Portugal is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Europe, and while Lisbon has captured most of the attention in recent years, Porto is now the country’s rising star. We recently visited Porto and were excited to see it’s on the verge of becoming the next important destination in Portugal.
Arriving at the Sao Vento train station, we didn’t realize we were in one of the great architectural gems of Porto. Built in 1900 on the former site of a Benedictine monastery, the French Beaux Arts style structure has 20,000 beautiful blue and white azujelo tiles, dramatically depicting the history of Portugal.
Across from the station is Rua des Flores, a celebrated street in the old part of the city. Lined with Old World style storefronts, we witnessed the transformation of Porto early on our trip, with many buildings in the renovation process. Specialized food and design shops are replacing stodgy, out-of-date stores, and new cafes mingled with classic local ones.
Before we even figured out where our apartment was, we couldn’t resist stopping for a patel de nata, the national pastry of Portugal. A tart filled with warm custard and sprinkled with cinnamon on top, we experienced a little bit of Portuguese food heaven while downing a strong espresso. Now we were awake and ready to take on Porto!
We checked into Shining View Apartments, on a steep side street in the historic district. We booked the apartment as part of an inexpensive package that included airfare and accommodations, so we were a bit skeptical about what to expect. We were more than pleasantly surprised. The affable young man who checked us in gave us a 20-minute lowdown on where to go, what to see and where to eat, marking the spots on a map. The comfortable one bedroom apartment was small but not cramped, decorated with contemporary furniture in West Elm style rather than obvious Ikea. It included a full service kitchen, airy bedroom with crisp white sheets and fluffy white comforter, spacious bathroom, dining area with four chairs, sofa and flatscreen television. A major steal priced at 80€ per night, and down to 50€ a night in the off season.
It was a sunny day, so we strolled down to the Ribeira promenade on the Douro River to soak up the sun. A lively pedestrian walkway, Ribeira is lined with outdoor cafes and seafood restaurants, street musicians and the docks, which are moored with sailboats. We broke out of our “live only like a local” constraint and decided to take a touristy boat ride up the Douro, which ended up being a highlight of our trip. We sailed under the Ponte de Dom Louis, a striking double-decker metal bridge. At 564 feet long, it’s the longest of its type in the world. Coasting up the other direction we watched as the sun set, casting a beautiful light on the colored colonial buildings.
There are two must-visit Art Nouveau treasures, The Majestic Café and the Livraria Lello bookshop. The stunning Majestic Café, with carved wood frames, marble topped tables, and beveled windows, resembles the great Art Nouveau cafes of Vienna. My cappuccino was served in a delicate white china cup with the Majestic Café insignia in gold stamped on it and a petit chocolate square. An Instagram moment for sure.
Printed books are alive and well at Livraria Lello, given the line to get in the shop. Another architectural gem, it was opened in 1906, mixing Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Neo-classic design by engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves. The two-story edifice has an immense stained glass ceiling, handsome glass enclosed wood bookcases, and a two-sided staircase with red carpet. There is an admission to visit the Livraria Lello, but if you purchase a book, the fee is waived.
At night we stayed in the area by the apartment, discovering excellent, inexpensive tapas restaurants and bars. Each had a distinctive style and unusual dishes. Folias de Baco, a homey tapas bar, has a terrific tasting menu for 20€ for two people, which includes cheeses, cured meats and a bowl of olives. Our favorite place was Conversas Vadias, which has a most unusual concept. Japanese chef Yuga creates a hybrid menu of Japanese and Portuguese cuisine, which proved to be a winning combination.
We did venture to a more formal restaurant for lunch, Cantinho do Avillez, the first outpost of famed chef Jose Avillez in Porto. We savored one of Avillez’s signature dishes, flaked cod with eggs and “exploding” olives.
Off the beaten track in an upscale residential area is the Serralves Museum. Designed by Pritzker-winning architect Alvaro Siza Vieira, the Serralves is the premiere contemporary art museum in Porto and also the most popular, with over 300,000 annual visitors. The 45,000 square foot space with 14 galleries exhibits works from its private collection and mounts new shows. Next to the museum we explored Art Deco Serralves Villa and its lush, manicured gardens and fountain.
On our last day in Porto, we caved in again to a tourist experience: a tour of a port wine museum and a tasting. Ramos Pinto, on the other side of the Douro River in Gaia, is an old and prestigious port manufacturer with its roots dating back to 1880. Its illustrious owner Adriano Ramos Pinto was a marketing genius, employing forward thinking strategies way before his time. The upstairs part of the museum contained the first offices of the museum, with many original furnishings and artifacts from the early 20th century. We were later escorted to the cellars where the port is stored and aged in wood barrels, learning about the intricate process of how port is made. We were served two generous glasses of port, making me a new fan of the iconic wine.
We found a number of upscale guesthouses and hotels near our apartment, and we’ve listed them below.
Rua Santa Catarina 112, 4000-442
R. das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161
Rua D. João de Castro, 210 4150-417
Taberna Folias de Baco
Rua dos Caldeireiros 136
Tel. +351 22 320 5226
R. do Comércio do Porto 128 253, 4050
Tel. +351 22 324 4658
Cantinho do Avillez
Rua Mouzinho da Silveira, 166 R/C, 4050-416
Ramos Pinto Museum
Av. Ramos Pinto, 380 4400-266 Vila Nova de Gaia
Shining View Apartments
Rua das Taipas 11, 4050-599
Descobertas Boutique Hotel
22,, R. da Fonte Taurina 14
Rua de Flores, 139 4050-266
Belomonte Guest House
R. de Belomonte 52, 4050-452
Porto A.S. 1829 Hotel
Largo São Domingos 45-55, 4050-097