th century; Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis.

Memorable Meals—Freshly grilled carapau (mackerel); a traditional francesinha sandwich.

Walks—Strolling through the Parque Biologico da Gaia and the Jardins do Palacio Cristal.

HISTORIC SITES

Casa do Infante - The city's Roman past is evident there, with a section of mosaic floor and the walls of a former villa which were subsequently built over in the 14th century, when King Joao I ordered construction of a Customs House that also served as a royal residence. His son, Henry the Navigator, was born there and an exhibition on the upper floor describes his seafaring exploits. Visitors can also appreciate the difficult working conditions when the building served as the royal mint.

Estacao de Sao Bento - The train station was inaugurated in 1915. The station's atrium is covered with 20,000 azulejos (glazed tiles) depicting scenes of Portugal's history.

Ponte de Dom Luis I - Porto's most famous landmark, this wrought-iron bridge was built in 1886 and was designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, the famous architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The bridge is an amazing structure that resembles nothing so much as the Eiffel Tower laying on its side and spanning the Douro River. The top deck of the bridge is reserved for pedestrians and a metro line. It's a wonderful experience to take your time crossing the bridge, looking at the cityscape of Porto to one side and the port wine lodges on the opposite shore, while boats, including barcos rabelos, ply the river below.

WEATHER

The best word to sum up Porto's weather is changeable, and it's not uncommon to feel as though you've experienced four seasons in one day. Typically, expect some rain during the autumn and winter months. Temperatures rarely dip below 40 F and average around 60 F during winter daytimes. When the wind picks up, however, it can feel bitterly cold, so do take a sweater and a warm coat if traveling in the cooler months.

Summers can get quite hot; despite average highs of around 75 F June-September, temperatures sometimes reach 85 F, making sightseeing a chore and boat trips or beach time more appealing. Even so, you'll need a scarf or thin sweater as evenings can be considerably cooler, averaging around 55 F May-October.

Ideal times to visit are May, June, September and October, especially those latter months if you want to experience the grape harvest in the Douro Valley, although there's a higher risk of rain by October.

 
 

Religious Sites

Clerigos Church and Tower - The tall, thin tower of Clerigos church is visible from much of the city center and affords panoramic views that are worth the steep climb up almost 200 steps. The baroque church, designed by Nicolau Nasoni, is also worth exploring inside.

 

Wineries, Breweries & Distilleries

Visitors interested in sampling wine should cross the river to Vila Nova da Gaia and visit the port houses—after all, Porto is the city where port wine originated. There you'll find numerous port wine cellars and warehouses from notable companies such as Calem, Porto Cruz, Sandemans and Kopke. Choose one and take a tour, where you'll learn about the process of making port wine. In the late afternoon, with your newfound education, stroll across the street to the riverbank where numerous al fresco cafes offer a variety of ports and light meals. Settle in for a relaxing hour, gazing out at the river and the skyline of Porto as you sip your port and reflect on the day.

 

Nightlife

City center nightlife is concentrated around the streets leading away from Clerigos, namely Rua Galeria de Paris and Rua Candido dos Reis which are lined with all manner of trendy bars and nightclubs. The distinction between restaurant, bar and nightclub is blurred at many of these venues.

Even in winter months, outdoor seating means that the party spills onto the street. The same thing happens with the cluster of bars and clubs in Praca de Filipa de Lencastre and those in the streets around Praca da Ribeira near the river.

If you intend to go out dancing, pace yourself and be prepared for a long night. Friday and Saturday night meals out often start after 9 pm and go on until midnight. Most bars don't get busy until around 11 pm and some nightclubs don't even open until 2 am.

 

Performing Arts

Fado music is so indisputably linked with the Portuguese spirit that it's now included in UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. This is Portugal's soul music, usually a singer accompanied by a guitar. Fados are filled with longing.

PORT INFORMATION

Location - Cruise ships visiting Porto dock at a port in the area of Leixoes, which is about 6 miles from the city center. Most cruise ships dock at the main passenger terminal located on Dock 1 North, though there is an alternative docking spot farther south near Matosinhos Beach. Both terminals offer ATM machines, tourist information booths and transportation services.

Many cruise ships provide a free shuttle from Leixoes. If not, it is easy to take the metro—the Matosinhos metro station is directly across from the port, and the trip takes 30 minutes. Another option is to take the public bus, which has a stop directly outside the port entrance. It is also possible to hire a taxi.

 

SIGHTSEEING

It's fun to walk the narrow medieval streets around the Se (the cathedral). The Se has a nice Romanesque choir and Gothic cloister. Be sure to go inside the Gothic Sao Francisco Church to see its remarkable gilded wall decorations. The Sao Bento railway station is worth seeing for its tiles with historical themes.

Explore the area beyond the cathedral district. As you walk along the Avenida dos Aliados, admire its black-and-white mosaic pavement.

Other sights include the Cedofeita Church (a restored Roman temple), the Casa do Infante (the house where Henry the Navigator was, according to tradition, born) and the Clerigos Church (climb to the top of its tower and you might recognize the spectacular view—it's often photographed because the church is the tallest religious structure in Portugal).

TRANSPORTATION

Porto is a hilly city, at least in the parts that tourists are most interested in. That said, it is still possible to explore on foot if you're reasonably fit. There are several pedestrianized streets, such as Rua das Flores.

A good way of avoiding a steep climb from the Ribeira district is to use the Guindar Funicular (2.50 euros), which goes from the base of Dom Luis I bridge up to Batalha.

Alternatively, Porto's vintage wooden trams trundle around the tourist track and even out to the coastal town of Foz. Buses are frequent, comfortable and reliable, as is the metro system.

The Andante Card enables you to purchase trips and can be used on buses, trams, metro and urban trains, but must be validated before and at the end of each trip.

All but the strongest of cyclists should stick to the riverfront and coastal cycle paths.

Driving in the city center is best avoided as there is a confusing one-way system in place and inadequate signage, even with GPS assistance. It's best to take public transport to the airport and pick up a rental car from there to explore further afield.

Taxis are inexpensive and readily available from ranks or can be flagged down in the street if they have a green light on top. Fares are metered to a standard tariff and there are small surcharges for luggage and for ordering taxis by phone.

DINING

The residents of Porto are known for having hearty appetites, and it's easy to find Portuguese staples, such as salted bacalhau (codfish) prepared in numerous ways. Tapas-style restaurants are increasingly popular and offer the chance to sample a variety of Portuguese favorites in one sitting. Vegetarians are not well catered to in most restaurants, although there is an increasing number of vegetarian eateries.

If you're the type of traveler who enjoys sampling the signature regional specialty of the city you're visiting, then seek out a sandwich called Francesinha. It's a gut-busting creation composed of layer after layer of beef, roast pork and cheese, spiced up with a beer and tomato- based sauce. If you're really hungry, the chef will top off the sandwich with french fries.

Breakfast for local people often consists of a coffee and a cake, croissant or thickly sliced toast dripping in butter. Thanks to the tradition of menus do dia (prix-fixe specials), many people have their main meal of the day at lunchtime (12:30-3 pm). Look out for these set menus but check what's actually included in the price before accepting everything the server offers. Restaurants open their doors for dinner around 7 pm but don't get busy until around 9 pm.

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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