Portugal’s second biggest city, Porto is the capital of Portugal’s most famous wine region – Port. It is home to most of the Port lodges (where the wines are aged after vinification in the wineries along the Douro further inland), located in Vila Nova de Gaia and is located magnificently on the banks of the great Douro River. Porto is well known for its characteristic sailboats, the “Barcos Rabelos”, which used to ship Port downstream from the vineyards. The journey was actually quite dangerous, but despite the introduction of the Port train in the late 1800’s, the Barcos Rabelos continued to be used for transporting Port until the 1960’s. These days, the famous boats are used for an annual race, held in Porto in June every year.
Porto is a town of contradictions- still quite poor by European standards and yet full of some unidentifiable charm that seduces the visitor. The river is lined with great, non-pretentious seafood restaurants, where traditional dishes like “Tripas” (tripe) and “Ameijoas” (clams) are served in the boisterous bars and cafes. The city has a tremendous amount of atmosphere, with narrow, steep, winding lanes; old trams; beautifully tiled and deteriorating facades; and a bizarre blend of mom and pop shops rubbing elbows with elegant new shops, overcrowded and happily noisy neighborhoods falling into opulent suburbs full of villas and luxuriant gardens. The main attractions architecturally are the Sé cathedral, 13th century cathedral renovated in the 18th century and located on the hill above Porto’s historic São Bento train station. You can climb the Renaissance epoch stairs, which lead you to a chapterhouse, and provide stunning views over the old quarter. The Igreja de São Francisco is another extraordinary church with a Gothic exterior and decadent gilded Rococo interior. The Stock exchange, A Bolsa, is also an impressive building, constructed in the 19th century in an array of styles including a neoclassic façade and Moorish interior.
What most visitors come to Porto for, however, is not only for the city itself, rather the city’s biggest export- Port. From old town Porto, you only have to cross the Ponte Dom Luis I bridge to reach the fantastic old port lodges, many of them dating back to the late 1700’s. Some of the port lodges are located in transformed monasteries, like the Ferreira lodge (a port company founded in 1715). Ferreira is in fact one of the most fascinating lodges to visit along with the historic Sandeman (also housing a museum), Graham and Calém.
Gastronomy & Wine
As the rest of Portugal, Porto’s cuisine is heavily based on fish and seafood. Dishes you will commonly see on restaurant menus can include “arroz de marisco” (seafood with rice), “bacalhau assado no forno” (cod roasted in the oven), “bacalhau à Brás” (cod fried with egg, potatoes & onions), “caldeirada”, (fish stew popular all over Portugal and lovely with the Vinho Verde wines) and “açorda de marisco” (seafood mix served with fresh bread). You will also find “cavala” (mackerel), “cherne” (stone bass), “enguias” (eels, an acquired taste), “linguado” (sole) “polvo” (octopus, sometimes served with paprika and recommendable with White Port), “raia” (skate, delicious) and the ever-present “sardinhas”. Port is served more as an aperitif, with cheese and as a dessert wine, although White Port is commonly drunk throughout a meal. The wonderful zippy white wines from further north, bordering Spain’s Galicia, accompany the seafood perfectly. Vinho Verde (Green Wine) actually refers to the wine being “young”, and the wines can be very fresh and aromatic.
Romantic River Cruises
The best way to see the city is from the river, by private yacht or cruise boat. There are many different companies offering half-day, full-day and even weekend long trips into Port wine country up to Pinhão. Many of them provide gourmet lunches and Port aperitifs onboard.
Wine Tasting at Port Lodges
All of the prestigious port wine companies have lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia including Ramos Pinto, Fonseca, Taylors, Warres, Dows, Sandeman, Ferreira, Delaforce, Croft, Cockburns, Offley, and Quinta do Noval, Kopke, Rozès and Osbourne.