If you’re curious about what Portugal offers the seasoned holidaymaker, but don’t wish to join the bulging masses of Club ATA (All Things Algarve), Porto and the Douro Valley may just be the perfect fit. When thinking Porto, think pulse. The northern Portuguese city has oodles of it, but the low-key, nuanced, tasteful variety, offering a winning mix of the cultured and the ancient, the progressive and the happening. And, unlike some of the more cliched Mediterranean getaways, it’s all set to a beautiful backdrop of two million, no-fuss Portuense who define the city’s sense of place – not the ever-swelling number of tourists who visit it.
Settled since at least 300 BC and a subsequent outpost of the Roman Empire, the “city of bridges” was once the engine room of Portugal’s Industrial Revolution, ranging from textiles and paper to, more recently, plastic moulds. Thankfully, such industry never put any discernible dent in the architecture, ambience, culture or splendour of the ancient city, which has allowed tourism to truly blossom over the last decade.
But what of the infamous ‘O’? Confusing for many, in Portuguese, the name of the city is spelled with a definite article. So ‘Oporto’ simply means ‘the port,’ much as we might say ‘the west country,’ or ‘the Lake District.’ The city’s English name evolved out of that misnomer and has never since shook it off.
The grey city full of colour
A much older city than Lisbon (which was rebuilt after its gargantuan 1755 earthquake), Porto enjoys mild winters and warm, dry summers where the temperatures rarely venture past 30° Celsius, but usually dwell in highs of the mid-to-late 20s, with winter afternoons typically sporting temperatures in the teens.
Porto is at home hosting everyone from young families to senior couples, as there is plenty to offer everyone of all ages. An authentic year-round destination, from November to February you may get a little rain, but if wanting to also take in the Douro Valley, then slot your stay in somewhere between March and October. Three to four days should cover the city sufficiently, but if wanting to also enjoy the delights of the Douro Valley or Northern Portugal, one to two weeks should do it.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘grey city,’ it’s not for want of sunshine hours but the plethora of granite monuments, churches and ‘palaces’ (i.e. immense stately buildings), imbuing a rare and romantic atmosphere to the city. Porto also has the unusual accolade of being both a progressive seabaord metropolis – where, by pristine beaches, surfers and swimmer, joggers and rollerbladers, relish the evening sunshine – while harbouring a busy, bustling hillside medieval river town deep within its charming heart.
Pitch Perfect Porto
Three times in the last five years (2017, 2014 and 2012), Porto was elected Best European Destination by the Best European Destinations Agency. So, what can the travellers from 174 countries – those who voted for the city in 2017 – all be thinking?
Porto doesn’t quite subscribe to ‘tick-the-box’ tourism (for example, those trophy shots brought back from the iconographic capitals of continental Europe), as the ambience and energy of its compact and accessible centre is much more the sum of its parts. That said, one must first know what those parts are.
Perhaps begin by weaving your way through its hilly, historic centre, the medieval borough located inside the 14th-century Romanesque wall, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. Trek through Bairro da Sé in the cathedral quarter; a warren of narrow, steep medieval alleyways, bejewelled with potted plants and drying laundry.
Then amble downhill to the unmissable Ribeira, a stately restaurant & café area by the Douro, offering picture-postcard views across to Gaia and the double-decked metal arch of Dom Luís I Bridge looming above.
Being a university city, the energy of Porto’s youth and hope feeds though into the city’s day-to-day business, society and culture. Among many examples of this is Serralves, a contemporary art Museum built by Portuguese architectural supremo, Álvaro Siza, and set within extensive gardens and Art Deco heritage.
And then there’s Casa da Música (House of Music), a blocky, concrete and aluminium concert venue built by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to celebrate Porto’s year as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2001: four years and €100m later, it opened to the boast that each of its 1300-strong seats supposedly share the same pitch-perfect quality audio experience.
Let the culture vulture loose
Another day, when strolling through the upmarket retail of Clérigos, ensure you spend more than a penny in one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, Livraria Lello. Founded in 1906, it witnesses over 2000 visitors a day savouring its neo-gothic façade, stained glass ceiling and carved, serpentine staircase, while ostensibly browsing among the 100,000+ books on site.
Faced with depleting sales, it recently introduced a €3 entry fee, refundable upon the purchase of a book, in a bold move that has since seen sales quadruple. In fact, Lello was also the inspiration for the Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter series, arising from JK Rowling’s two-year stint in Porto in the early 1990s. Put it this way: when was the last time you saw a queue to get into a bookshop? The good news is that booking your ticket online allows you to skip the queue.
Try not to miss the grandiose Bolsa Palace, Porto’s former Stock Exchange. Its Moorish Revival Arab Room attempted to copy Granada’s Alhambra Palace, and glitters in 18kg of filigreed gold across its walls and ceiling.
If energy allows, climb the Clérigos Tower, a 76m-high baroque bell tower, for amazing views of the city. Or venture down the 16th Century Rua das Flores, one of Porto’s most attractive streets, to São Bento Railway Station instead. Once inside its vestibule, marvel at the passages of Portuguese history, composed across 20,000 decorative azulejo tiles by painter Jorge Colaço between 1905 and 1916.
And if the culture vulture in you still isn’t sated, go along to the Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis). Its imposing exterior is 14th Century-Gothic, but within is the most remarkable church interior in Porto. When you factor in its lavish gilt wood work (talha Dourada), the church is unquestionably one of the most impressive in Europe.
Becoming a port authority
You may already be aware that Porto is intrinsically linked to port – the habitually sweet red wine, which also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. Being at the mouth of the Douro, the muscular river has wound its way down from the Douro Valley where the world-famous port wine, as well as many top Portuguese table wines, is produced.
But whereas port is mostly served hot in Britain – and associated with cold winter days – in Portugal it is enjoyed, year-round, at room temperature as a desert wine.
In Vila Nova de Gaia (‘Gaia’ for short), the municipality on the southern bank of the Douro River across from Porto’s historic quarter, you can find the best port wineries, and in centuries-old cellars. Traditionally, the port was brought down from the Douro Valley on ornate, timber, cargo Rabelo boats. Unique to this region, a smattering of finely-preserved Rabelos are still moored by the Gaia bank.
Gaia’s mild climate helped the port mature over several years, before the fortified wine was packed, transported or exported overseas. Much like Bordeaux in France, the city and wider region has deep-rooted ties with England. In 1703, the Methuen Treaty established trade relations between the two countries, following which the production of port increasingly passed into the coffers of a few key English players, with the names of centuries-settled Brits dominating the major port houses to this day.
Much like other celebrated European wine or whiskey tasting hubs, the obligatory port tasting tours are a must when in the region. Graham’s Port Wine Cellars in Gaia is one not to be missed. Founded in 1820, it houses over 3,500 casks of port and receives over 50,000 visitors a year while pumping out an annual 1.5 million litres, but the views out over the river are worth the trip alone. Though you should enjoy similar experiences, in similar sumptuous settings, in the nearby port wineries and cellars of Taylor’s, Porto Cruz, Calém, Sandeman, Ramos Pinto and Ferreirinha.
The Non-National National Dish
And what of traditional cuisine? While in Porto, swing between superb beef cuts, charcuteries sourcing pigmeat from across Northern Portugal, and the finest seafood imaginable. Less than 10km northwest of the centre, coastal Matosinhos is the best place in Porto for fish, and public transport will take you there in a jiffy.
Paradoxically, Portugal’s national signature dish was never sourced in the country, or off its coast. Known as the ‘faithful friend,’ since the Portuguese first pulled-up cod off the coast of Newfoundland in the 16th Century, they have become the chief cod consumers worldwide. These days, most ‘Portuguese’ cod is sourced closer to Norway and Iceland, but who is counting?
As for Porto, its best-known dish is Francesinha (Little Frenchie). How can a simple sandwich made with fillet steak, wet-cured ham, linguiça (smoke-cured pork sausage, seasoned with garlic and paprika) and fresh sausage, that is lathered with cheese and a spicy, thick tomato and beer sauce, before being served up with fries, cause such a stir? Try it for yourself and see.
Douro goes to Hollywood
The second largest wine production region in the country and the birthplace of Port, the Douro Valley is about two hours inland by car from Porto. Some tourists mistakenly attempt to jam-pack the valley’s pleasures in one over-stretched day, but you would be advised to spend at least two or three days there instead: why travel from Britain to only ‘see’ it, when you can experience it as well?
Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Portugal, the long, narrow valley dons the names of the long-established quintas (wine estates) in Hollywood-pastiche giant white letters on terraced, schist slopes.
Wine has consistently been made on these terraces since the Roman settled, and if you happen to arrive between August and October you will see that many quintas still crush the grapes by foot; you might even be asked to join in. But be warned: the valley can sizzle through the summer, reaching well into the 30s during hot spells, though there’s always the cooler breezes to escape to along the ambling, sluggish river (for better or worse, huge hydro-electric dams, some higher than 30m, have domesticated much of the Douro).
At alcohol levels of about 20%, port ‘tasting’ could have you on your ear quicker than you’d have ever thought, so plan where you go, in what order, pace yourself and, above all, don’t indulge if driving. There are heaps of viable, alternative and affordable transport modes to hand: avail of them in advance and enjoy your poison.
The Croft Port winery at the Quinta da Roeda, dating from 1588, is worth an hour or two. The 51-ha Quinta da Pacheca is the ideal spot for a mouth-watering lunch, and where the 40-year old tawny port makes the pilgrimage, in three of four short mouthfuls, all the more worthwhile. And should you find yourself developing a taste for port, then also succumb to the pleasures of the nearby Quinta do Seixo and Quinta do Panascal.
Cruising to Flamenco
River cruising between April and October is certainly an advisable, leisurely means to access the Douro Valley, if time and budget permit. Day trips from Porto are typically less than €100 with Rota do Douro, including meals, a little port and visits to at least one distinguished quinta, while two-day trips (from and back to Porto) come in around €200, but include a stay in a Régua hotel.
But be aware that even during peak season, these cruises don’t run every day, and even when scheduled, some can be subject to a minimum number of passengers, which partly explains the great value. So research and book (www.rotadodouro.pt) the excursion preferably weeks in advance and have a Plan B up your sleeve for the day.
For a more substantial, secure and luxurious cruise up the Douro, look no further than DouroAzul (www.douroazul.com). Its ‘hotel-ship’ cruises range from about €900-€2000. The former offers a luxury seven day-and-night deal, including all meals, onboard nightly entertainment and various short excursions to local quintas and other regional attractions. It travels from Gaia (in Porto) right up to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border, and back – a 270-odd mile round trip.
The €2000 package could be coined the Orient Express version, and entails seven nights on the statelier, pampered and old-world, Spirit of Chartwell, but only runs on about 8 different dates between early July and mid-September. You get all the bells and whistles of the €900 deal, along with the likes of cooking classes, lectures and day-trips to the likes of the Mateus Palace and Gardens, or Salamanca in Spain to enjoy a live Flamenco show with lunch.
However, if you’ve less time and money to spend, and have made it up the Douro Valley by other means as far as Régua, you might then opt for the Douro ‘historical’ train that runs on weekends between June and October. Steering a course along the river bank with its own musical entertainment on board, its five antique carriages are hauled by a nearly century-old steam engine puffing its way the 60-odd mile round-trip between Régua and Tua, and back.
Rua Santa Catarina, 112
Phone: 22 200 3887
An absolute must see, this Porto landmark is a Bélle Époque café and an essential stop in the city. It is known throughout Portugal, and is also listed among Europe’s top historical coffeehouses
Rua de Sá da Bandeira, 75
A historical landmark, having served the city for more than a century. It has always been popular as a coffeehouse, but today it also operates as a traditional restaurant.
Rua de Ceuta, 20
Tel: 222 009 376
This 1950s’ café hasn’t changed much since it first opened, and that’s a good thing. It still attracts downtown shoppers and students who also take over the game room’s pool table at night. On the menu are local specialties like the infamous “francesinha” sandwich.
Note: most of the best restaurants in the Doura Valley are part of the aforementioned quintas.
Praça Carlos Alberto,
00351 937 493 557
Cantina 32 Restaurant
Rua das Flores 32,
00351 222 039 069
Rua da Madeira 222,
00351 912 881 272
O Paparico Restaurant
Rua de Costa Cabral 2343,
00351 225 400 548
(Owned by Michelin Chef, Rui Paula)
Palácio das Artes
Largo de S. Domingos, 18
00351 222 014 313
(Also owned by Michelin Chef, Rui Paula)
Estrada Nacional 222
5110-204 Armamar (Doura Valley)
00351 254 858 123
Avenida Diogo Leite, 74, Gaia.
00351 22 375 9408
Casa Aleixo Restaurant
Restaurante Casa Aleixo, Porto
Rua da Estação, 216
00351 225 370 462
Chez Lapin Restaurant
Rua dos Canastreiros, 40-42, Porto
00351 22 200 6418
Vinhas D’alho Restaurant
Restaurante Vinhas D’Alho, Porto
Muro dos Bacalhoeiros, 139-140
00351 222 012 874
Where to stay:
The Yeatman Hotel,
Rua do Choupelo, (Santa Marinha)
00351 220 133 100
Palácio do Freixo,
Estrada Nacional 108,
4300 Campanhã, Porto
00351 225 311 000
Praça Da Liberdade 25,
00351 220 035 600
Pestana Vintage Porto
Praça da Ribeira, 1,
00351 223 402 300
Rua Sá da Bandeira, 84
00351 220 409 620
Hotel Porto Ribeira
Rua do Infante D. Henrique 1
00351 220 965 786