Oporto: Planning a Visit to the Birthplace of Port

Porto, Portugal Old City Skyline on the Douro RiverStart with buildings designed by leading world architects from the past and the present.

Add some unique Baroque sculptures and carvings. Then mix in a world-famous sweet wine and a certain British flair. Place it all by a grand river, and what do you have?

Portugal’s second largest metropolis, and one of Europe’s most charismatic cities: Oporto.

Long one of the last undiscovered European metropolises, Oporto is preparing for its time in the spotlight. There now are direct flights from New York, plus numerous connections to and from the rest of Europe, and an increasing number of low-cost airlines serving the city.

Why it has taken so long for the rest of the world to discover Oporto is a mystery. It is an ancient port city steeped in history and tradition — a place that has become known for its monuments by renowned architects (Gustave Eiffel’s Dona Maria Bridge, Nicolau Nasoni’s Clerigos Tower, Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica, and Siza Vieira’s Serralves Museum).

Oporto also gave birth to one of world history’s legendary figures, Prince Henry the Navigator. And it’s the birthplace of that world-famous fictional character, Harry Potter. Author J.K. Rowling was living in Oporto as an English teacher when she started writing her first book.

Of course, we wine lovers know Oporto as the home of one of the world’s great sweet wines: Port.

Oporto has many hotels from which to choose, ranging from basic hostels to business hotels, to mid-range choices, to five-star properties.

For a romantic option, the Pestana Porto Hotel is situated along the Douro River, adjacent to the historic Ribeira Square. Cruises on the River Douro depart from right in front of the hotel, and the Torre dos Clerigos Bell Tower and the Porto Cathedral are less than a 10-minute walk away. Each morning, guests can enjoy breakfast at the Agua D’Ouro restaurant, which offers stunning views of the Douro River.

There is so much to see and do in this historic city that one should set aside several days. Some of the sights and activities recommended by locals:

  • Cais de Gaia — The city’s postcard skyline and the birthplace of one of the world’s most famous wines. Most of the world’s supply of Port is stored and aged here, and a visit to any of the warehouses should not be missed. If you venture into the alleys uphill, you will find 19th-century manor houses and even more port lodges (that of Taylor’s is especially worth a visit).
  • Casa da Musica — An architectural masterwork by world-renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. The striking white concrete structure is an inventive building. Inside the 1,300-seat auditorium of perfect acoustics is a Baroque organ pinned to the wall. Top international orchestras play there.
  • Sao Francisco Church — Home to one of Europe’s most extraordinarily lavish church interiors, completely covered in gold. Church services are no longer held there, but it is often the venue for classical music concerts.
  • Clerigos Tower — It was the tallest structure in Portugal when completed in 1763, and still provides the best aerial view of the city.
  • Palacio da Bolsa — This 19th-century building with a vast Neoclassical facade is the former stock exchange, built to impress and earn the credibility of European investors. Inside, it could be mistaken for a royal palace, especially the ornate Arab Room, an oval chamber that attempted to copy Granada’s Alhambra Palace. It now serves as “the grand reception room” of the city, where heads of state and other luminaries are received on a visit to Oporto.

Of course, no visit to Oporto is complete without a day trip to the Douro Valley, and Viator partners with local tour companies to provide outstanding experiences at reasonable prices.

One tour, called “Douro Valley Wine Tour from Porto Including Lunch,” features tours and tastings at two wine estates, Quinta do Seixo and Quinta do Tedo. There’s no better way to learn about Port and other wines of Portugal than by visiting the region from which they come — while soaking in some spectacular scenery along the way.

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