The coastal city of Porto is Portugal’s second largest city with about half a million people. Right across the Douro River is Vila Nova da Gaia, the country’s third largest city. While Vila Nova da Gaia is technically a separate city, it is often thought of as being a Porto local neighborhood.
Including Vila de Gaia, the Porto metropolitan area is Portugal’s second largest city and is one of its primary industrial, wine, and tourist hubs.
Porto (or actually its adjacent city Vila Nova da Gaia) is famous for the Port wine industry. The region depends on Port for its primary source of revenue, both directly from the sale of its famed nectar and indirectly from the tourists it brings to the cities and to the Douro Valley.
Porto’s Age of Prosperity
Porto began coming into prominence (not to speak of prosperity) when it became one of the first on the Iberian Peninsula that the Moors recaptured. Then it began to prosper as a trading city and center for provisioning Crusaders who were leaving by ship for the Holy Land.
This maritime heritage served it well. Portugal prospered from its opening and initial near-monopoly of the spice trade with Eastern Africa and India and the colonization of Africa, Brazil, and Macau. As this trade began to fade in the 17th century, the British’s taste for wine—and especially Port wine—created an increasingly lucrative substitute. Douro Valley wine was shipped by river to Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia for aging and shipping to England.
Despite the contributions of wine and tourism, the city remains susceptible to the broader fluctuations of the Portuguese economy.
Portugal (and Porto)’s problem is that educated young people have been leaving in droves and Portugal has the lowest birthrate in Europe. Consequently, the nation faces the challenge of having the European Union’s oldest, fastest declining, and most rapidly aging population.
Luckily, the country, particularly Lisbon and the country’s southern beaches, has also become a major tourist hub and home to a rapidly growing number of ex-pats. While the ex-pats are generally older ex-pats, they are still sources of income to the economy—not to speak of added competition for the country’ s real estate. But even the expat and tourist booms have drawbacks as home prices are being pushed up to levels that many Portuguese citizens cannot afford.
However, despite its economic challenges and certain areas in Porto displaying dilapidated and abandoned buildings, the city still retains numerous tourist allures.
Porto’s attraction extends beyond Port Wine: bridges, architecture, and the UNESCO historic center make it irresistible for millions of visitors.
Porto is a very walkable city. It is a good way to experience the neighborhoods and admire the city’s many displays of azulejo tiles (not to speak of sitting for port and wine tastings).
Porto’s central area is divided into several distinctive sections, each boasting captivating landmarks and attractions.
- The Neo-Classical Cathedral District around the Se, the stately Praça da Liberdade (Liberdade or Freedom Square) area headed by the stately City Hall and flanked by the beautifully and historically-themed tiled São Bento train station and its pretty, renovated commercial streets, such as the balconied Rua dos Flores;
- The medieval Barredo or Jewish Quarter (which has more than its share of dilapidated and abandoned buildings) and the also medieval but increasingly popular riverside Ribeira quarter with its steep, narrow, twisting streets and small, tightly-packed buildings and increasingly active nightlife;
- The gardens of Cordoaria, prominently marked by the towering Torre dos Clérigos church; and
- Business and shopping district with its office buildings and the center of the city’s leatherworking district and shops.
Let’s explore some of these attractions.
São Bento Train Station
Even if you are not taking a train, the train station is a must see stop. Its beautiful, historic blue and white azulejo tiles tell the stories of the history of Portugal and the Douro Valley wine industry.
Bolsa Palace (Stock Exchange)
Buy a timed-ticket in advance to avoid the long lines or disappointment of facing sold out tickets. The building and the beautifully designed parquet floors are indeed impressive. However, once inside only one room truly impressed us—the incredibly richly decorated ballroom with elaborate inlaid columns and window frames, beautifully painted walls and ceiling and a floor that was even more dramatic than the others.
The Bishop’s Palace
The 12th century building is the former residence of Porto’s Bishop. The stone craved exterior and a lavish interior enjoys beautiful views thanks to its high elevation next to the Porto Cathedral. Inside are beautifully painted walls and ceiling. The added 19th century dome and skylight towers above them and the impressive Hall of Mirrors serves as a reception room for the Bishop’s chambers.
The Se (Porto Cathedral)
The Se began life in the 13th century as a fortress built atop Roman ruins. A the cloister walls are lined with azulejo tiles that trace the life of Mary and the tale of Ovid’s metamorphosis. A chapel off the cloister features dramatic bas relief wood carvings. A series of rooms on the way up one of the two towers provides a collection of the cathedral’s treasures.
Still More Porto Churches
- The Santa Clara Church’s austere exterior belies a flamboyant interior of gilded carved wood. Its convent sheltered many royal and wealthy girls from arranged marriages they could not abide.
- Sao Francisco Church’s alter and interior are coated with more than 450 pounds of gold. Its Tree of Jesse carving was used to teach the bible before widespread literacy and whose crypt is filled with treasures, and whose basement is filled with human bones.
- Clérigos Church and Tower were built on a hilltop in the 18th century. Its 246-foot tower, which can be seen from across the city, is one of the tallest building in the country.
- Carmo Church is an 18th-century Baroque structure that is notable primarily for its huge azulejos panel that depicts the founding of the Carmelite Order and its seven gilt altars.
- Carmelitas Church was completed in the early 17th century for Carmelite nuns. It is located “almost” next to the Carmo Church, separated only by a 40-inch wide house that was intended to maintain separation between the Carmo monks and the Carmelitas nuns.
Remnants of the city’s second walls, which were financed by private subscription and built in the 14th century when the city outgrew its first walls. While the second walls stood untested by the feared Spanish for 400 years, they were largely torn down in the 18th century, prompting the French to capture the undefended port.
After centuries of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia being separated by a deep chasm, a student (turned colleague and then competitor) of Gustave Eiffel designed two bridges in the early 20th century that joined them. The Maria Pia Bridge and most notably, the huge, graceful Dom Luis I Bridge, that was (at least until Eiffel build the Eiffel Tower) the largest metal structure in the world. It ends in dramatic fashion at a huge, hilltop monastery.
Lello & Irmao bookstore or Livraria Lello & Irmão
J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for the Wand Shop and for the sweeping staircase in Professor Dumbledore’s office is now so popular that it charges a 3E admission (refundable if you buy a book) and has long lines waiting to get in. Then there is the almost equally pretty Majestic Café where Rowling reportedly began writing the first of the Harry Potter series’ many books.
McDonalds is not normally a tourist attraction but the one on Allied Avenue is. To secure the space, McDonalds had to agree to maintain the structure’s exterior, including a semi-circular window and a large eagle over the door (which symbolizes the role that Rome played in Porto and Portugal’s history) as well as the interior, with its original decoration and chandeliers.
Although we did partake of a number of traditional Porto’s favorite dishes (especially the city’s clams bulhao, wonderful custard tarts (pasteis de nata), and pão-de-ló cakes, we passed on one of the city’s “great” culinary innovations—the Francesinhas. These huge sandwiches consist of multiple types of meat, cheese, and a salad and are usually accompanied by a huge serving of French fries, slathered with what is supposed to be an incredibly hot, spicy sauce.
Although we missed out on this culinary delight, we did found a number of good restaurants and wonderful meals.
One would have thought we would have been ready for full meals after a day of learning about and tasting Port wines. Unfortunately, neither of us was especially hungry and only ordered appetizers. The smoke eel with dill sauce and apple granite and kingfish in beurre blanc sauce with strips of lettuce and salmon eggs was tasty. Tom liked the narrow strips of grilled Azores squid in a sauce of squid ink with chips of hazelnut. The restaurant’s take on oven-baked blueberry pie (warmed whole blueberries in a crisp tart-like crust with a light custard filling and seemingly incongruously covered with a soft “crust” green pea gel with a lemongrass-tinged béchamel sauce) was also very good. Elemento will be the first restaurant on our list the next time we are in Porto. While Tom had more than enough Port over the day to blow out his daily alcohol budget, Joyce had a glass of minerally, citrusy 2020 Dagon Sauvignon Blanc.
Astoria, in the city’s Palacio das Cardosas, had been highly recommended by the hotel on our first visit to the city. We started dinner with an unusual and tasty amuse bouche (vaporized oyster with celery and lime) and a couple of unusual spreads for bread. The egg yolk with truffle salt was the most interesting. Two wonderful main fish dishes followed: slow-cooked seabass fillet with oyster risotto and lemongrass foam, and baked redfish with pumpkin puree and celery pickles.
On our 2023 trip, we shared a roasted pepper dip with pecans and pomegranate and with naan and a tasty grouper fillet with shrimp and fried rice.
The restaurant is three miles outside the city center, but well worth the detour. Housed in the first floor of an old stone building, you enter a waiting area where you sit on a couch watching vintage silent movies. The multi-room dining area with its original stone walls is atmospheric. More importantly, knowledgeable and attentive servers serve wonderful food. Although we had only two dishes, both were wonderful. Joyce had a perfectly cooked seabass with clams and mussels in a fennel-tinged fish sauce. Tom returned to his carnivorous ways with an also perfectly cooked (medium rare) veal loin with marrow bone sauce. A pot of the most unusual and delicious whipped potatoes either of us ever had accompanied the veal. They were layered with caramelized onions and cumin and topped with cornbread crumbs, which added a crunchy texture. Tom had two different glasses of red wine. While Herdade Poro Carro red from Setubol had a forest floor tinge, he especially enjoyed the Quadus (from the Douro). Joyce enjoyed and stayed with a 2012 Douro white from Niepoort.
We also had dinner at another restaurant of star Douro Valley chef Rui Paula. After a large lunch and many, many wine and port tastings, we confined ourselves to two dishes: traditional Clams “Bulhao” (in white wine, olive oil, lemon, and garlic sauce) and a seabass (relatively plain, except when combined with the wonderful lobster-packed risotto). Our sommelier recommended one of the most characteristic representations of Douro Valley red wines—a wonderfully delicate Mapa red that combined a number of the valley’s indigenous grapes.
We began dinner with a very interesting bread with sausage baked inside. We then split clams (in an olive oil, garlic, and coriander sauce) and tasty sea bream baked in salt (to retain the moisture) and flamed in vodka (a dramatic touch). We split a bottle of CARM Reserve from the Douro. Although we liked the cozy atmosphere of this tiny, rustic restaurant, and we enjoyed the food, it did not aspire to or reach the level of our other Porto dinner restaurants.
At this tapas restaurant, we began with oxtail croquettes with Portuguese butter cheese followed by two very good entrees: roast octopus with sautéed potatoes and vegetables and a perfectly cooked rack of lamb with basil crust, baked potatoes topped with cheese and sautéed vegetables. The wine, a lovely, complex, slightly spicy, medium-bodied Quinta da Romaneiro Dona Clara Douro blend consisting primarily of Touriga Nacionale, Touriga Franca and Tinto Cao.
We used our 2023 lunch as much as a vehicle for tasting Graham’s Port as for the food. After beginning with an aperitif of the dry white port which we still remembered from our previous Graham’s tasting (and which we still haven’t yet found in San Francisco), we had an amuse of cod salad. Our meals began with an order of three types of croquettes (iberico ham, salted cod and our favorite, mushroom) and two main dishes: a spinach, stilton and apple salad plus a salted cod stew with white beans and artichokes (which confirmed, for the last time, that while we both enjoy cod, neither of us enjoy salted cod). We had celebratory glass of anniversary champagne (Brut Brummel Blanc de Blanc) with our meal and finished with a 20-year Tawny (with which we are very familiar) and a Six Grape Ruby (new to us) which was pleasant, but younger and more acidic.
On a previous lunch, we began with an amuse-bouche of codfish salad with cornbread. Then came a foie gras torchon with persimmon and chicory sauce appetizer. The sommelier suggested that we split a Dow’s Lagrima White Port (which turned out to be Tom’s favorite of many white ports he tasted). Next came clams in a green sauce which was nice, but not as flavorful as some of the other white wine garlic, and olive oil sauces we have had. Joyce had a very nice roasted grouper with clams “Xerem” and polenta. We added a glass of Anselmo Mendes Contracto Vinho Verde Alverinho and of Intensus Biancho from Alentejo (both of which were okay, but not among our favorite wines).
We had two appetizers for lunch here. The stuffed crab spread was in a creamy, tomato-based sauce with small toasts. After sending back the overcooked first version, we enjoyed an octopus tempura with sweet and sour dipping sauce. Tom added a glass of Fine White Port from Niepoort. Joyce had a Branco da Gaivosa white from the Douro Valley
We have stayed in two different Porto hotels.
The Renaissance Porto Lapa Hotel is a brand new hotel (in 2023) that was a 20 minute walk from the historic district. While it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, it was clean, new and comfortable. As expected from a new hotel, it had plenty of plugs and USB ports by the bed. Bathrobes were provided as well as hot beverages in lobby. We did have some issues with the room not cooling properly. While it was a nice hotel, we prefer to stay closer to the action.
At the Palacio Das Cardosas. we had a lovely room overlooking the square. It was a perfect location and a great staff.