Porto, Portugal

Jason R. Matheson
5 min readDec 8, 2022

I’ve concluded that nearly all key cities and towns in Portugal are located on hills and water. It’s logical since hills were used as defense in ancient times and water allowed faster navigation than going overland.

Today the hills bring spectacular views but also strenuous hikes. Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, was spread out like a blanket covering hills on the north side of the Douro River. My hotel was located on the south side of the river in the adjacent city of Vila Nova de Gaia.

Thankfully, I was able to cross the river valley on relatively flat ground thanks to the beautiful Dom Luís bridge. Finished in 1886, the iron bridge gracefully connected the side I was sleeping on and the side I wanted to explore.

Up top it was an open pedestrian zone except when light rail trains from the Porto Metro rumbled across. As they approached, you squeezed over to the side and let them slide past. All the while you’re up against a surprisingly low railing for a 150-foot drop. Talk about a thrill.

After several harrowing squeezes, I finally crossed the bridge and took nearby stairs down to see the structure from below. As I descended, it was obvious the construction had cut right through apartment buildings whose residents were probably none too pleased back in the 1880s.

A wide promenade full of outdoor cafes stretched along Porto’s historic riverfront. Umbrellas shaded small tables full of locals and tourists sampling the area’s renowned port wine. Pastel-faced apartments with lacy balconies crowded behind the scene as if clamoring for a view.

I hiked on, admiring the architecture. Painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework, typically in blue and white, decorate the interiors and exteriors of homes, shops, bars and churches throughout Portugal. Called “azulejo” in Portuguese, you even see elaborate decorations inside public works.

Porto’s train station, São Bento, was decorated with large panels of azulejo tile depicting moments in the country’s history and rural scenes showing the people of various regions. The tiles were designed and painted in 1916.

Continuing the theme, the most regal setting for a McDonald’s was just around the corner from the train station. Opened in 1995, the restaurant was located in a renovated space previously occupied by Cafe Imperial, a famous coffee shop in Porto since the 1930s. Fast food and crystal chandeliers were not a combination you see every day.

Yet this city was full of contrasts. As I explored, I kept finding myself drawn to edgy street art enlivening an otherwise crumbling masonry wall. Somehow Porto felt old and new at the same time.

As the evening progressed, buildings across the city took on a golden glow. Then I stepped around a corner and was confronted by the striking blue facade of Clerigos Church and its accomapanying tower. The climb up was still open so I secured a ticket and enjoyed the views as night fell.

A soft mist was beginning to fill the air so I hustled back across the bridge, but not before lingering once more along the still-low railing for a last look at Porto and the Rio Douro.

My time in Portugal is drawing to a close. Tomorrow I drive east toward the Spanish border. Boa noite!


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Jason R. Matheson

I prefer to travel slow. Enjoy history, design, architecture, cars, sports digital. Auburn alum, Sooner born.