When our travel journalist friend suggested we visit Porto for May Bank Holiday we immediately said yes – we’d never been but heard lots of good things about the historic home of Port, and being great fans of Lisbon we had high hopes of a perfect Portuguese city break. We were not disappointed!
Our home for the weekend was Rosa El Al Townhouse, a little boutique hotel on the arty Rua do Rosario. A converted townhouse with six beautiful bedrooms, it’s a lovely base in the heart of the city. Interior design inspiration abounds here, from the perfect fluffy sheepskin throws on the chairs in the breakfast room, to the light-shades in the bathroom and the rotating art that adorns the walls. Our ceiling was decorated with an amazing woven design, a subtle but chic and individual detail we’d never seen before.
For a supremely relaxing treat after your flight, guests can choose from a dreamy in-room spa treatment menu, and, as the heavens decided to open during our stay, we plumped for a 60 minute detox massage as we waited for the rain to stop. The therapist used a blend of pure essential oils mixed to order (lemon, tangerine, myrrh) and brought tea and cookies to the room afterwards as we kicked back in fluffy robe and slippers.
There are so many great restaurants in Porto! A few of our favourites were Book on the Rua de Aviz, a cosy dinner spot housed in a former bookshop. Delicious modern Portuguese cooking, fantastic service and a buzzy vibe makes this a great Friday night choice.
Also wonderful for lunch or dinner is the super cute Traca on Largo São Domingos, a charming spot loved by locals. You must book in advance here unless you want to dine at 7pm with only fellow tourists for company (Porto goes out for dinner after 8.30/9pm in true Mediterranean spirit).
If you are a fan of the ubiquitous custard tart, try Pao de Lo, a custardy cake made with 20 egg yolks!
For a quick snack with your pint of Superbock, try deep fried Bacalhau fritters, delicious morsels made with Portuguese traditional salted cod.
For something a bit more filling, Porto has another local delicacy called the “Francesinha”. We admit, we were slightly scared of this so didn’t try it! It’s a heart-attack inducing sandwich concoction that includes ham and various other meaty items such as sausage, steak or roast beef, sandwiched between two slices of bread, covered with a vat of melted cheese and topped off with hot tomato and beer sauce, and served with French fries. Apparently Cafe Santiago does the best in town.
Port, of course! Walk along medieval Riberia and head over the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia to explore the historic Port “caves” that dot the hillside. Each one is identifiable from across the river with their brand names spelt out in big white letters above, luring you from a distance. We went to Taylors, one of the best. For just 5 Euros you can have a guided tour around the caves, and enjoy three different Ports including a white Port, our new favourite drink! Simply mix with tonic and a slice of fresh orange for an alternative to a G&T.
The city is steeped in history and it’s easy to imagine Porto’s past whilst wandering its streets, particularly down by the riverfront at Riberia. Many of the shops are still un-modernised and part of the joy of Porto is its old fashioned charm. There is however an interesting emerging arts scene, with private galleries, cool boutiques, plenty of quirky bars and a cafe culture that juxtaposes “old” Porto. It’s worth checking out the modern art museum, Serralves – it’s surrounded by beautiful gardens that are the perfect place to while away sunny hours, and there is a sun-trap rooftop terrace that cries out for you to sip a chilled glass of Portuguese white wine as you soak up the rays. For architecture buffs, the Rem Koolhaas designed Casa de Musica is also a must-see, but check the timings for tours of the building on the website as the only way to look around is on a tour.
Porto is a shopper’s delight and fantastic for bargain hunters. Look out for woven rugs and mats in every colour, soft blankets that would not look out of place in London’s coolest stores, sardines in cute tins, and Portuguese wine and Port of course. Our favourite shop was A Vida Portuguesa on the Rua Galeria de Paris. A bit like the Liberty of Porto, this beautiful old building is filled with things you’ll want to take home, from kitchen items to books to artisan food products and locally made bath products, all at amazingly affordable prices.