Porto Travel Guide

Porto Travel Guide

Meet Portugal´s Capital of the North, the unique and enigmatic Porto, a merchant city often foolishly overlooked in favour of Lisbon and the Algarve, packed with unique and undiscovered charms. Steep, winding cobblestone streets and colourful heritage buildings come stacked one on top of the other, precariously sloping down to the Douro river below and stretching beyond its medieval defence walls close to the verdant Trás-os-Montes province in the east and quaint Coimbra in the south. Inside the city itself, everything is laid-back and easily accessible on foot or by tramcar, with the odd challenging hill walk to keep you on your toes. This gives the perfect excuse to indulge in a pastry or two while overlooking the historic, ever sun-dappled skyline, complete with Baroque churches, old wineries and, in the distance, beautiful untarnished beaches. Wondering what to do in Porto? For your definitive Porto gay guide, let us lead the way.

The best hotels in Porto

Let’s begin our Porto gay travel guide with a roundup of the best hotels in Porto. While our first choice is technically not in Porto, located on the other side of the Douro River, the panoramic vistas of the city offered at The Yeatman are truly something to behold. This luxury wine hotel and spa was founded by the Yeatmans, a family of British wine merchants who began trading Port wine in the early 1800s and never stopped loving the city. As well as owning an unprecedented collection of Portuguese wine, the hotel also hosts a luxurious spa that uses wine extracts in its treatments. Those travellers wanting to stay in the heart of the city should consider PortoBay Hotel Teatro, just five minutes from the main Porto points of interest, such as Porto Coliseum. Contemporary and refined with a bohemian twang, this hotel also offers theatrical heritage, as it is actually based in a 19th-century theatre. The stage and audience areas are now home to the restaurant and bar, with an adjacent inner courtyard and a fitness centre on the top floor.

Also based from the historical centre is Casa do Cativo guesthouse, a cute little 19th-century offering run by a Franco-Portuguese couple, with a family feel and all the comforts of a hotel. Added bonuses include an outdoor pool, garden and shared lounge and kitchen areas. Next up is Charm Palace, a romantic boutique retreat in the city, popular among gay couples for its upscale interiors and bourgeois 20th-century architecture. The ‘Palacio Fenizia’ room, in particular, has us wanting to stay for the year! Torel Avantgarde is another boutique worth browsing, based on a hillside less than a kilometre from Baixa downtown area and boasting brilliant views of the city and riverside in a secluded spot. Inside Torel Avantgarde, guests can revel in the bold colours and warm décor, with each room celebrating artists, writers, designers and musicians, all with locally-made furniture. The on-site bar and restaurant also radiate sophisticated cosiness through and through.

Charm Palace Hotel

Charm Palace Hotel

Torel Avantgarde Hotel | Photo: Luis Ferraz

Torel Avantgarde Hotel | Photo: Luis Ferraz

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Recommended hotels in Porto
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Torel Avantgarde Hotel | Photo: Luis Ferraz

Torel Avantgarde Hotel | Photo: Luis Ferraz

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There are many restaurants alongside the river but to avoid the tourist traps head a bit further up the hill towards Rua das Flores, a picturesque street jam-packed with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques and antiques

Things to do in Porto

Port wine is a major feature in this city and has been since the late 1600s when wine barrels produced further up river started to be 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. To learn more about the city’s wine drenched history, visit one of the Port wine museums in Vila Nova de Gaia. The ancient stone cellars of Real Companhia Velha is one such place to gain insight into the history of port wine, after which, you can sit down to taste 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, the colourful tiles and crumbling facades stand out in contrast to the dark stone construction. There are many restaurants alongside the river but to avoid the tourist traps head a bit further up the hill towards Rua das Flores, a picturesque street jam-packed with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques and antiques. To the west of Porto lies another great find. The upscale Serralves neighbourhood is the perfect way to spend a slow afternoon, surrounded by sumptuous residences and gardens. The Serralves Museum & Villa is a particular highlight, where you’ll discover a regal Art Deco property overlooking terraced grounds and tree-lined avenues dotted with topiaries and pergolas. Adjacent to the park stands the Contemporary Art Museum, a site known for its high-profile art exhibitions.

One of the rather more unexpected things to do in Porto is rafting on the Paiva River in Arouca. Put your life into the hands of an expert guide who will kit you out and run you through safety before you begin your three-hour adrenalin-pumping trip down the river, ending at the gorgeous Espiunca beach for a much-needed lie-down. To see Porto’s river at a slightly more serene pace, take a boat ride along the Douro River, starting at the Ribeira, and sail past numerous Porto sightseeing spots as well as a number of pretty impressive bridges.

Photo: Nick Karvounis

Photo: Nick Karvounis

With as many as ten beaches within a short trip of the city, a beach day is an absolute must while in Porto. The most convenient spot to test the Atlantic waters is Matosinhos, just past the Parque de Cidade, and featuring a never-ending bay at low tide. Further out is the small town of Miramar, which, as well as lush sandy shores, also boasts a quaint 17th-century chapel. For a day trip or longer, Porto’s northern coast is the place to be. Known as the ‘Venice of Portugal’, Aveiro is accessible via coach and features a long-time maritime heritage, displayed by the charming fisherman houses and enchanting canal-side streets leading to the Old Quarter. Stunning landmarks include the Cathedral of Aveiro and the Church of St. John the Evangelist. While Aveiro comes complete with winding canals and historic whitewashed houses, the university town of Coimbra is another area allowing insight into Portugal’s rich past. The nation’s medieval capital, home to one of its oldest universities dating back to the 13th century, Coimbra has narrow streets and original stone walls with a vibrant student community that congregates on the modern riverfront park, to hang out at its terrace bars and trendy restaurants.

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

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What to see in Porto

Home of many an architectural masterpiece, Porto is a great place to wander aimlessly and take in the sights. For a little direction, however, we recommend visiting a couple of the city’s religious sites. A symbol of the city and designed in magnificent Baroque style is Clérigos Church, standing high above the town with its 75-metre bell tower, which doubles up as a viewing platform. Designed by Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni and opening in 1763, Clérigos is now full of various historic artefacts, from paintings to jewellery. Much, much older than that however is the Church of Santa Clara, built beside one of Porto’s medieval defence walls in 1457. Renovated in the 18th century, this church is special for its “Barroco Joanino” style, fashionable during the Portuguese Empire and featuring red marble, gilded vaults and highly-detailed wooden wall carvings.

From the religious to the industrial, our next recommendation of what to do in Porto is to walk across the postcard-famous Luís Bridge, a functional marvel of two-level metal arches built in 1886 to cross the steep rocky banks of the Douro. The top level offers an incredible vista of Cais da Ribeira and a railway track, while the lower deck is for walking. A more modern addition to Porto’s skyline is the concert hall, Casa da Música, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened since 2005. With its high tech acoustics, rule-breaking glass scenography and room for an audience of 1,300, the Casa da Música is a worthwhile place to explore with or without watching a performance.

Photo: Kamile Leo

Photo: Kamile Leo

At the mouth of the Douro River is the Foz do Douro, a trendy hub with a palm- and pine-strewn promenade, dotted with various sunset spots, restaurants and other attractions, such as the Farol Molhe do Douro lighthouse and the Pergola da Foz.

Meanwhile, on the site of the old Crystal Palace, are the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal, a number of gardens home to regal fountains, sculptures and even a peacock or two. In the centre of the gardens where the palace once stood now lies the semi-spherical Pavilhão Rosa Mota, which sometimes hosts exhibitions. Another classic attraction in the same district is the Livraria Lello, Portugal’s most famous bookstore and credited as being a major source of JK Rowling’s inspiration for 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.

Livraria Lello | Photo: Ivo Rainha

Livraria Lello | Photo: Ivo Rainha

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.

Cervejaria Brasão | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Cervejaria Brasão | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

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

Foz | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Foz | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Shopping in Porto

A long-time hub of arts and crafts, Porto is considered to be one of the most creative cities in Portugal and this is very evident in the shopping scene. 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. Before you start pounding the pavements, however, perhaps you want to kit yourself out with the best Portugal-made footwear. The Feeting Room in Largo dos Lóios can help you out for sure, stocking brands such as Lemon Jelly and Wolf & Son, as well as other accessories, clothes and even a café selling Brazilian-style, locally-made brigadeiro bonbons.

Two prominent menswear brands currently taking the city by storm are La Paz and Wrong Weather. Meaning ‘peace’ in Portuguese, La Paz displays its collection of Atlantic ocean and fishing culture inspired pieces in a unique, tucked-away space touting cathedral-shaped glass cases, exposed walls and windows fronting the Douro River. Come here for board shorts and tees but stay to try the bomber jackets and coveralls. The futuristic interiors at Wrong Weather couldn’t be more different, but the cutting-edge fashion on sale is no doubt on par. Stocking the likes of Christopher Kane, Astrid Andersen and KENZO, Wrong Weather is an artsy fashion hub, home to its own gallery that showcases local artists.

Porto | Photo: Roya Ann Miller

Photo: Roya Ann Miller

There are also many wonderful interior design stores in Porto, filled to the brim with original and quirky art and design. Take Mercado 48 on Conceição Street, for example, a concept store with rough stone walls and indoor trees, featuring screen printed designs, hand-painted ceramics, minimalist Danish furniture and a famed collection of bicycles. Stocking largely Portuguese designers, this vintage and contemporary space also doubles up as an art gallery and event space for local artists. Over in downtown is 43 Branco, another teeny tiny concept store, run by a mother and son team, selling everything from clothes and accessories to pottery and handicrafts, again all locally made. If you’re not done shopping for handicrafts, Coração Alecrim will be your next stop. Behind one of Porto’s most Instagrammed doors lies a warm boutique crammed with vintage apparel, local designs and homeware. The best thing about this place is the sustainable ethos; it’s motto being ‘green, vintage, indie’.

There are just a couple more stops to make before a much-needed cocktail. First is to 130-year-old heritage brand Claus Porto, to freshen up. While mainly trading in handcrafted soaps inspired by Portugal’s countryside and individually wrapped in Belle Époque period prints, Claus Porto also sells moisturizers, colognes and men’s care products. And lastly to Terroir Gourmet, the city’s all-encompassing gourmet store elegantly showcasing Portugal’s gastronomical delights. Here you’ll find olive oils, cheeses, cured meats and sweets, as well as high-end imported goods such as caviar, foie gras and truffles. And of course, this is the place to pick up a pre-dinner bottle of bubbly or Port wine.

Claus Porto | Photo: Bruno Barbosa

Claus Porto | Photo: Bruno Barbosa

Photo: Alex Folguera

Photo: Alex Folguera

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Conceição 35 is a small but popular gay-owned bar serving gin, cocktails and guest DJ´s every weekend

Porto nightlife

Our Porto gay nightlife guide starts out a little highbrow. The aforementioned Casa da Musica, on Avenida da Boavista, is one of Porto’s most important cultural institutions, not only from an architectural and design perspective but it is also the cultural and musical heartbeat of the city. It is the home of the Porto Symphonic Orchestra but offers much more than this; modern music lovers will also be entertained by its constant stream of visiting artists, music festivals and seasonal events. For more culture and live music, uber cool Bar Labirintho brings art, classical music, live jazz and other weekly events to its diverse, gay-friendly clientele. As well as being unique and welcoming, the bar’s back garden is the perfect spot for a sundown cocktail or two.

Alternatively, you could move to Vila Nova de Gaia, ascend the Porto Cruz building and find yourself at the sophisticated Terrace Lounge 360º; a rooftop bar that’s open for lunch and light snacks until late. Enjoying a glass of port wine here is a recommended activity, as the whole building itself is dedicated to the stuff, complete with educational history, culture and tasting sessions. More classy beverages are up for grabs at gay-favourite Café Lusitano. Serving up cocktails and fine wine amongst gorgeous 1950s Parisian décor, Café Lusitano may surprise you on the weekend when things get wild with international guest DJs and a dance-happy crowd. Over in downtown Porto is the industrial-chic Fabrik, a trendy gay bar boasting great cocktails, hot bartenders and – on occasion – epic themed parties.

Once night has fallen and the shops have closed on Galerias de Paris, the district shows it’s true colours as music pumps from bars and clubs and people spill out onto the streets… often times there is more action outside than inside. In amongst it all is Conceição 35, a small gay-owned bar serving gin and cocktails and hosting guest DJ’s every weekend. Porto’s gay-hipster central, Conceição 35 offers yummy food and a happy hour that really kicks off the night. Come on the weekend when they throw back the tables and let the dancefloor do the talking. To end the night in style, head to Porto’s hottest gay nightclub, Zoom. Located in an old industrial warehouse and decked with contemporary interiors, oversize disco balls and catwalks reserved for their muscular go-go boys, Zoom is a real late night crowd pleaser. While largely attracting gay men, you’ll also find that a number of hot lesbians can’t stay away, no doubt for the various theme parties, drag shows, strippers and popular DJs who play past 4 am.

Conceição 35 | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Conceição 35 | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

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