Porto was on our original itinerary, but we were having a hard time getting Portugal’s second-largest city to fit in our actual travel plans. The stars and flight finally aligned somewhere around Berlin and we were on our way.
We arrived from Brussels late the previous afternoon to warmer and dryer weather than we’d had grown accustomed during the week past. Sitting along the south side of the Douro River in Porto’s historic center, we watched as day turned to night and the signs of the wine cellars on the river’s north bank began to light up.
On this late February day, the historic south side felt untouched despite the increased tourism. Our Airbnb host told us the city is nearly unlivable when the summer crowds arrive—Porto was named the best European destination by a leading tourism agency in both 2012 and 2014. But, the local government has done an admirable job of keeping growth limited to certain areas of the city.
The spectacular blue-tiled cathedrals and 15th century houses painted in bright colors are the highlight for most sightseers, but real life is on display as well. In the morning, we climbed the stairs from near the river up the narrow alleys toward Porto Cathedral, the city’s oldest building. The small, narrow homes were full of life as people hung out their laundry and socialized with neighbors, seemingly unimpressed by their important surroundings.
We weathered a sudden and heavy patch of rain, ducking into Capela das Almas. Outside, the church is adorned in the aforementioned tiles covered in monochrome blue painted religious images. Inside, despite it being midday in the middle of the week, a crowded mass was being held. We stood silently in the back, waiting for the weather to pass.
Just down the street, we stumbled on Mercado do Bolhao. The old citarket was like nothing we’d seen before. The center of the market is set in a courtyard with balconies running around the outside. It resembled an arena more than a typical market. While some vendors targeted the tourists with Porto-branded kitsch, the myriad of produce vendors, butchers and bread shops let us know this was a place for locals as well. We bought some things for dinner, including a dense, softball-sized loaf of bread known as broa de Aventes that weighed in at two pounds!
In the evening, we crossed the Ponte Luiz I Bridge—designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel and which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower—and looked over the south side of the city from the Mosteiro de Serra do Pilar viewpoint. The river at night looks almost metropolitan as the outdoor cafes cast a yellow hue, but the old city on the hill fades to darkness save for a few flood lights.
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More Photo of the Day posts from our January-March 2016 trip to Europe