Fanning out from the Duoro River, the medieval city of Porto lifts like a breeze from its quiet banks. Although Porto has long languished in the shadow of Lisbon – Portugal’s glitzier capital – its historical centre far outshines its neighbour when it comes to history. Since the 1st century BC, Porto has flourished in trade and military endeavours, thanks to its position astride the Atlantic Ocean.
Porto has bounced back from a recent dip in trade, applying creative solutions to its more neglected spaces. Once-abandoned shopping malls have become incubators of fashion and design boutiques businesses, crumbling buildings have been rescued from decay by local entrepreneurs and there’s a revived spirit spreading through the city. With its cobbled streets, pile of staggered, russet roofs and stately bridges leaping over the river, marvelling is as much of a to-do as any tangible activity.
The run down
Porto is Portugal second biggest city and it centres on a curve of the Duoro River, rising steeply to create a sweep of streets that require a steady climb. The city extends to the south side of the river, known as Vila Nova de Gaia, and while port fans will want to wander across the bridge for the plethora of cellars selling the delicious drop, most of the city’s activity is concentrated on the north side. Neighbourhoods such as Baixa, the city’s downtown borough, is where you’ll want to focus your wanderings – it’s here that locals are successfully mixing old and new with fresh bars and cafés popping up frequently.
How to get there from Lisbon
Most visitors to Portugal will use Lisbon as a jumping-off point and getting to Porto is straightforward. The train journey takes less than three hours, with more than 30 services running the route daily. Or, if you’re doing wider travel, driving is easy, too – the well-marked E1 highway gets you there in under three hours.
Porto doesn’t deal in big-ticket, bucket-list style landmarks. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see, however; it’s a city that unfurls slowly and magically as your make your way around, poking into cobbled corners. If you can handle the steepness of the streets, exploration by foot is your best bet for understanding the city’s true beauty. Here are some spots you should stroll past.
Chapel of Souls / Capela Das Almas
Portuguese architecture is defined by the vibrant azulejo tilework that veils the exterior of many buildings. In the case of Capela Das Almas, or the Chapel of Souls, on Rua de Santa Catarina in the city’s centre, an intricate depiction of the lives of Catholic saints graces the church’s facade. Loop in São Bento railway station, less than a kilometre away, which also has a stunning display of telework across its walls and roof.
Palácio da Bolsa
Intricate doesn’t begin to describe the decor of Palácio da Bolsa, the former stock exchange, on Rua Ferreira Borges. The ceilings soar, dancing with gilded plasterwork, while the indisputable highlight of Salão Árabe, an interior ballroom, twinkles with a fairytale quality. Some 18 kilograms of gold will do that to a room.
Bibliophiles will lose hours in the grand, palatial Livraria Lello, an enchanting bookstore with a ruby-red spiral staircase. Although the building only dates back to 1906, there’s a sense of time-gone-by to the multi-level space, where a staggering 1000 tomes (on average) are sold daily. Also, if the bookshop feels familiar, there might be magic afoot: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling lived in Porto before she penned her explosively popular novels and there’s a definite Hogwart’s feel to the space.
End your day at the peaceful Virtues Garden, where the sunset throws a stunning veil of scorched light over the city’s scatter of terracotta-topped buildings. It’s a fair climb to the top for that view though, so pack some water and determination.
Porto’s historic buildings inform the city’s singular charm. In some parts of the city, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish it from some arrondissement of Paris, such is the Neoclassical appeal of the grand terraces that line the streets. For this reason, commit to staying in a place that holds onto its architectural history.
The stately Le Monumental Palace, an extravagant five-star establishment practically sparkles, with Art Deco touches that blend seamlessly with modern design. The hotel also has impeccable service, marble bathrooms, a glistening on-site pool and comfy library, as well as a central location. A more modern choice is Torel 1884, where the bones date back to its namesake year and the decor is imbued with the spirit of far-flung Portuguese explorers. That translates to exotic tapestries, porcelain and textiles employed with an elegant flamboyance throughout the rooms, all adorned with standalone, deep-soaking tubs.
Eat and drink
Despite its breezy reputation, things can get a little heavy in Porto. The Francesinha, or “Little Frenchie", is a powerhouse of a local delicacy, openly defying its diminutive name. It could seem easier to name what’s not in the sandwich than what is but we’ll give it a go: two bread slices with pork, smoked sausage, bacon and beefsteak between them, draped in melted cheese and finished with a fried egg. Stop your heart with one at the decidedly no-frills A Cantarinha Cafe.
For a more refined glimpse at Porto cuisine, twice-Michelin-starred The Yeatman is the gold standard of the Porto dining scene, complete with a 10-course degustation and secret wine cellar. Seasonally shifting menus have a locavore lean.
But the city’s most famous eatery remains Cantinho do Avillez. Head chef José Avillez is a household name here, as are his five eateries around the country. The Porto outpost is deceptively relaxed for such an accomplished fine diner – decor is homely but dishes are decidedly more elevated. Seafood from the Algarve is featured heavily and flavours are simple and fresh.
Where to drink port
The hint is in the name. Porto and the surrounding Douro Valley is known for its namesake drink - the thick, sweet dessert wine of port, traditionally served at the end of a meal. And, much like France’s Champagne region, true port only originates in the Douro Valley.
If you don’t have time to venture out of the city, start your education at Espaço Porto Cruz. A museum of sorts dedicated to port, you’ll have access to tastings, port-centric workshops and a stunning view of the city from a rooftop terrace. ÀBolina, a more intimate wine bar to the east of the Dom Luis I Bridge, has a extensive and expertly curated port wine list for sampling, with a sweeping glimpse over the river and beyond.