A couple of weeks ago we hopped over to Portugal for a week’s break, split between Porto and the beautiful vineyards of the Douro Valley.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Portugal in recent years (beguiling Lisbon, the elegant old city of Evora), but I’ve never before made it as far north as Porto. It’s one of Europe’s oldest cities and over the decades it’s gained a bit of a reputation for urban decay, but from the moment we touched down at the rather gleaming airport (served by handy EasyJet flights), it was clear that there’s a real buzz about the place at the moment. There’s a snazzy new metro system, lots of bold contemporary architecture, and an increasing number of bars, restaurants and boutiques. It feels welcoming, laid-back and creative, if still a little shabby in places – not unlike my beloved Bristol, which also happens to be one of Porto’s twin cities.
Much of our time was spent getting pleasantly lost in Ribeira, the UNESCO-listed old town, whose tangle of sun-dappled squares, crumbling townhouses and laundry-strung lanes tumbles down to the Douro river. We dipped in and out of churches and delis, admired the intricate azulejos inside the São Bento station (worth a peek even if you’re not catching a train), and marvelled at the view from the soaring Dom Luís bridge.
We also took in a couple of cultural gems – the Portuguese Centre for Photography, housed in a former prison, and the wonderfully ornate Lello bookshop, whose spiralling staircases and carved panelling look like they’ve come straight from the pages of a Harry Potter novel. And we rattled along the riverbank on the rickety old tram to the former fishing village of Foz do Douro, where we lunched at a beach bar as Atlantic waves crashed over the rocks around us.
But mostly, our time in Porto revolved around food and drink. We spent a very happy afternoon hopping between the famous port wine lodges (most offer tours and tastings), and we tried some of the fantastic new restaurants which are popping up all over the place. Our favourites were Cantinho do Avillez, whose imaginative menu includes the likes of ‘exploding’ olives (I won’t spoil the surprise!) and avocado emulsion, and Book, a themed restaurant where dishes are divided into chapters and the wine list is presented in a novel (not as gimmicky as it sounds).
There were more traditional treats to sample, too – grilled sardines on the riverfront, sugary pastries at Café Majestic (a cavernous Art Nouveau delight with bow-tied waiters and sparkling chandeliers), and the raucous Mercado do Bolhão, which sells everything from fresh flowers to live roosters.
All in all, we found Porto a wonderful place for a city break – compact, charismatic and utterly captivating. And there are some beautiful places to stay, too – more on those, together with our time in the Douro Valley, to follow in future posts!
Photography by Abi Dare