Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Porto travel guide

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Porto buzzes with the air of somewhere on the up. Cranes punctuate the skyline and new restaurants and shops seem to materialise weekly, but the city’s charm remains undiminished. Within the space of an hour you can walk on the sea-facing promenade in Foz de Douro, admire the richly gilded interiors of 15th-century São Francisco Church, or immerse yourself in the old port wine cellars, each offering guided tours. Next? Perhaps a cruise down the Douro River, stopping at wineries for tastings. Porto is great for shopping, from small stores selling the region’s olive oils, to boutiques offering the best of Portuguese crystal or porcelain — plus independent fashion brands that draw on the region’s rich textile industry.

To see Porto at its most joyous book a stay over the Feast of São João on June 23. Fireworks light up the sky to celebrate the city’s patron saint, and old Rabelos boats — like those that once carried port barrels down the river — race each other along the Douro, sails billowing in the wind.

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What to do

Porto offers the perfect mix of culture and cuisine, sightseeing and shopping. Start by getting an overview from the Baroque Clérigos Tower, built by Niccolò Nasoni and at 75m still one of the country’s tallest. Once you’ve recovered from the somewhat dizzying 240-step climb, you’ll have magnificent views of the city, with the coastline and the Douro Valley laid out before you. Another inspiring set of stairs can be found at the neo-gothic bookshop Lello, supposedly the inspiration for Hogwarts library — Harry Potter’s creator, JK Rowling, spent the early 1990s in Porto.

Next, explore a few of the churches. Their ornate interiors are evidence of the wealth that flowed into the city from the 15th century onwards, the result of Portugal’s golden age of discovery. Particularly remarkable is São Francisco Church, its high altar encrusted with more than 200kg of gold, in stark contrast to its plain gothic exterior. Precious metals and other treasures are for sale in the attractive boutiques of Rua das Flores. Treat yourself to a wander in Claus Porto’s delicious flagship store, where soaps and scents will revive foot-weary sightseers.

Where to stay

Alongside the city itself, Porto’s hotel scene has blossomed over the past decade, offering everything from established international chains to tiny boutique gems. The city’s grande dame is the Yeatman hotel, where rooms cascade like wine terraces down to a decanter-shaped swimming pool. Situated in Vila Nova de Gaia, views are over the waterside’s charming jumble of multicoloured medieval houses.

With many key sights within walking distance, it makes sense to stay in the city centre, now well served with excellent hotels flanking the grand Avenida dos Aliados, such as the beautifully renovated Le Monumental Palace.

For a more local feel it’s also fun to seek out smaller establishments, such as the eight-room boutique property Duas Portas. Bordering the mouth of the River Douro in the elegant, breezy neighbourhood of Foz, it’s about ten minutes from the city centre by car. Here too is the grander Vila Foz, a typical example of the small, Atlantic-facing palaces built by the rich in the 19th century so they could benefit from the sea air.

Food and drink

The residents of Porto, the Portuense, are commonly referred to throughout Portugal as “tripe-eaters”. This nickname dates from the Golden Age of Discovery, when Prince Henry the Navigator sent the best meat out with his exploratory fleets, leaving only tripe for the inhabitants of Porto. Still today tripe remains part of the city’s culinary heritage and is commonly eaten. So is Porto’s signature Francesinha sandwich, a concoction of ham, beef and sausage, topped with cheese and covered with a beer sauce.

Those seeking more elegant dishes will not be disappointed — the city’s top table is the Yeatman’s two-Michelin-star restaurant, with its talented chef Ricardo Costa. Other big Portuguese culinary talents include José Avillez and Henrique Sá Pessoa, both of whom have more casual eateries here. At Cantinho de Avillez try the octopus tartare or the deep-fried green beans, while at Sá Pessoa’s Tapisco the grilled scarlet prawns are a must.

Of course, you cannot come to Porto without exploring its most famous export. The majority of the port lodges have port wine tasting where you can compare ruby, white, tawny and vintage ports as well as learn about its fascinating history.

Don’t miss

WOW — the World of Wine museum — is the city’s hot ticket. Set on the banks of the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia, this impressive interactive museum has something for everyone. Children can create their own chocolate bars, while a drinking vessel museum exhibits goblets and glasses spanning thousands of years. It also covers the history of Porto through the ages and a “wine experience” helps to demystify this rarefied world as well as explore the different wine regions in Portugal. With a wide choice of restaurants and cafés on site, there’s easily enough going on to fill a whole day here.

If you fancy exploring beyond the city, a 30-minute journey will get you to Casa de Chá de Boa Nova, chef Rui Paula’s two-Michelin-star restaurant. Designed by the Pritzker prizewinning architect Siza Vieira, its rock-edge position gives diners the memorable experience of feasting on fresh seafood while waves roar towards them.

Know before you go

The best way to get around Porto is definitely by foot, so bring flat shoes or sandals to help with the cobbles and hills. The city’s lively nightlife often spills onto the streets, so it’s also worth packing an extra layer for the cool night air.

Port is a popular drink with young and old, often served as a port and tonic, made with white port, tonic and mint.

Be sure to bring plenty of euros — although card machines are increasingly used here, cash is your best bet.

Take me there

Inspired to visit Porto but yet to book your trip? Here are the best packages from Tui and British Airways. These are the best tours of Porto from our trusted partners.

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