When people think of Portugal, the capital of Lisbon typically springs to mind first — but follow the coast north to its little sister Porto, and you’ll find a different kind of magic. Originally established as the town of “Cale” by the Celts, this lush hamlet located at the mouth of the Douro River was occupied by the Romans during the fourth century, where it was transformed into an influential commercial port. The Romans renamed it “Portus Cale” (which is also where the name “Portugal” would later come from!). After falling under rule to several different dynasties, the independent kingdom of Portugal was established in 1139. The Portuguese Empire played a pivotal role during the Age of Discoveries, gathering influence in European commerce as the years went on. The Iberian Peninsula united from 1580 to 1640, and although many in Porto opposed this union with Spain, it led to Portugal’s Golden Age, with wine production solidifying its spot as an industrial hub. Today, Porto is Portugal’s second largest city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that welcomed well over a million visitors last year. Portugal’s antiquity is deep and varied, but this video packs centuries of history into just seven minutes.
Of course, you can’t talk about Porto’s history (or appeal) without mentioning Port wine. Grapes have been grown in Portugal since antiquity, but the wines we know by the name “Port” weren’t developed until the late 17th century. Originated due to the need to preserve wine over the long journey from Douro Valley to England, Port became an important export as demand grew. While it was originally fortified with the addition of brandy, the fortifying process and variety of wines today are much different. Although the United Kingdom continues to be the main consumer of Port, you can now find this delicious beverage around the world. Of course, seeing it produced is an experience all its own. The traditional (and labor-intensive) method of foot-stomping grapes remains at the heart of Port production even today. This video walks you through the process at Quinta de Vargellas, a wine estate owned by one of Portugal’s founding Port houses.
Much of Porto’s majesty is enjoyed from the outdoors, so let’s hit the streets! You’ll find plenty of public art across the city, from the azulejos (hand-painted tiles) that color the metro stops to the murals that tattoo the city walls. Let’s check out a few of my favorite public works of art. The century-old São Bento train station, where most visitors arrive, is the perfect introduction to these exquisite tiles. “Ribeira Negra,” a blue and white tile panel by Júlio Resende, is so popular it’s practically a part of the city’s landscape. Depicting the artist’s childhood memories, they represent Porto’s cultural heritage in a powerful way. Miguel Januário (known in the art scene as ±Maismenos±), is another impactful artist. “Who Are You, Porto,” a panel of his design with over 3,000 tiles, was created with help from several residents who took up Januários’ challenge of describing the city’s diverse communities and identities through words. A walk down Rua Miguel Bombarda is a great way to see a wide variety of Porto’s artists at once. A mix of galleries and street art, you’ll find contemporary works by Hazul, Tina Siuda and the D. Quixote decorating the walls.
In a country where religion plays an important role in the cultural identity, you’ll find thousands of churches spread across the country, each a source of pride to its locals. These structures are not only an important representation of Portuguese history, but also reveal much about the evolution of architectural style. From the unusual composition of the Clérigos Church and Tower to the gold-gild woodwork of Church of São Francisco, these structures are not-to-be-missed gems during your Porto exploration.
Hungry after all that walking? An exploration of Porto wouldn’t be complete without a taste of its signature sandwich. Let’s head to Café Santiago for a mouth-watering francesinha — a thick, open-faced sandwich piled with layers cheese and assorted meats, topped with an egg and covered in a tasty, rich beer sauce. Foodies, this Porto specialty is not for the faint of heart, but worth every delicious bite!
Avid readers will love a visit to Livraria Lello, a bookstore that has been operating for over a century and has been voted one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores by multiple sources. The facade alone is straight out of a fairy tale, but step through the doors of this enchanting shop and your eyes immediately lock on the stunning curved staircase, the grand centerpiece amid open floors filled with bookshelves. This neo-Gothic building is topped with a stained-glass skylight that illuminates the shop, sending dancing rays of color over the shop’s impressive collection. The space became a prominent hangout for famed writers and avid readers, a reputation continued through the years — it’s even rumored that this shop inspired some of J.K. Rowling’s visions for her Harry Potter series.
A stunning view of the city and river is the perfect end to a perfect day in Porto. From your perch on the Ponte Luiz, it’s almost like simultaneously peering into the past and future. Ancient and contemporary buildings blending together, modern art scrawling across medieval walls – the effect is an enchanting experience you’ll treasure for years to come.
Road Scholar has been leading educational trips to Porto since 1997. We hope to see you there soon! Until then, you can browse our educational adventures here.
Road Scholar Recommends: The Best of Portugal: From the Age of Discovery to Today → Discoveries Along the Douro: Portugal’s Best-Kept Secrets → Paradise Uncorked: Hiking Portugal’s Douro Valley →
About the Author JoAnn Bell, Senior Vice President, Program Development and Strategy, develops and manages more than 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states. JoAnn’s extensive travel industry experience informs her expert insight on everything from where to find the world’s most charming streets to must-see hidden gems across the globe.
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