Porto was where we first boarded the Viking Torgil to begin our cruise of the Douro “River of Gold” in Portugal. It’s also where the cruise ended.
This post is a combination of places Viking River took us and a few we found bumbling around on our own when we stayed for an extra day after the cruise ended.
Porto is an ideal location to begin a Douro River cruise because it’s near the mouth of the river where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Speaking of mouths, after dinner we were thrilled that the ship’s captain took us on an hour-long cruise showing the many buildings and bridges Porto lights up after dark.
Porto is second in size to Lisbon but it definitely isn’t second in pride. The people love to inform you that Portugal’s wine industry began in Porto, that Porto had the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and that, when compared to Lisbon, their sun is sunnier, their Fado more cheerful and their pastries superior. It’s sort of a Portuguese version of Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown of “Lake Wobegon” “….where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
We spent one night docked along the Ribeira which is part of the UNESCO designated old town area. Behind us the river was busy with lots of day boats (which gave us our own superiority complex because they looked crowded and hot and we were cool and spoiled).
Along the port’s waterfront is a dense, beautiful, yet frequently dilapidated area that has become a very popular tourist area of the city. We enjoyed seeing it but headed farther into town for food, shopping and fewer tourists.
For those on the cruise young enough to think the word “party” is a verb there was excitement about going out to the clubs on the Ribeira at night. We watched The Secret World of Walter Middy with our two friends. That’s how we roll, or more accurately, don’t roll.
In any event you should see the Ribeira for its historic importance if only so you can say you did and have the picture for Facebook.
Livraria Lello & Irmão bookstore
As a local guide hired by Viking River Cruises took us around Porto he gave us some free time near the Livraria Lello & Irmão bookstore. We confess that we had never heard of it before but it’s been named on various lists of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. But it probably draws most of its visitors from its reputation as being the inspiration for a library in the Harry Potter books.
J.K. Rowlings lived in Portugal for several years and reportedly spent some of her time in the bookstore’s cafe. You can also go to the cafe but you’ll have to stand in line first and pay 3 euros and it’s possible you will emerge without producing the fastest selling book in history.
We didn’t go inside the store because the need to buy a ticket and then wait in line would have taken all of our free time. It would be fun to see though and we heard that if you go before it even opens, say about 8:30 in the morning, you can often get in without a line and even be allowed to take photos which are forbidden during business hours. Of course we can’t verify that this is true but, hey, it’d be you getting up early, not us so we aren’t overly concerned!
Pastries at Nata
If you are old enough to have been around when Time Magazine ran a cover in 1966 asking “Is God Dead?” then you may recall the furor that ensued. Double that and apply it to our statement that the pastries at this shop in Porto are better than the ones in Lisbon or Belem (sort of the pastry Garden of Eden).
When we were on our own it was a hot day so Blonde ducked into this small cafe to grab a bottle of water. Normally fairly impervious to flirtatious pastries, she felt her pulse quicken at the sight of these and convinced Brunette (not exactly difficult) to sit down and have some. They had a secret extra ingredient (possibly lemon rinds the man behind the counter hinted) that gave them a flavor that made us hope God isn’t really dead because, if so, how will we ever get to eat these in Heaven? Don’t miss this place near the corner of Rue de Santa Catarina and Rue de Firmeza. We aren’t kidding.
São Bento Railway Station
Viking brought us here and we were very glad they did. Although not as old as many places in Porto this is a magnificent train station and how often can you say that? (Well, more often than “magnificent bus station” but you get our drift.)
Built on the site of an old Benedictine monastery that had burned down the station was inaugurated in 1916. King Carlos 1 even laid the first stone to show his support. We’re fairly certain he didn’t hang around to do any of the real work.
It was built by a local architect, Jose Marques da Silva in French Beaux-Arts style. That’s impressive but what makes this station so beautiful is the 20,000 traditional Portuguese tiles, called azulejos. They decorate the station’s interior with scenes of Portugal’s history. Jorge Colaco was the painter who painted the tiles and he was The Undisputed Reigning Dude of Azulejos in his day.
Another thing Porto takes immense pride in its 6 bridges. There are popular one hour cruises that will take you along the Douro and under all 6 of them if you aren’t lucky enough to be with Viking River Cruises.
We really enjoyed seeing them from the river on our night cruise and then on our last day in the city we enjoyed them from on high for the great views they provide.
Our means of getting to the Maria Pia Bridge for photo opps will draw the scorn of serious people who are “travelers not tourists”. We walked to the bridge from El Corte Inglés (on the Gaia side of the Douro River) where we’d gone to do some shopping. It was about a 15 minute walk down and we jumped on a tram to return. The tram is across the street from the Jardin do Morro which we didn’t check out but it is reputed to offer spectacular views.
If you aren’t familiar with El Corte Inglés they’re a Spanish based chain of somewhat high-end department stores that whisper to Blonde in her sleep (and scream in her wallet). They had a really good – hold on now – Tourist Lunch – deal that was probably the best and most reasonable food we had since leaving the Viking Torgil.
All of their stores also have a section that sells goods made in the country and that’s where Blonde purchased a handsome cork duffel bag that is lightweight, waterproof and strong (like her).
We also did some shopping on Rue de Santa Catarina and enjoyed that. It’s a pedestrian street in old Porto. There are lots of Art Nouveau and Art Deco landmarks and that pastry shop you are required to visit. We found some goodies here and there. The quality didn’t tend to be high but the prices were low so it was possible to have some fun without serious damage.
Beware that if you buy enough stuff to qualify to get your VAT tax refunded and the store fills out all of the paperwork for you there’s still a good chance you won’t end up getting that refund. That is by no means the store’s fault.
To get your VAT tax refunded you have to present the goods and get the form stamped before you go through Customs to exit the country – in our case at the Lisbon airport. In Lisbon that line would have taken an absolute minimum of two hours to get through. Even though we had allowed ample time it wasn’t enough to do that. There’s no other way to get the refund. (Blonde is still quite bitter about this, Can you tell?)
The World of Discoveries Museum
Our friend Shelby, the only one in our Viking River group to climb the 225 steps up the Torre dos Clérigos, saw a brochure there advertising this new museum. We all thought it sounded interesting and decided to go when we got back to Porto at the end of the cruise.
Cab drivers and even the desk people at Viking River weren’t familiar with it yet because it’s new. Be sure to have the directions for your cab driver.
The museum is about Portugal’s very impressive history of global navigation. This is the Cliff’s Notes for the whole story and is very well done. It’s interactive and even has a cheesy but fun boat ride through their discoveries. It’s a place you can definitely take kids because it has enough going on to accommodate their flea-like attention spans.
The museum also houses special exhibitions. When we were there the exhibit was about Ceuta – somewhere we were quite embarrassed we’d never even heard of. (It’s a Spanish city on the coast of northern Africa – maybe.)
This is by no means a list of what will interest or should be seen by everyone who goes to Porto. We like to mix history, food and shopping and this itinerary combined all of those interests.
If you only have time for one of these things get the pastry.