Rivalry is not a bad thing between cities. The one with Porto and Lisbon is a case in point.
“Traditionally, Porto always made the money and Lisbon spent it,” our guide tells us.
What’s undeniable is that the country’s second largest city is on the rise – it’s been declared a World Heritage Site, with millions of euros invested in restoring old buildings, and restaurants and bars being catered to by a lively young crowd and an increasing number of Direct flights benefit from the UK.
Porto, above, has been declared a World Heritage Site, with millions invested in restoring ancient buildings
Let’s go for a walk
Pack suitable shoes, as the city is best explored on foot. There are trams and buses – and taxis are cheap – but central Porto is compact.
All you need is a good map or app. Summers are hot, so you should go in spring and autumn. My only regret is that I didn’t add an extra day to cruise down the Douro and admire the terraced vineyards.
A top notch bookstore
We hire a guide through Oporto Prime and spend a morning with Susana Reis who has a fascinating perspective of the city. But we are surprised when our first stop is a bookshop with a long line of Japanese tourists (those were the days) outside.
Livraria Lello (“the most beautiful bookshop in the world”) has existed since 1906 in a magnificent neo-Gothic building with a central spiral staircase, stained glass windows and a stucco ceiling imitating wood.
JK Rowling was apparently inspired by the shop while married to her first Portuguese husband and teaching English in town.
No shortage of churches
Flamboyant 17th-century Carmelitas Church (top left) standing next to 18th-century Carmo Church (top right)
If you like the extravagance of Rococo architecture, you’ll love the 17th-century Carmelitas Church, which towers up the hill just above Lello and boasts acres of gold from Brazil. Next to it is the 18th-century Carmo Church.
Far less fussy is the Clerigos Church, which has become the city’s landmark with its tall spire (240 steps) and pink and gray marble interior.
Then there’s the Theater Church of Sao Francisco, which dates back to 1223. If you find all of this a little overwhelming, remember that the Virgin Mary was proclaimed Queen of Portugal in the 17th century.
The British Connection
In a word, alcohol. To be more precise, port wine, which seems to be experiencing a renaissance, especially among young people.
Looking out over the Douro from outside the church in Sao Francisco, you can see “the highest concentration of alcohol in the world,” as Susana puts it. Churchill’s, Dow, Croft, Taylor’s, Sandeman – they’re all there and most are still owned and run by British families.
We make our way to Taylor’s (established in 1692) where you will be offered a fascinating audio guide, after which you can taste different ports.
join the club
Well you can’t but you should still try to visit The Factory House which was founded as a trade association for British merchants living in Porto around 1654.
Today it is run by members of the UK port industry. It is a magnificent 18th-century Neo-Palladian building designed by British Consul John Whitehead.
food for thought
The best pastel de nata (custard tarts) are in Manteigaria, near Liberty Square, according to Mark Palmer
Unique to Porto is the Francesinha, which means ‘little Frenchwoman’ – but it’s nothing like that. Get ready for a sandwich of pork, bacon, smoked sausage, and medium-tender beef, all topped with a thick layer of cheese sauce and a fried egg on top.
The best pastel de nata (custard tarts) are in Manteigaria near Liberty Square – to be sipped with a glass of port. We also have a spectacular dinner at Restaurant a Brasileira (part of the Pestana collection), also in Liberty Square.
On the route
New York has Grand Central, Paris has Gare du Nord – and Porto has Sao Bento, where 20,000 hand-painted tiles tell the history of the city in all its quirky glory. It has to be one of the busiest train stations in the world, even though most people don’t actually board a train.
Where to sleep
At the top of the stack (and at the top of the hill overlooking the river) is The Yeatman, but we’re staying at sister property, Infante Sagres, which is cheaper and perfectly located. It was built in 1951 and has just been extensively renovated.
The stained glass behind the main staircase (dating from 1945) is simply exquisite, and on the other side of the building is the trendy Vogue Café, serving deadly cocktails until the wee hours.