After years in the shadow of Lisbon, Porto has been transformed into one of Europe’s most vibrant cities.
My friend and I are standing on the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge as the rising sun casts a glow over Portugal’s beguiling second city. From high above the gleaming Douro River, the two distinct halves of Porto are laid out in front of us. To our right, the UNESCO-listed Historic Centre rises steeply from the river, its skyline dominated by the 12th-century Sé Cathedral. Below, a puzzle of red-tiled roofs and brightly painted medieval houses tumble down to the shore. Across the river, Gaia has been the heart of port wine production since the 1800s, its long, low-slung white port lodges (cellars) stacked on the hillside like Lego bricks.
Not long ago, any suggestion that this could be among the hottest cities in Europe would’ve been laughed off as a fantasy hatched after too much vinho do Porto. The historic centre was grim; its streets lined with derelict buildings. Things began to change in 2001 when Porto was named European Capital of Culture. Huge investment followed and lively new bars, stylish restaurants and boutique hotels sprang up in the old merchants’ houses. Tourism boomed and gave the city a vibrancy and energy to match the capital, Lisbon.
Despite the transformation, Porto has kept its soulful mix of tradition and innovation. Decaying edifices of medieval buildings sit alongside cool neon-lit restaurants and bars, and locals string washing across narrow streets alongside new Airbnb apartments.
The best way to explore the steep, cobbled laneways is on foot and we spend our first morning looping through the alleys and squares of the old town. We peek in at the lavish gold interiors of the Igreja de São Francisco church and take in the view from the fortress-like cathedral, high on the hill, where the city was born.
Ribeira is the buzzing heart of the old town, a riverfront area where the towering merchant houses are now bars and eateries with tables spilling onto the limestone-paved quayside.
This is a city that loves to eat. A decade ago, most of the restaurants served traditional fare (such as tripe and beans) but with Porto’s reinvention came new cuisines and last year the Michelin Guide listed 15 spots. “Porto is very open to new ideas,” says Ricardo Graça Moura, co-founder of the supercool Flow Restaurant & Bar, which serves Mediterranean dishes with a Portuguese twist in a renovated ceramics factory. We stop for coffee at the stunning Art Deco-era Majestic Café one day and the equally beautiful Guarany Café the next. We feast on roasted octopus at the relaxed hangout Cantinho do Avillez, owned by acclaimed chef José Avillez, and browse the Mercado do Bolhão, Porto’s recently renovated historic food market, its aisles stacked high with cheese, charcuterie, fish and flowers.
As the light fades we join the throngs along Cândido dos Reis for a glass of white port and tonic (Porto’s aperitif of choice). At Almeja, a tiny bistro in what was an old-school Porto grocery store, chef João Cura delivers a contemporary Portuguese tasting menu – and thanks to a delicious dish of succulent prawns, Mondego rice, fennel and aioli, our best meal of the trip. On another day, late in the afternoon, we take a taxi to the fishing village of Afurada at the mouth of the river and tuck into fresh sea bass at Armazém do Peixe (Rua 27 de Fevereiro, 311, Afurada de Baixo; +351 912 874 672).
Port remains one of the city’s biggest drawcards and we stroll over the bridge to Gaia to learn more about the fortified wine. At Graham’s Port, one of the oldest and best known producers, we tour the vast cellar of the 1890 Lodge, a dimly lit cavernous space with cobbled floors where thousands of oak casks are stacked. It’s cold down here and a soft musty twang hangs in the air. Around the corner, the bottled port is neatly labelled with vintages stretching back to 1892.
Just down from Graham’s is the extravagant new World of Wine which opened in 2020. Here, a swathe of centuriesold port warehouses have been restored to create a cultural district with six immersive museums, 12 restaurants, cafés and bars, plus a terrace with glorious views. “Porto has amazing history and great beauty but visitors usually just come for a couple of nights,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, which funded the development. “We wanted to give them a reason to stay longer.”
I’m certainly in no hurry to leave. Back on the other side of the river, we hit Rua Miguel Bombarda, a vibrant street lined with contemporary art galleries, vintage clothes shops and even more bars and restaurants. On charming Rua das Flores, we pop into Claus Porto, a haven of beautifully packaged soaps, candles and grooming products and, a short walk away, Chocolateria Equador, which turns out slabs of rich, handmade chocolate. Further up the hill, we browse the rails at The Feeting Room, a hip fashion and lifestyle store that champions local designers.
As the sun sinks lower in the sky, we make our way to Foz, where the sleepy waters of the Douro meet the wild Atlantic. It’s about 20 minutes on the 500 bus but its wide palm-lined boulevards, stretches of sand and crashing waves make it feel like a world away from the narrow streets of Porto town. Along the boardwalk, a clutch of bars serve sunset beers with million-dollar ocean views. We end the day with a six-kilometre stroll back to town on the scenic riverside path, our steps lit by the twinkling lights of the city’s bridges.
The Douro Valley
An easy day trip from Porto, the Douro Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world (since 1756), with terraced hillsides, deep ravines and beautiful quintas (wine estates). The fastest way to get there is by road, which takes about 90 minutes. Driving yourself is notoriously hairy so skip the hire car: The Cool Tours runs excellent small group trips from Porto with a guide and driver.
Image credit: Raquel Guiu Grigelmo
Alternatively, take the train from São Bento station to Pinhão, a pretty riverside town in the middle of the vineyards. It’ll take two-and-a-half hours or more but it’s a beautiful journey. From Pinhão, it’s walking distance to Quinta do Bomfim, which offers guided tours of its wine cellars. The circa-1889, Croft-owned Quinta da Roêda is also close by. Further up the valley, Quinta da Pacheca is one of the oldest estates in the region and has tours, a hotel and tastings, while Quinta do Vallado has a luxe hotel with rooms in the original 18th-century manor house plus a striking new wing.