Long Weekend in Porto
Porto at dusk: where the Douro river joins the Atlantic.
© Getty Images
“In Lisbon they party, in Porto they work,” say the people of Poro, shaking their heads at the rather more indulgent lifestyle of the capital. Extravagance and showing off are taboo here –after all, Porto is famous for its down-to-earth charms – like its famous dish of tripas, or tripe. It is a city that has been shaped by merchants and craftsmen for centuries.
The medieval old town down by the river Douro still hints at the buzz and activity of what once was one of Europe's most important ports, By the beginning of the twentieth century, things were decidedly more quiet. Portugal's former colonies were independent, textile production had migrated to Asia, trade had nothing left to trade. Historic buildings decayed, shops stood empty.
But Porto also has bright minds who decided to have the old town declared a cultural asset. They prevented the old streets from being destroyed by generic brands and gave preference to small, independent shops. Style was encouraged, creativity was de rigueur. Today Porto is hip, happening and the perfect place for a long weekend.
Arrival in Porto: On the first day we go to the sea - fine dining included.
From the airport we go straight to the sea - to Leça da Palmeira. In 1963, famous Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza created the "Tea House”, a restaurant built into the rocks right on the shore of the Atlantic coast and at just 2m above sea level, its soul and raison d’etre remain unbroken. Rui Paula is the head chef and holds a Michelin star for his cuisine; the contrast between haute cuisine and the thundering sea defies words.
From the mouth of the Douro, follow the riverbank towards the city centre. If you want, you can check in to one of the smart hotels such as the venerable Infante de Sagres, or the magnificent Yeatman hotel whose rooms offer stunning views of the old town of Porto. The true spirit of the city can be found in the recently emerging guesthouses. The Inpatio has only five rooms in the lovingly renovated 19th century old stone house. The Pensão Favorita in the district of the art galleries has pretty, functional rooms and a quiet garden.
For dinner go to the Cantinho do Avillez where José Avillez, a top chef from Lisbon, has fulfilled his dream: a simple restaurant with creative cooking.
A bit of culture and many gastronomic delights.
Day two and the sheer beauty of Porto becomes apparent, especially in and around the baroque church Clérigos and its quarter, now filled with bars and chic shops. The centre of the new Porto is the Rua das Flores and at its heart is the pretty Mercearia des Flores, a delicatessen and with produce from all over Portugal. The Yonest yoghurts deserve special attention as their delicious taste is also reflected in the lovingly designed packaging. The Mercearia offers fine, small dishes made from organic ingredients. Be sure to stop for a Café Curto (short espresso), these are terrific in almost every café and are drunk quickly whilst standing up. You could treat yourself to a longer stay at the Café Majestic to soak up the Art Nouveau decor. The splendour of the ornate plasterwork and guilded Flemish mirrors inspires - no wonder that J. K. Rowling wrote several of her Harry Potter chapters.
Architecture was and will always be a topic in Porto. In the elegant district of Foz is the Fundação de Serralves, a vast park that houses the museum built by Álvaro Siza. Siza has changed the city, the ornate and indulgent gives way to clear, pure lines - minimalism is key here, yet it is a style that soothes the soul and all the senses.
Not far from Serralves is the a gastronomic highlight of the city: the restaurant of Pedro Lemos who received a Michelin star in 2014. With good reason: he set up an elegant restaurant in an old stone building, the service is exemplary and the dishes are very fine indeed.
A trip to the Port wine cellars on the opposite riverbank and a short stop in Porto's harbour suburb at the end of the day.
Port wine, of course. While Porto clings to the sunny slopes, Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite riverbank, is on the shady side. This is why the mighty stone cellars were built there and it is here the Port wines often mature for decades in wooden pipas (‘pipes’ or barrels). Some of the Port houses offer guided tours, those at Graham's and Ramos Pinto are particularly enjoyable.
In addition to the mighty Port houses, more and more chic wine bars are popping up this side of the city, inviting you to taste their wines. One of the most fun is the wine bar Copo e Alma, which translates as 'heart & soul', where small dishes are served alongside a broad range of wines and Ports.
On the way to the airport you absolutely must stop in the seaside neighbourhood of Matosinhos. Here in Porto's harbour and fishing suburb you will find the best street food (even on Sundays). A tantalising smell hangs in the air because the wonderful sardinhas grelhadas, grilled sardines, are cooked on small coal grills on the street, in front of the restaurants. However, the restaurant O Gaveto, offers much more than sardines - here you can dine on all kinds wonderful seafood straight from the Atlantic; crab, shrimps, percebes (goose barnacles), lobster; everything here smells of the sea! Daredevils can order lampreia, the specialty of the house. The lamprey is stewed for hours in red wine and in its own blood - delicious.
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