Take a slug of port, grab a squeaky rubber hammer and join the riverside mayhem in northern Portugal’s most charismatic city, which celebrates its unique St John’s Festival in June.
Recent years have seen a dramatic facelift of Lisbon’s upcountry cousin, which was once an attractive but down-to-business port city, but now fairly bubbles over with cultural verve and new attractions. Among them are: an avant-garde concert hall, a shiny new metro system, a sparkling football stadium and a top-notch contemporary art museum.
But Porto’s traditional appeal is still as strong as ever. Amber-roofed houses tumble down the steep granite slopes to the River Douro, and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ribeira district is an enchanting tangle of medieval lanes, shadowy arches and atmospheric docks. Hand-painted azulejos (tiles) splash blue over buildings, iron bridges soar across the River Douro and scores of historic port wine lodges jostle for space on the opposite bank.
If you visit Porto over a weekend, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are our top recommendations to make the most of your time there.
Catch a festival
Porto’s biggest bash – literally – is on 23 June, when the Festa de São João (St John’s Festival) sees inhabitants prowling the streets with squeaky rubber hammers or leeks in search of unsuspecting heads to wallop. The squeaky mallets are sold all over the city in June, and add percussion to the festival’s lively schedule of concerts, street-dancing, boat races, parties and fireworks. Our advice? The best defence is offence – so buy a hammer and join in!
Take a walk
Pack your comfy shoes and prepare yourself for some leg-aching ups and downs, because – despite the steep hills – Porto is an excellent city to explore on foot. One of the best routes is through the alluring riverside Ribeira district, a tightly packed collection of medieval cobbled passageways and rickety houses, then along the photogenic quayside past barcos rabelos (traditional port wine boats), and across the pedestrian walkway of the glowering iron Ponte de Dom Luís I to toast your arrival in the port wine warehouses across the river.
Try the tipple
Follow the aroma of alcohol vapours to the cobbled lanes and venerable port warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia. This is the historic heart of Portugal’s lucrative port wine trade, and nowadays it’s the scene of many a tourist’s ‘port crawl’ from one tasting session to the next. Take a stroll below the densely packed port lodges and their gigantic rooftop signs along the lovely riverside promenade lined with striking barcos rabelos and beautiful views back to Porto.
To bypass the multiple warehouses, don your glad rags and head to the exclusive Solar do Vinho do Porto (website: www.ivdp.pt), a posh bar affiliated with the Port and Douro Wines Institute and stocking more varieties than you can shake an Alka-Seltzer at.
Take in the views
Take the metro across the soaring iron bulk of Ponte de Dom Luís I for a spectacular panorama down over the city, river and port wine lodges. Or if you’d rather skip the vertigo, the same views can be devoured from Vila Nova de Gaia’s 16th-century Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, on the neighbouring hill.
See the sights
Crowning the skyline are the imposing Sé fortress-cathedral and the dramatic baroque Torre dos Clérigos – both well worth the climb to visit. In the Ribeira, take a snoop inside the splendid neoclassical Palácio da Bolsa, home to an exquisite Arabian-style ballroom, writhing with Islamic designs and gilded stucco.
While in the Ribeira, make time to explore Igreja de São Francisco‘s dazzling gothic interior and its creepy catacombs. And to snap pictures of some of Porto’s stunning azulejos, wander around the blue-smothered exteriors of Igreja do Carmo and Capela das Almas.
Try the food
Tripas (tripe) may be the local speciality, but don’t let that put you off. The city’s plentiful seafood, delicate pastries and typical cod-fish dishes are excellent. Café Majestic (website: www.cafemajestic.com) is Porto’s most famous tea shop – an art nouveau delight filled with frolicking cherubs, decadent gilding and eye-popping pastries.
Soak up some culture
Experience Porto’s blossoming arts scene, with a trip to the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art (website: www.serralves.pt). With a minimalist modern design as striking as its collection, and a sprawling sculpture park on its doorstep, the gallery is a worthy diversion from central Porto.
Catch a show
Indulge in a little pleasurable melancholy – squeeze into one of Porto’s atmospheric old bars for a performance of Portugal’s exquisitely sorrowful fado music. Or catch a concert in Porto’s stunning new concert hall Casa da Música (website: www.casadamusica.com), aka the ‘concrete diamond’, and follow it up by investigating the spirited bars and nightlife of the Ribeira district.
Take a trip
Hop aboard a boat trip up the River Douro to trace port wine back into its heartland – passing vine-covered hills, whitewashed lodges and lofty bridges en route. Shorter cruises are also offered in ersatz barcos rabelos, the pretty wooden sailboats once used to transport port from the vineyards to Porto.