While Lisbon may be the capital, Porto is not content to settle with being just Portugal’s second city. This vibrant port city (in both senses of the word) and its fiercely proud tripe-eating citizens, the Tripeiros, enjoy one of the most spectacular settings in Europe too. Porto lies draped around twin escarpments on either side of the lifeblood river Douro, a dreamily dramatic city that just invites exploration.
Porto is a jewel that grew rich on the trade of port from grapes being harvested upstream in the Douro Valley. Porto, or Oporto (meaning 'The Port') as some locals call it, gave the world the famous port wine, which also takes its name from the city. In those days the river buzzed with activity and the Vila Nova de Gaia quarter bustled with a flurry of port houses working around the clock to satisfy the insatiable needs of the global (and particularly) British market for port.
Getting Around Porto
Today the old wooden boats that used to make the perilous trip down from the inland vineyards now ferry tourists below the sweep of bridges that line the river. Porto’s new flash post-European City of Culture face stands pleasingly at odds with the old world Porto that lurks around every corner. Tourists recline in chic cafés in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Ribeira quarter, while next door a colourful collage of locals idle away enjoying a few glasses of the port that brought the city its first golden age.
A cruise on the Douro is the best way to get an idea of the striking layout of the city. Visiting a port house is also essential and one of the most welcoming is Graham’s, which was originally founded by a British man who came to Porto from Scotland when still a teenager. Tours are free with tastings at the end and a shop on hand to stock up on all the port and table wines they produce.
For centuries visitors have flocked to Porto to snare bottles of the delicious eponymous fortified wine and port is still a huge industry, with high standards and quality ensured by the Port Wine Institute. A flurry of characterful port houses on the Vila Nova de Gaia flank of the river offer both tours and shops. Look out for the funky new port creations and table wines that many of the traditional houses have diversified into of late as the global port market has reacted to competition from other drinks.
It may be most famous for its wines, but Porto in recent years is also enjoying a rising culinary reputation. Down in Ribeira overlooking the river Dom Tonho serves up an excellent array of meat and fish dishes. The tapas-style hors d’ouvres are a highlight. Toupeirinho is the sort of friendly boat-fresh seafood restaurant that everyone wants next door, but which taxi drivers detest trying to find down the little lanes. You can choose your own fish and munch on delicious clams in garlic while you wait for it to be grilled or oven roasted in salt, the latter a traditional Portuguese method of cooking.
The most bizarrely enjoyable cultural day to visit is on the annual hammerfest. Festa de Sao Joao on June 23 is when the Tripeiros dunk each other on the head with plastic hammers and snaffle grilled sardines all night long. The port houses also compete in a race along the Douro river in replicas of the old wooden boats that used to ferry the port into the city.
An impressive newer attraction that shows off Porto’s cutting edge is the Casa da Musica. Tickets are often available for the domestic and international acts, which run from reggae through to classical recitals. They take their culture seriously in Porto and the Casa da Musica is the ideal example of this. It’s also a great place to learn all about the other cultural happenings in the city too.
Exploring The Vineyards
Heading out of the city the port vineyards await tucked in the spectacular scenery of the famous Douro Valley. You can drive or take a boat up, but the train direct from Porto is perhaps the most exhilarating way to arrive. The shiny steel carriages skim around the banks of the river, rattling across bridges and bundling through tunnels as they negotiate the winding waters. En route there are views of the vineyards and chocolate box beauty port houses.
Over the last few years some of the Douro Valley port producers have harnessed on to tourism in a big way. One of the most interesting estates to visit is Quinta do Panascal, where you can take a self-guided audio tour of their vineyards, which tumble downhill in search of the lifeblood Douro, with sweeping views back to the starched white port house itself. The tour takes a languorous route, with equally languorous narration, leaving you with a thirst for a glass of the fine stuff when you make it back to the house.
The estate, which spreads its tentacles across almost 100 hectares, is one of the most visually charming in the Douro. It is also noteworthy as all the grapes are still hand trodden in the granite lagares that you can see on site during your visit.
Whether or not you are a committed port lover the Portuguese city of Porto makes for a perfect escape. With a UNESCO World Heritage listed old town, cruises along the sweeping river Douro, madcap festivals and some seriously good restaurants, Porto boasts a glorious cocktail of charms. Especially if you are keen to also delve up into the valley where the lifeblood port production first began.
Written by Robin Mckelvie
Photography by André Graver