Word has it that a popular new travel trend is on the rise: The Second City. What exactly does this mean? Although like fellow explorers I’ve always appreciated the Romes and Parises, but I’ve also yearned for the low-key, less crowded alternatives. But rather than the other extreme – going off the grid – my interest in Second Cities is founded upon the experience of localhood, finding reflective moments of daily life unique to their capital counterparts.
Porto is the Second City that visitors to Portugal have been raving about. Resting on the banks of the River Douro, the settlement dates back centuries as an original outpost of the Roman Empire. Medieval walls trail through the city adorned with modern street art, overshadowed by buildings of contemporary architecture. Modest white cottages with reddish-orange rooftops span uphill on both sides of the river. With trendy rooftop bars, a walkable grid and an innovative cuisine, it’s easy to feel that “Second City” vibe in one of Europe’s oldest cities.
Here is part two of my imaginary reflections of an adventure that we should have had in March, 2020 (and will have in 2021).
The moment we stepped off the train, I could taste sweet notes of Port wine and the saltiness of bacalhau.
Arriving early for check-in, we dropped off our bags behind the front desk of the Selina Porto – a similar kind of modern hybrid hostel/hotel to Lisbon. Except this emitted had a more rustic and maritime atmosphere. Their cafe on the left is entombed with beige stone walls, the planters propped up by palm trees. They also had a lush outdoor common space with zigzagging pathways entwined with trees and gardens with a stage in the middle for live music. Once again, we snatched a private room with twin beds, which welcomed us once we checked in with baby blue walls and a large window overlooking Das Oliveiras.
One of the best ways to see Porto on a budget is a free walking tour. Normally, I favour the hostel-led ones, except this time Kyle found a different tour, strongly recommended by TripAdvisor. This 3-hour trek covers both the must-sees and the more secretive spots of Porto. And so, by 1 pm, we met everyone at Fonte dos Leones (Fountain of the Lions). I was admittedly distracted by the sounds of spouting water from the lions’ mouths while our tour guide stood in front, effortlessly narrating the city’s expansive history.
With just 10 of us in total, we followed our guide through Porto’s narrow streets, weaving by antiquated five-storey buildings splashed with yellow, green, red and beige which shaded us from the sun. The tour’s itinerary included the following:
- A block west of the fountain lay the monumental twin Baroque churches, Igreja do Carmo and Igreja dos Carmelitos. Our guide pointed out a unique facet on one side, a tiled ceramic wall that depicted scenes of the founding of the Carmelite Order.
- North from the Igrejas is Liberdade Square, a wide and busy intersection with an platform for pedestrians to gather in the middle and crowd the red swarms of hop-on-hop-off buses. We were directly facing a 15-foot high monument to King Peter IV resting on the north side of the main street of Avenido dos Aliados.
- After scouting much of the city, we concluded the tour at the brooding tower of Igreja de Sao Francisco (Church of St Francis), one of the most astounding Gothic monuments in Porto. I was entranced by the intricate rose window occupying the main facade above the doors. After the tour, we briefly entered the church and were met with darkness hushed voices. Pod lighting illuminated a faint orange glow on the golden archways and ceilings. There wasn’t a single crevice or spot on the wall bereft of gold garnishing.
After 4 pm we we approached the outside of Combi Coffee, following a 20 minute walk northeast. Combi happened to be a top-of-our-list recipient for a fresh cup of coffee. Kyle ordered our afternoon brews to go and a croissant while I browsed for my second bag of beans, blissfully unaware of my increasingly limited backpack space.
We took our coffees with us to Jardim do Marques, a small park with a fountain across the street. The afternoon sun shifted behind us, and shaded itself just right behind the trees. Although just 15 degrees, the breeze billowing from the Atlantic made my hair soft and form goosebumps on my arm. This was ultimately more pleasant than even the crispiest autumn day at home near the Philosopher’s Walk.
Dinnertime was what I was eager for most. Kyle and I got dressed and walked down to the river banks. After snapping a few pictures (and asking other tourists to take them for us), we both agreed on ODE Porto Wine House to indulge in Porto’s most famous specialties. The hostess led us to an intimate room just below ground, with stone walls and accentuated by crates and barrels on the floor. Again, we were perhaps the first diners here, ready for dinner hours before the locals would even pop open their first glass of wine.
The first and only time we drank Port wine was in my apartment one January evening, where we emptied half the bottle and filled the glasses by 6 ounces. After one hour we downed one glass, our faces contorting from the sweetness after our fifth gulp. Had I researched beforehand regarding the proper etiquette of Port consumption, we’d be sipping lightly instead to complement our dessert. Fortunately, that lesson was learned prior to our very first steps in Porto, ready for the real experience. This Port was lighter on the palate from each tiny sip I made, warming my belly and reddening my cheeks. We both laughed in that moment, knowing we still had much to learn.
Originally, we had considered a Douro Valley tour, a stunning place outside Porto that my friend highly suggested. But the overall consensus from others who had visited Porto was to use our valuable time seeing the best of Portugal’s Second City.
This time, we passed on the arduous physical activity – save for the hills – and opted to follow our own curiosities by detouring through narrow alleyways and finding odd the shops and favourite local bars.
A spot on Kyle’s list was the Livraria de Baixa, a place he described as “a Portuguese version of [Ottawa’s] Black Squirrel Books.” A hybrid bar, cafe and bookshop, the bookshop, with its dark oak exterior and bright green lettering, stood out amongst the other storefronts. Going inside was like an invitation to an elderly scholar’s study – red carpets, a sole gramophone emulating old crackling jazz music and shelves neatly arranged with 19th century volumes, atlases, poems and other trinkets (I could swear I saw a small, porcelain doll on the top shelf and wondered if it was for sale). We found the English section in the corner. Coincidentally, Kyle managed to find after much digging, a small, 100-page dusted paperback about Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, for only 5 Euros.
Rather than eating here, we walked up the corner to Noshi Coffee instead for brunch, another spot on my list. I chose the outdoor seating area, despite a down draft coming from the cool weather. We sat below an array of hanging succulents attached by long strings from the rafters, looking like floating extraterrestrial organisms, floating above us. Upon browsing their Instagram page, I was already craving a salmon focaccia sandwich while drinking a Dalgona for the first time.
After lunch we wandered back to Avenia dos Aliados for some quality window-shopping time, looking at overpriced hats and handbags. One activity that I used to love doing, especially when I visited New York, was what I’d call hotel lobby-hopping. For a short while, I would step inside the lobbies of 5-star hotels, often to just use their bathroom, but mostly to pretend for one moment, that I could afford a penthouse hotel suite. Here on the Avenia does Aliados, was the InterContinental Porto where the street ends and intersects with Praça de Liberdade. No one was really watching us, determining if we resembled their sort of clientele as we stood on their shiny floors gaping at the white, marble ceilings. Perhaps we made it quite obvious. We took laps down the hallways, peeking into their dining quarters with a heightened awareness of our limited budgets. We disappeared from the hotel before the money from our wallets would for an overpriced glass of Port.
Before dinnertime, Kyle and I wanted to see one more place, called Largo da Pena Vontosa. Although it was really a district comprising of the neighbourhoods Sé and Ribeira and well-known for its bright, colourful houses. In the meantime, I suggested a slight detour and cross the metallic Dom Luis bridge – the main bridge that links the two small cities into one. I stopped to snap pictures as we stood high above the Douro, capturing the green hills and the Atlantic upon the horizon. Although Sé and Ribeira were on the north side (we ventured to the south), I wanted to cross the Dom Luis just once before departing Porto.
Thankful that I wore running shoes, we carefully tread over uneven cobblestones, admiring the pastel colours of blue, baby blue, yellow, red and white. Small shadowed alcoves led us to open street squares, where residents sat underneath flower pots and umbrellas, sipping their evening coffee. I hadn’t noticed until now, as the sun barely set, a string of lights connecting each building. They were dimly lit, as though we were waiting to access a secretive night festival.
Luckily we had packed earlier that day for our morning train to Lisbon, before flying home in two days’ time. Our final evening led us to the grooviest bar in all of Porto – found, not surprisingly, by Kyle. Introducing BOP – it’s got tap beer, bookshelves covered in records, delicious late-night food and the best playlist we heard since frequenting our favourite bar back home. But should you feel like going by your own beat, you can borrow headphones and choose an album yourself. So there we were, eating burgers with a pint in one hand, listening to Cocteau Twins over headphones in unison.
During my time in Porto, I was subconsciously guilty of feeling right at home when I was so far from it. But I supposed that was the charm of the Second City. With Lisbon, I felt a charming and otherworldly spirit. The sounds of fado transported me to a different level, like being in a classic 1930s film. But Porto to me, emulated a comforting familiarity. Maybe it was because we chose to slow our pace, exploring the alleyways like we would in Toronto, looking for those places with character, but didn’t take themselves too seriously. Now that felt like home.