Porto – the most romantic city in the world, according to John Malkovitch. How extraordinary, we would say in a first instance. We would first think of Paris or Venice … With most buildings made of granite, this ancient city, partly framed by the dark-green waters of the Douro river, and renown for its thick fogs during winter, has an introverted yet proud personality. The proud personality of a city that gave the name to the country – Portugal -, from where the Portuguese left to conquer Lisbon from the Moors in the 13th century, a place from which the Port Wine was exported to conquer the world. A city of resistance, proud of its roots, football club, architects and for being home to many successful musicians and writers.
The best way to discover this surprising city is walking. Walking up and down narrow streets made with granite stones, where the contemporary mixes with the historical and the rural and where you will find the loveliest belvederes over the river (check the Passeio das Virtudes – from there walk down to Ribeira). The city centre streets are lined with fabulous baroque buildings and the Ribeira river line is a mesh of tiny two-floor buildings and ample wine cellars and warehouses, which are being renovated to accommodate studios, hostels, restaurants and others. On the other bank, a little bit like Buda + Pest, one finds the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, whose river banks offer a wide selection of “tascas” and restaurants with panoramic views over Porto.
Ancient as it is, Porto has always had its avant-garde side. Not just because it is home to many successful artists, but also because its buildings, fruit of the labour of many graduates from the Oporto Architectural School, are the best in the country in terms of layout, materials and style. One such example, though it is a private foundation, is the wonderful Casa de Serralves, a contemporary museum that was built on the grounds of an aristocratic estate with immense, manicured gardens and century-old trees. This museum attracts some of the best international exhibitions and its gardens are a regular weekend spot for families. Casa da Música, by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhas, has certainly a certain mystic and defiance about it, being located at the very heart of modern Oporto, the Boavista roundabout. It is shaped like a diamond and praises itself from having perfect acoustics.
On the other hand, if you fancy Realism and 19th century painting, visit the Soares dos Reis Museum, a beautiful building which accommodates an excellent collection of Portuguese painting. Not far, and if you are feeling peckish, try the “Antunes” of the “Buraco” “tascas”: Budget friendly and with great typical food. For signature cuisine, try the “DOP”.
Porto is also proud of its distinctive cafes. Not only because the drink “café” (or expresso) is very much appreciated – actually, in the whole of Portugal, the average Portuguese drinks between 3 to 4 expressos a day – but also because cafes, through the years, have attracted groups of intellectuals, students, politicians, rebels and simply “normal” families. They are a Mecca for tourists who enjoy city’s hidden gems. Check the regal and sensual Belle Epoque lines of the Majestic or the MacDonalds façade and beautiful marbles (it used to be the Imperial café). Another favourite of ours, and just across MacDonalds, is the beautifully restored Guarany, inaugurated in 1933, which was home to many jazz concerts and includes a huge, colourful panel in tribute to the “Guarany” tribe in the Amazon.
Other suggestions “We love small hotels”: the Solar Vilar d’Allen, a typical Romantic manor house with beautiful gardens. Get some of their jam! They are exquisite!; Take a boat trip from Ribeira towards the Douro Valley and contemplate the landscape from another perspective; visit São Francisco Church and its baroque delirium; buy a book at Lello Bookshop, considered by many to be the most beautiful bookshop in the world; rent a bike and cycle along the river from Ribeira to the Foz, a delightful borough between Porto and the fishing city (it used to be a village) of Matosinhos. Try their fish restaurants, you will not be disappointed. Two of our favourites: “Olhinhos do Polvo”, if you like octopus, and the trendy Casa de Pasto da Palmeira (this one in Foz) for tasting menus.
Tourism is growing in Oporto and there is plenty of accommodation. However, given its location, comfort and privacy we always like to recommend the 1872 River House: 8 renovated rooms with stone walls and close views towards the river. From here you can walk almost anywhere…
Do not forget to bring your camera along to start creating your Portugal photographic portfolio! Because this is just the beginning…