As the city gets ready for its famous São João celebrations (popular street parties in honour of St John the Baptist), PDV gives you a few pointers that will make your visit to Portugal’s northern capital unforgettable.
By Célia Pedroso
Portugal’s second city is about so much more than the Port wine it is famous for. A paradise for art lovers, shopping and café culture with strong gastronomic traditions, Porto is buzzing with a new, creative vibe that has taken over the city centre and other areas. Then there is also the friendly people who welcome you and walk you to where you need to get when you ask for directions. This you certainly don’t find in many places, not even in Lisbon.
With its steep geography, Porto is one of those photogenic cities that will both fill up your camera’s memory card and exhaust its battery life. For instance, once in Gaia, where the Port wine cellars are located, it’s impossible not to lose yourself in the gorgeous view from that side of the Douro river towards Porto. Also, the iconic Dom Luís metal bridge, opened in 1886, gives the setting an irresistible touch. The most daring will cross the upper lane – open to pedestrians – to get the best pictures. The bridges are part of Porto charm and have been immortalised by famous local filmaker Manoel de Oliveira who is the oldest active director in the world and doyen of Portuguese cinema at 103 years-old.
To see more of the Douro and its vineyards – all classified UNESCO world heritage sites, as is Porto’s historical centre – Gaia is the place to hop on one of the many boats that cruise up the river offering all kinds of rides.
Gaia remains best known for its Port wine cellars: Offley, Ferreira, Cálem, Sandeman, Taylor, Fonseca are just some of the brands established there. The tour usually takes about 1hour/1hour and half and includes tastings. In the end, you’ll certainly know much more about Port and its different varieties. If you still want to taste more, there are many cafés by the river or a fantastic terrace bar at recently opened luxury hotel The Yeatman.
Art in Serralves and Miguel Bombarda
Porto has a very vibrant art scene. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Serralves is one of the places you can’t miss. There are guided tours to the exhibitions, the fabulous park and the Villa – a unique art deco architecture building that houses temporary shows.
Another example of the city’s artistic movements is the thriving Rua Miguel Bombarda, also known as the street of the arts, lined with more than 20 galleries and original shops. If you’re lucky to find an opening night – in which new exhibitions open all at the same time – you’ll get lots of partying.
Music and architecture lovers should visit the impressive Casa da Música (House of Music) (see photo), a music hall designed by Rem Koolhas. Other Porto unmissables are the São Bento train station, with its amazing blue and white azulejos, and the Palácio da Bolsa, with the famous Arabian room inside.
For shopping, the city centre preserves old businesses and curious and independent shops: the best known is the pedestrian Rua de Santa Catarina but the Clérigos area and Rua das Galerias de Paris are also very interesting.
Nearby, in Rua das Carmelitas, you’ll find the famous Lello bookshop (with the amazing staircase said to have inspired JK Rowling when she lived in Porto) and the Fernando Machado bookshop that is now also a publisher of art, photography and design books. Stroll down Rua do Almada for some vintage shops and the beautiful Arcadia chocolate shop.
For food, don’t miss Mercado do Bolhão (see photo), an old market from the beginning of the 20th century. With fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and many butchers, including Porto’s traditional tripes, bakeries with the famous ‘broa de avintes‘ (the dark rye and corn bread) and other broas (corn breads), spices and flowers. The cheerful atmosphere and the market architecture have a unique character. Sadly, controversy is threatening its future as the building is in dire need of renovation works. In the streets around the market you can also find traditional shops, selling sheep cheese (queijo da serra), sausages, salt cod, port or pastries, such as Pérola do Bolhão, with its lovely façade, or the appropriately named Comer e Chorar Por Mais (literally translated as “Eat And Cry Out For More”) on the opposite side.
Cafés and cakes
Café culture is still very strong in Porto and the famous belle époque Majestic Café is always crowded with tourists but also many locals. With a piano player, a stunning setting and uniformed waiters in white, it’s an example of the glorious era of cafés from the beginning of the 20th century. Other well preserved cafés are A Brasileira, Guarany (see photo) (with live music at night and a panel by artist Graça Morais) and Ceuta (although more recent, from the fifties, it is also impressive).
Another type of café, lined with antiques (there’s even an old fiat hanging on the wall), and a relaxed atmosphere, is the Galeria de Paris, also a restaurant. For hipsters wanting a more modern touch, there is Moustache Coffee House.
Porto is known for its generous and rich portions. Just outside the city, connected by tram or buses, lies the coastal fishing town of Matosinhos, home to dozens of restaurants ready to grill the catch of the day and a popular eating destination for Porto people. Mariazinha is an “old school” restaurant, now renovated, with seafood as well, and a very nice service.
In Porto, DOP (see photo), run by chef Rui Paula, has been getting all the hype. He certainly has been successful in reinventing some dishes – as he did with the “francesinha”, using mozzarella instead of the usual cheese, obtaining a lighter sandwich. But if you want to try the real francesinha, do it at lunch time, as its high protein content will keep you from sleeping: Pontual, in Rua do Almada, a simple café with large TV sets, is a good option for that. This croque monsieur type sandwich includes two sausages, ham, mortadella and steak covered in melted cheese and spicy sauce, served with a side of chips. Some people even add an egg on top!
Solar do Moinho do Vento is a lively place to try traditional food, including cod fritters or octopus fillets with “arroz malandrinho” (a soupy rice). That is also the main speciality of Casa Aleixo.
And if you’re there for the São João festival, don’t forget the tradition: eating sardines and hitting one another with plastic hammers or long leeks…
Sleeping with poems
Opened a year ago, Casa do Conto is an innovative hotel in a completely renovated 19th century family house in Rua da Boavista. With a contemporary design based on concrete, it has been raved about by architecture magazines. The rooms have phrases and poems written on the ceiling for an inspiring stay. This charming hotel has also a garden, where guests can read at leisure or just soak up the sun. Or, more often, enjoy breakfast – don’t miss the pancakes and the delicious jams.