I spent most of February 2020 reading about this new novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, while panicking about my upcoming trip to Portugal. I’d booked my flight several months earlier and I was really excited to get to explore the country to which I’d been putting off a trip for years (a better place just always came up and took precedence). Everyone assured me that I would be fine, though this didn’t stop me from bringing a thermometer with me in my backpack. After hopping off the plane in Portugal I’d stopped reading the news and just tried to enjoy myself.
It’s not breaking news that I love learning the history of the new country in which I’m traveling and soaking that history in as much as possible. But this time I was taking a different approach to the popular sites that I was visiting. Yes, I was subsisting on my usual diet of walking tours in each city, but I was also making myself take guided tours of historical buildings, which is something I loathed so much I would have rather licked subway poles during a pandemic. They’re too expensive sometimes, or take too much time and I’m a busy woman when I’m backpacking through cities and time is of the essence, so I usually say to hell with guided tours.
But I’m pushing myself to try new things (and who wants to lick a subway pole, anyway?). Also, after realizing that I almost certainly should’ve taken a guided tour around Budapest’s House of Terror, I made a promise to myself that in foreign countries, where I don’t speak the language, I’d always take the guided tour because reading those little plaques under each photo takes way too much time.
But back to the COVID anxiety that was near non-existent in early March while I was in Portugal. Shockingly, I didn’t feel much of it until my penultimate day there when I decided to visit the Bolsa Palace in Porto. The Bolsa Palace is a beautiful building in the center of Porto that operates as the Portuguese Stock Exchange today.
I knew something was up when I bought a nine-euro ticket for the next tour of the palace and a woman at the ticket booth said, “Please go wash your hands. And for twenty seconds.” This was not something I’d ever been instructed to do upon entering a national landmark. My first thought was: are they extreme neat freaks here?
Upon our tour group gathering in one of the hallways with our guide (sans social distancing at this point, which is how you know it’s still early 2020), a young Portuguese woman, cleared up the mystery. “Due to the pandemic,” she said, “the country is shutting down all government buildings to tourists after our tour is over.” I will never forget this. That was the moment when I knew something was happening in the world and it was a good thing that I was heading home to New York City the following day.
I was glad I’d booked this tour because it was my last chance to soak up the history of Portugal and I had no idea when I’d be able to travel to Europe again. But I thought probably by the fall, right? Because this pandemic-thing wouldn’t last too long. (Hah.)
A quick history of the building: The Bolsa Palace was built in a neoclassical style in the 19th century. It’s located right next to the St. Francis Church, and the part that was actually incorporated into the building that is now the Bolsa Palace were the remnants of the St. Francis Convent that was destroyed in the Liberal Wars in 1832. It was then gifted by Queen Mary II to the city’s merchants and they decided to use it as the city’s Commercial Association. The exterior of the building was finished in 1850 in a Neoclassical style by the architect Joaquim da Costa Lima Júnior, but the entire interior of the palace wasn’t finished until 1910. The interior of the palace was finished by several different architects and it’s easy to notice the unique styles as you’re guided from room to room.
While I was waiting for the tour to begin, I was able to look around at the Hall of Nations which sits in the very center of Bolsa Palace. It is two stories high, with balconies overlooking the center, and a glass atrium roof. There are paintings lining the perimeter of the ceiling too, below where the glass roof stretches. The space feels expansive and bright and it would be a great place for any big event – if you were rich and could rent it out, that is.
The first thing you’ll notice while walking around the hallways of the palace are the columns. They’re made of granite, instead of the marble that’s usually used for columns so they definitely have a bit of a different look – harder and grittier – whereas marble usually looks softer. The hallway that serves as the interior perimeter of the palace is a light shade of pink due to the kind of granite that was used.
Each room in Bolsa Palace is more impressive than the next. But the first room they took us to was the old courtroom, used back in the day for court proceedings. The walls are lined with intricate, old paintings but the ceiling is the most ornate, which boasts a scene from a courtroom but with a little bit of fantasy mixed into it.
The next memorable stop on our tour was in front of the doorway to a room that housed Gustav Eiffel’s desk! He used to work out of Bolsa Palace when he was in Porto.
We also stopped in to marvel at the paintings of past royalty and heads of state in the Portrait Room and the Golden Room. (It is in this room that the Management of Associação Comercial do Porto holds its meetings.)
In one of the Former Presidents Galleries, the walls were lined with glass cases that held gifts from presidents, kings, and other heads of state that were bestowed to the president of Portugal over the years.
We were informed in this room that Portugal has a presidential election every year. Can you imagine if we did that in the United States? Your nationality doesn’t matter, either—meaning you don’t need to be from Portugal to run for president.
I was already so intrigued by this tour and realized the mistake I’d made in the past by eschewing guided tours of historical buildings. After all, Bolsa Palace is really the kind of place that you must see for yourself if you’re visiting Porto to view the exquisite architecture and paintings that I’ve described above. And while I was already wowed by the place, I had no idea what I was in for next. The pièce de résistance of Bolsa Palace: the Arab Room.
When a world leader comes to visit Porto, this is where the event honoring them is held and who could blame them? This room is unbelievable.
Our guide told us that 18 kilograms (or 39 pounds) of gold was used in decorating this room. It also took them 18 years to finish building the Arab Room, called as such because it is bedecked in the Moorish Revival style, a popular design fashion in the second half of the 19th century in Europe. Luckily, we were allowed to take photos and there were definitely a ton of people doing exactly that.
Fun fact: there are no windows in the Arab Room that face outside of the palace. Any windows or doors that appear to have natural light coming through them look that way because there is artificial light behind them.
If I wasn’t completely blown away by the palace—and I was—the Arab Room made my jaw drop. And now, looking back a year and a half later, when the world is a completely different place now than on that sunny afternoon in Porto, I am happy I pushed myself into that building. Who knows when the world will get back to a sense of normalcy. I am grateful, though, that Bolsa Palace was one of my last memories of exploring Portugal.
My travel anxiety had yet to creep back into my psyche, but I was happy to have learned about Portugal’s political system, their history, and to see so many beautiful rooms, especially the Arab Room on this guided tour of Bolsa Palace.
There’s a lot of history to be learned from touring this beautiful place and for someone like me, who loves to learn the history of a place when she travels, this palace is a must-see. When the pandemic is over and we’re allowed to travel again, put Porto, and Bolsa Palace, at the top of your list.
And rest assured, when you’re taking a guided tour of the palace, I’ll be somewhere on the planet taking my own guided tour of the nearest historical building too.
Bolsa Palace is located at R. de Ferreira Borges, 4050-253 Porto, Portugal.