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Porto Spotlight

By: Anja Mutic

It may have taken 3000 years, but Porto has finally caught up to Lisbon as a must-visit destination in Portugal. And it’s all happened in the last decade.

After years of being known predominantly as an industrial Portuguese outpost – whence the Portuguese saying, “Lisbon shows off, Porto works” – this northern hamlet perched over the Douro River has received a series of kudos of late that have transformed it into one of the most enchanting small cities to visit in Europe.

First came the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, in 1996; second, the opening of the country’s finest contemporary art museum; and, most recently, the vaunted title of European Capital of Culture. And this, in addition to Porto’s well-established heritage as the birthplace – and continued source – of port, the fine fermented wine that bears the city’s name and which many of us are known to enjoy on a cold winter’s night or after a terrific meal. While the port made here has always been reason enough to visit – and the dozens of port lodges here would certainly tempt a teetotaler – the ambitious urban renewal that resulted from its recent accolades has given Porto more to boast about than wine-tasting. Indeed, visitors nowadays will find emergent arts, nightlife, and restaurant scenes that are so happening, even the rival citizens of Lisbon are coming to town. What’s more, Porto has also managed to achieve all of this while maintaining a refreshingly undiscovered feel that’s uncommon in such an atmospheric spot with so much going on.

While visitors used to come the city for just one day – to sample the port and move on – Porto is now better appreciated in three days, which will give you plenty of time to explore the protected sites, enjoy the Old World vibe, and try some renowned port labels like Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, and Graham’s. If you can afford a longer stay, wonderful surprises also await nearby, including trips to the scenic Douro Valley, where port grapes are grown, and the cities of Braga and Guimarães in the Minho province, where Portuguese sights of significant religious and historical import are found.

Attractions

You could easily spend a couple of days just soaking up the dreamy Old World vibe of the Ribeira, Porto’s protected waterfront area, and we certainly recommend doing just that – but the city also has some heavyweight cultural institutions outside the area that command attention. Plus, you definitely can’t leave the town without spending an afternoon (or more) sampling port at the source, at one of the dozens of lodges that produce it here.

While Porto is a joy to discover independently – it’s a compact city with most sights within easy walking, or sometimes climbing, distance – it’s still easy to lose your bearings in its maze of alleyways, passages, and cul-de-sacs. As a result, we highly recommend taking a guided tour. All city tours are available through Porto Tours, Porto’s most reputable purveyor of tourist activities; we especially like their thematic walks that cover aspects of the city’s history, art, or architecture (3hrs; €5). If you’re strapped for time, or simply don’t feel fit enough to climb the steep streets, you can also see most of the attractions on a bus tour (half-day; €30) or, by a more pleasant option, a mini-tram ride (€6; 1hr45min; includes a visit to a port lodge). Porto Tours same outfit also organizes personalized tours (half-day; €40+).

Before you set out on your own, however, make sure you acquire the excellent-value Passe Porto tourist card; a day card costs €7.50 (or €15.50 for three days) and gets you unlimited use of buses, streetcars, and subway, as well as discounts at attractions, restaurants and shops. You can get one at the City Council Tourism Office on Rua Clube dos Fenianos 25 (July–Sept Mon–Fri 9am–7pm, Sat & Sun 9.30am–4.30pm; rest of the year Mon–Fri 9am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 9.30am–4.30pm); they also have a second branch on Rua do Infante D. Henrique 63 (same hours) just up from the Ribeira. While you’re in the tourism offices, be sure to also pick up a free, detailed city map.

Note that you can also check what’s on in Porto during your visit on the tourism board’s website. Once there, pick up the quarterly, bilingual guide Agenda do Porto, available, free, all around town.

Churches and Landmarks
With 28 churches and chapels and an impressive number of architectural and historical landmarks scattered around Porto’s old town, you could easily spend days on end touring them all. We’ve covered the ones not to miss.

The finest – and certainly most scenic – introduction to the city is a visit to the sixth floor of the Torre dos Clérigos (Nov–March daily 10am–noon & 2–5pm; April–Oct daily 9.30am–1pm & 2–7pm; August daily 10am–7pm; €1–€5; Rua San Filipe de Nery), a Baroque tower designed by the Italian architect Nicolau Nisoni in 1754. While the interior is notable for its superb Rococo carvings, it’s the panoramic city vistas from the belfry that are the real draw here. Note that there is no elevator to get you up there, so you’ll have to climb some 225 steps to take in the views; you’ll be glad you did, however, since the views are simply astonishing.

From the top of the tower, you’ll immediately notice Porto’s most prominent landmark, the imposing cathedral (Nov–March daily 8.45am–12.30pm & 2.30–6pm; April–Oct daily 8.45am–12.30pm & 2.30–7pm; Terreiro da Sé), soaring over the skyline. This eclectic structure is definitely worth a visit for its unique mélange of architectural styles – you’ll find everything from Romanesque foundations to a Gothic cloister and even a Baroque loggia. Make sure to peek inside, too, at its fabulous silver altarpiece and pretty painted tiles. Architectural value aside, the Sé does double duty as a city reference point; if you get lost on your peregrinations through Porto’s tousled web of streets, just look for the church spire to guide you back to the center.

Even more remarkable than the Sé is the marvelous Gothic extravaganza of the Igreja da São Francisco (daily March & April, Sep & October 9am–6pm; May–Aug 9am–7pm; Nov–Feb 9am–5pm; €3, with museum; Rua do Infante D. Henrique), Porto’s most striking Catholic sanctuary. The stupendous Baroque interiors here come complete with gilded carvings, gold-leaf motifs and other lavish ecclesiastical decorations. Don’t miss the church vaults that once served as the resting place of the city’s inhabitants; these days, the catacombs house a small but fascinating museum that displays religious paintings, human skulls, and a smattering of other random artifacts.

For a change of pace, take a peek at the São Bento train station, a landmark turn-of-the-century building that vies with New York’s Grand Central station in terms of atmosphere and artistry. Once past the magnificent Old World entrance hall, the main concourse is covered with 20,000 azulejos (as Portuguese tiles are known locally), done in an oil-painting style and depicting various historical and local agricultural scenes.

Cais da Ribeira
Once you’ve situated yourself, head to the Cais da Ribeira (for “river quays”), the area around the Douro River. This is Porto at its most captivating – where you’ll find the city’s soul in an exceedingly atmospheric setting. Indeed, one look around and you’ll understand why UNESCO proclaimed this stunning quarter a World Heritage Site in 1996. The area has witnessed quite a revival since then, with many of the buildings being renovated and upscale restaurants and cafés now occupying former riverfront warehouses; they’re a good place to stop and people-watch after you’ve explored the area (our favorites are reviewed later).

We recommend simply walking the streets here – there are no specific attractions, per se. That said, you should definitely start by strolling the 3km-long cobblestone promenade that lines the Douro itself. Few views in Europe are as colorful as this one: flat-bottomed boats loll on the water, six eye-catching bridges span its width – one of them, the Dona Maria Pia, was designed completely in metal by Gustav Eiffel back in 1877 – and the lot of it is backdropped by a marvelous warren of twisted alleyways home to ancient, colorful townhouses, laundry-laden balconies, and centuries-old arcades.

Finally, cap off your visit with a cruise on the Douro River itself. Indeed, a boat trip on the water that flows past this colorful neighborhood is not to be missed; if you can only take one, we highly recommend the fifty-minute cruise of the six bridges, available from Porto Tours (€5-€8); the same agency also offers a terrific moonlit evening cruise (€7.50).

Museums and Palaces
While you might be tempted to spend the remainder of your visit absorbing the ambience of the Ribeira, Porto has a thriving arts scene that’s worth some investigation, as well. For a relatively small city, Porto actually counts a large number of museums and palaces – over 20, in fact! Not all of them impress, however, but the ones that do are real gems; we’ve highlighted our best picks, here.

The most extraordinary ‘palace’ in Porto, and a definite highlight on the city’s tourist trail, is the massive Palácio da Bolsa (by guided tour only; daily Apr–Oct 9am–7pm, Nov–March 9am–1pm & 2–6pm, every 30 minutes; €5; Rua Ferreira Borges), a neoclassical 19th-century structure designed to house a stock exchange, not royalty (as its name might otherwise suggest). These days, it’s open to visitors for daily guided tours around the elaborately decked out rooms. The main attraction is an oval-shaped Arabian Hall that’s reminiscent of the Alhambra, right down to its ornate woodwork and stained-glass windows. There’s also a pretty garden out back.

Meanwhile, the shining star of Porto’s museum-world is the astounding Fundaçao de Serralves (April–Sept Tues–Thurs 10am–7pm, Fri & Sat 10am–10pm, Sun 10am–8pm; October–March until 7pm only on Sundays; €5 for both museum and park, or €2.50 for park only; Rua D. João de Castro 210), the largest and most visited modern art museum in all of Portugal. Set inside a gorgeous 44-acre garden about a mile-and-a-half west of the city center, and housed in a spectacular Art Nouveau building designed by Porto’s own Álvaro Siza Vieira, the museum hosts changing exhibits of contemporary Portuguese artists, with an occasional international name thrown in. Make sure you set aside a couple of hours for exploring the grounds, too; you’ll get a glimpse of the glorious pink Art Deco mansion that once housed the Serralves family’s collection, while the gardens themselves are beautifully landscaped and dotted with sculptures, fountains and art installations.

Back in town, the excellent Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis (Tues 2–6pm, Wed–Sun 10am–6pm; €3; Rua D. Manuel II) showcases an impressive collection of 18th- and 19-century Portuguese masterpieces, including the works by renowned homegrown sculptor António Soares dos Reis, as well as a first-rate collection of ceramics, glass and silver.

Of Porto’s smaller museums, the delightful Casa-Museu Guerra Junqueiro (Tues–Sat 10am–12.15pm & 2–5.30pm, Sun 2–5.30pm; €0.75; Rua de d. Hugo 32) makes another worthy stop. Set in an 18th-century Baroque building right below the Sé cathedral, the edifice once served as the home of a famous Portuguese poet; his private collection of art and memorabilia – including Islamic ceramics, silver pieces and religious-themed wood carvings – are on display.

For a taste of Porto’s history as a riverfront town, we also recommend the Casa do Infante (Tues–Sat 10.30am–12.30pm & 2–5.30pm, Sunday 2–5.30pm; free; Rua da Alfândega 10), the alleged birthplace of the famous 15th-century explorer Henry the Navigator. Today, the casa houses a small history museum displaying medieval parchments, drawings, and whatnot.

Port-Tasting Tours
Of course, you can’t leave Porto without tasting the sweet fortified wine that bears its name and gave it an international reputation (and lasting export). The stuff has been aged here for centuries, in nearby Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro from the Ribeira. The area is easily reachable by a ten-minute walk across Ponte Dom Luis I, and you’ll find plenty of outlets offering port samplings and tours. Choosing which of the 50-odd traditional port lodges to visit here can be overwhelming – and intoxicating to boot! We’ve highlighted the top four – so set aside an afternoon for some sampling, and plan on taking a nap when you’re done!

The best crash course is offered by the renowned Sandeman label (Nov–March Mon–Fri 9.30am–12.30pm & 2–5pm; April–Oct daily 10am–12.30pm & 2–6pm; 022/374 0533; €3, redeemable against one purchased bottle per person; Largo Miguel Bombarda 3), a distillery founded back in 1790 and housed in a former convent. The cost of entry includes a visit to a small museum as well.

For a less touristy experience, head to Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman (Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, July & Aug also on Sat 10am–6pm; 022/742 800; free; Rua do Choupelo 250), a wonderfully atmospheric lodge that’s been around since 1692 and features some top-notch vintage brands; it’s quite a hike up the hill, but the tour is very informative – you’ll learn about the fascinating history of the lodge, which has seen three centuries of port trading, as well as get insiders’ tips about how to recognize a fine port wine.

Also worth a visit is the 122-year-old Ramos Pinto (June & Sept Mon–Sat 10am–6pm, Oct–May Mon–Sat 9am–1pm & 2–5pm, July & August open on Sundays 10am–5pm; 022/370 7000; free; Av. Ramos Pinto 380) offering guided tours and a smattering of 19th-century port-related exhibits in the small cellar museum, as well as a historical library with all manner of port-themed literature.

Another notable lodge is the small – and less crowded – Ferreira (March–Oct Mon–Fri 10am–12.30pm & 2–6pm; Nov–Feb Mon–Fri 10.30am–12.30pm & 2–6pm; 022/374 5292; €2.50, redeemable towards a bottle purchase; Rua da Carvalhosa 19/103), also in the top tier of illustrious port lodges in Vila Nova and offering excellent tastings and tours.

If you still want to know more about Port, and have the time to spare, you can also take a day-long cruise to the Douro Valley – Porto’s equivalent of Napa – where the vineyards that produce Porto grapes are found. Porto Tours, again, is the company that arranges such outings (one-day cruises from €67, lunch included).

Day Trips
If you’re staying in the area for longer than three days, you’ll definitely have time to make a leisurely afternoon trip to the seaside area of Foz, an upscale residential neighborhood three miles northwest of the city center, where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Reached by a scenic twenty-minute ride on the rattling historic tram that departs from the Ribeira, Foz is a quiet area of stately mansions, well-manicured gardens and an oceanfront boulevard with a string of al fresco cafés and restaurants. If you have a penchant for seafood, head another four miles northwest (by local bus or taxi) to reach the town of Matosinhos; it’s known for its top-notch seafood restaurants (see our recommendation, below).

Further afield, two ancient cities in the southern Minho province also call for day-trips; you can visit these independently or join a guided tour through Porto Tours (€100 per person). The first gem, Portugal’s religious capital of Braga, lies 31 miles north of Porto and boasts an impressive cathedral in addition to the legendary Bom Jesus do Monte pilgrimage site, an 18th-century hilltop church a couple of miles southeast of the center; a local bus leaves every thirty minutes or so (on weekends, at any rate) from the Cristal Farmácia on Avda. da Liberdade. While a funicular leads to the top of the wooded hill on which the oratory stands, its epic granite stairway is still climbed by devout pilgrims – who ascend it on their knees. You’ll be able to take a breather in the site’s enchanting fountain- and grotto-filled gardens once you reach the top.

The other historic city of note is Guimarães, 30 miles northeast of Porto, the birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Dom Afonso Henriques. It’s worth visiting to inspect the commanding 10th-century castle in which Alfonso was born (Tues–Sun 9.30am–12.30am & 2–5pm; free); the medieval quarters are exceedingly atmospheric.

Hotels

As Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto boasts an array of accommodation options to suit every budget, most of which are located in the city center. For ambience, we suggest staying in the World Heritage area around the Ribeira, where you’ll find our favorite luxury hotel, the charming Pestana Porto (Praça da Ribeira 1; 351 (0)22 340 2300) right on the riverfront, an exquisitely renovated complex of eleven historic buildings with lots of character, 48 stylishly appointed and light-flooded rooms and suites, most with splendid river views; deluxe perks to impress; and a fine restaurant and bar. The best moderate option is the delightful Grande Hotel do Porto (Rua Santa Catarina 197; 351 (0)22 207 6690) on Porto’s main shopping drag of Rua Santa Catarina, a recently renovated historic property with classy interiors and 99 spacious rooms and suites with a contemporary look and feel. The best budget choice is the pleasant Hotel Malaposta (Rua da Conceição 80; 351 (0)22 200 6278), a small cheerful place in the city heart, featuring colorful décor in its public spaces and 37 tasteful amenities-rich rooms. If you have cash to spare, worth a splurge is the opulent Hotel Infante de Sagres (Praça D. Filipa de Lencastre 62; 351 (0)22 339 8500), with richly appointed interiors, 72 glorious rooms and suites complete with all the five-star trimmings, plus a sophisticated restaurant and a cozy bar. See our Shermans Top Porto Hotels directory for more of our favorite local hotels and current deals.

Restaurants

You’ll find Porto’s most atmospheric restaurants around the riverfront – from traditional adegas (taverns) offering great-value set lunches to more upscale nouveau Portuguese restaurants. Seafood is wonderfully fresh and delectable, with dried codfish (bacalhau) and sardines featuring on all the menus. Note that the Portuguese are big meat eaters – if you’re feeling adventurous, you must try the traditional tripa á moda do Porto, tripe stew with sausage, chicken and beans, and the other Porto specialty, francesinha, a beef, ham and sausage sandwich covered with melted cheese and tomato sauce.

The best tripe-eating spot is the long-running Tripeiro (Rua Passos Manuel 195; closed Sun), while for francesinha, you can’t do better than the no-frills Regaleira (Rua do Bonjardim 87; closed Sat). Otherwise, if you just want to sample deliciously prepared regional seafood specialties, nab a table at the intimate O Escondidinho (Rua Passos Manuel 144; closed Sun; reserve ahead at 351 (0)22 200 1079) right by São Bento, with elaborately furnished interiors and pricey entrées such as lobster au gratin, oven-roasted cod, and sole fillets in Madeira wine. For a creative twist on Portuguese cuisine, book a table at the elegant Cometa (R. Tomaz Gonzaga 87), a remarkable newcomer to Porto’s dining scene, just northeast of São Francisco church. On the Ribeira, the classy Dom Tonho (Cais de Ribeira 13–15; reserve ahead at 351 (0) 22 200 4307) is a dining institution with beautifully renovated historic stone interiors, a stellar menu of authentic seafood and meat dishes, and a top-notch wine list. Outside of town, the chic Trinca Espinhas (Av. Serpa Pinto 283), in Matosinhos (see our day trip suggestions, above), is a hugely popular destination restaurant that dishes out gourmet-fresh fish and outstanding meat alternatives.

Our favorite budget eatery in town is the tiny Adega S. Nicolau, just up from the Ribeira (Rua S. Nicolau 1; closed Sun), a simple, traditional tavern popular with locals for its huge portions of wonderfully prepared Portuguese staples. For a quick snack of olives and cheese, head to the hugely evocative Mercado do Bolhão (Mon–Fri 8am–5pm, Sat 8am–1pm; Rua Fernandes Tomás), a colorful wrought-iron market built in the 19th century; it’s a perfect spot to catch the vibrant everyday moments of Porto.

For the best coffee break in town, visit the historic Café Majestic (Rua Santa Catarina 112), the grandest Belle Epoque café in Porto, with intricately appointed interiors and excellent, albeit pricey, coffee. You’ll find Porto’s hottest bar near the river, the chic and happening Aniki Bobo (Rua de Fonte Taurina 38), housed inside an ancient building and boasting cutting-edge décor and live music on most weekend nights. Meanwhile, if you’re strapped for time but don’t want to leave ‘portless’, there’s a splendid port-tasting bar right in Porto: Solar Vinho do Porto (Mon–Sat 2pm–11pm; Rua de Entre-Quintas 220) is housed inside an 18th-century building and offers a sophisticated lounge and a marvelous terrace where you can sample hundreds of port varieties starting at €1 per glass.

When To Go

Porto has a mild climate, which makes it great to visit year-round, though it does get its fair share of rain and fog in wintertime. That said, the city really comes alive in summer, with a host of regular festivals and events. One of the more raucous festivities is that of St John’s Eve (June 23 to 24), which celebrates both the summer solstice, and the saint of São João, with live folk music, random pottery displays (known as cascatas), and a fun after-dark fiesta on the Ribeira, where you’ll witness a unique local custom: locals hit one another with plastic hammers! During the summer, you can also catch jazz concerts in the Serralves Park. The best winter event is the 10-day cinema extravaganza known as the Fantasporto Film Festival held annually in late February. Note that you’re most likely to get the best bang for your buck by going in March – the city is warming up, the fog is dissipating, and prices are still quite reasonable.

High-season
June to mid-September

Low-season
November–February

Bang for your buck
March

Getting There

There are no direct flights to Porto from the U.S. and only Continental Airlines and TAP Portugal currently fly to Lisbon non-stop from New York. The latter airline is arguably more convenient, as you can fly TAP from its US gateway in Newark, with connecting service to Porto arranged all at once. Flying time from New York to Lisbon is about 6.5 hours; from Los Angeles it’s 15 hours (with a layover); from Atlanta it’s 12 hours – factor in an extra 45 minutes (plus layover time in Lisbon) for the connecting flight to Porto. If you can spare the time, our preferred route to Porto from Lisbon is a more scenic one that involves catching the train from Lisbon; it’s a three- to five-hour ride, depending on which train you take.

Another option is to book an air-and-hotel package to Portugal, with an itinerary that includes Porto. Petrabax Tours offers a seven-day escorted tour of Northern Portugal, with deluxe hotels, meals and tours, while Go-Today usually has seven-day fly-and-drive packages, with air to Lisbon and car rental.

For heaps of useful information once you’ve arrived, City Council Tourism Office on Rua Clube dos Fenianos 25 (July–Sept Mon–Fri 9am–7pm, Sat & Sun 9.30am–4.30pm; rest of the year Mon–Fri 9am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 9.30am–4.30pm), or the second branch on Rua do Infante D. Henrique 63 (same hours) just up from the Ribeira; they have a plethora of leaflets, maps, brochures and booklets in addition to the Passe Porto we referred to, above.

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