Rich in history, mellow in character, Portugal’s second city deserves to be a first choice for a long weekend
With drawing pads resting on their laps and pencils in hand, the students were engrossed with their sketching; fascinated by the art on the walls around them. Some sat crossed legged on the floor, others on small folding stools. They seemed unaware of the train announcements echoing in the cavernous space or the passengers weaving between each other, pulling their luggage behind them.
To spend a moment or two in Porto’s São Bento railway station is to be immersed in the Portuguese art of ‘azulejos’, ceramic tilework that is often intricate and beautiful. This station is said to have over 20,000 tiles, hand painted by the artist Jorge Colaço, at the beginning of the last century. Together they make up huge panels, depicting Portuguese landscapes and historical events. The story-telling style is romantic and captures the soul of Porto (Oporto in English), Portugal’s second city.
The city is uncontrived and authentic; it hasn’t yet succumbed to the generic gentrification typical of many major European cities. On the contrary, although its recent popularity as a holiday destination has brought new wealth and vibrancy, the city remains as distinctive and unique as the ceramic tiles and the fortified wines for which it is so famous.
The old town district of Ribeira, long deserted by the more upwardly mobile classes is now ‘up-and-coming’. Having been ignored for so long, its photogenic streets and alleyways of forgotten old houses and little chapels are now an attraction in themselves
House with a View
Typical of the ongoing revival here is 1872 River House. Until a few years ago it was just an empty shell of a building burnt out and abandoned. Yet its position right on the quayside, at the historic Muro dos Bacalhoeiros meant it was worthy of a new lease of life. Here you can still catch sight of fishermen’s boats and old vessels that were used to transport port, moored in front of the cafés, bars and restaurants that spill out onto the pavement terraces.
Teresa Aguiar, a Porto lawyer, together with her husband set about a labour of love to restore the house. Many features, like its period stained-glass entrance and tiled vestibule remained intact, together with the glorious stone walls, rich in history.
Now complete, 1872 River House is a boutique residence with eight stylish rooms, each with elegant furnishings and modern luxuries like sleek flat screen TVs that cleverly retract into the foot of the bed; and large bathrooms with 21st century comfort.
Throw open the tall, old-fashioned bedroom windows to hear the sound of boats passing by underneath, the gentle chatter of guests enjoying a drink on the terrace, and the a wonderful view that takes in the river, the classic wrought iron ‘Dom Luís I’ Bridge, as well as the Port wine lodges and cellars that crowd together on the opposite side of the Douro.
Lodges and Cellars
It is from the south side of the river, from Vila Nova de Gaia that one can enjoy a unique perspective of Porto. If you have energy and a head for heights, then it’s a good idea to walk there, taking the upper deck of the Luís I bridge, which at almost 50 metres high, offers a thrilling stroll across the river.
A visit to a Port lodge and cellar is a requisite really; after all when one mentions Porto its inevitable one thinks of the fortified wine. Most of the famous Vinho do Porto producers like Taylor’s, Sandeman, Graham’s and many others offer guided tours.
Taylor’s is one of the oldest founding Port houses in the area and offers regular free tours and inexpensive tastings, from dry whites, mellow tawny ports, to full-bodied, Late Vintages.
If you are willing to push the boat out, and you want to enjoy some of Porto’s finest cuisine, then walk across the cobbled lane from Taylor’s to the plush Yeatman Hotel & Spa. This contemporary property is an unashamed gourmet resort, a celebration of the best in Portuguese produce.
The Yeatman Gastronomic Restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star for Executive Chef Ricardo Costa, who like the ceramic tile painters of the last century, helps tell another chapter of the rich story of Porto, but this time through the cuisine and wine of the Douro valley.
A meal here is more than an indulgent pleasure, it’s a privileged insight into the wealth and diversity of Portugal’s gastronomy and wines.
UNESCO has recognised Porto as a World Heritage city, distinguished for its outstanding urban landscape that reflects a history of over 2,000 years. Although hilly, navigating the steep, narrow alleyways of Porto is best on foot.
There are of course some sights that shouldn’t be missed even for the reluctant tourist, such as the gothic São Francisco church with its extravagant Baroque interior, rich in gold leaf. Also, climbing the steps to the top of the Torre dos Clérigos tower offers an effective, if somewhat exhausting way to get orientated. Foodies will enjoy the 19th century, neoclassical Bolhão Farmers’ Market, whilst architecture buffs shouldn’t miss the former Stock Exchange, the Palácio da Bolsa. The slightly boring exterior gives little indication of the extraordinary interior, including the Moorish style Arab Room.
Arty not melancholy
This rugged, historical city certainly has an allure, although upon arrival Porto may seem to have an air of melancholy. After all, Portugal has been hit hard by recent European economic woes and some of the charming dilapidated, ancient houses are probably home to poverty, disguised behind the romantic façade of colourful tiles.
Yet although at first introverted, Porto is most certainly welcoming, and lively. North of the old town is the Barrio de las Artes, a dynamic neighbourhood of small streets (rua Miguel Bombarda, rua do Rosário, rua do Breyner etc.) that are full of on-trend second-hand shops, galleries, tea houses, bars and indie boutiques.
The dining scene is increasingly hip too with restaurants such as ‘Book’, a playful eatery in a former bookshop, with imaginative styling and delicious bistro dishes. Its compact bar and outside terrace is the place for cocktails and sharing plates.
Once the sun has sunk below the terracotta rooftops and towers, the city certainly comes to life. After dinner it’s time to have some fun, either at one of the many music venues across the city, or chilling in one of the stylish hotel bars or for the young at heart, like the art students who were sketching in the station, probably filling the dance floor of a club, dancing to DJs spinning tunes.
I was an invited guest of the hotels and restaurants referred to in this piece. Please bear in mind that this site and my articles are intended as entertainment and hopefully inspiration for travel – but not a definitive resource for purchasing decisions. Before making any travel or purchasing decision I recommend that you seek as much information as possible from various sources including review sites, guide books and other blogs. If you wish to add anything to this piece, simply comment using the WordPress or Facebook comments section below.