PortoWords Emma Ventura
Photography Matt Munro
Here’s just one problem with the Portuenses: they won’t let you leave. Eat your body weight in bacalhau (salted cod) and they’ll insist you stay and round things off with a pastel, one of the local pastries glistening temptingly on the sweet trolley. Try telling the cabbie who overshot your destination that you’re quite capable of walking back 10 yards to the restaurant and he’ll switch off the meter and drive round the block to deposit you right at the doorstep.
What else to expect from a population whose nickname itself derived from an act of culinary selflessness? When the 15th-century caravels of empire weighed anchor in Porto on their way to go conquer Africa, the city’s inhabitants gave up all their available meat, leaving themselves with nothing but offal. Hence tripeiros. Tripe people. Amid the haphazard beauty of Porto’s old city, designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1996, the people still eat tripe, and still display a rare sense of hospitality. “They say that in Lisbon if you can’t find somewhere, they will tell you once,” a dapper middle-aged man tells me. “But in Porto, they will take you there.”
It’s easy to lose yourself in the chaotic streets lined with the baroque, the art nouveau, and the rococo. Spread out over four hills, and cut through the middle by the River Douro, the main artery of the port trade, Portugal’s second city boasts a boggling architectural richness as well as legendary status as producer of one of the world’s most historic wines. But where in other cities you’d find upmarket apartments and office spaces behind the beautiful blue-and-white tiled facades, here many buildings sit empty, some in gracious repose, others with ragged panes of glass affording a glimpse of their broken-down interiors. Wrought-iron balustrades above the cobbled streets are strung with white sheets, shirts and billowing underwear – and not the Victoria’s Secret kind. Many of Porto’s youth have opted for the newer satellite suburbs over the faded glory of the centre, leaving it to the old tripeiros and the steady flow of tourists.
At night, however, many are coming back. There’s a new sense of movida, borrowed from across the Spanish border, infiltrating Porto, heralding a cultural revival that seems at odds with the nation’s abysmal economy.
“I don’t know what was the turning point,” says Antonio Reis, flipping his mobile phone over his cigarette pack and back again. “Lisbon was very crowded and it lacked something… the humanity aspect perhaps. Two or three years ago, downtown Porto used to be dead, but this new feeling of movida is changing all that.”
Reis is a baby-faced 23-year-old with the languid air of an aristocrat, who plays the piano at Galeria de Paris, one of the venues that these days cater to the post-11pm crowd. Opened three years ago on the street of the same name, Galeria de Paris is defined by a quirky collection of clutter which lines the shelves – cameras and projectors, weighing scales, even a toilet bowl and an old Fiat turned into wall art. The cafe ticks over nicely during the day but truly comes to life late at night, when it spills over with hip young things, bantering, setting the world to rights into the small hours, and supplementing their conversation with beers pulled from a converted vintage coffee maker.
Hanging near a stairwell a photograph of former dictator António de Oliveira Salazar bears the sarcastic caption “Employee of the 20th century”. Salazar’s right-wing regime ruled Portugal from the 1930s through to 1968, and the new spirit of hedonism in Porto speaks of a joyful kicking up of heels in retaliation against the years of repression.
The evidence can be seen across the city. Design shops and galleries have sprung up in gritty Rua Miguel Bombarda, creating a kind of arts precinct. A major InterContinental hotel is about to open in a restored 18th-century palace on the main square, Praça da Liberdade. And on the southern riverbank in Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the old port lodges, they’ve opened the country’s first wine hotel, The Yeatman. Even port is cool these days, preferably served chilled with tonic and a slice of lemon or sprig of mint.
Down on Boavista Avenue, Casa da Música is a phenomenal example of Porto’s new energy, drawing lovers of music and contemporary architecture from around the world. Completed in 2005 on the site of an old train station, this concrete and glass concert hall designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas sits in huge and spectacular contrast to the traditional houses across the street. Its space-age décor includes wavy glass walls, vast skylights and a main auditorium complete with pine and gold leaf walls, neoprene-lined aluminium floors and grey velvet seats with silicone armrests.
Journey on to the end of Boavista Avenue and you reach Matosinhos and the Atlantic coast, where the old tuna and sardine canneries have been converted to nightclubs that pump out music until 7am. Outside on the main drag is where some say you’ll find the best seafood in the country, most of it barbecued and served straight from the white-hot charcoal to smartly laid tables on wooden platforms built out over the street. This is the place to order net-fresh sardines and snapper, served simply with boiled cabbage and new potatoes swimming in butter and garlic, washed down with a crisp alvarinho. And to finish, maybe a dessert of crème brûlée, the top scorched to a dense caramel crispness with a flat iron pulled from the grill.
Although there’s a new breed of chef in Porto intent on raising the culinary bar, this kind of dining – simple, local and alfresco – is hard to beat for experiencing the city’s culinary treasures. No matter how homespun the cooking or how humble the setting, you’re invariably served on immaculate white table linen with good plates, cutlery and stemware, turning even the most basic meal of bread and mountain cheese into something special.
The tripeiros seem to run on coffee and pastries, which are taken throughout the day via pit-stops at the pastelaria found everywhere in the city. A slow walk down the fashionable pedestrian shopping strip of Santa Catarina is a good way to get a feel for Porto’s classic charms – and offers the chance to stop at Café Majestic, as famous for its pastéis de nata (custard tarts) as its exuberant art nouveau architecture. The customers are a mix of stylish matrons and wide-eyed tourists, who order their cimbalino (a version of an espresso), pingo (short and dark with a shot of milk) and meia de leitte (half milk) coffees beneath some dementedly beaming cherubs on the walls.
On the street, the pavement forms intricate black and white patterns underfoot, made from the distinctive limestone and basalt calçada Portuguesa stonework that is seen throughout the country. It’s ceramic tiles, however, that are everywhere in this city, whether they’re exuberant blue and white depictions of animals and abstract patterns on shopfronts, religious scenes on the many churches, boats and trains at São Bento train station, or the dirty yellow kind stuck to ugly 1960s apartment buildings daubed with gaudy graffiti.
One of the favourite places to wander early in the evening is the Ribeira district, next to the Douro, where views are dominated by the high arching metalwork of Dom Luís bridge – built by a student of Gustave Eiffel. Square-sailed wooden barcos rabelos were used to transport barrels of port downstream until the 1960s, but these days cart tourists along the river. When we visit, it’s early evening in the week before 23 June, the biggest date on the Porto calendar, when people gather to celebrate the festival of St John. Colourful bunting has been strung up between buildings busy with satellite dishes and sheets that billow and snap in the night wind. In the narrow alleyways, restaurants are already doling out platters of lightly battered sardines and tomato rice.
We’ve done a lot of walking so we have an appetite, but rather than duck into one of the restaurants here we decide to head back uptown to share a francesinha, the local gut-buster that’s been a Porto institution since the 1950s. This enormous toasted sandwich, consisting of multiple layers of pork, ham, cheese, sausage and steak smothered in a deliciously piquant sauce, was introduced to the city as Portugal’s answer to the croque monsieur. A local has recommended we try Bufete Fase, a tiny diner where proprietor José Meneses and his daughter Filipa serve francesinhas to some 90 people per night, and do countless more takeaways.
Shoehorned behind a long dark wooden counter, José demonstrates the layering of this giant wedge of protein and carbohydrate as Filipa presses us to try another. It tastes like 1200 calories in every bite, but after a few port and tonics would likely hit the spot perfectly.
As it stands, we are sober and have booked a five-course dinner for later that night. Filipa seems dismayed and insists on bringing out a bowl of French fries, on the house, in case we fade away in the interim before dinner. When we finally extract ourselves from yet more overwhelming Porto hospitality and head for the door, I turn to wave an obrigada. But Filipa isn’t looking. Instead she’s staring sadly at the barely pecked-at bowl of fries left behind.
EAT & DRINK
Bufete Fase 1147 Rua Santa Catarina; +351 22 205 2118. They form queues here from 6pm for francesinhas smothered in owner José Meneses’ secret sauce.
Capo Negra II 191 Rua Campo Alegre; +351 22 607 8380. Another popular spot for Francesinhas.
Padaria Ribeiro Praca Guilherme Gomes Fernandes 300 Rua Monte da Bela; +351 22 977 4010. Pastelera with excellent sweet pastries, tarts and muffins plus pastéis de chaves, savoury pastries stuffed with a range of meat, seafood and cheese.
Café Majestic Rua Santa Catarina; +351 22 200 3887. An essential tourist stop but still a stylish local hangout complete with antique furnishings and foxed mirrors. Order a pingo and one of the best pastéis de natas in town and soak up the art nouveau ambience.
A Tasquinha 23 Rua da Carmo; +351 22 332 2145. Black-beamed cottage-like restaurant serving great local staples. Try a bowl of caldo verde with seaweed-green cabbage and chunks of smoky sausage lurking in the bottom.
Gelataria Sincelo 54 Rua de Ceuta; +351 22 200 4725. Retro setting and tutti-frutti flavours. Many of the home-made gelati are made with ingredients bought from nearby Bolhão market.
DOP 18 Largo de São Domingos, Palácio das Artes; +351 22 201 4313. Sharp new split-level space boasting an excellent regional wine list to complement the updated Portuguese menu.
S Valentim Restaurante de Peixe 335 Rua Heróis de França, Matosinhos; +351 22 937 9204. Sardines, snapper and lobster barbecued before you and served uncomplicated and alfresco.
Buhle 810 Avenida Montevideu, Foz; +351 22 010 9929 . Cocktails, sushi and a stylish ambience are the order of the day at this breezy beach spot.
Adega S Nicolau 1 Rua São Nicolau; +351 22 200 8232. Low-key restaurant that has been winning fans for favourites like tomato rice and battered sardines since 1930.
Casa de Pasto Ribatejo 219 Rua Alexandre Herculano; +351 22 200 8991. Hearty fare and a relaxed family atmosphere. Try the tripa enfarinhada – tripe stuffed with bread – and discover why the tripeiros got their name.
Galeria de Paris 56 Rua da Galeria de Paris; +351 22 201 6218. Light, buffet-style dining by day, tapas and live music most nights. Go late and you might not get out till dawn.
Casa do Livro 85 Rua da Galeria de Paris; +351 22 202 5101. Literature on the shelves points to this popular watering hole’s former incarnation as a bookshop, now with a cosy, lounge-bar vibe.
Maus Hábitos 4th floor, 178 Rua Passos Manuel; +351 22 208 7268, maushabitos.com. Funky, industrial-style bar with Formica tables, an old iron stove in winter, live music and art for sale.
Solar do Vinho do Porto Museu Romântico, 220 Rua de Entre Quintas; +351 22 605 7000. A huge array of ports by the glass in an 18th-century ambience.
SEE & DO
Comer e Chorar Por Mais 300 Rua Formosa; +351 22 200 4407. Shop for lunch at this gourmet deli that sells all kinds of local produce, including cheese, sausage and tinned sardines.
Livraria Lello & Irmão 144 Rua das Carmelitas; +351 22 200 2037. A steady stream of customers swirls up the central red staircase of this century-old bookshop. Standing beneath its stained glass window is like being on the deck of a caravel.
Palácio da Bolsa Rua de Ferrera Borges; +351 22 339 9000. The stock exchange took 68 years to build, houses 1.5 tonnes of chandeliers and is worth a look for the Arabian room alone.
Casa da Música 604–610 Avenida da Boavista; +351 22 012 0220. Do your utmost to catch a concert in this fantastically improbable piece of modern architecture.
Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art 210 Rua Dom João de Castro; +351 22 615 6500. Designed by local architect Álvaro Sizar Viera, this stunning museum houses 3,300 modern pieces and is surrounded by 18 blissful hectares of grounds that are separated into distinct agricultural, wilderness and landscaped areas.
Mercado do Bolhão Rua Fernando Tomás; +351 22 332 6024/22 209 7200. Seafood, sausages, olives, herbs, honey and even a haircut can be had at this atmospheric daily market, packed with local produce and colourful characters.
Rua Miguel Bombarda Porto’s emerging creative talent is concentrated in this new “cool area”, and showcased in galleries and studios such as Galeria Fernando Santos (526 Rua Bombarda; +351 22 606 1090) and Ap’Arte Galeria (221 Rua Bombarda; +351 22 012 0184).
Igreja de São Francisco Rua do Infante Henrique; +351 22 206 2100. The city’s must-see church, with massive amounts of gilt (400kg when it was built).
Torre dos Clérigos Rua São Filipe de Nery; +351 22 200 1729. Climb the 225 steps to the top of this 75-metre tower for your Kodak moment with Porto’s beautifully jumbled skyline.
The Yeatman Rua do Choupelo, Vila Nova de Gaia; +351 22 013 3100. Bird’s-eye views of Porto’s old city don’t get better than at this new hotel on a vast tract of land above the port lodges. The Yeatman is airy, grand and a bit of fun: walls in bold mint green, crimson and yellow an alternative take on Porto’s building façades; a bottle-shaped swimming pool; a rotating bed in room 007, the James Bond-worthy Bacchus Suite; and a bed made from an enormous port barrel in the Taylor Suite. Each of the 82 rooms and suites is dedicated to a different regional wine partner, which the hotel teams up with for glamorous weekly wine dinners and to help stock its 25,000-strong cellar. In the Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa you can treat yourself to a ‘merlot wrap’ or ‘barrel bath’ immersions, a perfect way to unwind after a day pounding the pavement. Nightly rates start from €305 per double room on a B&B basis.
Turismo Municipal (Porto) 25 Rua Clube dos Fenianos; +351 22 339 3472. Get there TAP Portugal flies from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily, from £48 one-way. Visit flytap.com or call 0845 601 0932 from within the UK for more information.