All of a sudden, people seem to be talking about Porto. Portugal’s second city and former industrial powerhouse his rapidly become a popular weekend break choice. It’s been quietly reinventing itself following the economic problems brought by the closure of its major industries. Some derelict buildings and signs of urban decay remain and give the centre an edgy, hipster feel. But cool cafes and vintage stores are springing up in the steep back streets that run up from the photogenic riverside.
I asked tour guide Eugenia of the Porto Free Walking Tours to sum up her city. “People say Porto has a magic atmosphere. It has history, culture, beautiful buildings and great bars and food. Everything is very cheap,” she added.
Porto is an ancient city that was settled before Roman times. The mighty river, which cuts the city in two, is called the Douro. That’s thought to come from the Celtic languages. Interestingly, Dŵr is the Welsh word for water. On the steep south bank, the Vila Nova de Gaia district has the appearance of a Georgian port, with bonded warehouses and cobbled streets. This is the home of Port wine production, with it’s cobbled lanes leading to myriad wine cellars, referred to locally as caves.
Buildings are topped with supersized letters spelling out the names of Port wine producers. Croft, Sandemans and Taylors I recognised – others were less familiar. And everywhere, the sweet, rich smell of port fills the air. Millions of litres sit in these cellars, ageing in large oak barrels for decades. As they’re not 100% airtight, some of that aroma seeps out. It’s known rather poetically as ‘the angels’ share.’
I headed to a unique world class hotel which celebrates the city’s pride in its most important export. The Yeatman is a wine-themed luxury hotel and spa. The hotel was created in 2007 by the family responsible for centuries of Port production and export. €32m was invested in the project and the 5-star property is well known throughout Portugal.
I was pleased by the cabbie’s reaction on the 20-minute ride from Porto’s modern airport. He told me I’d chosen the city’s finest place to stay, a fact confirmed by the hotel’s British-born marketing director, Richard Bowden, who took me on a tour of the property. “It was always our aim to create the very best hotel in Porto and one of the best hotels in Portugal and Europe,” explained Richard. “It’s built in a contemporary classic style. There’s no element of colonialism to it though it is quite English in certain places.”
As soon as you’ve checked in, you’ll face a wall filled with accolades as you await the lift. “These are just a small selection of our awards because we ran out of space on the walls. I had to take a few off to save space for the most recent ones!” Richard told me smiling. “We’ve had the Michelin stars since 2011, a year after we opened, which is as fast as you can get one – they take about a year to come and inspect. We get an award each year from Wine Spectator for our wine list and also from the world of fine wine, we have had the highest accolade – a three star rating from Wine List.”
The Yeatman’s architects have creatively included wine references in the hotel design. One of the swimming pools is shaped like a decanter! The sumptuous spa is on two floors, linked by a staircase that was inspired by a port wine barrel. The facility’s ten treatment rooms are spacious and the facility was voted Europe’s Best Spa in 2013. Treatments include, fittingly, vinotherapy where you can book yourself in for a grape-pip scrub.
Each hotel room is named after a different Portuguese wine company and many are personalised with photos or books from those wineries. “One of our aims is to be ambassadors for Portuguese wine,” said Richard. “We don’t want to be a museum but we want people to be confident about choosing Portuguese wine when they go to the supermarket or their wine store.”
Richard’s tour continued along the spacious hotel corridors, to view some of the mini, museum-like exhibitions. “Here we are in the Cork Corridor,” he announced, as we faced a huge, 8-foot high cork – the size of a phone box. “This is supposedly the largest cork in the world,” he told me proudly. “It’s made out of solid cork. I’m not sure how much it weighs but it is pretty heavy.” People have been signing it. It wasn’t put there for graffiti-ing and it’s become a giant cork of memories for guests.
Portugal is the largest producer of cork in the world and it has many more applications than I had imagined, from shoes to space exploration. “Half a ton of it was used in the space shuttle” said Richard, “because NASA found it could cope with the stresses of going into orbit.”
This is no ordinary hotel. Another feature is a corridor decorated with images that visually explain the type of aromas you expect from each grape variety. Photos of different fruit, spices and materials are used to help you understand each wine’s distinct properties. And on another floor, there’s a colourful art display featuring different artists’ interpretations of Portugal’s famous ‘Rooster of Barcelos’ emblem. “We had fifty designs that we put on display,” Richard told me.
The hotel seems spacious – it’s built into the steep hillside and all the rooms face the view across the river and towards the iconic Luís I Bridge over the Douro. “The design means it never really feels like it is full,” Richard explained. “And you can watch the sunset and the city come to life in the evening from the comfort of your hotel room.”
I understood why guests often cocooned themselves in their rooms on their returning visits. “We’ve been open for six years and we found that many of our guests come back again and again,” explained Richard. “The first time, they come for around three nights. The second time they visit they often stay up to five nights. I found that people want to spend more time in the hotel. The first time they want to explore the city and when they return they want to take advantage of the infinity pool and spa and take in the view.”
I was invited to experience dinner at The Yeatman’s two-Michelin-starred Gastronomic Restaurant, a large room overlooking the twinkling city lights and the river. The evening was wonderfully choreographed. Staff discretely appeared at my tableside, guiding me through each item on the tasting menu. Every one of the ten courses was art on a plate. I didn’t have to worry about choosing the right wine because the sommelier suggested which ones would complement the food perfectly.
Richard had told me that everybody who is public facing in the hotel completes a wine course. They train using black, opaque glasses so they can’t get any clues from the wine’s appearance. I’d recommend a stay and dinner at the hotel, particularly if you want to mark a special occasion. The Yeatman kindly accommodated me during my stay in Porto and you can learn more about this stunning hotel at the-yeatman-hotel.com.
Next up it was time to learn about the Port wine that has made this city famous. Ana Margarida Morgado took me on a tour of the Taylor’s Port Wine Cellars opposite The Yeatman. Taylors are the only company that specialises in producing Port wine alone. Its founder was an English merchant who came to Portugal in 1692 to source wines to export back home.
The Douro Valley allows grapes could be grown in a Mediterranean climate and then conveyed down the Douro River to Porto – an Atlantic port. Ana explained how Taylor’s history was difference to the other port companies. “They were not a Portuguese company but an English shipper who became a producer. In 1744 they bought their first vineyard and that was uncommon for the time. The shippers didn’t even go to the valley in those days, they just bought the wine they wanted at the port.”
We walked into a huge, cool, gravel-floored warehouse stacked high with hundreds of barrels. Wines have been ageing in these cellars since the end of the 17th century, so the sweet smell of Port was everywhere. “The wine needs to age for decades,” said Ana. “There are 1,500 handmade casks here, each containing around 600 litres.”
The wine in the smaller barrels is aged differently because it oxidises at a different rate to wine in the massive vats. The small barrel wine is used for tawny port – the port that is aged for 40 years. The big vats are used to age ruby ports. Taylors actually employ a team of coopers to maintain these barrels.
If you go on the Taylor’s tour, you’ll learn about the Douro Valley’s special wine production qualities. And you’ll see and feel how they’ve overcome the challenges of steep rocky terraces. There are samples of the rock that they’ve dislodged by dynamite blasting, before they can plant vines. You’ll also visit their cinema where you can view a video that takes you through the winemaking process. The harvest is an annual celebration and the workers sing, dance and socialise as they trample the grapes! And of course, at the end of the tour, there’s a chance to taste the different types of Port and find your favourite.
I said farewell to Ana and headed out to explore the city. I must admit, after all that port tasting, I was a tad wobbly on the cobbled lane down to the waterside. Richard had advised me to prepare for walking, so my footwear could cope with the uneven surface. “Porto is one of those cities where you have to get your trainers on, get out onto the streets and walk around to soak up the atmosphere.”
Walking from the hotel down to the river, Richard also suggested catching the cable car at Vila Nova de Gaia to the top of the huge, double-deck Luís I Bridge and then walking across to the other side. “You will get some fabulous views over the city,” he told me, and he wasn’t wrong.
The short, 5-minute ride offers great views up and down the river and of the tall, slim five and six storey, red-roof, medieval buildings. When you step out of the cable car you need to watch out for trams as you walk across the top level of the bridge. It’s worth repeating the journey at night for a completely different view.
When it was opened in 1872, the iconic iron bridge had the longest metal arch span in the world, at 172 meters. The bridge was designed by a student of Eiffel, the man who built the famous Paris tower. Eiffel’s own Maria Pia Bridge, which resembles a giant Meccano construction, is just a few minutes upstream.
For a different view, you can see that and other sights of Porto from the water by taking one of the Douro river cruises. If you’re staying at the Yeatman, you can cross the Douro using their river taxi, which takes you direct to the waterfront dining on the city side. This area is filled with pavement cafes and touristy restaurants.
I decided to explore further and followed the mighty Douro down to where it meets the sea at the upmarket Atlantic-side beach suburb of Foz do Douro. The vintage tram runs for twenty minutes along the river bank. As you leave town you pass under a high road bridge that spans the wide river valley. You can wander the side streets where fishermen once occupied the cottages. A wide promenade gives views over the sand and powerful Atlantic waves, which attract surfers.
There are lots of seafood cafes, but if stormy winds are blowing off the Atlantic, Porto’s cheaper cafes could serve you the ultimate comfort food. Francesinha is a sort of ham, sausage and cheese toastie and it’s a Porto speciality. It’s served in a thick tomato and beer sauce the colour and consistency of Heinz tomato soup. It’s certainly a contrast from the refined gastronomy of The Yeatman!
Every city has its high-end dining and cheap eats. But I was surprised to be told to look around McDonald’s when I enrolled on the three-hour free Porto walking tour. I’m glad that guide Eugenia pointed it out – it has to be the most stunning fast food joint in the world!
The interior is art deco, designed with high ceilings, murals and chandeliers. Customers were queuing to order their Big Macs under expansive stained-glass images of coffee plantations and women drinking from china cups. Eugenia asked our tour group to guess the building’s former use – the cast iron Eagles above the door suggested a Nazi connection to some of our party, but this was actually the former Imperial Café and the 1932 interior décor is protected.
Also on the tour is the Art Nouveaux Majestic Café. It was once the meeting place for intellectuals and was lovingly restored in the 1990s. A third decorative surprise awaited us at the São Bento railway station. Its concourse is decorated with 20,000 beautiful blue and white Portuguese tiles. If you love exploring churches then you won’t be disappointed in Porto. São Francisco church is decorated with gold leaf. There’s a good view over the city’s colourful rooftops from the plaza in front of the 12th century cathedral with its twin towers too.
But one of the highlights is to climb the Torre dos Clérigos. This ornate tower was designed for the church by an Italian architect in the 18th century. You can see the 75-metre high landmark over much of the city and if you can cope with the steps, your reward will be a panoramic view from the top. “It is still the tallest monument in the city and is visible all over the town,” explained Eugenia. “It was used as a kind of lighthouse – not to warn ships but to tell locals when a ship was coming into port. They used to put up two white flags to let people know they had to go to the port.” Climbing the steps costs €3.
For Harry Potter fans there’s one final stop to make. The Livraria Lello Bookshop opened in 1906. You have to pay €3 to enter the store and you’ll be refunded if you make a purchase. The entry fee helps maintain the curved staircase, which deceives the eye and appears to move under the impressive stained glass skylight. “The bookstore is astonishing, even for those who are not usually readers,” said Eugenia. “Inside it is a magical place.”
JK Rowling came to Porto to work as an English teacher in the early 1990s and some fans say this store was the inspiration for Hogwarts in her novels. “In the Harry Potter books there are four houses. The unpleasant characters are connected to Salazar – that has drawn comparison with the former Portuguese dictator who had a similar name,” Eugenia told me.
As we spoke outside the bookstore, university undergraduates were congregating by the huge griffin-shaped fountains in the square outside, dressed in cape–like gowns, decorated with coloured ribbons. Apparently their traditional dress is also said to have influenced the author.
Porto is an interesting weekend break, with fantastic food and unique boutiques to discover in the back streets. There’s also fascinating architecture as you’d expect in a city with UNESCO World Heritage stage. The city is compact and easy to get around – just be prepared for the hills and take some good walking shoes.
Travel to the city from the UK is fast and cheap with low cost airlines. I’d suggest taking a cheap flight and then splurging on a few nights at The Yeatman. You could make a special occasion unforgettable with food, wine, the spa and that amazing view. You might not even want to leave the hotel during your break.
Porto is 2 hours and 15 minutes by air from London Gatwick with Easyjet. There’s also a direct flight with them from Manchester or use Ryanair from Edinburgh.