When work decided to treat me and my colleagues to a 3-day city break to Porto, I didn’t know what to expect from Portugal’s second largest city. Oddly, the country wasn’t ranking very high on my travel ‘wish list’, so I didn’t really know much about it when I received the invitation. Upon doing some research, Porto looked very promising to me. The historic city centre, the gorgeous views dominated by the Douro river and of course the Port wineries; what’s not to love?
Porto’s old city centre may be a UNESCO world heritage, but from my viewpoint at the top level of the city’s famous Ponte Luiz I bridge, one of the first things that caught my eye was the fact that the entire city centre seems to be in desperate need of a renovation. Many of the old town houses are in various states of decay; ranging from crumbling plasterwork to overgrown ruins, the roofs of which have caved in long ago. When I asked our guide about this, she told me that a lot of effort is being made to save as many of these houses as possible. The UNESCO status is both a blessing and a curse, as it comes with rules that can make the renovation a complicated task.
Despite the crumbling houses, the historic city centre breathes an air of rich culture and history. Strolling around in this part of the city, which goes by the name Ribeira (Portuguese for ‘riverside’), it is easy to see why Porto is a popular destination for a weekend break. The maze of steep and narrow streets, the church façades decorated with stunning blue and white Portuguese tiles called Azulejos, the vintage yellow trams that constantly ring their bells in order to keep the tourists off the tracks, the colourful houses with their balconies full of drying laundry, the charming collection of restaurants and cafés by the riverside; the Ribeira district has all the required ingredients to make Porto a perfect destination for short trips.
Vila Nova de Gaia
After crossing the iconic double-decked bridge, you may initially think this part of the city is similar to its northern counterpart. At first glance, it is. There are beautiful coloured houses and a monastery that dates back to the 16th century, from where you’ll have a spectacular view over the city. Yet when you spend some more time in Vila Nova de Gaia, you’ll undoubtedly notice that the atmosphere on the south bank of the Douro river is completely different. Dominated by a multitude of wineries, this part of Porto holds the city’s most famous export product: Port wine. Several wineries offer wine tasting and tours of the wine cellars. Even though I really don’t like wine, I enjoyed the tour very much. The wine-making process is very interesting and the cellar offered a great photo opportunity. The wineries are not the only reason for Vila Nova de Gaia’s different atmosphere; the area is home to some great restaurants. I’ve had the pleasure of dining here twice and I felt like both restaurants were much more modern than Ribeira’s riverside terraces. This modern vibe was a welcome surprise to me. I could have easily pictured myself spending a full day on the restaurant’s rooftop terrace, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was trying to squeeze as many sights in 3 days as I possibly could.
Perfect weekend break
For a city that wasn’t really on my wish list, Porto has been a rather pleasant surprise. I actually feel like I should be ashamed of myself for the fact that this country didn’t rank higher on my wish list. Porto is fantastic, and absolutely perfect for a city break. Where larger cities leave you with a feeling that you’ve missed more than you’ve seen, Porto left me feeling satisfied that I’d been able to see so much in just 3 days. Whilst I could probably easily have found enough things to do to extend my trip by a couple of days, it has been refreshing to go on a city break without feeling like it was far too short.