01.04.2016

THREE DAYS IN PORTO

THREE DAYS IN PORTO, Selçuk Korkmaz | 01.04.2016

The idea of visiting Portugal had always been on my mind. My eyes were always on the calendar, looking for an opportunity. I was planning a trip which would include both Lisbon and Porto. A 5-day time gap looked as though it would be enough for both cities; however, I couldn’t wait that long. As soon as Turkish Airlines’ Porto flights began I found myself in Porto, the second biggest city of Portugal, bypassing Lisbon.

The first settlement in Porto, which has a history dating back to the Roman Empire, began on the shores of the Douro River. The Ribeira District, which entered UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996, is both the first place of settlement within the city and also an attraction for tourists.

I should tell you that the 4 hour 50 minute flight from Istanbul to Porto is Turkish Airlines’ longest route in Europe. Considering that we actually find ourselves at the heart of Europe in 2.5 hours, Porto is a bit far from Istanbul but it is worth the extra few hours travel.

I like tourist-friendly cities that try to help people during their stay. Porto does justice to the saying, “Tourists are welcome.” You don’t even need to worry about finding the tourist information desk; a classy lady with a smile that welcomes you to the city approaches you just as you are about to exit airport security with a Porto city map in hand. What more can you ask for!?

The airport is actually very practical. The subway station that takes you to the city is located only a few minutes from passport control! Reaching the city by subway takes only 30 minutes, and the tickets cost just 2.45 EUR! The city of Porto is divided into districts according to the subway stations and each station has tables displaying the distance to the other districts. You buy your ticket according to this table and the pricing depends on the distance you cover. Would a 1-stop trip be the same as a 10-stop one? Of course it wouldn’t. I must say that I found this approach very sensible.

The tickets are usable in all modes of public transportation in Porto. Don’t throw away your transit cards because they can be recharged at the same machines. The price of the card is 0.60 EUR, and if you keep your card you will only pay 1.80 EUR on your return trip. I am emphasizing this due to the fact that a similar 2-way trip on Lyon’s Rhone Express cost me 27 EUR, which is just another reason for me to like Porto more!

I had planned to spend a day by the cool waters of the ocean. However, because of the surprising rain that fell the day I arrived, I had to delay the ocean trip until my next visit and spent all of my time in the city center instead. I should remind you that even though the climate is similar to the soft Mediterranean climate, due to the ocean there can be sudden rain showers so it is advisable to keep your raincoat with you, whatever the season. In addition, Porto’s topography is quite hilly; you can see the typical Roman Empire settlement here as well. Be warned that you will get tired walking from one hill to the next.

Places to Visit & Places to See in Porto

If the place you stay at is within the triangle of the Trindade, Aliados, and Bolhao subway stations, you can walk around the whole city center comfortably.

History has left its mark on almost every part of Porto. Porto isn’t just a historical place, it is also a city whose historic fabric has been very well preserved. The Ribeira District, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List alongside Porto’s city center, has a magical atmosphere with its old churches, narrow streets, ceramic coated structures, and stone buildings.

The St. Ildefonso, Trindade, and Clerigos churches are the most important and historic structures in the city. I should remind you that the Portuguese are a more devout people compared to much of Europe, and the older generations in particular fill the churches for services. The churches that I visited were very busy, so you must show consideration toward the people praying if you wish to take pictures.

Saint Ildefonso Church

The St. Ildefonso Church, which was built from the remains of a previous church on the same location and was named after a Spanish reverend performing missionary duties, is one of the important historic structures in the city. The church, which is on Batalha Square, was built in the “Azulejo” (stories told on ceramics) architectural style that is seen primarily in Portugal and less so in Spain. You can see these ceramic works on almost all churches and buildings within Porto.

Clerigos Tower and Church

The construction of the Clerigos Tower and Church goes back to the 18th century. It is possible to see the whole city center from the observation terrace of the tower, which is an example of Baroque architecture. Tickets to enjoy this experience cost 3 EUR. You climb up a set of very narrow stairs; there are 240 steps in total in the 75-meter high tower. The atmosphere in the stairs was magical enough to remind me of Notre Damme in Paris.

The Ribeira District and Luis I. Bridge

The Ribeira District, located on the Douro River, was the first settlement of Porto. The district, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, has an extraordinarily colorful atmosphere with its hundreds-of-years-old buildings and narrow streets.

A walk on the shores of the Douro River is most enjoyable. You may taste the seafood in the cafés and bars that line the streets or enjoy a glass of port wine alongside live music in the evening.

If you are interested in port wines you can visit the wine cellars located on the other side of the river, just across the steel bridge, which carries the signature of Eiffel the architect. Cars and people cross the 130-year-old bridge on the lower level while the upper level carries a railroad. The Ribeira District looks even better from the upper deck. Should you wish, you can join the Taylor and Graham’s cellars tour to see the wine cellars. You must save a few hours of your time for a unique experience in this district.

Livraria Lello & Irmao

Porto attracts tourists not just for its history but also its cultural assets. The Lello Bookstore on Clerigos Street was a place I was particularly intrigued about. This place, besides being the oldest bookstore in Portugal, was also named the 3rd most beautiful bookstore in the world by the famous travel guide Lonely Planet. The fact that J.K. Rowling, the writer of the Harry Potter series, wrote one of her books during her time in Porto makes the bookstore quite popular. Its famous spiral stairs were an inspiration to the British author. The mosaic illustrations on the ceiling also create an exquisite atmosphere.

I would advise you to visit before midday if possible; it is always very crowded because the visitor count never goes down. When I say that is it crowded I really mean is that it is bursting at the seams; you would not believe how many people cram into the famous old store. :) People charge inside in the most incredible hurry; you may have to wait a long time to take a picture without interruption, and as you can see if a flash bulb surprises you like in the photo you may get bad results like this. Nonetheless, I can’t say enough about the atmosphere of the bookstore; it is a truly magical setting.

I can’t say that I was so impressed with the literary side of the store though. I imagined that such a historic bookstore would be a veritable treasure trove; I hoped to find old classics there. For that reason I was a little disappointed when I found lecture books and tourist guides displayed in front of me. 

FC Porto Museum and the Dragao Stadium

Even though the FC Porto Museum and the Dragao Stadium deserves its own article I will still add some information in short.

Almost all subway lines in Porto pass the Dragao Stadium, which is great for fans besides being a great lesson to countries still trying to put their subway networks in place.

Tickets for the museum and the stadium are sold separately. You may visit the museum and experience the stadium’s atmosphere for only 15 EUR. However, the stadium can’t be visited independently; you must join a guided tour which starts at 12:00.

Statues of people that have left a mark on the history of Porto welcome you at the museum entrance. You can easily spot a recent legend: Jose Mourinho. The exhibition, which contains each issue of Dragoes, the official magazine of the club, is very interesting.  You can watch videos of many events of the club’s famous history such as goals, celebrations, and old matches with the interactive applications. The museum is similar in this respect to the museums of Dortmund BVB and FC Barcelona, which I had visited previously. Taking photos in the museum is allowed but recording videos is forbidden.

The museum is a collection of the accomplishments of all sports branches such as basketball, tennis, and cycling; not just football. The trophies won in Europe and their presentations are especially good in the museum where you can spend a few magical hours. The museum opens at 10:00 but you have to wait until 12:00 if you wish to see the stadium, although I advise you to not skip the museum.

The Dragao Stadium tour is led by a guide. The tour sets off at one end of the stadium and takes in the media room, the opposing team’s dressing rooms, the stadium entrance corridor, benches, and the VIP stand. The photos in the dressing rooms and the corridor which display Porto’s achievements must be quite depressing for their opponents. You can sit in the seat of the club president in the VIP stand (seat A-22) and let yourself feel the extraordinary atmosphere of the stadium.

Last Words about Porto

There is a quite developed dessert culture in Portugal, and you can find many types of dessert even for breakfast, but one of these are really prominent. I am talking about the Pastel de Nata of course.

If you are a dessert enthusiast like me, you will love the Nata, a crusty mille-feuille with a mixture of cream/caramel and milk on the inside! You can find it everywhere in the city. Eat plenty, and don’t miss the freshly baked ones at the patisseries early in the morning. You can also take some to your loved ones!

One place in Porto that you must visit and eat/drink at is the Majestic Cafe. You may catch a breather in the famous café and enjoy the tastes of Portuguese cuisine while taking in the amazing architecture of the place. I would advise you to try the Porto style Morina Fish in particular.

Santa Catarina Avenue, which is where the café is located, is one of the prime shopping spots in the city. It is worth noting that prices in Porto are a lot more reasonable compared to much of Europe; the shopping and dining experiences won’t devastate your budget. There is also the option of Tax & Free in many of the stores. There are dozens of boutique stores in particular, in which you may find handmade leather goods. Enthusiasts may find quite nice pieces.

Aliados Square, where the majestic City Council Building is located, hosts world famous brands and dozens of galleries, boutiques, and antique stores once you lose yourself in the streets. Art lovers will find many valuable pieces in the galleries.

Unfortunately, the yellow tram, one of the oldest symbols of the city, has been covered with advertisements for a beverage brand. I may be a bit over-emotional but I was not in the least bit impressed with this situation. Even though you see yellow tram souvenirs everywhere, you can’t see the real thing. Personally, I will always be for preserving traditions.

I can’t say that I observed any particularly lively nightlife in the city. It seemed like it was geared more toward just chilling and having a nice time rather than wild entertainment, which was to my liking. You will find many cafés in the university district (around Clerigos), while on Bombarda Avenue people generally sit on the streets with a glass of wine in hand. If you see a crowd of young and middle-aged people in front of a small café, you are in the right place.

I must mention the ceramic covered buildings that liven up the city’s incredible architecture before ending my piece. People respect the culture of the city. The newer buildings are in harmony with the older ones. It is impossible not to like this sensitivity that is not displayed in all other countries. People have an awareness of the importance of preservation, and this is enough to make me happy. I almost forgot to tell you, you should see the magical Sao Bento Train Station before you go down to Ribeira; the ceramic walls which tell the historic events of the city are really amazing!

The trip wasn’t all it could have been due to the rain in the couple of days that I was there but it was still very enjoyable. Besides, I don’t like to see every place within a city on my first trip; it’s good to keep some places in reserve to discover and enjoy on a return visit motivates me to travel. This should be the case for Porto as well. Until we meet again, dear Porto, I am fulfilling my longing for you with the taste of your Natas.