Porto’s Soho lives in its CBD, known locally as the “Baixa”, to much delight of art lovers and revellers who find in the city’s historical centre a district that never sleeps.
This central district is currently one of the trendiest and liveliest areas of the capital of northern Portugal. Previously neglected and almost deserted, nowadays its days blend into the evenings in a non-stop frenzy of activity, from nocturnal ramblings to shopping in innovative commercial areas packed with art, design and fashion.
The movement that brought the historical centre back to life started almost a decade and a half ago, when Fernando Santos opened the first art gallery on Rua Miguel Bombarda, bringing celebrated artists to the city, and Marina Costa brought together under the same roof a select group of small, independent boutiques, the Artes em Partes.
As art and bohemia usually go hand in hand, bars and restaurants also started sprouting up nearby, specifically in the Rua Galerias de Paris and the Rua Cândido dos Reis. Miguel Araújo and Mário Carvalho, the latter as the former owner of Indústria club, became the pioneers of this district’s nightlife by opening the Café Lusitano (Rua José falcão), as well as the Teixeira twins who opened Plano B.
Café Lusitano, a unique architectural gem, used to be a milling warehouse. It is divided into four areas: a café that seems to be straight out of the 1950s, a dance floor with the proverbial retro glitter ball, a smaller and more intimate room with comfortable sofas for those late-night gatherings, and a shop selling vintage clothing and accessories.
Plano B is targeted at a younger crowd and is also divided into different areas, where everyone can tune into and dance to their favourite style of music. It was this bar, through gigs, performances and street animations, that first attracted the crowds as well as new entrepreneurs to this part of the city. Following in its wake, Luísa and Pedro Mexia Alves, together with three friends, opened the already iconic 3C.
Decorated with furniture dug up in second-hand stores and antique shops, photos portraying the city and the place’s own refurbishment works, it functions as a restaurant during lunchtime, with half a dozen plats du jour, and serves à la carte dinners in the evenings. After midnight it turns into a dance club with resident DJ Jorge Bessa, a real icon in the city.
When it’s warm enough, the party extends to the surrounding streets. The lofty 20th century architecture comprising mostly of old warehouses, and the refined décor of the bars and cafés recall the romantic atmosphere of the city of Paris. Charm is the key word in the area of the “Galerias de Paris”. One of the bars that best reflects this spirit is the Casa do Livro, a former bookstore turned into another dance club.
World of temptations
In Porto the sun also shines and, during the day, while some doors are closing after a lively night, others are opening up for business. Such as those of A Vida Portuguesa, a shop where one can buy, or simply savour and enjoy looking through, a plethora of Portuguese quaint, iconic products which have been forgotten for decades, still intact in their original packaging or inspired in them.
Another obligatory stop is Livraria Lello. This old bookshop was recently listed by Lonely Planet, as well as The Guardian, as the third most beautiful in the world.
Yet, the avant-garde in terms of design, fashion and art, is a ten-minute walk away in Rua Miguel Bombarda and its side streets. The most important hub can be found in the Bombarda Shopping Centre, with its second-hand furniture stores (meticulously restored or recovered and readjusted), as well as shops dealing in urban handicrafts, auteur photography, illustration and interior design, records and magazines, jewellery and designer clothes, organic products and hemp products, among so many other products. A veritable delight for aesthetes. The initiative was led by Marina Costa and Artur Mendanha who, in 2007, decided to turn what was then a space in visible decline into a place of convergence for new ideas and inspiration – all of them exclusive.
Amores de Maria (Rua Miguel Bombarda) is one of the more recent shops to open in the arty neighbourhood. It clearly mimics an old haberdashery, with quaint little boxes of buttons, buckles, satin ribbons, antique fabrics and designer clothing. The space also functions as a workshop where you can learn how to sew and other DIY crafts during the weekends. In that same part of town, fashion designer Nuno Gama opened his new space (Rua Adolfo Casais Monteiro). He followed the instinct of those who like being in the forefront of things, like Miguel Urtigão, who some six years ago opened the Rota do Chá on the ground floor of a monumental, yet decaying building.
The shop and tearoom occupies the entire length of the old building and allows customers to savour or buy some 350 different brands of prime quality teas. Decorated with oriental furniture and motifs, its garden or one of the more or less intimate rooms, is definitely one of those places where it feels cozy to say good bye to the fading day and embrace the oncoming evening.