Portugal’s Porto: How Sweet It Is

June 3, 2015 Updated: June 3, 2015
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Porto, the second largest city in Portugal after Lisbon, is named for the noble fortified wine that has been produced there for centuries, but became famous around the world in the 1750s after the British discovered it and went wild for it. Even today, the majority of port wine drinkers are British. 

Also called Oporto, Porto is separated by the Douro River in such a way that the bustling city—also a historical UNESCO site—and its citizens are on one side, while the port wine producers with their cellars, caves, and visitor centres are on the other. 

A visit to Porto, located a few hours north of Lisbon, is the perfect side trip and offers a unique historical perspective on a culture that fiercely preserves its heritage. Although Porto is not a fast-paced city, a new energy there has created restaurants with exceptional food and local wine, in addition to the painstaking restoration of buildings situated in the UNESCO district. 

The city is walkable, but one thing to note is that many of the streets, like those in Lisbon, are steep and paved with cobblestones, so be prepared with sturdy walking shoes. 

Porto has so much to recommend it. We were delighted with gracious hospitality, exceptional seafood, local wine, as well as design stores filled with interesting variations on the use of cork (from handbags to hats and belts) and scores of shoe stores. (Judging by the steep sidewalks, shoes take a beating). Throughout the city there is a very strong connection to the history of the country and a respect for a rich cultural past. 

Throughout the city there is a very strong connection to the history of the country and a respect for a rich cultural past.

Our three-day stay meant we had enough time to visit both sides of the city, which is essential to understanding its history and the development of its port wine industry. The unique and quirky characteristics of each side include the cable car that connects visitors to the port wine caves, and the elaborate elevator on the city side that offers stunning panoramic views of the Douro River.

Historic Centre

The Bolhão Market in the city centre dates from 1860 and is like a living vestige of an old-time open-air market, with fresh fish, cages filled with chickens and rabbits ready for the kill, as well as ladies selling lace and embroidered linens. 

Porto’s historic centre is encircled within 14th-century Fernandine walls that, together with some smaller areas of the city, retain medieval characteristics, such as the remains of 12th-century ramparts that were erected on Roman foundations. 

The city centre also delivers an intense level of creativity reflected in dozens of refreshed and renovated retail establishments and restaurants. We started out from the central plaza near the São Bento train station which boasts a colossal mural of 20,000 tiles designed by Jorge Colaco, and walked five minutes to where the Livraria Lello & Irmão bookstore is located. 

This glorious monument to books has an Art Nouveau facade decorated with Neo-Gothic elements. The interior features stained glass windows, lots of dark carved wood, a striking spiral staircase, and a pressed copper ceiling. The staircase may seem familiar to Harry Potter fans. Rumour has it that former Porto resident and frequent Lello & Irmão visitor J.K. Rowling was inspired by this bookstore when creating the Hogwarts School. 

Wandering back to the centre of town, we found small cafes along the way where we sampled typical Portuguese sweet pastries made with eggs and sugar. Given that the Portuguese are huge sweet-treat fans, there are dozens of different pastries, like the pastel de nata, a bite-size egg custard tart that is found all over the country. We had lunch at Canthino do Avillez which is run by Portugal’s two-star Michelin chef Jose Avillez, located near the train station. 

During our stroll after lunch we discovered more enchanting buildings decorated with tiles and wrought iron balconies—a rich reminder of the city’s elegant, stately history—which house workshops for metal workers, weavers, electronic repairs, and jewelers. Jewelry is deeply rooted in the craftsman techniques of the past, such as creating pieces using precious metals formed into filigree patterns. 

One jeweler whose boutique we stopped into on our way to the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art was Mimata, which is pushing the creative boundaries with jewelry design but remains very respectful of the filigree heritage. We also made a stop at the Hotel Infante de Sagres, a living monument to neo-Baroque design with its chandeliers and dark carved wood public rooms. 

The ‘Port’ Side

When making our way to the other side of the river, we chose to walk across the bridge. You can also take a tram. Whichever way you go, you will get a terrific panoramic view of both sides of the city.

Our destination was Graham’s Lodge where we were greeted by Rupert Symington, whose family has been a prominent port wine producer since 1882 and over the years has amassed a collection of port wine vineyards. We lingered over a leisurely lunch at Vinum which, besides being an award-winning restaurant, offers stunning views. We also had a tour of the cellars and a tasting of Graham’s vintage port wines. 

Walking to the cable car that would take us back to the city side of Porto, we passed “rabelo” boats that were in dry dock for repair. Realising that these traditional Portuguese cargo boats have been used for centuries to transport people and goods along the Douro, we found ourselves musing about returning to Porto to see all the sights we didn’t have time to fit into this trip. 

Isabelle Kellogg is a writer and public relations consultant in the luxury sector, with a passion for diamonds, jewelry, watches, and other luxury products, including travel.