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Leaving the dazzling city of Lisbon behind, I am now ready to take off to my next adventure. Many of magazines and online have mentioned Porto quite a few times, supported by lots of Insta-worthy images across Instagram, which leave you wanting to see more. Porto is well known for its large range of ports, Portuguese wines, the vast display of heritage tiles embedded on its walls, including the picturesque Don Louis bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel who also designed one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
A quick one hour flight, which feels more like 20 minutes, will get you from Lisbon to Porto airport or, if you wish, you can choose to drive, stopping at each town en-route and this could easily take up to three hours, but well worth the journey. Porto is a city on the rise, tempting travellers with its pretty old town, excellent wine bars, and golden rooftops. This isn’t a destination for those who want up-to-the-minute cool – this is the spot for long, seafood dinners, slow strolls through sleepy streets and a white port and tonic as the sun sets. It is traditional Portugal at its finest, without the crowds of Lisbon or the tackiness of the Algarve. And with the addition of a new service from Monarch and a wealth of other budget flights available, it’s never been easier to get there.
Portugal’s coastal city, Porto is well known for its medieval relics, soaring bell towers, and extravagant churches. It truly is an extraordinary city with its family-run taverns, and the rambling old town forms the heart of the city, with beautiful buildings adorned with tiles and sloping, cobbled streets. The Douro river underlines the city, with Vila Nova de Gaia just over the bridge. As both slope down towards the river, it’s not hard to find a great viewpoint of the terracotta rooftops and dreamy architecture. There are a few great spots further out of the city, glorious street art cutting through the historic heart, but for the most part, you’ll be fine exploring on foot.
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What to see?
There are a wealth of attractions to see in Porto. You can get in touch with Visit Porto to arrange your itinerary and a day passes in advance, or drop in at their tourism office and they will be happy to help you with your planning. To be fair, the day pass is unbelievably cheap, costing no more than six euros and offers free entrance to 11 museums, discounts of up to 15% in 21 restaurants, a 50% discount for 8 museums and monuments, a guided visit to Casa da Música and the Stock Exchange Palace, plus many more, and unlimited access to public transport is also included. You can find out more information here.
There are still more places to see, such as São Bento Railway Station, famous for its iconic tiled walls. The transportation hub located in the heart of Porto do more than shuttle people back and forth. The French Beaux-Arts structure holds within it 20,000 magnificent Azulejo tin-glazed ceramic tiles depicting Portugal’s past – its royalty, its wars, and its transportation history.
The blue and white tiles were placed over a period of 11 years (1905–1916) by artist Jorge Colaço. Built in 1900, the beautiful station was named after a Benedictine monastery that once occupied its space back in the 16th century. Destroyed by fire in 1783, the house of worship was rebuilt but, by the 19th century, was torn down to make way for the expanding railway system. Built by architect José Marques da Silva, the very first stone was laid by King Carlos I himself. Five years after the station was built, the intricate tile work began. Included in the landscapes and ethnographic displays are the Battle of Valdevez (1140) and the Conquest of Ceuta (1415) along with several other important events and places that created the vibrant city which houses this unusual and beautiful station.
Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto) and its cloister are two of the best attractions in Porto and a definite must when visiting the city. The construction of the Cathedral began during the twelfth century, but it has been rebuilt and renovated numerous times throughout the centuries. This explains why the Cathedral is a mix of architecture styles.
The temple is predominantly Baroque in style, although its façade and the nave are Romanesque, and its cloister and one of the chapels are Gothic in style. Inside, the large pillars make the nave seem narrow with a high ceiling. It has a restrained decoration with bare walls and only the high altar and some of its chapels are decorated in a Baroque style. The Cathedral sits on a square with a column in the middle. This is where the criminals of Porto were hanged. The square also offers impressive views over the city, the Douro River and the wine cellars on the waterfront.
The Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) is currently the headquarters of Porto’s Commercial Association. The building was constructed mid-nineteenth century in a neoclassical style and is situated in the city centre, next to St Francis Church. This historical building was established on the ruins of St Francis Convent after it was burnt down during the Liberal Wars.
The Palácio da Bolsa was built in 1842 but wasn’t opened until 1891. Inside this neoclassical national monument, you will find the large central courtyard called Pátio das Nações (Courtyard of the Nations), enclosed by a glass structure which lets beautiful natural light into the whole Palace.
Livraria Lello & Irmão, housed in a neo-gothic building from 1906, is a bookstore in the heart of Porto, very close to the Torre dos Clérigos. It is considered the most beautiful library in Europe and one of the most beautiful in the world. The bookshop is exquisitely decorated, covered in wood, and will transport you to the nineteenth century. The bookstore has two floors and its shelves, packed with books of all shapes and sizes, cover every wall and touch the ceilings.
An elegant red wooden staircase stands in the middle of the library, connecting both floors, while the stained-glass window at the top fills the shop with natural light bringing the room to life. You cannot miss a visit to this unique bookshop, where you’ll feel you’ve just walked into a fairy-tale setting instead of a library. Livraria Lello’s magnificence is said to have been the author J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for her Harry Potter novels when she lived in Porto.
One of the most stunning churches I have ever seen is the Igreja do Carmo, built between 1756 and 1768 in the rococo or late Baroque style by Jose de Figueiredo Seixas, a disciple of Nicolau Nasoni. The Igreja do Carmo has an outstanding Azulejo-covered exterior with the Azulejos added in 1912. The tiles were made locally in Vila Nova de Gaia and designed by the artist Silvestro Silvestri, depicting scenes of the founding of the Carmelite Order and Mount Carmel.
The exterior facade of the church is richly crafted with a rectangular portal, flanked by two religious sculptures of the prophets Elijah and Elisha carved in Italy. The interior of the church has a single nave with seven lavish gilt altars, the work of sculptor Francisco Pereira Campanha, as well as a number of fine oil paintings.
Where to stay?
The charming and luxurious Pestana Vintage Porto Hotel in Porto occupies part of a 16th, 17th and 18th-century building, classified as a World Heritage site by Unesco. The rooms are decorated in contemporary tones, have large bathrooms and most of its rooms face the river. There is also a restaurant and bar for your convenience. Situated right of the waterfront of Douro River, the hotel is ideally located for those who would like to explore the city – perhaps taking in a riverboat cruise or a walk to the nearby sights of the Porto Cathedral and Torre dos Clerigos Bell Tower.
The Pestana Porto Vintage Hotel has 103 rooms, including 7 suites and 42 deluxe rooms with river views, hard to believe this old and idyllic hotel has so many rooms. Observe the life and the bustle of downtown from the window of your room, and with all the rooms having been created from old houses of different sizes and orientations in the block, it’s irresistible. With excellent and practical insulation of double glazing and frames, the peace is total.
The hotel itself offers a bar specialising in cocktails, including exquisite yet artistic bespoke cocktails representing countries from all over the globe, such as England, Japan, USA and many other European countries. I was served a particular cocktail by the bartender, known as the City of Love which represented romantic Paris. Presented in a metal and glass box to symbolise the French architecture, allied with the fragrances of romanticism, the elegance of a culture bursting with history and filled with an opulent scent. The hotel’s restaurant, The RIB BEEF & WINE, exhibits a trendy and cosmopolitan decor, ideal for dinner with friends, at a casual and fun environment where you can still find the most sophisticated range of wines and spirits. And now, let me take the opportunity to tell you more on my ‘Where to eat’ section.
Where to eat?
There are several dining places which I would recommend you try from an authentic dining experience to contemporary dining with a”twist”. Porto offers a huge range of restaurants and, when it comes to talent in the kitchen, Porto knows few rivals in Portugal. With the Atlantic on its doorstep, the Douro vineyards rolling east and the Trás-os-Montes producing smoked meats in its fumeiros and tangy cheeses, the city cherry picks the finest regional produce. You have probably guessed by now where port actually originated – from Portugal to Porto to Port. Why did I not think of this before? Mind you, the port in Porto is truly unmissable!
To find out what puts the ‘Port’ in Porto, we must cross the Ponte Dom Luís I to Vila Nova de Gaia. The neighbourhood wings you back to the 17th-century beginnings of port production when British merchants created a new after-dinner snifter by adding a dash of brandy to fermenting wine. Their grand lodges march uphill from the river and open their doors for tours of barrel-lined cellars and tastings. Get versed in port wine at the contemporary Espaço Porto Cruz, with exhibitions and tastings (€5 for three ports) in a restored 18th-century riverside building, then head up to the roof terrace for cracking views of the historic centre on the opposite side of the river.
In need of a shot of caffeine after your exploring? The art nouveau A Brasileira Café rewinds to a more glamorous age, with its opulently gilded, mirrored interior and dapper waiters. The revamped 1920s Leitaria da Quinta do Paço is a cafe-patisserie bringing a dash of Paris to Porto. The feather-light, cream-filled éclairs are a thing of beauty, in flavours from classic lemon to blue cheese, apple and fennel, and chocolate with port wine, not to mentions their Pastel de Nata, which is truly delicious.
This palatial riverside hotel is around 3.9 km from Dom Luís I Bridge, Pestana Palácio do Freixo. The hotel itself includes the elegant Nasoni bar and Paladium restaurant, which is spread across three rooms. The restaurant menu focuses on dishes typical to northern Portugal, using ingredients sourced from local producers.
Dishes such as beef carpaccio and cured codfish were well executed, but as the menus reflect the seasons, this may change. But the biggest luxury you will find here is undoubtedly the incredibly attentive and ever-present service staff, always ready with help and suggestions to open the way to new flavors and experiences, along with the picturesque garden and building. The hotel building is a unique example of Baroque architecture, with about 10 thousand square metre of gardens and green spaces offering breathtaking views of the River Douro.
The setting of an excellent Urban Resort, it is a member of the exclusive consortium The Leading Hotels of the World and provides you with an unparalleled experience that marries traditional values with contemporary comfort. The Pestana Palácio do Freixo is characterised by its sumptuous eighteenth-century architecture. It was built by Nicolau Nasoni, one of the most important architects that helped Porto become a World Heritage Site and one of the most recognised dining experiences.
Or perhaps you are looking for something a little more suited to an evening experience? Don’t worry, I have this one sorted out for you. The Rib Beef and Wine is located in Pestana Vintage Porto Hotel & World Heritage Site, in Praça da Ribeira, of the Invicta city and promises to be the preferred spot for true meat lovers
The trendiest restaurant in town is ready to showcase the best selection of national and international DOP meat. The menu, signed by chef Rui Martins, highlights the Tomahawk Irish Black Angus, a steak with a unique cut, intense oculus, a truly unique experience; the Chateaubriand is a dish which comes with six slices of steak along with your personal preference of sauce and side dishes. Not to mention their dessert, a well–deserved specialty, this zesty Lemon Meringue Pie.
This is an unmissable opportunity to visit this beautiful, rustic yet colourful Portuguese city with its iconic tiled walls, literally, almost everywhere – it is truly so photogenic. Get your Instagram out and be prepared to capture dozens of photographs. Porto is a perfect city retreat – a minimum stay of two nights will let you enjoy all the attractions on your doorstep. Based on the weather, Porto is best visited from April through to September. The peak tourists season aligns with the school summer holidays but, unlike the Algarve or the Lisbon coastline, there is less of a manic summer rush. Sounds ideal for you? Get booking and go, meanwhile don’t forget to bring your bottle of perfect port back home with you.
Photos by Robert Morgan