Porto Travel Guide

Porto Travel Guide

Kerry Murray

Porto is known as Portugal´s Capital of the North and is a unique and enigmatic city that has up until recently managed to slip under the tourist radar. Often overlooked in favour of Lisbon and the beaches of the Algarve, this city has lots to see and do and a personality all of her own. Steep, winding cobblestone streets and colourful buildings piled one on top of the other, it almost seems as though they are about to tumble down into the Douro river below. Wondering what to do in Porto? This is a small city, which makes it perfect for exploring as everything is accessible on foot or by tramcar, although the hills can be a bit challenging… but it´s the perfect excuse to eat just one more pastry as you will definitely have earned it.

Things to do in Porto

Port wine is a major feature in this city and is one of the fundamental reasons behind Porto´s expansion at the mouth of the Douro River. Since the late 1600´s the wine has been produced further upriver, and the wine barrels traditionally sent downstream in specially designed Rabelo boats, to Porto, for ageing and distribution to the rest of Europe. Most of the original Port wine companies still use their storage cellars in Vila Nova da Gaia, on the southern bank of the river, as they have for centuries, and no visit to the city is complete without a wine tasting. At Real Companhia Velha you can tour the ancient stone cellars and learn a bit about the history of port wine before sitting down for a tasting of several of their flagship wines.

Directly across the river is the Ribeira district, one of the most popular parts of town with visitors. The neighbourhood is old but beautiful, her crumbling walls could tell many a story, and the colourful tiles and facades stand out in contrast to the dark stone construction and moody atmosphere. There are many restaurants alongside the river but if you´re looking to avoid the tourist traps then head a bit further up the hill towards Rua das Flores, a picturesque street jammed packed with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques and antiques, everything from the seriously old to the hip and modern. Cantina 32, at the lower end of the street, is one of Porto´s newest and most popular restaurants, famous for, amongst other delights, their Oreo cheesecake served in a jar. But be sure to make a reservation as it´s a small place and is often booked out days in advance.

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Where to eat in Porto

The north of Portugal has many typical dishes that define its gastronomy, but one thing that you can´t miss on a visit to this city is the Francesinha. As the story goes, the idea was brought back by a Portuguese immigrant who had been living in France, and the concept is loosely based on the “Croque Monsieur”, but with a Portuguese twist. It is made up of alternating layers of bread, sliced ham, sausage, chouriço and steak, then covered in several slices of cheese and doused in a hot gravy-like sauce, which melts the cheese. Typically served with a plate of fries, this meal is best attempted on an empty stomach, as it is huge. And while it´s delicious, it´s also not particularly good for the waistline! Cafe Santiago is very well known for their traditional style Francesinha, and Cervejaria Brasão is famous for their classier (but no less enormous) version of this classic dish. For a more gourmet dining experience, make your way to DOP by Rui Paula where traditional Portuguese flavours are re-interpreted with modern flair. Situated in an ancient convent in the historic centre of the city, this is the flagship restaurant of one of Portugal´s most highly acclaimed chefs.

At the top of Rua das Flores, you find the São Bento train station. Pop inside for a look at the characteristic blue tiles, or azulejos, as they are known here. A short stroll further on and you arrive at the Rua da Santa Catarina, one of the busiest streets in the city, where there is never a dull moment. Ancient crumbling churches and Art Deco era theatres rub shoulders with modern department stores, street vendors sell everything from socks to chestnuts, and if you grab an outside table at the Majestic Cafe, you can sip your espresso, and people watch in style. Tucked away on a side street is another one of Porto´s secret gems: The Bolhão Market. Built in the mid-1800´s, it is Porto´s largest farmer´s market and in spite of several decades of neglect, its grandeur shines through, and it´s a very interesting insight into daily Portuguese life and culture. There are plans afoot to restore this beautiful and characteristic market to its former glory, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Shopping in Porto

Porto has long been a hub of arts and crafts and is considered to be one of the most creative of Portuguese cities, and this is very evident in the shopping scene. As mentioned earlier, the Rua da Santa Caterina is a great spot for big brand and department stores. But if you´re looking for something a bit more original, many designers and boutiques can be found in tiny shops tucked away in side streets in the Galerias de Paris and Clerigos neighbourhoods, touting everything from cutting edge fashion to well-loved vintage. Two prominent menswear brands that are currently taking the city by storm are Muuda and Wrong Weather. There are also many wonderful interior design stores in the area filled to the brim with original and quirky art and design. Another classic attraction in the same district is the Livraria Lello, Portugal´s most famous bookstore and credited with being a major source of JK Rowling´s inspiration behind the Harry Potter series. First opened in 1906, its Art Nouveau exterior and the classic red winding staircase have made it an instantly recognisable symbol of the city. Be warned, though, that it gets very crowded, and that an entry fee of €3,00 is charged.

Rua Santa Catarina | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Rua Santa Catarina | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Porto nightlife

The Casa da Musica, on Avenida da Boavista, is a well-known Porto landmark and is one of Porto´s most important cultural institutions, not only from an architectural and design perspective but also as the cultural and musical heartbeat of the city. It is the home of the Porto Symphonic Orchestra but offers much more than this. And if your musical tastes tend towards the more modern, there is a constant stream of visiting artists, music festivals and seasonal events taking place. There is guaranteed to be something for everyone.

Back at the Galerias de Paris, once night has fallen and the shops have closed this district shows it´s true colours as the bars and clubs open their doors. Music pumps and people spill out onto the streets… often times there is more action outside the bar than there is indoors. Conceição 35 is a small but popular gay-owned bar serving gin, cocktails and guest DJ´s every weekend. Further down the same street, Invictus Bar Cafe is a bit more camp, but no less entertaining, with regular theme nights and weekly performances from their resident divas.

Foz | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Foz | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

The best hotels in Porto

The grande dame of Porto hotels is technically not even in Porto as it´s on the other side of the Douro River, but the panoramic view from the Yeatman Hotel is perhaps one of the most iconic vistas over the city, and is visible from every room. This luxury wine hotel and spa was founded by the Yeatman´s, a family of British wine merchants who began trading Port wine in the early 1800´s and have maintained their connection to the wine and the city ever since. The hotel boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of Portuguese wine in town as well as a luxurious spa that uses wine extracts in an exclusive range of skin care products and therapies. You would be forgiven for not ever wanting to leave this place.

Casa do Conto, right in the middle of the historic district and a short walk from the Casa da Musica, is another stylish and understated option. The boutique hotel is a fully restored 19th-century townhouse whose renovations walk the line between the original architectural lines and a stark modernist interior. Located on Avenida de Boavista, one of Porto´s biggest avenues, each suite is individually furnished with mid-century modern and design pieces.

If self-catering is more your style, then try the Casa 1015, a three bedroom home in the Foz district, right at the mouth of the Douro River and a 5-minute walk from the sea. Slightly removed from the bustle and noise of downtown, Foz is much more laid back and in spite of being a mere 10-minute tram ride from the city centre, it has a distinctly small-town feel to it. A perfect base from which you can explore the city – but on the days where you just want to lie on the beach or sit in a coffee shop watching the sea, you have that option too.

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