‘Obrigada’ Oporto, Portugal

April 2018 —

“Thank you Porto, Portugal,” for enlightening me with the Portuguese way of life and to the many diverse splendours of the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal is the next door neighbour to Spain in terms of geographical location, and as such the two European countries have had an immense intertwined history. As close as they are though, they are each very distinctive from the other. Portugal is well known for its trade in making ‘Port wine,’ as one of the worlds largest cork producers, and for its precious ceramic tiles, vases, and dishes. All of these things were definitely prevalent during the mystical journey Emily and I took to Porto during our semester abroad.

About the same time that Emily excitedly asked me to accompany her to Greece, she also jumped for joy when I ecstatically said ‘Yes’ to go to Portugal with her. Together we booked a 4 day 3 night trip to visit Oporto. Our flight from Madrid to Oporto was very short, approximately an hour and a half I recall. During the whole flight there were sprawling snowy mountain views of the ranges that run between Spain and Portugal. When we landed, the first thing I noticed was how incredibly green the land was, and how moist and damp the air was.

After descending to the metro below, we navigated our way to the right platform. This metro system is different than that of Madrid in that there are multiple lines that utilize the same tracks, instead of having separate platforms for each line. Thus, we kept jumping up when we thought the metro line we needed was approaching. Riding the steps up the escalator at our metro stop Bolhão, we could immediately see the very aesthetic and eye catching Capela das Almas, or the Chapel of Souls wrapped in blue and white Portuguese ceramic tiles. It reminded me a building made out of ‘blue willow ware,’ a popular dish set in the 1900s in the U.S.. With our roller luggage in hand, we began the uphill walk to the hostel we were staying at, M2Students Hostel. This was a really rad hostel with old fashioned comic strips on the lockers and walls. They had student discounted ticket bundles, Pub Crawls, and group meals available. There was a fully equipped kitchen and common room for a terrific price! From the hostel to the Douro River, which runs through the entire city of Porto to the Atlantic Ocean, was only a 15 minute walk, so it was perfectly located. Emily and I stayed in a room for six people, but it was only us and 1-2 others the whole time. 

Fun Fact: Portugal is one of the cleanest places I have ever seen! There was no garbage anywheres when we visited, not on the streets, nor in the grass along the sides of the metro, nor in the parks.

 

Our Strategy

Prior to arriving Emily and I devised a solid sightseeing plan to see the city, consume some genuine Portuguese pastries, port wine, and salty sea air. We no sooner checked into our hostel and decided to grab some lunch and go grocery shopping. The place we headed for some delectable lunch, was to a sandwich/pastry shop that had glass cases measuring nearly 30 feet long just filled to the brim with all sorts of yummy sweets, breads, and sandwiches! Of course, the more carbs the better tasting, so I ordered a handful of different pastries to eat for my lunch haha! They were absolutely sinful! Next we wandered to the nearest grocery store and I think each of us got about 30 euros worth of food for our 4 day stay, which is sweet for budgeting costs. I would say it was almost cheaper than Madrid!

I think the best part about visiting Porto, is that one can walk to do almost all of their sightseeing, so there is no need to take the metro or a bus once you are in the city center. We really enjoyed this, or rather our wallets really did! That afternoon we took a stroll around the surrounding blocks and to the Douro River to watch the sunset. Another aspect that Porto is well known for, is its street art. There are impromptu wall murals on buildings, ceramic tile sculptures, and interesting creations on most of the streets. To me, that speaks to just how creative the Portuguese are as a people. Plus, the famous ‘Portuguese sidewalks’ are really amazing! Given how visually appealing they are, their popularity has spread to many other countries.

On our first full day walking around we decided to go out for breakfast as a treat to ourselves. We ate at a crêpe restaurant called Nut’Porto, which offered several specials draped with Nutella!! If you are not familiar with Nutella, you are definitely missing out! It is a chocolate hazelnut spread that is good on just about anything. They were truly delectable and then some! From there we walked by various markets until we arrived to the historic districts filled with Baroque era churches and town squares. One particularly beautiful church, the Church Santo Ildefonso is covered with delicately placed ceramic tiles depicting religious images. Another very iconic cathedral, which Emily and I purchased tickets for, is the Igreja dos Clérigos. This cathedral has an impeccable interior that visitors are allowed to walk around in. Additionally, visitors are permitted to enter the balcony region and take photos of the works of art that cover the walls and ceiling. The reason that Emily and I really wanted to enter this cathedral is because it has a fairly tall bell tower that visitors can climb to take in the magnificent city views from above. I would definitely suggest taking the time to climb the tower, though be sure to plan a good time to visit because it is a very popular tourist venue and can have long lines.

The following day we wanted to visit the Livraria Lello bookstore, which is famous for having inspired J.K. Rowling with its intricate spiral wooden staircase. It is said that she used this staircase as a model for the moving staircases in her Harry Potter movies and books. Aside from the bookstore of my alma mater, Brewer bookstore at St. Lawrence University, this is indeed the most lovely bookstore I have ever seen! Emily and I knew that this was a hot spot for visitor, so we purchased our tickets way in advance, but we still had to wait in line outside for a solid 45 minutes. In the end, we both absolutely loved this store, and each purchased a book from there. Mine was a copy of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, a personal favorite for me! Hers was an edited compilation of work by Edgar Allan Poe. Each section of the store had every book in 3-4 languages and there was no shortage of people either.

Each night when we made dinner we got to meet all sorts of people staying at the hostel. One night after we ate, we decided to partake in the discounted Pub Crawl that some of the other guests were going on. Pub Crawls are the best way to safely go out in a different country/city/place, and have a guide that leads you around so you don’t get lost. Plus, you don’t have to worry about buying drinks because at each bar you get one free drink! This was an incredibly fun night, and we got to people from all different walks of life.

On our last full day, we visited the Romanesque Porto Cathedral, which has super great views of the Douro River and the distant Atlantic Ocean. The outside is covered with gorgeous ceramic tiles with Gothic era cloisters, and there are quite a few stained glass windows. It’s location atop a fairly large hill right next to the river give it s sort of medieval fortress vibe. We also decided to take an hour long cruise of the Douro River, but we didn’t realize that the voice announcements over the loudspeaker were only going to be in Portuguese, so that was more comical than it was unfortunate haha. We loved the views and salty smelling air anyways, which are the main reasons we thought it prudent to do the cruise. So our money was well spent! You can also do dinner cruises, which I think would be a wonderful way to spend ones evening, but of course you have to be willing to spend around 30-50 euros per person for such a cruise.

All along the river there are old fashioned river boats with wooden Port wine barrels, vendors selling all things made from cork, and mini restaurants. Some of the cork products are really neat! I actually splurged and bought a 5 euros coin purse, which I love and still have! There are several bridges that cross the river as well. The most popular one for foot travel is the Luís I Bridge. It can be slightly frightening if you look down through the nearly half inch wide cracks though, but overall a great experience! Scattered along the one side of the river are quite a few abandoned house and mansions, though it looked like they had been that way for some time judging by the height of the trees coming out of the roofs. On the one end of the foot bridge there is a really cool castle like monastery called Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar. I believe it is no longer in use as a monastery, but instead is now utilized for cultural and community events. The most notable feature of the church part is that it is indeed a round circular building, something rather unusual for such a structure.

 

Facts Worth Considering

If you are looking for a destination with the ‘most bang for your buck,’ then Porto is your kind of destination. We did not spend that much on entrance tickets, and honestly you could very well get by without paying for any entrance tickets. There is legitimately soo much to see just on the streets!! And especially with the awesome foot bridges, river views, and artwork everywhere, there is no need to buy entrance tickets if you don’t want to!

However, even if you limit yourself to just a few places where you need to buy entrance tickets, you still won’t spend nearly as much as in other countries or cities. Emily and I each had food budgets around 60 euros each, and I think that we were both under that. For our sightseeing entrance tickets we probably spent around 30 euros each, and we only used the metro two times for getting to/from the airport.

I will say that upon my return to Madrid I became very sick. I think that this was because it was a lot more damp than we though it would be! I had only packed a light sweater, a raincoat, a vest, and a jean jacket, but rather I should have had a heavy sweater and a more substantial jacket to have kept from getting sick. It didn’t walkways feel cold per say, but it was a persistent wet damp you could feel in your bones at times, and I think that is what go to me. So, be sure to pack with you enough clothes to layer and stay warm!!!

The only disappointment for us was that we tried to take a bus to get to the ocean, which was maybe 2 miles away from the city center, but for some reason at both the bus stops we waited at, neither bus ever showed up, and we waited almost an hour at each. So this was disappointing from because I wanted to see the beach, but alas we decided to explore more of the streets, which was quite fun! So if you want to goto the beach, I’d suggest taking the metro or just getting a taxi. Although, remember that most people taxi drivers will only speak Portuguese.

A word of advise, a phrase that Emily and I picked up was “No fallo portuguese.” Meaning, “I don’t speak Portuguese.”

 

Be sure to check out my other posts for more amazing tips! Click below : )

  1. Budgeting: Where to Stay & How to Get There                                       
  2. Plan Ahead: Do More & Worry Less                                                                       
  3. Minimize: Pack Lighter & Smarter                                                                   
  4. Be Smart, Vigilant & Observant 

I would say that otherwise there were no hiccups with our journey to Portugal! I think that most people prefer to visit Lisbon when they think of visiting Portugal. However, if you are looking for the genuine Portuguese experience without the trials of a larger city, then I would say Porto is where it is at! That’s not to say that I won’t consider seeing Lisbon at some point, but there is a lot of cultural value in the less popular places too!  : )

Emily and I on the top of the belltower of the Igreja dos Clérigos cathedral.
Standing on the Douro River.
Old fashioned trading boats with wooden Port wine barrels.
The view of the Douro River from the Porto Cathedral.
A section of fabulously handcrafted Portuguese sidewalk. Each tile piece is hand placed and secured in place.
The magnificent Chapel of Souls encapsulated with blue and white ceramic tiles.

Below is a collection of intriguing buildings and street art that we saw while wandering              around the city  : ) 

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