Sitting in my customary Porto cafe, a non-descript place on Praça Carlos Alberto across from my kids’ school, a troupe of Asian tourists march by. They are sheltered under umbrellas, heads down, following their guide in an orderly step to the next tourist honeypot.
For a whistlestop visit to Portugal’s delightful second city, a guided tour is probably a good idea. Porto’s tourist route is now well-worn, but wonderful nonetheless.
It starts with a climb up Torre dos Clérigos, then a walk across Ponte de Dom Luís I, a visit to a port wine cellar in Gaia, a pastel de nata (or three!) in Majestic Café, and finally a bacalhau (cod) dinner in one of the city’s picturesque riverside restaurants.
For those with more time to spare, take a stroll down the bustling Rua das Flores, or a boat ride along the Rio Douro, or even a bus out to the Atlantic coast at Matosinhos.
There is no doubt: this Unesco heritage city makes for the perfect weekend break. It comes as little surprise that holidaymakers have named it Europe’s best destination twice in the last four years, nor that the low-cost airlines are now jetting here in their droves.
With mass tourism comes inevitable change, however. Only 15 years ago, locals admitted that the cobbled medieval streets of downtown were “mortas” (dead). Today, cool kerbside cafes and hip hotels are replacing the derelict tenements of yesteryear.
But what of the city away from the tourist trail? Construction cranes may nowadays be cramming the skyline and the clickety-clack of cabin-sized suitcases may be filling the air, but life in the backstreets still goes on. So, once done with the city’s hotspots, or if they don’t appeal, here’s an alternative guide to some of Porto’s best off-beat gems.
Be sure to eat at this fantastic restaurant in the up-and-coming Bonfim bairro. With just six tables around an open kitchen, the space is unpretentious and intimate. That’s all to the good because it takes a while to tackle the 10-course tasting menu (€37 without drinks). A former architect, chef Pedro Barreiros produces each individual dish with an eclectic combination of mathematical precision, gastronomic mastery and creative flare. The result is a whirlwind of inventive delight, with simple yet sublime courses like chestnut cream and mushroom foam, masala-spiced tuna tartare, and squid risotto. Each dish arrives at the table with a short introduction by the charming staff, who are happy to recommend accompanying wines and other tipples. If chef Pedro were in London, or even Lisbon, he would be fêted as a trailblazer in Portuguese modernist cuisine. Luckily for Portuenses, he’s stayed true to his home-city roots.
• Rua do Morgado de Mateus 49, on Facebook
Hidden away down the backstreets close to Aliados, Porto’s main avenue, Café Candelabro is a relaxed, convivial bolthole a world away from the tourist rigmarole. It is open day and night during the week (Mon-Fri 10.30-2am; Saturday 4pm-2am; Sunday 4pm-12am), its morning fare of coffee and cake slipping languidly into lunchtime snacks (bruschetta, €3.50, hummus, €3.50, soup, €2) and a glass or two of wine. Candelabro is rare in the breadth of its wine selection, with 60 varieties from across Portugal. Be sure to try an alvarinho, the country’s only terroir wine. The cafe is also atypical in selling wine by the glass (average price €3). By mid-afternoon in summer, students begin to drift in, filling the sun-drenched pavement patio. Occupying a former bookshop, Porto-born owners Hugo and Miguel have kept true to the spirit of the place and the walls are lined with secondhand books for sale. Most reflect the owners’ personal interests in photography, cinema, music and the arts in general and there’s a “playlist” of video art projected on the wall (Thur-Sat evenings). Because of its late opening this is also the place to go for a quiet, postprandial glass of port.
• Rua da Conceição 3, cafecandelabro.com
Porto is now awash with short-term rentals, but finding an apartment that’s not furnished floor to ceiling by Ikea is another matter entirely. For a unique alternative, book into the exquisitely decorated myhomeinporto. Former Lisbon-based interior designer Juan de Mayoralgo has turned this classic 1930s townhouse into an oasis of stylish calm. True to its name, everything has a familial, cared-for feel to it, from the family photos on the walls to the collector’s pieces sprinkled about the place. Light and airy, the three en-suite bedrooms are decked out with the same trademark taste and attention to detail. Breakfasts brim with a homemade freshness, thanks to the daily supplies from Porto’s famous Mercado do Bolhão. Originally from Spain, Juan retains a newcomer’s fascination with this city and is more than happy to pass on insider tips.
• Doubles from €110 B&B, myhomeinporto.com
For a marker of how a city is holding out against the tide of global brands, count up its independent bookshops. By that measure, Porto remains in good shape. It’s true that a few bookshops have been lost of late to boutique hotels, but books – and book-selling – still survive. For Instagramable biblioporn, join the queue outside Lello & Irmão, the wood-panelled bookshop that reputedly inspired JK Rowling, who taught English in Porto in the early 1990s. Otherwise, head to nearby Gostar de Ler. A recent creation of Lurdes Paiva (formerly of the four-storey Chaminé da Mota on Rus das Flores), this dinky bookshop feels part-film set, part-living room, filled as it is with furniture and photo albums, trinkets and typewriters. Books are arranged together as much by aesthetic sensibility as subject matter, a sort of Dewey Decimal system for the soul. Livraria Académica next door is also worth a visit, as is the nearby poetry bookshop Poetria and the comic store Timtim por Timtim.
• Rua Mártires da Liberdade 120, on Facebook
Edge-of-town hypermarkets and their miniaturised city-centre offspring are now firmly entrenched in Porto, but the city’s mercearias (grocery stores) have not given up the ghost yet. Far from it, in fact. The best examples can be found on the streets surrounding Mercado do Bolhão. Start at the wonderfully named Comer e Chorar por Mais (Eat and Cry for More). Founded in 1912, this diminutive store is packed to the rafters with Portuguese wines and regional foodstuffs. Everything is traditional and tasty, from the sardines and Portuguese pâtés, to the port wines and tinned sardines. Try the Montesinhos sausage (€30 per kg), the dried figs (€8.80 per kg) and the sun-dried pine nuts (€69 per kg). For oriental herbs and medicines, like antioxidant-rich gingko and “super-detox” chia, head to Casa Chinesa on the next block. It’s also the place to go in Porto for pulses and lentils, teas and spices. Save some space for some salted cod, best procured from nearby Casa Natal.
Porto is famous for its eponymous wines. By all means, go stick your nose into a glass or three of the strong stuff. But don’t leave without checking out one of the city’s lesser-known olfactory treats. On an elevated plot over the Rio Douro, in Vila Nova de Gaia, sit the fragrant fields and nurseries of Cantinho das Aromáticas. From just 2½ hectares, this beautiful organic farm manages to produce a whopping 150 or so different plant species. Visitors are invited to wander along the neat rows of aromatic flowers, medicinal plants and kitchen herbs. (Don’t worry about the kids: the farm’s stone dovecote makes for the perfect playground). For those wanting to get their hands dirty, opportunities also exist to volunteer. At the end of the visit, enjoy one of the farm’s freshly plucked infusions (two of these won two stars at the 2017 Great Taste Awards) in the well-stocked café-cum-shop. The farm’s 50-plus products include bee glue extract (€9.60), extra virgin olive oil (€6.90-€38.00) and various fruit and floral liqueurs (from €10)
• Rua do Meiral, Vila Nova de Gaia
Such is the draw of the city’s vibrant, historic riverside that it’s easy to forget that the Atlantic Ocean lies just a stone’s throw away along its banks. On summer days, surfers and sun-bathers fill the sandy shoreline. The year-round stalwarts of the sea, however, are Porto’s fishermen. For a sight (and smell) of their deep-water catches, take a half-hour bus ride to Matosinhos and stroll around the fish stalls of the bustling Mercado Municipal, where talkative stallholders will happily advise not just on what is freshest that day, but on how best to prepare it. If descaling and gutting sounds a bit much, fear not – dozens of cooks are waiting along Rua Heróis de França to do the honours. The restaurants may all look a bit spit-and-sawdust, but that’s just a sign of their harbourside heritage. The food is universally excellent, with Salta o Muro and O Lusitano particularly recommended (two courses from around €20 a head).
• Rua França Júnior, Matosinhos. Most restaurants closed Monday, on Facebook
When the 20th-century Portuguese poet and writer Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen was a child, she liked to say that her palatial family home was big enough to house a whale. So when the University of Porto chose it to house the city’s first Natural History and Science Museum, they hung a whale’s skeleton from the ceiling. The museum’s interactive and informative exhibits have proved a hit with locals since its inauguration last summer, although it’s still a novelty on the tourist trail. Book in time to have a potter around the wonderful botanical gardens, which occupy the grounds of this impressive mansion house. The gardens house the university’s herbarium, containing thousands of historic specimens from across Portugal’s former colonies. The better-known Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, which is also within the walls of a one-time grand estate, is just a 25-minute walk away.
• Adult €5, child €2.50, family of four €14, Rua do Campo Alegre 1191, mhnc.up.pt, closed Monday
Porto offers endless opportunities for getting around. Hop on and off one of the open-top city tour buses or totter along in an old-school tram. Helitours will whiz those with deep pockets high above Porto’s red-tiled rooftops. For smaller budgets, try renting a bike and heading out along the coast (Foz-based Dourobike is worth renting from, if only for the chutzpah of its marketing slogan: “The last bike shop before New York”). But explore on foot to get a real taste for the city’s back streets. To escape the herd, head out alone but for the really adventurous, there’s another option: Porto Running Tours. Run (literally) by the ever-friendly and well-informed Sérgio Miranda, this is a chance to exercise and explore the city at the same time. Sérgio is a history and street art buff, but tours are tailored to all interests. The same goes for different age ranges and fitness levels.
• €30 for one (€20pp thereafter, maximum of five to a group), portorunningtours.com
Easyjet flies to Porto from Bristol, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester from £22.66 one way. British Airways flies from Gatwick from £36 one way.
Best time to go
March/April for Easter celebrations, including concerts and plays. The São João festival in late June commemorates the patron saint of the city with barbecues and street music. Also in June, NOS Primavera Sound is the biggest urban music festival in Portugal. And the Porto marathon takes place on 4 November.
£1 = €1.14
Small beer in neighbourhood bar: €1.20-€1.50