Rediscover Porto, Portugal’s Powerhouse City in the Age of Discovery

Like its famous wine, the World Heritage City is a perfect blend of old and new

by Karen Rubin

Wonderful way to appreciate Porto's beauty is from a boat on the Douro River © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Porto gave its name to the country of Portugal and to its most distinctive product, Port wine.

The birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator, its bustling port and famous wine made the city one of the richest and most important in the world.

But with falling fortunes, Porto seems to have fallen from the radar of travelers seeking a rich European experience.

Porto is a World Heritage City © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Traveling here today, though, I feel I have discovered a treasure, a true jewel in the pantheon of great places to see in Europe.

Porto’s prominence is represented in the stunning Romanic, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture and monuments by renowned architects, such as Gustave Eiffel’s Dona Maria Bridge, Nicolau Nasoni’s Clerigos Tower, Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica, the Sao Bento Railway station, and the Bolsa Palace, the old Stock Exchange.

A World Heritage City and Portugal's second most important city, Porto is one of the most beautiful in the world, and a photographers' dream © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The setting, with the Douro River slicing through on its way to the Atlantic Ocean and the city rising up into a series of hills, is a magnificent tableaux evoking classical painting.

A World Heritage City, Porto (also called Oporto) is one of the most beautiful in the world. Porto is a photographers’ dream – everywhere you look there is something beautiful, interesting or fascinating to see, the streets, with their interesting converging configurations, angled along with the contours of the hills.

The newly opened Pousada do Porto, Freixo Palace Hotel, combines a palace, originally built in 1742, and a flour factory © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Our introduction to the city is by boat, from the Vila Nova de Gaia quay, just in front of the major wine cellars, along the Douro River, the third largest river on the Iberian Peninsula, which flows from Spain, and ends here at Porto before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. From this angle, we look up to the interesting shapes and colors of the houses and buildings that cram the hillsides. It is late afternoon and the setting sun is casting everything in a golden glow, with the colors deepening.

Along the shore, we notice a church with the templar cross on the side – and the topography of hills. As we pull in to the marina, I take note of aMuseu Nacional da Imprensa (museum of printing presses), installed in a former Portuguese factory. It strikes me as such a noble and important landmark. The museum contains printing presses from the 19c – you can press your own paper there.

The newly opened Pousada do Porto, Freixo Palace Hotel © 2011 Karen Rubin/

I learn that Porto is where Portugal’s newspaper industry began, and very much like our newspaper industry, was where discourse and dissent against the government percolated through society (which we discover more about tomorrow).

The boat takes us to where we are having dinner: the Pousada do Porto, Freixo Palace Hotel.

The stunning interior of the newly opened Pousada do Porto, Freixo Palace Hotel © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The hotel only opened in October 2009, but the palace that provides the breathtaking public spaces, is an architectural jewel. Built around 1742, the palace was designed by the architect and painter Nicolau Nasoni (he also designed Porto’s famous landmark, Clerigos Tower) and one of the most remarkable examples of Portuguese Baroque architecture. The palace was built on the orders of the Dean of Porto Cathedral, D. Jeronimo de Tavora e Noronha – a wealthy nobleman, who was responsible for bringing the famous Italian architect to the city of Porto. It was designated as a National Monument in 1910.

The Freixo Palace Hotel, the first Pousada in Porto, is a project of the Portuguese Hotel Group Pestana which invested millions into the restoration. It is hard to imagine that the palace had suffered a fire and was almost in ruins – vandalized and abandoned – when it was restored. Trees were growing up through the floor. It took 4 years to reconstruct.

The Majestic Cafe, where intelligensia gathered in the 1920s, is where J.K. Rawling spent hours, and began writing her Harry Potter novels © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The palace is made of granite stones- the main building material in the north – and stands as a reminder that until the 18th century, Porto was one of the richest cities in the world – money came from trade and made the merchants rich, creating a middle-class. Portugal had nobles until 1910 ( or

We are in no hurry to leave, and I put Pousada do Porto Freixo Palace Hotel on my list of places I most want to return. (See more in our story about Pousadas of Portugal.)

Henry the Navigator & Harry Potter

The Majestic Cafe, where intelligensia gathered in the 1920s, is again a gathering place, hosting events where journalists, artists and ordinary people can discuss issues © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The best way to appreciate Porto is to put your walking shoes on, grab a bottle of water, and be prepared to be enthralled under the spell of Porto. The city, like its best wine, is a perfect blend of old and new.

The historic Lello Bookstore, with its fabulous double spiral staircase that evokes an image of Harry Potter © 2011 Karen Rubin/

So, the next morning, after breakfast in the Sheraton Club Lounge which is exclusive to Sheraton Towers guests, we explore Porto in the best way: a walking tour of the city center – the old city. (Photo tip: where we begin, at the Porto Duque de Lola parking lot, has the most stunning view of the city.)

One of our first stops is the Lello” Bookshop – justifiably considered one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, and is a UNESCO protected site. Dating from 1906, it has a magnificent facade, built in neo-Gothic style.

You walk in, and see the most marvelous double spiral staircase. I think I have seen this place in my mind’s eye, and in any case, this is just the sort of place that Harry Potter would visit (Rua das Carmelitas, 144 – Porto – Portugal).

The Lello Bookstore is a UNESCO protected site © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Later, as we sip coffee in the Majestic Cafe, which also has the most stunning Baroque, turn-of-the-century features (actually, 1920), we are reminded that J.K Rawling lived in Porto as an English teacher for three years, and is where she started writing her first Harry Potter book).

“She spent a lot of the day at the Majestic cafe and presented a first edition of her first book to the owner,” our guide Carolina Mucha tells us,

I realize that it is Portugal – not England (except perhaps for Oxford) – which provides the visual context for much of Harry Potter.

An architectural treasure in Porto © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The Majestic, restored 20 years ago with leather seats, and marble tables and stunning ornate mirrors, has been an inspiration for generations: it was like New York’s Algonquin Hotel, a gathering place for the city’s intellectuals, artists, writers, journalists. In the 1920s, they would debate and discuss.

“They would discuss the problems in the town and society. They created the first newspaper at tables like this, and painted flyers against the government.”

Now the Majestic is reviving the tradition, so invites journalists, artists and ordinary people open discussion on variety of subjects. Occasionally, retired journalists who lived through Portugal’s revolution against the dictator Salazar, in 1974, will join.

Nicolau Nasoni's Clerigos Tower, one of Porto's most famous landmarks © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The spirit is infectious, and we find ourselves discussing Portugal’s current economic crisis. “We’ve had an economic crisis for 20 years,” Carolina explains. “Now we are part of United Europe, and we need to follow their rules It is hard for a small country – we can’t adapt to stronger economies like Germany.”

For example, she says, Portugal never had submarines before. “We never needed any. But now, as part of the European community, we are required to buy four submarines. We bought two and are trying to negotiate. We never entered the first World War. We sold ammunition to both sides – textile manufacturers switched to munitions.”

In the press to modernize, Portugal was pushed to abandon its agricultural-based economy. “People in rural areas were poor and needed better conditions. Families were bigger then, now are smaller.” What is the implication of smaller families? I ask. “There are not enough people to work and pay taxes and the population is aging.” I think this is similar to the economic problem we have in the United States.

Porto is one of the most beautiful cities in the world © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The Majestic ( , is a must see. It is located on Porto’s main shopping street, Rue de Santa Catarina which is bustling with activity (except on Sundays). It is a beautiful street lined with plenty of designer boutiques, cafes, shoe shops, book stores etc. It is ideal for a stroll and to observe local life.

Everywhere you turn, there are wonderful things to see – stunning architecture, the way the streets converge and roll with the hills.

One of the architectural gems of Porto is the São Bento Train Station, dating from 1916, where the high walls of main atrium boast magnificent panels, formed of 20,000 tiles, designed by Jorge Colaco, depicting scenes of the most important events in Porto’s history.

A World Heritage City and Portugal's second most important city, Porto is one of the most beautiful in the world, and a photographers' dream © 2011 Karen Rubin/

We walk to a city square and at one end is the former palace home of Cardoza, a prosperous merchant (probably one of the “New Christians” – Jews who were forced to convert or face the Inquisition) – which is being turned into a new InterContinental Hotel. This sparks some conversation, especially when I see one of the street vendors selling challah bread.

One of the most fascinating places to visit is the Palacio de Bolsa – Porto’s Stock Exchange Palace, with its breathtaking Moorish Hall, Hall of Nations, portraits of all the Kings and Queens of Portugal, its court, its chamber of commerce. It was such a surprise. The architecture and the art are overwhelming. There is a restaurant, O Comercial, inside that makes you feel like you are in the Yale Club.

Facing a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator is one of the most fascinating buildings in Porto: the Palácio da Bolsa. This was the stock exchange, and still seems to be the center for commercial activity in the city, though there are rooms that look more like a Parliament or a court, and there are portraits of Portugal’s kings and queens.

Stunning tiles on this church in Porto © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The building is located beside the St. Francis Church of Porto, which was once part of the St Francis Convent, founded in the 13th century. In 1832, during the so-called “Liberal Wars,” a fire destroyed the cloisters of the convent, sparing the church. In 1841, Queen Mary II donated the convent ruins to the merchants of the city, who decided to use the spot to build the seat of the Commercial Association.

The building looks more like a palace, and in fact, was designed by Porto architect Joaquin da Costa Lima, Jr, as a neoclassical palace of Palladian influence. Most of the palace was finished by 1850, but the interior was only completed in 1910, and essentially offers a time capsule for Portugal’s history.

São Bento Train Station, dating from 1916, where the high walls of main atrium boast magnificent panels, formed of 20,000 tiles, designed by Jorge Colaco, depicting important events in Porto's history © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Each room is more spectacular than the next: the central courtyard (Nations’ Courtyard – Pátio das Naçoes) is covered by a large metallic, octagonal dome with glass panels, designed by Tomás Soler and built after 1880. The lower part of the dome is decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries with which Portugal had commercial relations in the 19th century. Behind the courtyard, there is an ornate stairway, built in 1868 by Gonçalves e Sousa, adorned with busts by celebrated sculptors Antonio Soares dos Reis and Antonio Teixeira Lopes. The ceiling has frescoes, painted by António Ramalho.

Several rooms of the Palace – Tribunal Room and Assembly Room which seem more like a Parliament or a court than a stock exchange or chamber of commerce – display furniture by José Marques da Silva, allegoric paintings by Jose Maria Veloso Salgado and Joao Marques de Oliveira, sculptures by Teixeira Lopes and many other works of art.

The Arab Room in the Bolsa Palace, Porto's original Stock Exchange © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The highlight of the Palace is the Arab Room, built between 1862 and 1880 by Gonçalves e Sousa, an oval chamber that attempted to copy Granada’s Alhambra Palace. The building was deliberately designed to be spectacular in order to impress and give credibility to European investors, and today, the Arab Room is still “the grand reception room” of the city where heads of state and other luminaries are received on a visit to Porto.

The Bolsa Palace also has a restaurant, O Comercial, which makes you feel like you are dining amid money (

Kool Porto

Colorful buildings in Porto © 2011 Karen Rubin/

I am so immersed in the historic aspects of Porto, it is jarring, even, to walk into the hip, modern, super-stylish shops that abound. Porto is clearly a center for modern design and style.

At Lobo Taste, very near the Bolsa Palace, you see the best of modern and original design. The shop is housed in what was a Dominican Convent, across from a popular gathering spot for business and entertainers. The 1832 fire, that we hear about in connection with the Bolsa Palace, destroyed most of the original building, but the north-facing façade was spared. The items inside are works of art (Largo de S. Domingos 20; 011-351-22-201-7102).

‘A Vida Portuguesa’ (Portuguese Life) is a new shop selling old Portuguese items in a traditional downtown location. The first floor of an old fabric store placed at the intersection of Rua das Carmelitas and Rua Galeria de Paris, is now filled with beautiful Portuguese products, well-known for decades, even with the original packaging or based on those beautiful patterns, images and forms from the past that are now so cool. (Rua Galeria de Paris 20 – 1 (por cima dos /upstairs Armazéns Fernandes & Matos, T. (+351) 222 022 105).

Porto's beautiful streetscape © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Inside Porto Paixão (‘Porto Passion’) there are products of the past with their vintage packaging with beautiful illustrations, traditional crafts mixed with more contemporary pieces, books, posters and images of a revisited past, wooden toys and many other objects that portray the soul of a people. There are also traditional gourmet products made by hand, as delicious cookies, candies, jams, teas, preserves and successively awarded wines of the Douro. Worths a visit for getting a better idea of the soul of the city. (Rua Sousa Viterbo, 65, T.: (+351) 222 022 129).

Candido dos Reis street and Galeria de Paris street are where you can find the best nightlife, trendy cafes and shops, bars and disco; Ailados Avenue, Cafe Guarany, Boihao market, Sta. Catarina Street are the best pedestrian and shopping areas.

Porto's beautiful streetscape © 2011 Karen Rubin/

On our way back to the Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa, we stop off at the Kool Porto district. The streets of Miguel Bombarda, Jose Falcao, Candido dos Reis have restaurants, bookstores, shops, retro-cool furniture, decorative arts, design shops and music.

The Miguel Bombarda Street is one of the most important cultural hubs in Porto, where you can find dozens of art galleries that simultaneously inaugurate new exhibitions on the first Saturday of each month, attracting crowds of art lovers, investors, artists, followers of alternative forms of life and many onlookers – it is like Greenwich Village in the beatnik days. The street also has restaurants, bookstores and shops with retro-cool furniture, alternative decoration, design, music.

Once a month, the shops inaugurate new exhibitions attracting crowds of art lovers, investors, artists, followers of new-wave culture (

Porto's beautiful streetscape © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Weekly markets are held in other city center locations like Rua Cândido dos Reis, Galeria Lumière and Passeio das Fontainhas.

It is almost inconceivable to visit Porto and not get caught up in the culture and business of its famous port wine.

And that’s where we are off to next.

Porto's beautiful streetscape © 2011 Karen Rubin/

More visitor information is available from Porto & Northern Portugal Tourism Association, Av. Inferior à Ponte D. Luis I, 53 – 1 4050-074 Porto Portugal, tel: +351 223 326 751, fax: +351 223 326 752,,

Porto has been off the beaten path for world travelers, but new direct flights from New York (actually Newark International Airport) plus improved connections to and from the rest of Europe including more service on low-cost airlines, should make discovering this jewel easier.

Notably, Porto (as well as Lisbon) is one of the closest European gateways to the United States, and for Americans looking for a European experience which is (dare I say it) “authentic,” unpretentious, and at considerable value, Portugal is the place to go.

Sunset over the Douro River © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The best plan is to fly TAP, Portugal’s flagship airline, into Porto (three flights weekly from Newark, just under 7 hours); or you can do an “open-jaws” trip, flying in one way to Lisbon (daily flights on TAP from Newark, and five times weekly from Miami) and the other to Porto. TAP has only two classes: Business class is first class and it is top-flight, with roomy seats that open to lounges for comfortable sleeping; personal TVs, a wonderful meal with wine and a snack, served on linen with china and silverware. The flight is just about 7 hours, so Portugal (Lisbon and Porto) and among the closet European gateway cities from the US. (800 221 7370,

See next: Porto, the City of Wine

See also: Stomp and Sing in Douro Wine Region of Portugal

Tuesday, 23 August, 2011

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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