There’s a new “cool kid” in Europe, and it’s Portugal’s coastal city of Porto.
Words by Angela Caraway-Carlton
It’s my first full morning in Porto and my eyes, and camera, are frantically scanning the old town’s wealth of ornate buildings and storied landmarks that line the cobblestone streets. Something beautiful fights for my attention at every turn, from centuries-old churches fashioned in arresting gothic and baroque styles that will impress those without any architectural design knowledge; to endless buildings enveloped in the area’s famous blue-and-white azulejos, painted ceramic tiles; to apartment balconies dreamily overflowing with flowers. Cue musicians playing in the streets with the harmony of clinking glasses and boisterous chatter that waft from outdoor cafés, and I suddenly understand why everyone’s flocking to this small coastal town.
Porto has the “it” factor that many vacationers crave. Aside from breathtaking beauty and rich history that solidify it as a World Heritage Site, its locals warmly embrace visitors, English is widely spoken, and the city is relatively small, making it easy to explore on foot. With a prime location on Portugal’s northwest coast, fresh seafood is abundant—as are Michelin-rated restaurants—and as the birthplace of Port, it’s an ideal getaway for wine lovers.
After devouring a pastel de nata, a tiny-yet-dangerously-addictive custard tart dusted with cinnamon, I get in line for a guided tour at one of the city’s most emblematic landmarks, Palácio da Bolsa, the former stock exchange palace that’s now used by the city’s chamber of commerce for events and galas. An exquisite example of Porto’s grandiose buildings, the nineteenth-century palace was built to impress with a neo-classical façade and eye-popping interiors that include a grand hall dripping in gold and exotic woods. Though I’m not traveling, I walk to the nearby São Bento train station, where I join a crowd to gawk at its elaborate floor-to-ceiling murals. It’s touted as one of the most gorgeous train stations in the world for good reason: it took more than a decade to complete the 20,000 painted tiles that render stories of Portuguese history and everyday life. Even bookstores demand a visit in Porto, and I can’t miss a stop at Insta-famous Livraria Lello, which dates back to 1906. Despite a small entrance fee and often long lines, this special bookstore is worth the hassle to peep its red-carpeted wooden staircase, ceilings of stained-glass windows, and vast collection of rare and newly released books.
The heart of the city is the ever-lively Ribeira promenade that fronts the Douro River and is dotted with shops, al fresco eateries, and orange-roofed buildings—it’s postcard-worthy Porto. I merrily get lost in the maze of dense streets and then spend an hour sitting along the riverbank to watch the parade of rabelos (wooden cargo boats) and the aerial cable cars whisking wide-eyed occupants across the city for panoramic views. Experiencing a cruise on the Douro River is a must-do, so I join a “Six Bridges Tour” to glide under the city’s high-design arcs that hold court over the river. Even in modern day, it’s easy to recall a bygone era when these rabelos were instrumental in transporting Port wine from the Douro Valley to the city’s cellars.
To immerse yourself in Porto’s favored drink, cross the bridge to neighboring Vila Nova de Gaia, a historic area teeming with Port wine houses. As someone who isn’t necessarily a fan of the fortified wine that’s often crafted with brandy for its sweet taste, a tour and private tasting at the famous Portuguese-owned house, Caves Ferreira, changed my mind. The Vila Nova de Gaia neighborhood also proves to have the best views across the river of Porto, so with a newfound love of Port, I had another glass on the scenic patio of The Yeatman Hotel at sunset. The magic of Porto grips me again, as church bells toll and the city transitions from day to night.
After feet-torturing days of exploring, it was a welcome respite to return to Vila Foz Hotel & Spa, located a twenty-minute ride from the busy city center. Nestled along the sea in the affluent neighborhood of Foz, the nineteenth-century manse dressed in an elegant green hue and flanked by gardens, feels like you’re staying at someone’s home. A fancy home, where Old World design and furnishings mingle with modern day amenities. During the day, I indulge in a few minutes of solace in their spa, which is free for guests, then zip off on a bike to explore the charming neighborhood. In the evenings, I stroll the oceanfront promenade where locals and visitors pack glassed-enclosed beach bars to celebrate the sunset. Vila Foz is home to a Michelin-starred restaurant, where fresh ingredients from the sea are transformed into creative plates of art that are upstaged only by the dining room’s gilded decor that rivals a palace.
That’s the thing about Porto—it’ll surprise you with its beauty, food, and wine and put a spell on you to quickly return to this mecca of coastal cool.