One of Europe’s oldest cities is fast becoming one of its hottest short break spots. Beauty, history, a lot of wine – what’s not to love, asks Lyn Hughes…
Porto is having a moment. I’ve lost track of how many people I know who have either been there in the past couple of years or who are planning to go soon. “It wasn’t like this ten years ago,” said one local guide. “Everyone knew about Lisbon, but not us. And we were so traditional that you could struggle to find a restaurant open on a Sunday.”
One of the oldest cities in Portugal, and indeed the source of the country’s name, Porto was for centuries a centre of industry and trade, its most famous export being port wine. But now, with thanks to cheap flights, a safe reputation and a growing buzz, it has become a must-see.
So, is this the perfect city for a short break? It certainly has a beautiful setting, on the Douro River with steep hills providing great views. It has a rich history and culture, and incredible waist-expanding food. It has a seaside resort in its suburbs and mountains not far away. And there are multiple ways to explore – by train, tram, metro, boat, teleferico and funicular.
There are some unique quirks, too, such as the student troubadours, or tunas, who prowl the streets playing traditional music dressed in black university capes. Or the beautiful Livraria Lello bookshop, which influenced JK Rowling when she lived here in the 1990s, and now has Potter fans queuing outside.
But it is drink, and port wine in particular, that might be your defining memory of the city (as long as you don’t drink too much...). The big port houses are scattered throughout Porto’s sister-city, Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south bank of the Douro. The grapes themselves are grown further inland, along the spectacular Douro Valley. They were once transported downstream on traditional wooden rabelo boats; these are now used for pleasure trips along the river and under the impressive bridges.
Porto is a hardworking city, but it’s also a beautiful, vibrant place where you can enjoy the good life – for good prices. A perfect short break indeed.
Spend the morning ticking off the key sights. Take one of the guided tours at the city’s magnificent former stock exchange, the Palácio da Bolsa. Then stroll through atmospheric Ribeira, Porto’s quayside – one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods. Take the steps or funicular up to visit the Sé, Porto’s cathedral, to admire its beautiful cloisters.
Walk across the top level of the iconic Ponte de Dom Luís I bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia for magnificent views then take the teleferico for a bird’s eye perspective. In Gaia, visit one of the port lodges for a tour and tasting. Graham’s (pre-booking essential) is a stiff uphill walk but worth it for a look inside the famous lodge, dating back to 1890.
You can eat at Graham’s highly regarded Vinum restaurant; otherwise stagger back down to Gaia’s riverfront, where there are more opportunities for port tasting. The sun hits this side of the Douro in the late afternoon. Watch sunset from the 360° Terrace Lounge rooftop bar. Nearby Taberninha do Manel does good traditional petiscos (tapas).
Explore the beautiful Douro Valley for the day. The oldest demarcated wine region in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, its steep hillsides are covered in vertiginous terraces of vines.
There are many small-group minibus tours you can join, and these typically involve stopping at two or three wineries for tastings, a hearty lunch in a town such as Pinhão and a short cruise on a traditional rabelo.
Or see the valley by train. Regular services along the Linha do Douro run from Porto’s handsome São Bento station to Pinhão; it’s worth finding a direct train or connection to the village of Pocinho, as this covers the most spectacular stretch of scenery.
Back in Porto, have dinner at Cantinho do Avillez; despite being owned by a celebrity chef, it is casual, and offers fusion cuisine with top-notch local ingredients.
Visit more sights around town, such as one of the world’s most famous bookshops, Livraria Lello (€5/£4.50, redeemable against purchases), and the azulejo tiles of São Bento station.
If you’re feeling energetic, there are numerous local tours on offer, from gentle cycling along the Douro to a 4WD exploration of the mountains, to seeking out street art, to taking a food tour. However, after all the port of the past couple of days you may be feeling a tad delicate. This might be the time for a lazy day and to try the perfect hangover food, francesinha (a big meat sandwich). Then catch Tram No 1 to Porto’s seaside at Foz, where you can mooch along enjoying the Atlantic breezes before enjoying a white port or two.
Back in town, if you haven’t already stocked up on port to take home, Touriga wine shop on Rua da Fábrica specialises in small producers and is friendly and helpful.
1: Port tasting
Take a tour at a historic port house to appreciate the difference between ruby, tawny and vintage ports. You usually have to pay but get generous glasses. Graham’s is one of the most historic.
2: Ride a vintage tram
Porto has three tram lines, complete with beautiful old wooden trams. For a scenic ride, take Linha 1 along the Douro to Foz. For a loop of the city, take Linha 22.
3: Food and wine tour
Take a walking tour around the cafés, delis and bars of Porto. You’ll end up in places you wouldn’t have otherwise entered, and come away with a stack of recommendations.
4: Eat a francesinha
You’ll be in a food coma after chowing on this giant sandwich, typically stuffed with steak, sausage and ham, smothered in melted cheese and served with tomato sauce. Rua de Passos Manuel is known for restaurants offering it.
5: Paint a tile
You’ll see truly striking azulejo tiles on some of Porto’s buildings; it’s hard to believe they’re threatened. Learn about their history and status, and try painting your own, at a two-hour workshop.