Portugal’s second-largest city is Europe’s last undiscovered gem.
With a generous pour of port in my hand, a salty breeze lightly brushing through my hair, and a sunset on my horizon, I found myself slipping into a blissful daze where it seemed only fitting to close my eyes, take a deep breath and start again. My husband and I sat watching the day turn to dusk along the bend where the Douro River bleeds into the Atlantic Ocean, and while we sat there, I could almost hear the siren calls from the city beckoning us in deeper.
Porto has somehow remained one of the last undiscovered cities in Europe, with its baroque architecture and rich history of wine making attracting only the most enlightened and discriminating travelers. The city’s historical core was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, as Porto’s roots can be traced back to the eighth century when Romans first established the city, under the name Portus, as a trading port.
It wasn’t until the 15th century, when English investors took an interest in the vineyards along the Douro Valley, that the town began to harvest its own sophisticated identity. Gold-gilded cathedrals sprang up, and baroque buildings lined the stone-laden paths toward grand bridges designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (famous for his Parisian namesake). Th e town was frequented by monarchs on holiday, and played host to a few Formula One Grand Prix, but the draw to this charismatic city has always been the sweet nectar from its vines.
The scene in Porto now is filled with an air of British sensibility and a purely Portuguese flair for elegance and culture, adding to the flavor of this full-bodied village. As host to numerous world-class musicians each year, along with an international film festival and a new wave of Michelin-starred chefs opening up restaurants and cafÃ©s around town, Porto has finally gained an international acclaim it’s so long deserved. Here are our recommendations for where to stay, dine and play while in town â€¦ and, of course, the best places to sip!
Although there are many fine hotels and boutique rooms for rent along the downtown streets of Porto, the best accommodation is located high on the south bank of the Douro River among the ancient Port lodges at the Yeatman Hotel (theyeatman-hotel.com). Th is luxury hotel is a member of the highly esteemed Relais & ChÃ¢teaux collection, and is, without a doubt, the best hotel in Porto.
The Yeatman opened in 2010, and features 82 terraced rooms and suites, all tastefully themed around one of the hotel’s many wine partners, with artifacts and artwork displayed throughout the space telling each winery’s unique story. Th e hotel continues its wine theme throughout, with a decanter-shaped infinity pool overlooking the city, and a 25,000-bottle wine cellar that makes for an impressive late afternoon tour with the house sommelier. Dinners at the hotel generally start with a tasting session of selected Ports, followed by a decadent dinner at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant where chef Ricardo Costa guides diners through a divine tasting menu, paired with wines from the hotel’s breathtaking wine list of more than 1,200 bottles ranging from boutique wineries to rare vintages.
The Caudalie VinothÃ©rapieÂ® Spa on property even evokes the spirit of wine with its tranquil scene and signature wine therapies. The spa offers one-of-a-kind VinothÃ©rapieÂ® treatments, like barrel bath immersions, side-by-side couple’s massages amidst vine blossom candles, vinoperfect facials, and the hotel’s signature wine-maker’s massage, a practice that incorporates ancient wine making rituals over the body’s energy paths.
The spa has been featured on the Best Spas of Europe list multiple times, and even Porto guests not staying at the Yeatman would be missing out if a trip didn’t include at least a little time spent soaking in the grape-extract conditioned waters of the spa’s tub.
Gastronomy in Porto is so much more than simply enjoying a meal or tasting wine; it’s a cultural expression, and it’s one that local winemakers and chefs take much pride in when sharing with visitors. An influx of celebrated chefs and gastronomes from around the country have recently relocated to the area, opening up concept restaurants and even, at times, creating tasting menus set on elevating traditional Porto classics, like the francesinha (a local’s-favorite meat-filled sandwich draped with cheese and served in a pool of rich sauce) and tripas a moda do Porto (tripe, Porto style).
Few do this better than newly Michelin Star-awarded chef Pedro Lemos, who added to his Porto restaurant repertoire with his latest venture: STASH, The Sandwich Room. This relaxed space is run by Lemos and his wife and focuses the menu on the simple perfection of a great sandwich. His sandwiches feature fresh-from-the-oven fluffy, yet crispy bread, a few hand-selected ingredients (like homemade mayonnaise and ketchup), and, of course, a selection of sparkling wines, beers and Ports to tie the meal together.
For an off-the-beaten-path surprise, O Paparico (opaparico.com) offers a gourmet experience using Portuguese techniques, ingredients and hospitality to set the standard for this discreet restaurant set inside a refinished house on Costa Cabral Street. A knock on the front door starts your journey into this gastronomic dining experience where courses of avant-garde cuisine are paired with delicately aged wines for a truly paradoxical journey.
For the utmost in fine dining, there is no other place that can compete with the culinary prowess of the Yeatman’s restaurant. Run by chef Ricardo Costa, the Yeatman was the first ever Michelin Star-rated restaurant in Porto (awarded just one year after opening) and remains one of only two in the city today. Chef Costa’s tasting menus were planned specifically to pair with the hotel wine director’s top picks, where each course puts a spin on traditional Portuguese dishes.
Porto is much more than a food and wine city, although there’s no denying both are prized attributes of the city. Edged with blue and white tiles left from a gilded history, Porto’s past has left some remarkable landmarks to explore.
The gorgeous Sao Francisco Church (dating back to 1244) is the most Gothic monument left in Portoâ€”and can’t be missed, due to its stunning, gold-lined interior. Music lovers take to the Rem Koolhaas-designed Casa da MÃºsica (casadamusica.com) for symphonies, concerts and festivals, while bibliophiles flock to the grand staircases and bookcases of literature (both English and Portuguese) that fill the beautiful Livraria Lello (lelloprologolivreiro.com.sapo.pt) bookstore all the way to the stain-glassed ceiling. Shopping in Porto ranges from gourmet markets where you can sip bubbles while tasting epicurean delights in an iconic building (the Mercado do Bom Sucesso), to the sophisticated fashion and design stores set inside Centro Comercial Bombarda (CCB), where Portuguese design leads the way through a mall full of galleries, jewelry stores, organic cosmetics and more.
No visit to Porto would be complete without a visit to one of the many Port lodges along the Douro River. Porto is the only place in the world where this fortified dessert wine is allowed to bear the name Port, and the city boasts numerous lodges where you can taste each brand’s various vintage and non-vintage bottles.
It’s great to start at Quinta da Boeira (quintadaboeira.pt), where the highlight of visiting this 20th-century mansion is the wine tasting and 3-D video at the end of the tour that takes place in a gorgeous, 32-by-10 meter encased wine bottle, designed by Arq2525 architecture. A stop at Cockburn’s (cockburns.com) is up next, where this family-owned Port brand boasts the largest wooden Port cellar in the historical area of Vila Nova de Gaia. Then, it would only be natural to experience a vintage fire-opening ritual while sipping the first-ever pink Port at the oldest continuously active Port producer at the highly celebrated Croft (croftport.com) cellars.
End the day at one of the most awarded Port houses in Porto, Taylor’s (taylor.pt). Peacocks roam the grounds at this cellar, where guests can tour the facility and gain a history of Port making before settling into the BarÃ£o Fladgate Restaurant to sample some of the brand’s top bottles (and make sure to buy a bottle of the Taylor-Fladgate 2011 for safe keeping, or the Taylor-Fladgate 1985 to start sipping).