You could say Porto has it all. A city that’s spot on for a weekend escape. The perfectly commendable size for a city break. Plenty to pack in without passing on the time to appreciate ample aperitivo stops in between ambling the atmospheric streets of the European Best Destination 2017. And if you’ve got an extra 24 hours to tag onto your itinerary, you could even include a jaunt to the adjacent coast or journey upriver for a visit to the vineyards of the Douro Valley.
There are medieval relics, grand baroque buildings, a burly Romanesque cathedral, fancifully tiled façades at every turn, a UNESCO heritage historic district sated with steeply cobbled streets and soaring towers, mammoth metal bridges spanning the Douro, an emerging mode for modern architecture, a rapidly rising gastronomic culture, livrarias galore and a glut of Port wine cellars all within walking distance in a city that’s easily accessible on foot even if there are rather a lot of precipitous twists and turns in the old quarter to taunt those tiring limbs. It is literally packed with places to see. And it is quite possibly one of Europe’s most photogenic cities too; a cascade of colourfully cluttered buildings draping higgledy piggledy down a hillside to the banks of the dependable Douro below, and best viewed from up high or from the river itself.
We recently returned from a superb stay in the city, carefree and kid-free for three quality days, and the high spots of our 72-hour sojourn are best summed up as so:
12 tasters for first-timers
A beautifully ornate bookstore that’s one of the oldest in Portugal, and very often hyped as one of the most handsome in the world with its magnificent art nouveau interior and splendidly crafted, curving staircase. JK Rowling taught English in Porto in the 1990s and the bookshop, which opened in 1906, is said to have inspired rather a few of the fantastical features in the Harry Potter series – from the Flourish & Blotts Bookstore in Diagon Alley to the library and magical moving Grand Staircase at Hogwarts.
The overwhelming success of Harry Potter and its links to Lello has swelled interest in the shop in recent years and to reduce the enormous queues that would amass, there is now a ticketing system in place. Entry is €4, but the amount is deducted from any purchases you make at the store. The elaborately decorated interior is something that really shouldn’t be overlooked so it’s worth spending a little something to get in, and once inside the city’s most illustrious livraria you’ll be hard-pushed not to want to make a purchase, everything is all so wonderfully appealing.
And when you’re done browsing, drop by for a delicious pastel de nata – a Portuguese egg custard tart – at the popular pastelaria Bela Torre next door.
Although, the most perfect pastel de nata of all I had the pleasure of savouring at Porto’s beautiful Belle Epoque café, a sumptuous retreat established in 1921 where the literary set would spend time in intellectual cahoots, and supposedly where JK Rowling started work on the first Harry Potter book while living in the city. It’s a splendid place to stop off for a break; evocative of a bygone era and bursting with exquisite features like the original furniture, decorated ceilings and detailed gilt mirrors. Enjoy a cinnamon-coated nata with a heavenly thick and gooey hot chocolate in The Majestic’s grand surroundings for what is quite possibly Porto’s most mouthwatering casse-croute.
3 The Historic Centre
Ribeira, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, has that run-down ruined look at times. But it is in its faded beauty that this former fishermen’s quarter of often ramshackle buildings and brightly painted façades brings the bairro to life. Ribeira is part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Status, and negotiating the steep and narrow ruas of the district and neighbouring Sé and Miragaia is the best way to get a real sense of the city. There are surprises down each and every winding alleyway – grand, gothic structures, ornately tiled merchant houses and cheerfully painted frontages all in a nod to the old-world vitality of Porto’s 2,000 year-old history.
The Palácio da Bolsa, Sé Cathedral and a collection of other grand churches, such as São Francisco, are also some of the highlights of the historical old town.
There are several lookout areas across the city, incuding Miradouro da Vitória and Elevador da Lada, and Serra do Pilar in Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side of the river. These viewpoints are a wonderful way to admire the mish mash of centuries-old architecture swathing the city’s north and south sides like colourful cloaks masking the lost prestige of Porto’s golden age.
5 Ponte Dom Luís I
Sometimes called the City of Bridges for the six strapping structures – both old and new – that span the Douro River, Porto’s Dom Luís I Bridge is probably the most well-known. The immense arched double-decker metal bridge was built by a protégé of Gustave Eiffel and opened in 1886 to link the city to Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the river. Today, the lower deck is used for road traffic, and the upper deck functions as a metro line and pedestrian walkway. A stroll across the bridge is a spectacular way to see the city and takes you across to the Gaia district in the most scenic of ways.
6 Port Wine Cellars
Vila Nova de Gaia is the neighbourhood where you’ll find all those renowned caves where wine from the Douro Valley is brought and aged with aguardente in huge oak barrels for a number of years to produce Port, the city’s staple, celebrated fortified wine. Looking across to Gaia from the north bank of the Douro, the cellars scream out at you with their oversized signs advertising Taylor’s, Graham’s, Croft, Sandeman, Porto Cruz and many more of those popular Port brands. They all offer tastings, and what is visiting Porto without trying out the local vintage?!
teleférico in Vila Nova de Gaia © http://www.dourovalley.eu
After crossing the Dom Luís I Bridge, take the cable car down to the waterfront – another great way to see the city – and from there all the cellars are easily accessible, and there are often touters on the quayside offering tastings too. Some are free, some aren’t. For cellar tours, pairings with cheese and chocolate, and more, expect to pay a fee.
While in the Gaia district, a pit stop at The Yeatman is a pretty special thing to do. This Wine Hotel is one of Porto’s finest and commands the most fabulous views of the city, built on the opposite bank with the historic core its ever-so-scenic backcloth. Enjoy a glass of Port or Douro wine in the luxuriant lounge overlooking Porto and, like me, vow to book a room with a view here if ever to return!
The decanter-shaped pool and dazzling views from The Yeatman © http://www.europeanbestdestinatons.com
7 Azulejo tiles
The glazed ceramic tiles that adorn façades the city over are cemented in Portugal’s history and culture. When the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century, they brought with them this decorative influence that has ever since become deeply rooted in both Portuguese and Spanish tradition.
There are many places around Porto to enjoy the beauty of ornamentally tiled buildings, and just weaving your way through the winding cobbled streets can all at once throw up a cluster of decorated dwellings, the more elaborate the wealthier the merchant family that once lived within.
Probably the most prized examples of azulejos in Porto can be appreciated in the lobby of the São Bento Train Station and the frontages of the the Igreja das Carmelitas and Igreja de Santo Ildefonso churches.
São Bento Station © http://www.europeanbestdestinatons.com
8 Clérigos Tower
An indisputable landmark of Porto, the iconic campanile of the baroque Clérigos Church, completed in 1763, stands at 76 metres tall. A spiral staircase of 230 steps leads up to the belfry for a bird’s-eye view of the city from above – a delightful torrent of terracotta rooftops and multi-coloured buildings tumbling down the hillside of the historic district. A visit is definitely advisable for yet more remarkable views of the city. And there’s also a museum attached with some wonderful openings overlooking the ornate interior of the church.
9 Ride the Douro River
There are a selection of boat trips on offer, and it’s worth doing one to enjoy the city from the river. You get a different perspective as you quietly drift along the Douro, cruising below the considerable spans of the celebrated six bridges, including the Maria Pia – the rail bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel and a hunk of a metal arched coathanger a little upriver from the Dom Luís I, and equally grandiose; and the Arrábida, a modern construction which was the longest reinforced concrete bridge in the world when first completed.
Travelling downriver towards the mouth gives a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, and back to the city and the abundance of activity along the river banks and the delightful jumble of dwellings jostling the hills on either side. Day trips for wine tastings in the Douro Valley are also offered if you have the time to include.
10 Tram it to the Atlantic
The handsome, heritage trams of Porto are another great way to get about. There are three regular lines transporting people around the historic centre and out to the coast, using vintage tramcars with traditional fixtures and fittings – all polished wood-panelled interiors with original bell pulls, and a rickety ride guaranteed.
Tram Line 1 takes you along a picturesque river route all the way to Foz do Douro, a well-heeled seaside town just 20 minutes from the city centre. Stroll through the Jardim do Passeio Alegre to the Farol de Felgueiras lighthouse, which marks the Douro River’s meeting with the ocean. Then walk along the beach, wild Atlantic waves crashing boisterously along the shore, and indulge in a sundowner at one of the many oceanfront cafés before riding the rickety rails back into Porto.
The Atlantic Ocean at Foz do Douro © http://www.europeanbestdestinations.com
11 A metro ride to Matosinhos
If you can’t get enough of the Atlantic coastline, another little side trip from the city worth making is to Matosinhos, a 15-minute metro ride on the blue line from the Trinidade stop in central Porto. As well as surfing beaches, the town is famed for its fresh fish so taking the trip out for a spot of lunch in one of the many authentic seafood restaurants is fun to do, and you can be back on the sightseeing trail in the city for the afternoon.
Piscinas de Marés © http://www.matosinhosport.com
If you’re visiting in summer, a dip in the delightful Piscinas de Marés is something to linger on in Matosinhos a little longer for – these natural seawater swimming pools were designed in the 1960s by internationally renowned Portuguese architect, Alvaro Siza Vieira, and blend into the coastal landscape beautifully. Siza Vieira was born in Matosinhos so it makes sense that he centres a sum of his work here, and the Boa Nova Teahouse is a restaurant in the most remarkable of settings that he worked on in the early 60s, and which today is classified as a National Monument. If you want to splash out in spectacular surroundings – the restaurant is integrated into the rocky terrain overlooking the ocean – this is the place to be.
Boa Nova Teahouse © http://www.ruipaula.com
Porto is fast becoming a fashionable arts and cultural centre – the countless cool boutiques, contemporary buildings and culinary locales springing up around the city are testament to this thriving new scene. And I have to say, the quality of the food we ate everywhere was a revelation. Quite unexpectedly, we consumed like kings. So this is what you get when you blend an inquiring gastronomic appreciation with good ingredients, a bold outlook and an unstinted attention to detail. Everything is meticulously prepared and attractively presented, no matter if it’s a meal in an upmarket restaurant, a light lunch al fresco, a snack on-the-go or an early evening aperitivo.
Dining out in Porto is an impressive experience, and ours was exemplary of a food scene that’s really flourishing in Portugal’s second city. You’re honestly spoilt for choice, and some of the places we enjoyed eating at include Book Restaurant (a former bookstore with a literary décor), Cantinho do Avillez (run by renowned chef José Avillez) and Cantina 32. Although touristy along the river in Ribeira, lunch at the Café do Cais is lovely when the sun is shining and you can eat on the terrace with a view on the Dom Luís I Bridge and the wine warehouses of Gaia. And a word of advice, if you’re in town at the weekend do book in advance as restaurants fill up rather quickly.
a merenda at Café do Cais
An aperitivo before dinner is always a good idea, and there are plenty of bars and cafés across the city for a tipple or two when it’s time to rest those tired legs. The Rua das Flores, leading to Ribeira from the São Bento Station, has some lovely, lively little places – Vinofino and Mercearia das Flores are a couple we loved. Order a plate of local cheeses and hams to complement your drink of choice and mix with a good measure of chilled conversation. It all goes down a treat! Because that’s what weekend breaks are all about. And Porto throws up the perfect recipe for a really relaxed time away from it all.