The city that birthed the ever-popular drink port inevitably has a lot to live up to. Anyone who’s enjoyed the tipple more than once or twice in their lifetime knows it is classy, traditional, celebratory and oh-so-moreish. Fortunately, all of these qualities are also found, in abundance, within Porto itself.
But there is more to the city than the fortified wine it produces. And as such, before you get to sampling the world-famous export – pun intended – that put it on the map, there’s much else for you to drink in first; the scenery for one.
Porto is undeniably beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that it never allowed itself a castle, unlike most other Portuguese cities – and with a very strategic reason, too. The city – which was notably elected number one by the Best European Destinations Agency in 2012, 2014 and again this year – fiercely protects its independence, and historically has always been careful to ensure that no king could ever settle there. Hence the notable absence of a castle fit for any royals that might find themselves inclined to put down roots. After all, when you’re slap bang in the middle of wine country, who needs a king ruining the fun?
Looking around the region – the second biggest city in Portugal, after Lisbon, and the only other recognized as a global city – it’s not difficult to see why the locals believed that royalty would be so tempted to stay. Porto seems to have the balance right between becoming a tourist hot spot and maintaining its local charm, although it remains undoubtedly popular – even with famous faces.
Those unbeatable views have lured everyone from Harrison Ford to JK Rowling, who lived in the town for a while. She was even said to have been inspired when writing the Harry Potter series by the world famous Livraria Lello, which should be high on the list of destinations for fans of the fictional wizard or indeed, anyone who enjoys a library/bookstore that’s as likely to inspire a book as provide one for loan. It’s like stepping back in time, and could persuade even the most cynical of minds to believe in a little magic. Thanks to the spindling staircases within the 1906 architecture, it frequently finds itself voted one of the world’s most important and beautiful book stores.
Other activities include World of Discoveries, an interactive museum (and great place for families) that actually makes learning fun, rather than just promising to, and a trip to the Sao Bento, a train station famed for its mesmerizing tiles that tell the story of the city’s history in the most stylish way imaginable.
Although the architecture is undoubtedly something special, it’s all just a bonus, really, when considering that the scenery is simply the gift that never stops giving. And luckily there are multiple ways you can get the most out of these world-class views. One is by helicopter.
Taking in the view from above is a treat like no other, and can be arranged with ease via the Helitour, Porto (which costs 150 euros for a 10-minute whizz around the town, with maximum three persons). See the Estádio do Dragão stadium or as some locals call it, the center of the world. And if you’re really lucky, you might even get to see dolphins along the coast. Cable cars offer another prime view of the hills, bridges and beyond.
Not a fan of heights? Locals will tell you that to get the best view of Porto, you have to leave Porto. Head to Serra do Pilar – don’t worry, it’s not far, 10 minutes by car, resting by the gorgeous circular church, where you can get the view most likely to be gracing all your postcards and profile pictures post-vacation.
The iconic Dom Luís I bridge is the real scene-stealer in town, although all the bridges – including Maria Pia Bridge created by Gustave Eiffel, whose work you might have seen in Paris – boast a prominent presence in the city, giving multiple visual treats from every angle conceivable. This is why Porto is often referred to as Cidade das Pontes (City of the Bridges), as well as its more traditional nicknames of Cidade Invite, which means Unconquered/Invincible City, or simply, Capital do Norte – Capital of the North.
The vast majority of locals speak fluent English (putting us native English-speakers to shame – as so many European cities do), which is convenient. Although if you get too carried away sampling the port, it might transpire that no one can understand you regardless of the language you speak. Which leads nicely to the quintas – must-see wine-growing estates that are nothing short of magnificent. The unforgettable Quinta do Crasto is a few hours’ drive from the main city, but this allows for a more scenic gaze on the mountains, snow-topped and forested. Stunning is an understatement when describing the grand but authentic estate, where you can sample the practically life-changing wine while gazing out over the vineyards of its origins, by the distillery it’s being made in, while enjoying the infinity pool and guest house. This guest house, in fact, not long ago attracted Star Wars legend Harrison Ford. And although The Force may indeed be strong, so is the port.
But perhaps the most remarkable discovery is that Ronnie Wood stayed there too, and the owners survived his stay with the buildings intact and wine to spare. Yes, when the Rolling Stone hellraiser fails to drink you dry, that means you must surely be prepared for anything.
The quinta’s charming owner, Tomas Roquette, also grows almonds – which have to be tried to be believed – and super-sweet oranges in the estate that his family built. But it is, of course, most famous for port.
Naturally, fish is often on the menu in this port town, and the monkfish expertly cooked at the Blini restaurant will make you delighted that it is. Near the romantic restaurant overlooking the river, you can stay aboard a luxury river cruise liner if you want to add extra glamour to your trip thanks to the recently launched Douro Elegance and Douro Serenity. Owned by Mario Ferreira, Portugal’s answer to Richard Branson, the ships take their guests on a breathtaking journey up the Douro River, among the valleys and vineyards, for views that never get old.
If drinking in scenery caused a hangover like the port does, you’d be advised to pack plenty of painkillers before heading to Porto; it truly is a beauty binge.