How to Spend a Weekend in Porto
Portugal delights and saddens me at the same time. At least, the parts I’ve seen do: Lisbon twice, Sintra and now I can add Porto to that list (I’ve never been to the Algarve or the more popular beach resorts). I started learning Portuguese at uni in Exeter during my second year and picked it up again in fourth year after my year abroad. Portugal is surprisingly different to Spain, and it’s surprising because of its proximity and linguistic origins. While the Portuguese and Spanish languages may look very similar on paper, they are audibly worlds apart.
Having the option to learn Portuguese as part of my degree piqued my curiosity and off to Portugal I ventured. Firstly to Lisbon & Sintra 2010 with Erasmus friends while I lived in Córdoba, then again to Lisbon in 2012 to visit my Italian friend Annalisa who was interning there and wrote this wonderful guest post. And thirdly to Porto in 2014 just a few weekends ago with my aunt.
And we simply adored Porto! I know I sound enthusiastic about almost everywhere I go, but Porto really was lovely and you absolutely need to go! It would be perfect for a summer weekend by the sea or a romantic getaway.
We checked into the 3* Grande Hotel do Porto, and the receptionist to our great surprise announced that the manager had upgraded us to one of their suites! It couldn’t have been any luckier, we ended up paying €37 each per night for an enormous suite with breakfast included. It’s a great hotel, whose website sports a hilarious and exotic description which I just loved:
Playground for the nobility and aristocracy from all around the world, a haven for spies, politicians and exiles, a privileged setting for artists, bohemians and intellectuals, the Grande Hotel do Porto is a charming hotel which maintains a dramatic, nineteenth-century, fin de siècle charm, harmoniously combined with modernity, comfort and timeless design.
Feeling very pleased with ourselves and loving the attention of the friendly staff, we headed out to dinner. I had been invited to try out the exquisite O Palco restaurant inside the super stylish 4* boutique Hotel Teatro, a member of the luxurious Design Hotels collection. It’s a two-minute walk from the city centre and Avenida dos Aliados, and you enter through a heavy door lit up in writing. The Hotel Teatro is themed to recreate the atmosphere of the old theatre that used to occupy the site, with its bedrooms designed to give the atmosphere of being backstage. Dark lighting, rich colours of gold and bronze, and the contrast of contemporary furniture with vintage theatrical costumes on display create a very chic air. Sitting down in their restaurant, which also has an outdoor patio, we browsed their tasting menu.
Each course comes accompanied by an especially selected glass of wine to complement the ingredients and each dish is a painstaking work of art, and every bit as delicious as they look in my photos. Luckily for me my aunt drinks very little so I assumed the noble duty of a niece and polished off most of her wine on top of my own. I’m not complaining!
The next morning after breakfast we headed out to explore Porto. It’s easily walkable and the hills aren’t as bad as some people make out. As quite a few sights are shut on Sundays we packed in the Bolhao Food Market (good for a stroll), the Livreria de Lello (an old bookshop straight out of Diagon Alley with a grand wooden staircase), the Sé Cathedral (a great spot to look down at the city from) and the Torre dos Clérigos (a 225-step tower with panoramic views over Porto).
As well as all of this we went exploring in a deliberately random fashion and my aunt managed by chance to find a quaint neighbourhood of narrow alleyways between traditional fishermen’s houses, leading down a steep slope to the waterfront, the Ribeira. You should definitely look around this tangle of small streets, revolving around the Escadas das Verdades, as it’s incredibly photogenic and must harp back from centuries and centuries ago.
Once down by the river on the Ribeira (here’s my Postcard of the Week from the Ribeira), you can stroll along the promenade browsing market stalls, you can eat al fresco at one of the many restaurants (we had lunch in Chez Lapin) or you can simply admire the view of the Luís I Bridge and the many Port cellars across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. We were a little unlucky with the weather that weekend, but the vivid colours of the terracotta rooftops and blue azulejos tiles lining almost every wall you come across made up for it.
Without planning it, it turned out that the weekend we visited Porto was the celebration for São João, and the streets were filled with processions, drums, locals in traditional dress and troupes of folk dancers performing in the streets surrounded by circles of onlookers. Aren’t these children dancing by the side, wanting to imitate the grown-ups, just the most adorable things you have ever seen?
Later that evening we headed to two separate dinners. Firstly to Café Santiago for me to try francesinha (a local sandwich of cheese, various meats, chips and a generous dollop of calories) and secondly to Café Guarany for a more formal dinner for my aunt Caroline, where we were serenaded by a Fado singer, singing tales of loss, memory and nostalgia (here’s a Postcard of the Week on Fado music). On an after-dinner walk we came across a huge concert in the main square and headed to the Luís I Bridge for the wonderful view of Porto lit up at night on both sides of the river. Processions and celebrations were taking place in every direction, although the actual night of São João is the 23rd June, the day after we left Porto. Apparently on the 23rd June they hold an all-night street party including street concerts, popular dancing parties, jumping over flames, eating barbecued sardines and meat, drinking wine and releasing illuminated flame-propelled balloons into the sky. If only we’d known! We still got a flavour of it though.
Sunday was our last day in Porto before flying off to our respective homes in England and Spain, and as the sun was out we jumped in a quick taxi to the Serralves contemporary art museum, which is located in the middle of a beautiful estate with luscious parks, lakes, water features, rose and herb gardens, a tea room… Do take a look at the art but make sure you leave time to look round the grounds too as they’re idyllic and look very English if I’m honest.
With only a few hours to go, we couldn’t leave Porto without sampling some of their most famed produce: Port wine. Having never really been a fan of Port until leaving university, I’m now a huge fan and it’s like nectar for my sweet tooth! Across the Douro River from Porto are numerous Port cellars, where huge barrels of wine from the Douro Valley further east along the river, sit and age before being shipped off around the world. The difference in climate between the Douro Valley and the city of Porto itself mean it’s the perfect recipe for a delicious sweet wine.
A friend who lived in Porto during his Erasmus year recommended Graham’s as the best cellar tour of all, and for only €5 each you receive a very detailed tour of the cellars, a video explaining the history, and four glasses of Port to taste and compare. Back in October 2013 I did a fair bit of wine tasting (3 separate days in 3 separate countries in 1 month!) and it’s my favourite way to drink wine. It never tastes quite as good as when an expert explains all the subtleties and you actually take time to properly taste and savour the wine… Our four glasses of Port were delicious (again I was allowed to polish off the rest of my aunt’s Port too!) and as a birthday present my aunt very generously bought me a bottle of the Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port. I could go into a lot of detail about Port, but the essence is that tawnies are better than ruby ports and last longer once you’ve opened the bottle. Make sure you have a few tapas on their terrace overlooking Porto, where you’ll be treated to this stunning view.
And with that, our weekend in Porto came to an end and we sadly said our goodbyes to the adorable city…
If you’ve been to Porto, did you like it as much as I did? Where else in Portugal would you recommend visiting?