A Glimpse of Porto, Portugal

Ribeira District Porto Portugal

This autumn we spent nearly a month in Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. Porto sits on the north bank of the Douro River, where the river empties out into the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal is historically a seafaring culture, so much of their food comes from the sea. We were excited about filling up on fresh Portuguese fish and seafood. We were also looking forward to visiting the famous Port cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia, a separate city that sits directly opposite Porto on the south bank of the river.

Douro River Dom Luis Bridge Porto Gaia
Looking up the Douro River. Porto to the left, Vila Nova de Gaia to the right.

These “glimpses” are meant to give an overview of a city, like a pictorial walk around to set the stage before diving into the details of gastronomy in later posts. At first impression, Porto was not what we expected. It was chaotic and messy, yet colorful and picturesque. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe and its historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While Porto is full of charm and character, with breathtaking views and quaint cobblestone streets, much of the city is rundown and grungy. Stunning architecture is contrasted by vacant buildings, some with the roofs crumbling down inside of them.

But I need to cut Porto a break and remember that Portugal suffered greatly from the 2008 financial crisis, so the crowded streets and ubiquitous construction cranes are a good sign. The economy is improving, tourism is booming, and a lot of rebuilding is underway. Porto was elected The Best European Destination by the Best European Destinations Agency in 2014 and 2017 and travelers have heeded the call.

In time, we found our own groove. We learned how to avoid the crowds of tourists and discovered where to go to savor the many things Porto had to offer. We found great restaurants, wine bars, lovely green parks, and quaint fisherman’s villages. The city grew on us and we came to really enjoy our time there.

We decided the best way for us to take in a view of the city was from a boat on the water, and so that is where we will begin this glimpse—from the deck of a 34-foot sail boat on the Douro River.

There are numerous tour companies offering boat cruises on the Douro, some going all the way up the river into the wine country of the Douro valley. We opted for a more personal experience with a private two-hour sailing cruise through SAILING 360º.  We sailed to the edge of the Dom Luís I Bridge, where we turned around because our mast was too tall to fit under, and then out into the Atlantic Ocean. I should note that this was not a guided tour with descriptions of sights along the way—the crew was busy sailing. It was perfect for us because we love sailing and just being on the water. They provided us with a bottle of sparkling wine to enjoy while the city slid by.

Tour from the water

Meeting our boat at the Douro Marina
Afurada Porto Portugal
São Pedro da Afurada, a traditional fishing village on the south bank of the river
Ponte Arrabida bridge Douro Porto Portugal
Heading up river under the Ponte da Arrábida – the first (or is it the last?) bridge over the Douro
Rabelo boat Douro River Porto Portugal
A Rabelo boat, these flat wooden boats were traditionally used to transport barrels of Port wine from the Douro valley to the Port wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia for aging. Now they also transport people on river tours.
Ribeira District Porto Portugal
Porto’s historical Ribeira (riverside) district, the oldest part of the city and one of the busiest tourist destinations
Dom Luis Bridge Douro River Porto Portugal
The iconic Dom Luís I Bridge, constructed between 1881-1886, spans between Porto’s Ribeira and Vila Nova de Gaia. It was designed by Teófilo Seyrig, a student of Gustave Eiffel
Vila Nova de Gaia Teleferico Portugal
The Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river, the Teleférico de Gaia takes visitors on a short 5-minute scenic ride
Vila Nova de Gaia Port Lodges Portugal
Cais de Gaia (Pier of Gaia) where some of the Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia are located. Port wine made in the Douro Valley is stored for in the lodges for aging. Graham’s, Sandeman, Quinta, Taylor’s, Fonseca—they are all there along the river and on the hillside
12 Sunset-at-Douro-mouth
Almost to the Atlantic ocean, the sun sets between the markers for the mouth of the river

Back on land

14 Ribeira-weekend-crowd
Ribeira on a weekend, crowds swarm the cafes and shops
Ribeira riverfront Dom Luis bridge Porto Portugal
Perhaps the best views of the Dom Luís I Bridge are from up here, where locals look out over the Cais da Ribeira riverfront promenade
Liberty Square Porto City Hall
Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square), a nice open plaza surrounded by palaces and the Porto City Hall. Beautiful buildings but way too many tour buses!
Porto Cathedral Portugal
The Porto Cathedral is one of the oldest monuments in city. Its construction began in the 12th century.
Church Santo Ildefonso Portuguese tiles
The facade of the 18th-century Igreja de Santo Ildefonso (the Church of Santo Ildefonso) is covered with approximately 11,000 tiles created by the Portuguese painter Jorge Colaço. The tiles, called azulejos, were added in 1931
Crystal Palace pavilion Porto Portugal
Entrance to the Crystal Palace Gardens. The original Crystal Palace was removed in 1956 and replaced by this domed pavilion, the Pavilhao Rosa Mota, used as an entertainment venue
View Vila Nova Gaia Crystal Palace Gardens
The Crystal Palace Gardens (Jardins do Palácio de Cristal) form a beautiful park with walking paths, ponds, and sweeping views over the Douro river
Restaurant Antiqvvm terrace
Within the Crystal Palace Gardens, we found a nice spot for a glass of wine overlooking the river on the terrace of the Michelin-starred Restaurante Antiqvvm
Ponte da Arrábida Douro river Porto
View of the Ponte da Arrábida bridge from the Restaurant Antiqvvm terrace
Serralves park pond Porto Portugal
The park at Serralves, part of the Serralves Foundation (Fundação Serralves) is a lovely 18-hectare park perfect for long walks and snuggling by a pond
Serralves park Autumn festival
We visited the Serralves park for an Autumn Festival, a great event for families with crafts, music, and farm animals
Never mind those horns…


I’ll leave you with the view that we woke up to each morning, watching the sun rise over the rooftops while we sipped our coffee. Despite the dilapidation, I found it beautiful and calming. Coming up, we’ll be sharing our visit to one of the Port Lodges, our favorite restaurant finds, and days spent exploring the fishing villages looking for fresh fish.

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