Old world charm – with a burst of new world energy
Long regarded as Lisbon’s quieter sibling, Portugal’s second city is currently undergoing a magical moment of rejuvenation. Centuries ago, British merchant ships would cluster in Porto’s medieval harbour to ferry the region’s eponymous port wines back home. Now, the city’s river banks are crowded with hip new bars and cool pavement restaurants. Helping drive Porto’s transformation is its resurgent cultural scene, from world class concerts at Casa de Musica to exciting art exhibitions along Rua de Miguel Bombarda. But this ancient metropolis is not about to tart itself up and pimp itself out for the tourists like so many other popular European destinations. Portuenses love their old world ways too much to give them up. So staying put are the city’s cobbled streets and beautifully tiled churches, its lazy lunchtimes and touching friendliness. In short, what’s on offer is the best of both worlds.
Hot right now . . .
Oliver Balch, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
A brand-new venture from renowned Alentejo winery and artisanal beer maker, Esporão, the eponymous Esporão no Porto (00 351 22 019 0153; Rua do Almada 501) is already getting mouths blabbing. Modern Portuguese cuisine at its simplest – and finest. It’s also open for petiscos (snacks, similar to tapas) in the afternoon.
When Pedro Barreiros (of Pedro Limão fame) moved out, his assistant chef Tânia Durão moved in. The culinary creative behind Atrevo (00 351 968 226 456; Rua do Morgado de Mateus 49) brings a youthful, French-inspired twist to Portuguese classics.
Eat, drink and be … bookish. Named after a famous fado lyric, Lisbon’s hip Menina e Moça bookshop-bar (00 351 22 243 6855, Campo dos Mártires da Pátria) has now set up shop in Porto. Open from 12 noon until 2am, it’s a cosy corner for reading, writing and generally making merry.
Porto’s luxury list just got longer. A superbly refurbished art-deco gem located on the city’s principle avenue, the 76-room Maison Albar Le Monumental Palace (00 351 22 766 2410, Avenida dos Aliados 151) combines the casual elegance of yesteryear with all the comforts of today. Note: the light-filled pavement café is primed for people watching.
48 hours in . . . Porto
Porto is a city best seen on foot. Not that walking is a breeze: steep slopes and stone cobbles proliferate in this hilly metropolis. To prepare for all the pavement pounding ahead, head over to Manteigaria (Rua de Alexandre Braga 24) for some pastéis de nata (custard tarts). From outside, you can see aproned chefs rolling out the pastry and stirring vats of creamy custard as they prepare this Portuguese classic.
Pastry indulgencies done, walk a short distance to Bolhão Market (00 351 22 332 6024) to rub shoulders with locals as they go about their morning shopping. Due to much-needed refurbishments, the stallholders have temporarily set up shop at La Vie shopping centre on Rua de Fernandes Tomás. The new venue is more sanitised than the century-old original, but this busy working market remains as buzzy as ever.
Afterwads, wander down the pedestrianized Santa Catarina street until you reach the Church of St. Ildefonso (Rua de Santo Ildefonso 11). The exterior provides a wonderful example of the ornate blue azulejo tiles for which Porto is rightly famous. If you like the church, you’ll love the railway station. Located just down the hill, São Bento (Praça Almeida Garrett) is plastered with around 20,000 azulejo tiles.
From São Bento, it’s a stone’s throw to the pretty Rua das Flores, a popular street for shops, cafés and restaurants. If you’re feeling peckish, the Mercador Café (Rua das Flores 180; 00 351 22 332 3041) is a great spot for a light snack. Don’t miss popping into the flagship store of Portuguese beauty and fragrance brand Claus Porto (Rua das Flores 22; 00 351 914 290 359), which, as well as being super stylish, has a fascinating mini-museum on the first floor that displays the company’s products and packaging through the decades. Another must-visit shop is Livraria Chaminé de Mota, a family-owned book emporium. Ask to see the eclectic collections of music boxes, gramophones and printing ephemera on the upper floors.
If your legs can take it, head back up the hill to Torre dos Clérigos (Rua de São Filipe de Nery). From the top of Porto’s iconic tower, you’ll get an unparalleled view over the city below. Once back down on terra firma, cross the square to the Portuguese Centre for Photography (Campo Mártires da Pátria S/N; 00 351 220 046 300). A former prison, the fortress-like building now plays host to some of the world’s best photographers (in the form of their work, that is).
If sunset is late enough, walk the short distance to the viewing point above Parque das Virtudes (Passeio das Virtudes 53-3), where you can revel in the kaleidoscopic evening light over the nearby Atlantic. All that walking and you’ll have worked up a thirst, so don you smart rags and hit the super chic Vogue Café (Rua de Avis 10; 00 351 22 339 8550), home to some of the best cocktails in town.
If you’re after a light bite, then just slip from the bar to a table: the Vogue Café offers a wide selection of well balanced seasonal treats. The salmon poke bowl is especially good. For serious diners, don’t miss the succulent pork loin, served with wild morel mushrooms.
For a nightcap on the way home, drop in at Café Candelabro (Rua da Conceição 3), a low-key hangout popular with locals and visitors alike. It is best known for its wines and is one of the few places you can buy good wine by the glass. The house wines are cheap (€2/£1.75) and generally excellent.
Start your second day slow with a lie-in, then get yourself down to Zenith (Praça de Carlos Alberto 86; 00 351 22 017 1557) for brunch. Alongside classics such as eggs Benedict and French toast, the menu sports ultra-healthy options such as vegan tapioca pancakes and Brazilian açaí with homemade granola.
You can’t come to Porto without trying its eponymous port wine. That means heading over to the wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south bank of the River Douro. The scenic route takes you via Sé (Terreiro da Sé), the city’s twelfth-century cathedral and site of a fabulous panorama over Porto. To cross the river, head by foot across the double-deck, arched Dom Luis I bridge, the longest of its kind in the world (at 172 metres).
All the big wineries offer guided tours with a tasting, but for a more authentic experience check out CV Kopke. This is the city’s oldest port wine company (founded in 1638), and their friendly staff really know their stuff. Don’t leave without trying at least a sip of Colheita, a single vintage-dated tawny port for which CV Kopke is famed.
Dozens of restaurants line both banks of the river near Dom Luis I bridge, most of which will rustle up petiscos (finger food), bacalhau (cod) or francesinha (a meat-based, cheese-soaked, beer-sauced sandwich); try Casa Machado (R. 27 de Fevereiro 1; 00 351 960 109 436) on the Vila Nova de Gaia side, or Restaurante Terra Nova on the Ribeira side (Cais da Ribeira 34; 00 351 926 770 837).
For those looking to push the boat out, The Yeatman’s two-Michelin star restaurant (Rua do Choupelo 345; 00 351 22 013 3100) cannot be beaten. It is renowned for its fish dishes, extensive wine cellar, and stellar views.
From here, take a leisurely stroll upstream along the Douro. Just beyond Arrábida bridge (the last of Porto’s six bridges before the ocean), you’ll find the old fishing hamlet of São Pedro da Afruda – a perfect spot for a quick refreshment is at Taberna São Pedro (Rua Vasco de Gama 126; 00 351 915 465 918).
A river taxi will chug you back to the north bank of the river, where you can catch Porto’s historic tram back to the city centre. For those with kids, the fun-packed World of Discoveries (Rua de Miragaia 106; 00 351 22 043 9770) is well worth a stop along the way. The former Custom’s House (Rua Nova da Alfândega) opposite, which hosts periodic exhibitions and is home to an esoteric collection of vehicle’s belonging to former Portuguese presidents, is also worth a quick visit.
End your visit in style at Pedro Limão (Rua do Morgado de Mateus 51/53; 00 351 966 454 599), an intimate but exciting eatery in the up-and-coming district of Bonfim. Architect-turned-chef Pedro Barreiros keeps things interesting by regularly changing his 10-course tasting menu, and always offering mouth-watering modernist takes on Portuguese classics.
If you packed your party shoes, then finish the night at Passos Manuel (Rua de Passos Manuel 137; 00 351 22 205 8351), a cool subterranean club underneath the Coliseu do Porto. For a slightly more chilled entry into the early hours, hop over the road to Maus Habitos (Rua de Passos Manuel 178; 00 351 937 202 918), a late-night haunt for Porto’s in-crowd.
Where to stay . . .
Situated above the Douro River with glorious views over Porto’s historic old town, The Yeatman is a bastion of style and elegance that deserves its long-standing reputation as one of Europe’s most sophisticated five-star hotels. Owned by Taylor’s, one of Porto’s most prestigious port producers, its expansive cellar makes it a haven for wine lovers the world over. Accompanying its oenological delights are the gastronomic marvels of Ricardo Costa, head chef of the hotel’s two-Michelin star restaurant.
Doubles from €130 (£116); Rua do Choupelo (Santa Marinha 345; 00 351 22 013 3100
Housed in a classic 1930s townhouse in the up-and-coming district of Bonfim, the three-bedroomed myhomeinporto offers a genuine home away from home. Think light-filled bedrooms, homemade cakes and freshly brewed coffee. It’s all artfully put together by owner and former interior designer Juan de Mayoralgo.
Doubles from €110 (£98); Rua de Ferreira Cardoso 72; 00 351 960 046 888
Belos Aires Apartments comprises five chic but simple apartments in the heart of Ribeira district; it’s the perfect bolthole from which to explore the city. Each room has touches of Argentine and Portuguese culture, reflecting the respective origins of the friendly husband-and-wife team who run it. The couple’s popular bar and restaurant is just a stone’s throw away, making up for the lack of on-site facilities.
Doubles from €60 (£53); Rua das Taipas 5, União de Freguesias do Centro; 00 351 916 980 798
What to bring home . . .
Pick up your own azulejo tile frome one of the several vendors at Bolhao Market (La Vie, Rua Fernandes Tomás 506) that sell versions framed in cork that can be used as hot plates.
Claus Porto (Rua das Flores 22; 00 351 914 290 359) now exports its soaps to the UK, but there’s something far better about browsing the shelves at its flagship store and smelling out the perfect one for you.
When to go . . .
The weather is certainly more reliable in the summer months and that’s when it is most busy. From April to October prices are higher and accommodation harder to find. The city pulls out the stops for Easter, Christmas and New Year with plenty of free cultural events, street music and a celebratory feel. If you come in the autumn and winter, bring a brolly as it likes to rain.
Know before you go . . .
Local laws and etiquette
Porto airport is small and calm, and access to the city is very easy. The Metro station is directly outside the airport (and even has fresh turf between the tracks). For less than €3 (£2.50), you’ll be in the city centre within 25 minutes.
Trindade Metro station, just behind the City Hall at the top of Aliados Avenue, provides the city’s subway system with its central hub. From here, there are bus connections to those areas without a nearby Metro line. Taxis are affordable and the number of Uber cars in the city is growing. Consider downloading Moovit to guide you round the city’s public transport network.
The old town of Porto is compact and it is easy to walk to most places. If you are staying in Ribeira district, where many of the riverside hotels and restaurants can be found, be mindful that everywhere else is uphill. The bumpy cobbles, steep inclines and horn-honking traffic don’t make cycling a great idea in the downtown areas. However, for exploring the city’s outskirts, particularly the Atlantic coast, there are few better options.
A tourist tram runs around the city centre and out along the River Douro, but not as far as the sea. For the sun and sand, jump on the No. 500 bus. Alternatively, Porto also has several excellent tour bus operators, which provide another viable, if slightly more expensive, option.
For day-trips out of Porto by train, the main departure point is São Bentos station. If you do end up booking a ticket, be sure to arrive early so you can properly take in the fabulous tiled departure hall.
Porto residents are characteristically relaxed, quiet and courteous. Life doesn’t move quickly, so don’t expect express service. If you can adjust to the local pace, you will enjoy the benefits. Many people speak English, especially the city’s younger population, and they are pleased to use it. Tipping isn’t mandatory or expected. Wages for waiters and hotel staff are low, however, so anything you can spare will be appreciated.
Portuenses like the good life, although public drunkenness is frowned on. Crime levels are low and walking at night is safe in most of the city’s central districts. Although Porto has an active nightlife scene, it’s far from being a party town. Restaurants will stay open late throughout the week, but the midweek vibe is generally low-key.
Currency: Euros €
Telephone code: 00 351 [Portugal] 22 [Porto]
Time difference: 0
Flight time: 2hrs 20 mins from London
British Embassy: Rua de São Bernardo 33, 1249-082 Lisbon, 00 351 21 395 4082
Police: 121 or 00 341 222 081 833
Tourist office: Central Tourist Information Office, Rua Clube Fenianos 25, 00 351 223 393 472, visitporto.travel
Oliver is a British writer with a serious Iberian addiction. If he’s not sitting in one of Porto’s cafés enjoying a pastel de nata, he’s out jogging beside the river Douro to work off the calories.
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