Boarded the plane in 2°C and pitch darkness. Landed in 20°C and beaming sunshine. Hello Porto – your first impression game is top notch. With only two and a half days here, the plan was get to the hotel and get straight out there. However, when we arrived we had to take a few minutes to take stock because it’s not your usual generic hotel experience. Every room is decorated with original artwork and the hotel is dotted with obscure and interesting antiques. Located right in the centre of Porto’s historical district, Hotel Infante Sagres is close to everything and is only a stone’s throw from its thriving nightlife area. We were welcomed with a glass of local port and a warm, friendly smile that would come to be the staple of everybody we met over the next two days.
If you’re based in the centre, Ribeira or Gaia, there is tons of stuff within walking distance. Otherwise the bus, metro and tram network will take you anywhere you need to go, very quickly. An Andante tour card is valid on nearly every form of public transport and can be bought for €7 per 24hrs or €15 for 72hrs. Travel is unlimited but you have to validate it as you board each time.
You can employ the services of a tour guide with a car if you want to explore beyond the city. Top Travel Tours can take you to the Douro Valley and beyond, and their guides are friendly, knowledgeable and speak a number of languages. Check out the Porto and the North site which will give you a good starting point for ideas about exploring more of the region.
First stop was Graham’s Port Lodge. It’s located just across the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia and is still a working cellar. You haven’t tasted port until you have tasted it at source. The 40 year old port I was lucky enough to sample was a sensory overload. Beautiful. Now, I felt super fancy drinking this, but if you can stretch to €450 a glass – you can try a 120 year old.
It was lunchtime by the time I finished the tour and seeing as Graham’s has a restaurant called Vinum on site, why go any further? Our host told me that good meat needs only salt. The side of rare beef I was served confirmed that. Cooked to absolute perfection, it was just what the doctor ordered after an early flight and bit of exploring.
You’ll need a brisk walk to work of a meal like that so I recommend taking a stroll down the riverbank in Vila Nova de Gaia. Grab an ice-cream and take in the views of Ribeira on the Porto side of the Douro. You can also grab a cable car up to the top of the Luis bridge and enjoy views of Porto and its breath-taking surrounds.
If a sit down is more your thing, check out the Rota Do Douro boat trips which depart from the Gaia side and Riberia side of the Douro. Accompanied by a multilingual guide the tour takes you under all the famous bridges of the Douro and out to where the river meets the sea. It takes about 50 minutes and departs on the hour.
On the subject of stunning views, a short walk across the Luis bridge and through the charming meandering back streets brings you to Clerigos Church. If you haven’t already walked off your lunch the 400 steps to the top will make sure those calories are burnt. It’s worth the effort though, especially in the golden hour before sunset when Porto radiates in the liquid glow of the evening sun. Perfect.
Just a short stroll up the street from Clerigos Church lies one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, Livraria Lello. A quiet respite from the cheerful bustle of Porto’s streets, this shop is said to have been frequented by JK Rowling when she taught English in Porto, and even served as inspiration for her writing. Don’t miss it.
Although Porto is a town steeped in tradition, especially when it comes to food, some folks aren’t afraid to mix it up. José Avillez, award-winning chef, takes traditional Portuguese fare and mixes it up with ideas he has gathered on his travels to create a delightful menu of Portuguese fusion cuisine. Cantinho do Avillez is located on Rua Duques de Bragança and is great place to enjoy something different in a relaxed atmosphere. Top tip – try the exploding olives.
After a long day, great food and even better wine it was back to the hotel where I have never see a more welcome sight than my bed.
Morning saw me stuff my face full of bacon, eggs, fruit, bread, ham and probably other delicious morsels I’m forgetting to mention at the hotel breakfast. I needed strength. It was time to get cultured, Porto style.
First stop – The Contemporary Museum of Serralves. The first thing that needs to be said about this place is that it was designed by Álvaro Siza, world-renowned Portuguese architect. The building has no facade, which is fascinating and serves a great physical metaphor for the ethos of the space. Like everything else in Porto, it’s for the people, not just the intellectual bourgeois. The exhibitions are constantly revolving, the gardens are beautiful and in the summer it hosts a 48 hour party, filled with families, art and music. Go there.
Onward to Casa D’Musica. This impressive structure was commissioned to mark Porto’s appointment of Cultural Capital of Europe in 2001. Unfortunately it ran a little over schedule and opened its doors in 2005. The acoustics were computer modelled, with scale versions of rooms built for testing. Take the tour, it’s a really interesting story and background to this wonderful space. Expect to find anything from a symphony orchestra to the latest in underground Portuguese hip-hop events in the evening. Oh, and if you want to bring your kids, that’s no problem. There are discovery spaces for kids to enjoy the venue and experiment with sounds and shapes while you take in a performance.
All cultured up, it was time for some lunch. To experience what the big deal was about seafood around here, Restaurante Os Lusiadas in Matosinhos was my destination. And wow, what a big deal it was. Consisting of crab and spinach, octopus, clams, oysters, barnacles, shrimp and definitely some I’m forgetting. Now full disclosure, this place is pretty fancy and a little pricier than some other restaurants. It’s not unusual for professional footballers and the like to be found here, but trust me, if you like seafood it’s worth the trip.
This afternoon was all about immersing myself in the past, present and future of FC Porto at FC Porto Museum. I was met by Luís, my incredibly nice guide whose friendliness was only surpassed by his encyclopedic knowledge of FC Porto. As the tour progressed and we wove our way through the museum I noticed that I was enveloped by blue and white light, which almost gave the sense of pulling on the team jersey. Very cool. With many walls and cases filled with silverware earned over the years, the hard work, passion and belief of teams past and present was palpable as I explored this incredible place. Worth a trip for fans of the beautiful game.
Last stop of the day was dinner at Fish Fixe in Ribeira. The food was tapas style, a mix of cheeses, smoked sausages, bread, pâté, cold meats and seafood. Fresh, filling and tasty as it comes. As usual in Porto, the staff were really friendly and knowledgeable, and the owner had some great stories including sharing a vintage port with the Rolling Stones when they ate at the restaurant after a gig. Top drawer food, wine and atmosphere.
I awoke a little sad this morning as I knew it was our last day in Porto. That soon dissipated with the anticipation of coffee and a spin with “Live Love Ride – Portugal Bike Tours” around Porto, Gaia and Matosinhos. I met the crew at the Yeatmen Hotel which has jaw-dropping from views of Porto. The guys run luxury bike tours from here and The Vintage Hotel in the Douro Valley. They hooked me up with an Ultegra equipped carbon Scott Addict (nice bike to non-cycling folk) and we rode along the beach roads and culminated in a nice effort up one of the short steep climbs back to the Yeatmen Hotel. Check them out if you want to experience Portugal by bike.
We couldn’t leave without experiencing a traditional Franceschina at Brasão. Luckily the cycle had left me in enough of a calorie deficit that I felt I could take it on. Washed down with a pint of Superbock, the beer of the North, it was a fitting end to a great trip.
Special thanks goes to all the people who welcomed us to Porto, Suzanne at Hotel Infante Sagres and Raquel at Porto and the North, Pedro at Live Love Ride – Portugal Bike Tours for driving up from Lisbon to go for a spin, and a special mention to our guide for the three days Paulo Mucha from Top Travel Tours who was tons of fun and full of great facts and stories about Porto.
Flights to Porto
- Brian Finucane