The city of Porto is a lovely blend of old and new, dramatically situated at the mouth of the Rio Douro, it is known for its port wine, majestic bridges, dockside cafes and historical centre with its cute squares, baroque churches and picturesque corners. It is Portugal’s second largest metropolis and one of Europe’s last undiscovered cities which is about to change with an ever increasing influx of tourists in recent years. It was therefore clear to us to prioritise the city of Porto on our journey through Portugal where we not only enjoyed its delicious sweet wine but unwittingly took part in the celebrations of São João, the city’s largest festival.
The first thing we discovered when we arrived in Porto was that its inhabitants are utterly charming, our Uber driver stocked us up with leaflets and brochures in English about the city while he pointed out Porto’s landmarks on the way to our apartment with a warning note to leave the city centre early that night to be able to get to our restaurant in time which was a little bit outside in Leça da Palmeira (image above). The reason for this was that I have managed to book our stay in Porto on the night of São João – Porto’s biggest festival of the year with most roads in the centre closed off for the occasion.
We arrived nice and early at Rui Paula’s Michelin-starred restaurant Casa de Chá da Boa Nova and took the opportunity to have a walk along the beach and up the nearby church that was perched up on a hill. The location and architecture of the restaurant are simply stunning and I wish I could have taken images from the seaside but just have a look at their website to admire the beautiful building which is worth a visit in itself. We enjoyed two different tasting menu’s that evening, the Atlantic menu which was completely focused on seafood and the Land & Sea menu which lasted about three hours, a lovely start to a wonderful holiday.
Since all main streets in the centre were closed off when we came back, we had to walk a fair amount to reach our apartment. I thought we would be caught up in crowds of drunken people but was pleasantly surprised by how civilised people were. The whole city seemed to be on its feet celebrating São João from the very young to the old, everyone had a fantastic time and we found ourselves drawn to the lively atmosphere. Part of the tradition is to hit people on the head with a soft plastic hammer for good luck which first sounded horrific to me but it actually turned out to be a lot of fun to get ‘hammered’ (no one took advantage to do it in a hurtful way, just a little or several gentle taps really). We enjoyed the atmosphere so much that we even stayed for the fireworks at ‘midnight’ (well, midnight in Portuguese seems to be more of a reference point rather than the actual time as the fireworks started well past midnight) at the nearby Ponte Dom Luís I Bridge.
The next morning the aftermath of the festival was apparent when we walked around the Ribeira district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we stayed for the first night. It is Porto’s oldest neighbourhood – a warren of narrow streets, historic buildings, family owned restaurants, cafes and a beautiful waterfront with views of the port wine lodges on the other side.
It was wonderful to wander through this charming part of Porto in the morning sun while the city slowly came back to life.
Ribeira is also home to Igreja de São Francisco, an old gothic church which might look rather plain on the outside, it greets its visitors with an abundance of gold and opulent Baroque inner decoration from the 17th and 18th century (unfortunately photography was banned so you’ll just have to visit to see for yourself 😉 ). Whereas its catacombs, accessible separately, contain hundreds of human remains.
After our morning stroll, we checked into Hotel Teatro, Porto’s first design hotel which is also featured on Mr and Mrs Smith. The theme of the hotel is as the name suggests, all about the Theatre with big heavy entrance doors, a reception in form of a box office, costumes that decorate the entrance hall towards the bar and low lighting, it has quite a little bit of drama to it. Centrally located and great value for money, it lends itself as a good starting point from which to discover Porto and the complimentary port at the bar was much appreciated! The friendly receptionist pointed us in several directions suggesting that it does not really matter where you start as you’ll always find yourself back in the same location in this small city.
Only a short walk from Hotel Teatro is the picturesque São Bento Railway Station, covered in more than 20,000 azulejos (beautiful handpainted tiles), it is a popular spot for tourists and eager photographers.
We continued by strolling down the Avenida dos Aliados which showcases a range of architectural styles, water features and the Câmara Municipal (Porto’s City Hall) perched atop.
Another popular attraction in Porto is Lello Bookstore but I was not prepared for the long queue forming in front of it – it was almost like visiting Madame Tussauds on a busy day in London so we eventually decided not to go in after all. Porto really is a small town and a weekend is definitely enough to explore its main sights, unfortunately, because of São João a lot of the tings that I had lined up for the weekend were closed like the Mercado do Bolhão Food Market and a boat tour wasn’t possible due the Rabelo Boat Regatta which takes place every year after São João.
For lunch, we headed to Cantinho do Avillez which serves the most delicious risotto with sauteed scallops, portobello mushrooms, basil and parmesan shavings – I am very fussy when it comes to risottos and am rarely happy when I order it in restaurants but this one really deserves a special mention while the scallops with avocado cream that we had for starters did not disappoint either!
The afternoon we decided to dedicate to Porto’s most famous export – Port wine – by visiting Graham’s 1890 Lodge. We started by looking through the small museum, located in the entrance hall, which gives an overview of the history of port wine as well as the Graham and Symington families which are the oldest British Port makers in the region. On display was also a letter of thanks from Queen Elizabeth II and Barack Obama. We continued with a guided tour through the cellars where we learned more about the art of wine making, the history of Port and the climate of the region while admiring their extensive selection of old bottles of port wine dating back to the 19th century. The tour ended at the Tasting Room where we tasted the nuances of classic, premium and vintage ports. Situated on a ridge in Vila Nova de Gaia it also offers beautiful views of the river from its terrace.
A late afternoon drink on Yeatman’s terrace, a luxury wine hotel & spa, was next on our list. However, with São João Porto was buzzing with people and with no availability, we just adored the stunning views of the Rio Douro and Ponte Dom Luís I Bridge from its small visitor terrace.
While we were too early for our dinner reservation at Terra we discovered Casa Vasco opposite the restaurant where we sat down for a quick aperitif. It is a cute little restaurant/cafe with a small bar where I ordered a glass of local bubbly, taken by the lovely decoration I started to photograph my surroundings and before I knew it I had to leave without finishing as I wanted to take pictures of Terra before dinner guests were to arrive so I left my husband at the bar with the bartender assuming I just walked out on him, he refused to charge my husband for my drink who unsuccessfully tried to explain the situation.
Terra is an absolutely gorgeous restaurant and was well worth arriving early to capture the restaurant before it became busy. On the ground floor, it has a nice sushi restaurant which is overlooked by the restaurant above. Glass balustrades surround the opening in the centre of the main restaurant which is laced with large wooden beams. Soft, relaxing jazz was played in the background which gave it a lovely calming atmosphere. Diners can choose from the a la carte menu of the restaurant as well as the sushi counter on the ground floor, ideal for a group of people that are indecisive. It was a wonderful last evening in Porto, a charming city with many contrasts as well as kind and friendly people that are happy to welcome its visitors to celebrate São João with them.