When I took my mom to Porto in 2009 as a surprise holiday, she called it a ‘stupid village’. “Why didn’t you take me to Lisbon, or even better, Paris?” – she asked. If it is a village, then it is most certainly one of my favorites. It is a place full of history visible through its outstanding architecture. While shiny ceramic facades demonstrate the unique artistic talent of Portuguese people, its superb location on the hill overlooking the river Douro, just before it enters the sea, talks of its historical importance.
Having a good time in a city like Porto is not difficult. If you come here during an important holiday it might even turn out to be a fantastic experience. I was lucky enough to visit it for the first time during the Sao Joao festivities at the end of June, where the whole city transforms in an open air theater. Thousands of illuminated balloons decorate the sky all above the city, while the main event including performances and fireworks takes place around the Dom Luís bridge. But that’s not all. People armed with plastic hammers and onion flowers were battling each other near the banks of Douro. Naturally I wanted to participate, but it took me some time to convince my mom to join too.
Porto’s rich architectural heritage dates all the way to the middle ages. The Old Town starts from the Dom Luís Bridge, and spreads to the modern center Baixa. The small part closest to the river called Ribeira is the most atmospheric one. Narrow curvy cobbled streets together with charming little squares are surrounded with outstanding ceramic tile buildings. There you can see the locals living their everyday lives, like there were no tourists around. Laundry hangs between the buildings, decorations left from past festivals can be seen, stray cats and people relaxing in the street with their home dresses are common scenes too. As if time had stopped then and there!
Examples of Porto ceramic tiles
One of the oldest buildings in the Old Town is the monumental Porto Cathedral, built under influences of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. Located on the hill overlooking the river it offers magnificent views of the city. Less than half a kilometer up north the Avenida dos Aliados houses the city’s most elegant buildings including the Majestic City hall, built at the beginning of the 20th century. A few minutes away on the east the Mercado do Bolhão is an authentic marketplace. Next to it the Rua de Santa Catarina is a great place for strolling down or sipping a coffee in one of the many local coffee shops. Other interesting sites in the city center include the 14th century São Francisco church, Fin de Sècle São Bento station and the 18th century Clerigos tower.
Porto is known for two other things: its unique wine and its outstanding modern architecture. Wine can be enjoyed in beautifully restored wine warehouses across the river in Cais de Gaia. Tours include the explanation of wine production, rewarded with wine tasting. Architecture probably has something to do with the world famous Porto School of Architecture which gave several world famous architects. The city’s most impressive modern edifice is the Casa da Musica in Boavista neighborhood. A large white concrete building showcasing minimalism and delicate sophisticated materials. It serves as a place of learning as well as a performance center.
In Porto everything coexists in perfect harmony. Beautiful architecture blends perfectly with beautiful natural surroundings. Unique wine matches unique food (I might even say bizarre food), and fascinating people are complemented by fascinating festivals. I have never been beaten and caressed at the same time. Nor did I see a relationship between a hammer and an onion flower. But it all made perfect sense to me near the Atlantic Ocean in the city of Porto.