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Perfect Porto: ocean breeze and the magic of wine in the Portuguese city and beyond

Perfect Porto: ocean breeze and the magic of wine in the Portuguese city and beyond

‘Would you like to go to Porto for a weekend?’ This is a question I’ve been waiting to hear for years.

Having travelled around Portugal several times, I had never visited the north. The sunny south of the country had always been my first choice but there was something in Porto which was calling me, like the chant of a mermaid.

Let’s start from the end. Let’s start with how I realized, after stopping in this area for three nights and four days, if you are looking for the essence of Portugal – the unique mix of good food, friendly people, vineyards and wineries, endless horizons, strong winds and warm sun, churches and monasteries, castles and tiny villages, then you should come to the north of the country.

This is where Porto and the Minho regions are, and it’s here you’ll find out that Porto is much, much more than just Port wine.

The city of Porto – Portugal’s second biggest after Lisbon – was awarded European Best Destination by the European Consumers Choice two times, in 2012 and 2014. Being a medium sized city, it’s perfect for a long weekend.

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Top of our list of essential Porto activities is a charming cruise down the Douro River [above]. A close second would be a visit to a gorgeous winery – there are more than I could count in the south of the city in Vila Nova de Gaia. Third, throw yourself head first into Porto’s incredible food scene (be sure to try the bacalhau – a tasty salted cod).

Six more unmissable sites

1) The Palácio da Bolsa, or the Stock Exchange Palace [below]. Please come here for the Arab Room, which dates back to the 19th century and was built in the exotic Moorish Revival style. This room really is the highlight of the palace, built between 1862 and 1880 by Gonçalves e Sousa. This is where the city of Porto welcomes VIPs, personalities, kings, queens and presidents visiting the city.

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2) For a quick lunch and to experience authentic Porto cuisine, try O Comercial, the Palácio da Bolsa restaurant. It specializes in fish, soups and Portuguese delicacies. The confit bacalhau with cured ham and mountain cheese, with a side of asparagus risotto makes this elegant and sophisticated restaurant well worth the visit. The cod was juicy and fresh, like the one my Italian grandmother used to cook. Meat lovers will find a selection of pato (duck) or bife (beef). But it’s a shame not trying what northern Portugal is famous for: its super tasty Atlantic fish.

3) A stroll in the Ribeira area is very pleasant. The Medieval backstreets of Porto’s oldest area are lined with tall, tiled houses, iron balconies and washing hanging from one side of the street to the other. Small churches and the face of the Virgin Mary are  everywhere.

There are a number of cool independent boutiques (yes, gentrification is coming here too) but, still, the true essence of the Porto character is alive and well. This is the poorest area of the city but it is also the richest in terms of atmosphere. Some cosy new cafes welcome flocks of tourists, but the older, more traditional coffee houses have the best and cheapest pingos (macchiatos) in Portugal.

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4) Admire the Dom Luís I Bridge [top], between the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. It is a Porto landmark, built between 1881 and 1886 following a government competition; Téophile Seyrig, a business partner of Gustav Eiffel, won the contest and built this 385.25 metre bridge, weighing 3,045 tons.

5) My favourite winery is the Sandeman in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the riverbank facing Porto. Here you can take part in wine tasting and guided tours, and discover why the English decided to install their businesses in Portugal (the London-born George Sandeman moved here with a £300 loan before starting his wine trading company).

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6) The Livraria Lello & Irmão [above] is considered to be one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world (and according to Lonely Planet, it’s actually the third best bookshop in the whole universe!). It dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Please admire the Art Nouveau façade and the stunning interiors, with wooden stairs and delicately carved bookshelves. J.K. Rowling is said to be a big fan.

North of Porto

There are many other places in northern Portugal that deserve a visit which are not too far from Porto. Several cruises depart from the city up the Douro River, destined to the Alto Douro Wine Region, known for its stunning landscapes [below]. The Minho region, however, is my favourite. Braga, with its churches, Ponte de Lima with its Roman bridge, Viana do Castelo with the ocean views: these towns deserve at least one morning or afternoon each.

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In the latter area we met Pedro Araújo, founder and owner of the Quinta do Ameal. This is winery and guesthouse, where clever minds and strong hands create delicate wines made of a Portuguese grape variety called Loureiro. Pedro’s wine is organic and puts this estate on the map.

If you come here in spring or early summer, you’ll be surprised by the gorgeous scent of the wisteria [below], and blown away by the colours of the gardens and the vineyards. You’ll think ‘this is paradise.’ Do try the Quinta do Ameal wine with a plate of Portuguese cheese or a broad bean salad. The Special Harvest variety reminded me of orange peel, honey and flowers.
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In the Minho Area I had the chance to stay at the Pousada de Viana do Castelo. Forget the ultra technological hotels. Part of Pousadas de Portugal, a Portuguese network of luxury hotels, it is a classical triumph of bygone-era style and perfect service.

The rooms are simply decorated, and here I had one of the most relaxing nights in my life. The sound of the wind and the view of the sunset reflecting on the sea were one of the best gifts mother nature gave me in Portugal. On a topic close to my heart, be ready to taste a truly Portuguese breakfast, I literally fell in love with the quince paste and the Portuguese cakes. Be sure to ask for a room facing the ocean and the stunning mountaintop Church of Santa Luzia [below].

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How to get there

The fastest way to reach Porto coming from Europe is through the Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport, the reference airport of the Iberian Peninsula’s northwest. With connections to the main European and global destinations, the airport is only 11 kilometers (6 miles) away from Porto’s centre. There are 17 airlines operating in the Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport, which connect Porto and the North of Portugal to cities such as London, Paris, Milan, Frankfurt, Liverpool, Rome and Barcelona in a total of over 68 destinations.

We flew with TAP Airlines, the flag carrier of Portugal. We flew from London Gatwick to Porto in almost two hours. The business class is worth a try. TAP is said to have one of the best onboard wine selection in the world. The company is 100% state-owned and has its head office is next to Lisbon. It has been a member of the Star Alliance since 2005. According to the JACDEC Airliner Safety Report, TAP Portugal is rated Western Europe’s safest airline and the world’s fourth safest airline, after Qantas, Finnair and Air New Zealand. The route network includes almost 100 destinations. The company operates more 2,000 weekly flights with a fleet of Airbus aircraft. It has also a regional subsidiary carrier, Portugália Airlines.

With thanks also to the local tourist board, the Associação de Turismo do Porto e Norte, Porto Convention and Visitors Bureau.