The last few years have seen Lisbon rise in popularity, but Portugal’s more northern city, Porto, is the place to truly satisfy the aesthete.
Combining world-class contemporary architecture with a medieval backdrop, it’s easy to spend hours roaming Porto’s cobbled streets and buzzing portside hub (while taking moments of respite to taste the local port wine, of course).
Set in the Iberian Peninsula, Porto enjoys a warm Mediterranean climate most of the year, so you’re guaranteed some summer sun. In terms of sensible sightseeing, there are a lot of steep roads and most attractions are a 20-minute walk apart, so you’ll want to wear flat shoes.
A signature Porto scene is its riverfront. The landscape is peppered with colourful buildings and billboards, with a crawling cable car in the distance – the Teleferico de Gaia, introduced in 2011. Offering 11 minutes of stunning views, the cable car ferries people from the port wine cellars (how convenient) to the metal arch bridge and costs €9 for a return journey.
Amid its vivid apartment blocks are constant reminders of Porto’s baroque period. The heritage-listed São Francisco church is impressive with its gilded interior, while further up the hill the Capela das Almas (the Chapel of Souls) stands out with its blue and white Azulejo tile facade.
For a taste of the modern, set aside an afternoon to appreciate the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art. Designed by architect Álvaro Siza in the 1990s, this impressive gallery is surrounded by 18 hectares of parklands, where pop-up art installations are often hosted. The Serralves Garden is perhaps the most striking outdoor attraction, considered to be one of the first examples of 20th century gardening ‘art’. With a lush palette of aqua and salmon, you’ll find it right next to a hard-to-miss Art Deco mansion, which, by the way, is painted entirely in pink. Entrance to the museum and park is €7, or €3 for just the park.
Of course, one of Porto’s standouts is its food, with the city offering a mixed spread of fine dining and cheap eats.
Miss’Opo in the historic part of town provides a casual dining experience with low lighting and trendy, mismatched furniture. As well as a restaurant it is a guest house and gallery space, which gives you an idea of its relaxed atmosphere. The handwritten menu changes based on seasonality: at the time we had the aubergine curry and a chorizo dish, washed down with a bottle of Vinho Verde.
For something more high-end, meander down the narrow streets towards the port. A handful of smart restaurants can be found on the busy strip Praça dos Leõe, including the elusive Reitoria. For a real splash, book ahead at Porto’s arguably best restaurant – O Paparico – which offers ‘elevated’ Portuguese cuisine. Also worthwhile is dipping into one of the various ‘marisqueiras’, or seafood restaurants, which boast freshly caught fish and shellfish.
It would be remiss not to try Porto’s local delicacy: Francesinha (which means Frenchie in Portuguese). It is a three-meat sandwich made with ham, steak and sausage, covered in melted cheese and beer sauce, served with fries. If that sounds like a heart attack on a plate, that’s because it is. But hey, you’ll burn it off huffing up the steep alleyways later. Cafe O Afonso in the Cedofeita is one of Porto’s best places to try this traditional dish, with long queues gathering there at lunchtime each day. However, their speedy service ensures you don’t have to wait long for a steaming plate of Francesinha. Delicioso.
With plenty to see and eat and its harmony of historical aesthetic nods and contemporary edginess, Porto is the up-and-coming jewel in Portugal’s crown.