Monday, July 16, 2012
When most people visit Portugal, they head south for the sunshine. The Algarve region is packed year-round with tourists from sun-starved latitudes, all of them seeking the ever-elusive vitamin D. But there’s more to Portugal than just the beaches, and more sun-blessed regions in the country than just the Algarve. One particularly sunny off-the-beaten path destination is Porto.
Porto is located in northern Portugal. It’s a colorful, vibrant city on the wide Douro River near the Atlantic beaches. I visited Porto on my first trip to Portugal four years ago, and when I was invited back by Discover the Origin and the Wine Institute of Porto and the Douro Valley, I was excited to return.
The official purpose of the trip was to go wine and Port tasting in Porto’s across-the-river neighbor, Vila Nova de Gaia, as well as the famous wine region of the Douro Valley. But the journey was bookended by short stints in Porto, and given how much I loved the city on my first trip, I wanted to explore again.
My group traveled to Porto on Sunday afternoon on a flight from London’s Gatwick Airport. A driver picked us up and drove us the short distance to the city center, where we checked into a hotel that was literally around the corner from where I stayed on my last trip to Porto.
The only difference was that the hotel we stayed in on this trip—the Hotel Infante Sagres—was a five-star hotel, whereas my previous hotel had been, well, less than that.
The Infante Sagres was a grand dame of a hotel with a bit of an identity crisis when it came to decor. My room was great, with dark red accents that were perfect for a city famous for its Port wine. The lobby and breakfast room went a bit wild with contemporary flourishes, but overall the stay was a good one.
Outside of the hotel, I had a few hours to explore Porto. I started by walking through the wide Praca da Liberdade, which was flanked on both sides by beautiful historic architecture. I then went past the famous Sao Bento train station, with its iconic blue azulejo tiles. From there I continued downhill, past the multihued buildings that make Porto one of the most vibrantly colorful cities I’ve ever visited.
As I walked in the sunshine, I couldn’t help but think that Porto looked a bit more polished than the last time I had been there. The buildings seemed to have fresh coats of paint, the streets appeared cleaner, and—despite the current economic situation—it seemed like Porto was on the rise. The number of chic boutiques and modern pastelarias, or bakeries, seemed to attest to that as well.
The only things that hadn’t changed—thankfully—were the prices. It was still less than 2 euros for a beer at the restaurants on the river, and elsewhere a cup of coffee cost only 60 cents. I couldn’t think of anywhere else in Western Europe where such reasonable prices prevailed. It was refreshing.
When I reached the river, the area was bustling. There was an Extreme Sailing Series race taking place, and huge boats zipped across the water in front of the stunning backdrop of the Ponte Luis I bridge and the port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Walking back up the hill, I made my way over to the Igreja de Santo Ildfonso church, with its stunning azulejo-covered facade, down the pedestrianized Rua Santa Catarina, and across Praca da Liberdade to the area around the university. It too seemed nicer and newer than it had on my last visit, and after wandering around for a bit, I sat in a pretty park and read up on Portuguese wines before dinner.
The next time I was back in Porto was at the end of the trip. We drove in from the Douro Valley and had just over an hour to spend in the city before leaving for the airport.
We made good use of our time, first stopping at the famous Mercado do Bolhao. There we indulged our senses in fresh produce, bright flowers, and plump olives in the faded glory of the arcaded building.
From there we walked up to Porto’s most famous bookstore, Livraria Lello, which may be the most beautiful of its kind in the world. I never thought anything could trump the stunning interior of Daunt Books in London’s Marylebone neighborhood, but Livraria Lello easily beat it.
The carved double staircase and gorgeous railings had me more interested in woodwork than books for what may have been the first time in my life. It even had a small cafe at the top that looked like the perfect place for a cup of coffee or a glass of Port.
Back outside, our last stop in Porto brought our Portugal travels full-circle. We ate lunch at Cafe Guarany, a restaurant on the Praca da Liberdade just around the corner from our hotel. Its large, airy dining room was a historic gem, and the food surpassed my expectations.
The traditional caldo verde soup with shredded kale was great, and my risotto with olives, lime, and salmon was delicious, if a bit non-traditional. The wine, a red Duas Quintas 2009, was excellent as well, and a great way to end our wine tasting trip to Portugal.
Back in the car, we journeyed to the airport for our flight to Gatwick, on which we made it back to London in less than two hours.
Given Porto’s proximity to both London and the beach, and its sunshine, good wines, and beautiful architecture, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday it started to rival the Algarve as Portugal’s premier travel destination. Until then, I hope to go back again to enjoy an imminently affordable city with an amazingly diverse range of amusements on offer, all without the crowds.