Published on :   06/24/2015

The Porto District In-Depth: Explorations in Porto and Gaia

It’s my second day in Porto, and I am officially overwhelmed by what this city has to offer.

Simply put, there is a lot to see and do.

Concealed behind some of the city’s simple and unassuming facades are incredible gems waiting to be discovered, just as I learned today. For this morning’s excursion, we were brought on a tour of some of Porto’s main attractions, and one word to sum it all up is simply “wow”.

Our first stop was the Palacio da Bolsa (Palace of the Stock Exchange), a 19th century neoclassical building located in Porto’s historical centre. Initially built to impress potential investors, today this opulent space is one of Porto’s most visited attractions and the city’s main conference and exhibition centre. While this building was formerly home to Porto’s stock exchange, the gorgeous interior could easily be mistaken for a royal palace. Stepping inside, you are immediately brought back in time to Portugal’s glory days as one of the world’s most influential trading powers. Our guided tour began in the Hall of Nations, where our senses were overwhelmed by a myriad of details and colours. From the glass octagonal dome found in the ceiling, to the coat of arms from Portugal’s trading partners painted along the walls, this hall, like the rest of the palace, is thoughtfully decorated in immense details. The highlight of our tour was no doubt the Palace’s Arabian Room, whose lavish décor made it an ideal place for some of Porto’s most important official ceremonies. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the sights from the Palace:

Our next stop was the St Francis Church, located just a few steps away from the Palace. Don’t let this church’s unassuming façade fool you, because behind its sober, Gothic exterior is an absolute marvel of Baroque décor, dripping in gold and opulence. Estimates indicate that over 650 pounds of gold (largely from Brazil) are used throughout the Church, whose interior is decorated with elaborate woodwork and detailed altarpieces. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside, but I urge you all to visit if you ever find yourselves in Porto. It is definitely worth a look.

After having my eyes dazzled by gold and architecture, we crossed the bridge over to Gaia and took some time to indulge in another specialty of the Douro Valley: Port wine! Our morning excursion was rounded off with a visit to one of Porto’s famous caves (wine cellars) for a tour and tasting. Waiting for us by the entrance of Cave Ferreira was a cute rabelo boat, the traditional mode of transport for Port wine. While today rabelos are still a common sight around Porto, they are mainly just used for tourism and racing, with trucks now taking over as the main mode of wine transportation.

Throughout our tour, I was absolutely shocked at how huge the cave was. Our tour took us through many different rooms of the cellar, where a seemingly endless supply of wine barrels lined every wall. You would never guess the sheer enormity of this place from the outside, and according to our guide, we were only seeing a small portion of the entire facility. Apparently, some of these large barrels can hold as much as 73,000L of wine. Can you imagine having one of these beauties in your house?!

Port is a fortified wine exclusive to the Douro Valley. It is characterized by its sweet flavour and high alcoholic content, caused by the addition of a grape spirit (aguardente) that prematurely halts the fermentation process, leaving more residual sugar than you would find in other wines. This is what creates the potent and sweet flavour that Port is known for. During the tasting, we were given a sample of white Port and ruby Port, both of which were deliciously sweet and very strong. With two glasses of port in my system before noon, I definitely enjoyed a short nap on our ride back to the boat! 

So, while this morning, I got to experience some of the Porto area's most well-known attractions and indulgences, what boggles my mind is that there is still infinitely more to see. Fortunately, the MS Vasco da Gama will be bringing me back here at the end of our cruise for further exploration. Don’t worry Porto, I’m not done with you yet!

- Christina