Porto Calling: Exploring the Tranquil Portuguese City
All around the old, historical city of Porto, seagulls wheel and cry in the skies above – Porto is situated along the estuary of the Douro River, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. The city is one of Europe’s oldest, and it isn’t very large (fewer than 250 000 people live in the central metropolitan area). And, of course, it’s the home of the Port wine ‘lodges’, where for hundreds of years, the renowned fortified wines created upriver have been aged and stored before being exported around the world.
With the growing popularity of Portugal in general as a tourist destination, it was perhaps only a matter of time before everyone’s attention turned northwards towards Portugal’s second city. But Porto is much more than a mere alternative to the country’s bustling, innovation-driven capital. It has a tranquil atmosphere and is quite remarkably beautiful. Here are our suggestions for where to eat, drink, shop and experience some of the best of this special city.
sights to behold
Although Porto’s Old City and Novo de Gaia (on the opposite bank of the Douro) aren’t hugely spread out, it’s a good idea to take one of the regular tourist buses. The comprehensive circuits through the winding streets will orientate you and reveal the fact that, although hilly, the city is compact enough to be best experienced on foot. Plus you’ll get a sense of exactly which of the many historical attractions you want to make time to visit – whether that is the imposing bulk of Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral), the baroque Clérigos Church and Tower or the vibrant (if touristy) riverfront area, Cais da Ribeira.
It’s certainly fun to rattle slowly along the Cais da Ribeira towards upmarket Foz do Douro – the area named for the actual river mouth – in one of the old wooden trams that first provided public transport to Porto’s citizens in the 1870s. Be prepared to queue for Line 1 from Infante, the first stop, towards Foz. Then walk on from the end of the line towards the Atlantic coastline. The views across the river mouth are lovely and the beaches in this area are the place to go for a refreshing swim or relaxing stroll on the promenade.
Novo de Gaia is home to the Port lodges. These beautiful old stone buildings now sport sophisticated tasting options, and the Ferreira, Porto Cruz and Calém lodges are great for exploring and tasting. If you’d rather experience multiple cellars and styles in one sitting, visit boutique wine store Portologia, which boasts a large variety of wines and tastings, accompanied by excellent tapas-style food.
If you’re not fortunate enough to arrive in Porto via São Bento station, be sure to pop in to admire the gorgeous tiled panels that line its compact main concourse. Traditional in style, the murals incorporate about 20 000 glazed tiles and were created for the building’s official inauguration in 1916. Also a must-see for azulejo (tile) lovers is the Igreja do Carmo, a baroque church with a glorious blue-and-white tiled exterior wall – a perfect spot for Instagrammers of both the selfie and scenic persuasions.
Architecture lovers who prefer their attractions a touch more modern in style should naturally snap a shot of the famous Dom Lúis I bridge, one of no fewer than seven bridges that connect the city across the Douro, but the only one to be designed by a disciple of legendary French engineer Gustave Eiffel (you can tell).
Also unmissable is the Art Deco villa located in the extensive parklike grounds of the contemporary art museum, the Museu de Serralves. The array of modern sculptures dotted throughout the verdant gardens is inspiring, too – it’s really well worth setting aside at least half a day for exploring here.
Last but very much not least is Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música, completed in 2005 and housing multiple spaces for musical performances. Take a guided tour of this brilliant building if you’re even remotely interested in contemporary architecture (the best value is to buy a well-discounted combined entry for this tour and the Serralves).
Porto’s central fresh produce market, Mercado do Bolhão, is closed for major renovations at present, but the block or so around it is still good for browsing speciality food stores if that’s your favourite thing to do in a foreign city. For an especially well-curated display of Portuguese delicacies such as canned seafood, artisanal salts, olive oils and vinegars, head to Mercearia das Flores, which is just one possible shopping stop on the Rua das Flores, a charming pedestrianised street in the Old City.
There is lots to choose from on Rua das Flores, but don’t miss the flagship store of internationally renowned Portuguese soap and fragrance brand Claus Porto. This is the place to pick up a bottle of classic old-fashioned cologne, or one of the modern versions that were recently exclusively created for the brand by British perfumer Lyn Harris. Claus Porto soaps are also exceptionally good, and everything bears beautiful Art Nouveau- and Art Deco-inspired packaging.
Around the corner is Lobo Taste, which sells Portuguese-designed and made homewares, accessories and more. Also offering a range of locally crafted and produced items – such as contemporary ceramics and lovely leather bags – is local design emporium Almada 13. For an upmarket but very cool selection of clothing for women and men by a range of Portuguese and international fashion labels, as well as some seriously covetable shoes, stop by The Feeting Room. And if you need to, take a well-earned rest from retail therapy (or simply ponder what to purchase) at the Combi Coffee outlet upstairs.
Porto also has loads of bookstores, including the world-famous Livraria Lello. Be prepared to queue and pay to get in, though, as its Art Nouveau interior served as inspiration for the world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. If you’re a bit spooked by the idea of paying to enter a bookshop and actually want to stock up on your poetry collection, go around the corner to the tiny but equally lovely Livraria Poetria instead.
Again, there are loads of options for eating and drinking in Porto and, as in the rest of Portugal, the seafood of all kinds is sublimely good. At Abadia do Porto, which specialises in traditional Portuguese cuisine, sample the Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (casserole of bacalhau [salt cod] with potatoes, eggs, olives, olive oil and onion). At the opposite end of the foodie (and pricing) scale is Michelin-starred Pedro Lemos Restaurante, where you can expect superlative fine dining in the form of a multicourse tasting menu that updates and gives current twists to Portuguese classics.
The Majestic Café is a wonderfully old-school Art Nouveau restaurant that serves a mixed crowd of elegantly attired locals and gawping tourists all day long. Break here for a mid-morning coffee – not inexpensive, but definitely worth it for the people- watching and beautiful interiors.
Next-generation bars with outdoor seating are also big in Porto – and why not, when the weather is generally so lovely? Our favourites serve simple food as well: at Aduela, you can enjoy superb cheese and charcuterie, or sardines and tomatoes on toast (highly recommended!), and a local beer or a Porto Tonicó – dry white Port with tonic water and a citrus twist or sprig of mint – refreshing on a warm afternoon. Café Candelabro serves drinks and coffee as well as secondhand books, and it’s a good idea to chat to the friendly, knowledgeable young staff if you’re keen to find out more about some unusual and up-to-the-minute Portuguese wines (I became an instant fan of Soalheiro Mineral Rosé).
Authentic gelato is popular in Porto at the moment – we got our fix at Gelateria Sincelo – and you can get a truly delicious burger (without any frills whatsoever) at Real Hamburgeria. For something unique that also includes plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, visit Namban Oporto Kitchen Café.
Finally, the bars and restaurants that line the centrally situated Rua Picaria are all generally excellent. From craft beer at A Fábrica da Picaria to pan-Asian food at Boa-Bao and just about everything in between, simply make your way over here and window-shop the menus until you find something you fancy.
Located in a quiet yet up-and-coming part of the Old City that places you in the heart of all things historical Porto is the intimate, beautifully restored Porto Vintage Guesthouse, where the rooms are spacious, and satisfyingly good breakfasts will set you up for a day of exploring. The Rua do Almada, in which it’s positioned, is a charming mix of vintage furniture stores and old-school shops that have clearly been doing business in the area for many years.
If you’re a wine aficionado, on the other hand, and want to stay close to the various Port lodges on the Novo de Gaia side of the Douro River, try The Yeatman for a real five-star experience; there’s even a luxurious vinotherapy spa on the premises. Also in Vila Novo de Gaia is The House of Sandeman Hostel & Suites, which offers both contemporary hostel-style accommodation (very budget-friendly) as well as a range of conventional hotel rooms. Itʼs on the premises of the internationally renowned Sandeman Port lodge, and is also an ideal spot for those aiming to spend as much time as possible tasting Port.
Back in the Old City – right on the shopping street of Rua da Flores – is the stylish and central Myo Design House. The building in which it’s based dates back to 1605, and has been tastefully restored and updated. Accommodation is in various ‘Master Suites’, which are like small apartments, complete with kitchenettes and all the comforts of a real home from home – including a babysitter, should you need one.
on the move
While the Metro train system doesn’t take you everywhere, it’s a pleasure to use, and the buses are good as well, as well as pretty easy to work out with a bit of assistance from Google Maps. Get yourself a local SIM card on arrival so you have access to mobile data that isn’t prohibitively expensive.
Uber rides are easy to come by and extremely reasonably priced, although similar issues with hostility from conventional taxi drivers apply here as they do in many parts of SA. Overall, though, walking is likely to be your best option, in spite of the fact that Porto is almost as hilly as Lisbon – after all, walking helps you justify all the flavourful food and drink you’ll be consuming, too.