It was a sunny morning on the 21st of August 1415, when Prince Henry the Navigator, third son of King John I of Portugal, signaled his ship’s captain to hoist the sails and set compass to the Moorish port of Ceuta, in Northern Africa. Two hundred ships with 45.000 men aboard set sail from the city of Porto’s harbour “Foz do Douro” where the river’s mouth connects the Ocean.
This would be the beginning of one of the most glorious eras in human exploration, the Portuguese Age of Discovery. It would be the single moment in history when a nation took a path to greatness on the world stage.
Six hundred years later, Porto aims for another hard-earned title: Portugal’s capital of tourism. Conquistadors no longer line the shores, squinting their eyes across the horizon in search of new lands. Their place has been taken by another kind of explorers, people who come from afar to capture the cultural riches and indulge themselves in the splendor of Portugal’s finest, be it culinary, architectural, historical or even its people.
The first thing one would observe when arriving in Porto is the almost surreal way this city has with blending the new and the old, the classic and the contemporary. Everywhere you turn, you see vestiges of past times, skillfully merged with modernity. For those of you who come by train, at the São Bento Railway Station, you should know that even the trainstation building has a history of its own: built in the early 20th Century close to the city center, near the Cathedral Se of Porto.
The whole station is decorated with tens of thousands of blue and white tiles, the socalled “azulejos”, each one depicting a moment in the history of Portugal.
Close to the train station is the largest Cathedral in Porto, and the perfect way to get there is a stroll down Rua des Flores, one of the most celebrated streets of Porto, with many classic buildings being renovated, and old restaurants and caffes mingling with modern ones.
Most streets take you to the docks of the Douro river, which separates Porto from it’s sister city in the South, Vila Nova de Gaia. On the piers you can spend your time at one of the many caffes, eat lunch or visit the huge Ponte Luis, one of the largest bridges in Europe, with 385 metres in length and two decks: one for the subway and one for automobiles. The views are splendid on both sides of the Douro river, with the quays of Porto and the hills and winehouses of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Close to the Ponte Luis built by a disciple of Gustave EIFFEL, Théophile SEYRIG, is one of the most famous streets of Porto, the Ribeira. It is the heart of the city, a pedestrian walkway lined with restaurants, outdoor caffes, shops and architectural treasures.
One of the most visited destinations in Porto is the Lello e Irmao Library, a gorgeous Art Nouveau building mixing in a bit of Art Deco and Neo-classic design, which is said to have been the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Hogwarts Library in the acclaimed Harry Potter series while she was teaching English in Porto.
Another spot is the Majestic Cafe, another Art Nouveau jewel, with carved wood frames and marble-topped tables.
But if you ever visit Porto, you should make sure you save enough time for a visit of the wineyards and winehouses across the Douro, in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here you will have the chance to taste one of the famous wines of the world, the Porto. A fortified red and sweet wine, it is exclusive to the Douro valley.
Porto is a city for the most fit of tourists. Built on terraces, you have to be ready to go up and down on its streets, you have to wear comfortable shoes and be ready to spend a whole day on the road. But in the end it’s all worth it. When it was first established by the Phoenicians, thousands of years ago, they called it Cale – beautiful. It ended up giving the name of the country : Porto Cale – Portugal. And after so many centuries, Porto still is one of the most beautiful cities in the Old World.