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Porto (Leixoes) Overview
One of Europe's oldest cities, Porto dates to the 4th century, when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire and served as an important commercial port where the Atlantic Ocean and Douro River converge. As a thriving boat-building hub, the city served as the starting point for Prince Henry the Navigator's exploration of the western coast of Africa in 1415, initiating the Portuguese "Age of Discovery."
The old town area of Porto, registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, encompasses Ribeira within 14th-century Romanesque walls, as well as the city's many architectural landmarks, ranging from the gothic Igreja de Sao Francisco to the baroque Torre dos Clerigos (Clerics Tower) to the neoclassical Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace).
On the southern bank lies the Vila Nova de Gaia, an amphitheater-shaped slope densely populated by port warehouses emblazoned with Hollywood-style white letters that spell out familiar names: Grahams, Taylors, Sandeman. The warehouses continue a tradition dating to the 13th century, with wine produced in the Douro Valley transported there to mature in giant oak casks.
Rich in history, littered with architectural treasures, home to delicious wines and melt-in-the-mouth pastries, and bristling with lively street markets, cafes, bars and restaurants, Porto is a tourist's delight. It is worthy of at least a full day's exploration, even if only to sip a glass of chilled white Port in Gaia and soak up the views of Porto opposite.
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When in Porto, buy Port. Visit one of the warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia to taste before you buy -- the Ferreira Cellars are an excellent choice, with guided tours available for a nominal fee, which include a small yet fascinating museum.
Alternatively, visit Solar do Vinho do Porto, a former manor house with a small formal garden and terrace located just by the Jardim do Palacio Cristal (Crystal Palace Gardens), which overlook the Douro. There are some 120 Ports available to taste (and buy) by the glass and an abundance of bottles of vintage Port for sale (Rua de Entre Quintas 220, Quinta da Maceirinha, Jardim do Palacio de Cristal; +022 609 4749).
Portuguese is the local language. English is fairly widely understood, with French appearing to come more naturally to locals than Spanish. A few handy phrases in Portuguese will always enamor you to the locals though, so try these:
Hello/good morning: Bom dia (bom DEEa)
Good afternoon: Boa tarde (boa TArday)
Please: Por favor (Per fevUUr)
Yes/No: Sim (sim) / Nao (now)
Excuse me/Pardon: Com licenca (com liSENza) / Perdao (perDOW)
A beer please: Un cerveja por favor (oon serVEdja per fevUUr)
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Portugal's currency is the euro. Visit or www.oanda.com for current rates. There is an ATM on the waterfront in Vila Nova de Gaia and a number of ATM's and banks in central Porto, particularly on and around the Avenida dos Aliados.
Where You're Docked
River cruise ships invariably moor on the Cais de Gaia, alongside Vila Nova de Gaia opposite Porto. A number of modern restaurants, bars and shops line the waterfront as you stroll to the Dom Luis I bridge, which you can walk over to reach Porto in less than 10 minutes.
The establishments lining the Gaia waterfront are fairly modern and, as such, generally preferred by locals. Tourists typically visit the traditional "tascas" (taverns) found in Porto. The Port warehouses virtually all offer guided tours and tastings. Taylor's warehouse (see "lunching") has a delightful restaurant with a garden and terrace overlooking Porto. Across the river, Ribeira is liberally peppered with lively cafes, bars and taverns ideal for a refreshing drink and light tapas.
On Foot: Vila Nova de Gaia is easily navigated on foot, as is Ribeira. Much of the city is cut into the steep shore, however, so the least tiring way to explore Porto thoroughly on foot is from the top (by the cathedral) down. It is possible to take a gondola from the Gaia waterfront up to the top level of the Dom Luis I bridge, which you can walk across (although you should have a good head for heights!). From there, you can walk into Porto and descend from the cathedral, strolling down along streets lined with tiled buildings sporting immaculate Art Deco shop facades; or take a ride down to Ribeira with a little funicular. Alternatively, buy a ticket to ride the funicular up from the Porto side of the Dom Luis I bridge to the Avenida dos Aliados.
By Metro and Bus: Porto has an extensive metro (light rail) and bus network, which can be used for getting around town and for trips into the suburbs. Tickets can be purchased at metro stations and aboard the bus by cash or, if you're planning to make full use of the public transportation system, you can purchase a reusable Andante card for .50 euro, which can be charged with credit. Visit www.metro-porto.pt for a full map of the metro network and timetables and www.stecp.pt for information about the bus routes.
By Tram: Porto has a heritage tram line, first constructed in 1895. Only two lines remain open today, Numbers 1 and 18, both of which operate with vintage tram cars. No. 1 is a particularly pleasant ride, as it follows the riverfront all the way to Foz. Buy tickets from the tram driver.
By Taxi: Taxis are fairly easy to find in Porto, but it is wise to book a cab if you're looking to depart from Gaia. They are inexpensive, but ensure that your driver turns on his meter at the start of your journey. Reliable companies include Raditaxis (+22 507 3900) and Taxis Unidos (+22 502 9898).
Transport from/to the Airport: Francisco Sa Carneiro Airport, or simply Porto Airport, is located seven miles north of Porto's city center. The metro provides an efficient, inexpensive and quick (20 minutes) way of getting to central Porto. Public buses also run to destinations in Porto but are slower, while private shuttle buses make multiple dropoffs and pickups for a higher fare. Taxis are numerous, trustworthy and -- at approximately 20 to 30 euros for an airport transfer -- relatively inexpensive.
Watch Out For
Porto locals clearly can easily handle heights -- walking across the top tier of the Dom Luis I bridge appears to be a stroll in the park for them. If, however, you prefer to keep your feet on more solid ground, steer clear: The walk is undeniably scenic, but even for somebody who rarely notices heights, it is quite disconcerting being a lofty 146 feet above the Douro. Similarly, some people find the gondola ride unnerving, particularly those with little experience riding such lifts.
Another thing to be aware of is the local beer: Brewed just outside of Porto since 1927, Super Bock is the most popular beer in Portugal. However, a Super Bock Classic (lager) weighs in at a hefty 5.7 percent alcohol by volume and is typically served in a pint-sized bottle, packing quite a punch. Don't say we didn't warn you!
Between 1732 and 1763, Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni designed a baroque church with a tower that would become Porto's architectural and visual icon: the Torre dos Clerigos (Clerics Tower). Standing 249 feet, it takes 225 stone steps to reach the top of the tower, where you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Porto, the Douro and the ocean (Rua de Sao Filipe de Nery; 222 001 729).
The Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) is an impressive neoclassical building built on the site of a former Franciscan convent. No longer active as the stock exchange, the palace serves as a museum featuring priceless pieces of Portuguese art. The building is itself a masterpiece of 19th-century architecture, with intricately carved chestnut ceilings, inlaid wooden floors and a stunning Arabian ballroom, which glitters with gold leaf and semiprecious gems (Rua Ferreira Borges; 223 399 000).
The grand Avenida dos Aliados (Aliados Avenue) is lined by towering 19th- and 20th-century buildings, with Placa de Liberdade (Liberty Square) at its southern end. You will find a highly unusual McDonald's, complete with original 1920's murals. Located just off the square, on Praca de Almeida Garret, is the stunning Estacao de Sao Bento (Sao Bento railway station), adorned with over 20,000 blue and white "azulejos" (tiles).
Guarany Cafe (Avenida dos Aliados 89/85; 223 321 272) and Majestic Cafe (Rua de Santa Catarina 112; 222 003 887). Porto once rivaled Lisbon with its Art Deco cafes, frequented by great authors, artists and thinkers. Today, these two grandes dames continue the tradition, providing a welcoming space to read newspapers and catch up with local gossip, listen to live music (fado or Cuban on Fridays and Saturdays in Guarany) and literary presentations.
Been There, Done That
For its size, Porto boasts a disproportionate number of remarkable concert halls, such as the Coliseu do Porto -- an exquisite example of the Portuguese decorative arts designed by the Portuguese architect Cassiano Branco (Rua Passos Manuel 137; 223 394 940). Other notable venues include the historical Sao Joao National Theatre, the Rivoli Theatre, the Cinema Batalha and the modern Casa da Musica. Attending a concert in any of these superb venues will not disappoint, particularly if you're fortunate enough to see one of Porto's famous bands or performers, such as Rui Veloso, Sergio Godinho and Ornatos Violeta.
Porto is home to what is consistently rated as one of the world's most beautiful book stores: the Livraria Lello & Irmao. This magical establishment has been selling books since 1881 and is rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling to start writing the Harry Potter books (Rua das Carmelitas 144; 222 002 037).
Head out of central Porto to visit Foz do Douro, a prosperous suburb located at the mouth of the Douro (its name means "mouth of the Douro"). There, you will find long beaches, cafes overlooking the ocean and countless fishing boats that bob just off the coast. Enjoy lunch at the Praia dos Ingleses restaurant, perched above the beach of the same name (Rua Coronel Raul Peres; 226 170 419) and stroll along the beach to the 16th-century Forte S. Joao Batista (Saint John's Fort) and Cantareira pier, a picturesque stretch of Porto's old seafront, where you can still find fishermen working on their boats and nets.
Highly Recommended: Pancho Tours
As with most traditional Portuguese cuisine, Porto features a lot of seafood, with cod particularly popular (the local saying is that the Portuguese have 365 different ways of preparing the fish, one for each day of the year). The centuries' old tradition of serving tripe continues today, with tripas a moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe, prepared with chicken, beans, vegetables and spices) found throughout the city. Similarly, Portugal's little pasteis de nata (sweet egg custard pastries) are found everywhere, even in McDonald's, and caldo verde (green soup), made with potatoes, shredded kale and chorizo, is easy to find.
One dish unique to Porto is the Francesinha -- little French (female). The popular "snack" is a heavy-duty sandwich layered with several different meats and smothered with cheese and a sauce made with beer and other ingredients.
Last but by no means least, the Port wine that takes its name from the city is a key part of culinary life here. Whether you choose a glass of ruby, tawny or chilled white Port, you'll fall for this syrupy elixir, particularly when enjoyed with tapas on a sunny terrace overlooking the Douro.
Ribeira and the Gaia waterfront are lined with little bars where you can enjoy a glass of Port or a beer with some tapas. However, Bar Ponte Pensil takes pride of place, located at the base of the Dom Luis I bridge on Ribeira. As such, it's the perfect spot to enjoy sundowners and snacks while soaking up views of the Douro, Ribeira, Gaia and the bridge itself. (Rua Cimo do Muro 27; 222 085 342; open Monday to Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.)
Also good for light bites washed down with a wide selection of local wines and beers is the Wine Quay Bar , located in one of the original fisherman's homes on Ribeira's waterfront. (Muro dos Bacalhoeiros No. 111 e 112; 222 080 119; open Tuesday to Saturday from 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.)
For a more substantial meal, the charming Abadia do Porto offers traditional Portuguese dishes, such as grilled octopus and prawns, tripe and spiced sea bass, in cozy, informal surroundings. Portions are extremely generous, ensuring good value for money and full stomachs! (Rua Ateneu Comercial do Porto 22-24; 222 008 757; open Monday through Saturday from 11:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
The diminutive Andor Violeta delivers considerable culinary punch for its size. The delightful little restaurant offers superb value for money, with gourmet dishes such as sea bass carpaccio and duck breast with chestnut puree offered at reasonable prices. The staff are unfailingly friendly and accommodating. (Praca de Carlos Alberto, 89; 222 016 618; open Mondays from 7.30pm to midnight, Tuesday to Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to midnight, and on Saturdays from noon to midnight)
The sleek Barao Fladgate Restaurant is part of the Taylor Port warehouse and cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. Take a tour of the cellars and then taste the produce over a leisurely lunch in the garden or dinner overlooking Porto. Dishes are predominantly traditional Portuguese favorites, such as salted cod and sea bass risotto, albeit served in thoroughly contemporary style. (Rua do Choupelo 250; 223 742 800; open daily for lunch only)
Dom Tonho is something of a Porto institution -- a smart, classy restaurant owned by one of Portugal's most popular pop singers -- and is the venue of choice for star-struck lovers, slick businessmen and lunch outings. The original restaurant is located in restored buildings on the waterfront in Ribeira, with sweeping views of the Douro and Gaia. Cuisine is modern Portuguese, with each dish presented as a small piece of art. The bar, built into Ribeira's original 14th-century walls, is a great spot for aperitifs, with a comprehensive wine list featuring more than 600 wines. A smaller sister restaurant, Dom Tonho II, is located in a contemporary glass building on the Gaia waterfront and serves a lighter, slightly simpler menu. (Dom Tonho: Cais da Ribeira 13; 222 004 307. Dom Tonho II: Cais de Gaia; 223 744 835; open Monday through Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to midnight)
Pestana Hotel, located in the medieval Ribeira district, is a smart hotel housed in sensitively restored 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century warehouses on the banks of the Douro. Rooms are contemporary yet offer a sense of Porto's history with antiques and old photographs (223 402 300).
Boa Vua is a charming, small hotel located in Foz, about 10 minutes' drive from the center of Porto, where the Douro flows into the Atlantic. The family-owned hotel has plenty of character, a range of rooms and a good rooftop restaurant with superb panoramic views (225 320 020).
Aquapura is a stupendous 19th-century manor house set in Peso da Regua, woodlands high above the Douro Valley. The property boasts 71 rooms, suites and villas and a large spa with an outdoor swimming pool overlooking the Douro. It also offers two celebrated restaurants (0800 0482 314).
Staying in Touch
Several bars and cafes offer free Wi-Fi in Porto, particularly in the area around the cathedral and university. Copivista is a friendly Internet cafe in the Edificio Green Center near the Sheraton Hotel; it's open 24 hours (Avenida da Boavista 1361; 021 322 500). CanideloWeb@r is located near the Canidelo Sport Clube in Gaia and is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily (Rua da Belgica; 022 7729 468).
Cruise lines typically offer a number of excursions in Porto because they spend at least one full day and a night in the city. On some cruise lines, these outings are included in your cruise fare. Given how small Porto is, there isn't much variation in the excursions offered by the operators, with most offering one or more of the following:
Best for Active Types: A guided walking tour of Ribeira explores the medieval UNESCO World Heritage Status district, which is reached from the ship either on foot or by coach.
Best for Those Who Prefer Less Walking: A tour of the highlights of Porto takes visitors by coach to the Porto Cathedral and University District, Avenida dos Aliados, Placa de Liberdade, the Estacao de Sao Bento and the Palacio da Bolsa.
Best for Oenophiles: A guided tour of one of the many Port warehouses in Gaia. Most of the cruise lines offering Douro voyages will offer at least one Port house tour, partnering with one of the larger estates, such as Ferreira and Taylor.
Best for Culture Vultures: Located about 45 minutes' drive from Porto is the historic and picturesque town of Guimaraes, the first capital of Portugal in the 12th century and home to the country's first king, Don Afonso Henriques. Dominated by Afonso Henriques' grand castle, Guimaraes was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its well-preserved medieval quarter, lined with ancient houses once inhabited by crusaders. Tours visit the castle, atmospheric Largo da Oliveira square, monastery and church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira and the 14th-century Gothic Padrao do Salado.
For More Information
On the Web: Go Porto and Porto Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe River Cruise Ports forum
Independent Traveler: Europe Travel Guide
--by Gabriella Le Breton, Cruise Critic contributor