Like a school bully, Western Europe had grabbed me by the ankles, turned me upside down and shaken me until my loose change chimed on the pavement. It was 2003 and I was an impoverished backpacker with little more than an Inter-Rail ticket, a dog-eared guide to Europe and a rapidly diminishing overdraft. They were lean times.
But Porto, a kind and lovely city, took me under its wing. It put a roof over my head, food in my belly and music in my ears for about the same price as coffee and cake in Paris. In short, it sold me the allure and sophistication of Western Europe for Eastern European prices.
Since then, Porto has itself fallen on hard times. During the financial crisis, unemployment rocketed, people left town and many properties — even prime waterfront houses in the UNESCO old town — remain unoccupied and unloved. But new routes from budget airlines and a brand new cruise terminal have made it easier than ever to visit Portugal’s second city, which, quite frankly, is one of the most enjoyable places on the whole continent to spend a weekend.
Buoyed by tourism, downtown Porto, also known as Baixa, has undergone a transformation in recent years. The cobbled streets of Rua Galeria de Paris, Cândido dos Reis and Conde de Vizela, once the preserve of prostitutes and junkies, are now lined with bars, restaurants and shops. This regeneration is spreading to nearby streets, and the old town has new life.
Hard though it is to leave downtown Porto, to really get under the skin of the city you must visit the suburbs. Take a tram to Matosinhos, where you’ll find sandy beaches, seafood restaurants and old men playing card games beneath the crumbling ramparts of Queijo Castle.
Neighbouring Foz is more gentrified. Its manicured promenade is lined with designer boutiques, estate agents and highfalutin bars. At dusk you can watch men and herons fish in the Duoro estuary, while Porto twinkles in the distance.
And then there’s Gaia, beautiful Gaia, on the other side of the river, where Porto’s eponymous sweet wine is aged in subterranean cellars. As well as the finest port known to humanity, Gaia boasts gorgeous beaches and the best views in all of Porto — which is really saying something.
Livraria Lello is probably the most famous shop in Porto. JK Rowling hung out at this gorgeous bookstore when she was teaching English in the city back in the 1990s. Apparently, the ornate bookcases, carved wooden ceilings and sumptuous staircases inspired the Hogwarts Library in her Harry Potter books. It’s certainly like walking into a fantasy.
Porto has a vibrant creative community and the fabulous A Vida Portuguesa is an Aladdin’s cave of loveliness, where you can find everything from local ceramics and soaps to fortified wine and hand-woven textiles. Quirkier still is Águas Furtadas, selling jewellery, art and hand-painted figurines of national symbol the Rooster of Barcelos.
Design doyen, Paulo Lobo’s shop, Lobo Taste, sells everything from ceramic figurines and wicker baskets to pillowcases and felt hats. Most of his products are signed.
Of course, Porto is best known for its eponymous wine, which flows through the city like the Douro River. The House of Sandeman has been producing this famous tipple since 1790 and offers cellar tours and tastings. However, a broader selection of wines can be purchased at the venerable Garrafeira do Carmo, a beautiful old shop that’s an attraction in itself.
If you’re in town on Saturday don’t miss the legendary Vandoma flea market (8am-1pm), which has been going strong since the 1970s. Secondhand wares include books, antiques, clothes and vinyl. For local foodstuffs — hams, jams, wines and meats — head to the covered, contemporary market of Mercado Bom Sucesso.
Ultimately, though, a night out in Porto revolves around the pubs, clubs and bars of Baixa. The smoking ban hasn’t hit these parts yet, which is great if you’re partial to a puff and not so great if you aren’t. The main avenues of hedonism are Rua Galeria de Paris, Rua de Cândido dos Reis and Rua Conde de Vizela. The former is home to Alma, where hip young things gather to sip Super Bock (the local beer) and it’s within staggering distance of Casa do Livro, a fabulous little live music venue that feels like a cross between a speakeasy bar and a library.
Gin is becoming increasingly fashionable in Porto and as well as excellent sushi, Sushihana & the Gin House serves a variety of gin cocktails (although the decor is a tad clinical). Also in on the act is the Gin House, a stylish establishment where dapper mixologists do wonderful things. Nights out in Porto often end happily on the dancefloor of Mão Maria, a fun and unpretentious nightclub.
Where to eat
Aesthetically, francesinha does little to inspire confidence in Porto’s culinary scene, but appearances are deceptive: the city is a joy for gourmet travellers. The old town is home to a wonderful selection of cafés and patisseries selling freshly baked croissants and great piles of pastel de natas (Portuguese egg tarts).
The Majestic Café is considered one of the prettiest in the world. Opened in 1921, it’s an establishment of unabashed opulence: chandeliers hang from decorative ceilings, mahogany framed mirrors adorn the walls and the clinking of heavy, silver-plated cutlery rings through the dining room. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the food is terrific. Order the seafood soup, you won’t regret it.
Nearby Confeitaria do Bolhão has been serving Portuguese pastries and local fare since 1896. The coffee here is excellent and the pastel de natas are the stuff dreams are made of. And they do a mean francesinha, if you’re really hungry.
The regeneration of Baixa has been led largely by Porto’s thriving restaurant scene. The landmark Galeria de Paris is a wonderfully eccentric eatery on a street of the same name. It’s like a museum inside: vast cabinets filled with everything from Barbie dolls to old cameras festoon the walls. There’s a framed lavatory hanging up near the entrance and a Fiat 500 dangling from the ceiling. Well, why not?
The simple Portuguese dishes are delicious (try the cod fish) and during the evening, a pianist taps the ivory. There’s also a large cabinet full of tempting desserts. Galeria de Paris is not to be confused with nearby Taberna Galeria de Paris serving exquisite petiscos (Portuguese tapas) and excellent wine in romantic surroundings.
For seafood, you can’t beat Rua Heróis de França in Matosinhos. This ramshackle street is lined with smouldering barbecues and the smell of grilled fish lingers deliciously in the air. Excellent eateries abound here, but Palato is one of the best. Working the grill is fisherman-turned-chef, Gastão Nuno who learned to barbecue on his long shifts at sea — he’s a wizard. So are the chefs at Sushi No Mercado, in the nearby fish market, who bring a Japanese twist to the day’s catch.
Top 10 local tips
02 Catch a rave at Casa da Música, Porto’s flagship concert venue designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Sporadically, it turns into a nightclub.
03 For hipsters, Plano B is the Plan A for most nights out. Moustache encouraged.
04 Midnight hunger pangs? Then head to retro-styled Restaurant Museu d’Avó, open until 4am for tasty bifana (pork meat sandwich). Travessa de Cedofeita, 56.
05 Iconic Galeria de Paris offers diners free access to its bicycle. Rua Galeria de Paris, 56.
06 Fancy surfing? Then Praia de Matosinhos is best for beach breaks.
07 And sunbathing? The golden sands of Praia da Madalena are well off the tourist trail.
08 St John’s Day is celebrated on 23 June with church services, all-night parties and, weirdly, people whacking each other with inflatable mallets.
09 Almada Street has an increasing number of vintage shops with plenty of bargains to be found.
10 For an alternative vista, buy a cone of roast chestnuts in Foz and watch the sun set over the estuary.
Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade by Eugénio de Andrade. RRP: £9.99 (New Directions). English translations of the bard who lived in Porto.
Sharpe’s Havoc by Bernard Cornwall. RRP: £8.99 (Harper). A historic battle novel set in Porto.
Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter films was inspired by the Livraria Lello bookshop, which Lonely Planet classified as ‘the third best bookstore in the world’.
Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)