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Rivalry is not a bad thing between cities. The one with Porto and Lisbon is a good example.
‘Traditionally, Porto always made the money and Lisbon spent it,’ our guide tells us.
What is undeniable is that the country’s second largest city is in full swing: it has been declared a World Heritage Site and millions of euros have been invested in restoring old buildings and restaurants and bars that benefit from a vibrant young crowd and a increasing number of direct flights from the UK.
Porto, above, has been declared a World Heritage Site, with millions invested in restoring ancient buildings
Let’s go for a walk
Pack suitable shoes, as the best way to see the city is on foot. There are trams and buses – and taxis are cheap – but the center of Porto is compact.
All you need is a good map or app. Summers are hot so spring and fall is when to go. My only regret is that I didn’t add an extra day to cruise the Douro and admire the terraced vineyards.
A first-class bookstore
We book a guide through Porto Prime and spend a morning with Susana Reis, who has a fascinating look at the city. But we’re surprised when our first stop is a bookstore with a long line of Japanese tourists (those were the days) outside it.
Livraria Lello (‘the most beautiful bookshop in the world’) has existed since 1906 in a beautiful Gothic Revival building with a central spiral staircase, stained glass windows and a wood-imitating plaster ceiling.
JK Rowling was apparently inspired by the shop while married to her Portuguese first husband and teaching English in the city.
No shortage of churches
Flamboyant 17th-century Carmelitas Church (top left), next to the 18th-century Carmo Church (top right)
If you like the exuberance of Rococo architecture, you’ll love the 17th-century Carmelitas Church just up the hill from Lello, with acres of gold from Brazil. Next to it is the 18th-century Carmo Church.
Much less fussy is Clerigos Church, which has become the symbol of the city, with its high tower (240 steps) and pink and gray marble interiors.
Then there’s the theatrical church of Sao Francisco, which dates back to 1223. If it’s all a bit overwhelming to you, remember that the Virgin Mary was proclaimed Queen of Portugal in the 17th century.
The British Connection
In short, alcohol. More specifically, the port, which seems to be experiencing a renaissance, especially among young people.
From outside the Church of Sao Francisco, look across the Douro and see “the highest alcohol concentration in the world,” as Susana puts it. Churchill’s, Dow, Croft, Taylor’s, Sandeman – they are all here and most are still owned and operated by British families.
We head for Taylor’s (established 1692), where you’ll be presented with an engaging audio guide, followed by a tasting of several ports.
Join the club
Well, you can’t, but you should still try to visit The Factory House, which was founded around 1654 as a commercial association for British merchants living in Porto.
Today it is run by members of the British port industry. It is a beautiful 18th century Neo-Palladian building designed by British Consul John Whitehead.
Something to think about
The best pastel de nata (custard tarts) can be found at Manteigaria near Liberty Square, says Mark Palmer
Unique to Porto is the francesinha, which means ‘little Frenchman’ – but it’s nothing like that. Prepare yourself for a sandwich made with pork, bacon, smoked sausage and medium-rare beef, all covered in a thick layer of cheese sauce with a fried egg on top.
The best pastel de nata (custard tarts) can be found at Manteigaria near Liberty Square – to drink with a glass of port. We also have a spectacular dinner at Restaurant a Brasileira (part of the Pestana collection), also near Liberty Square.
New York has Grand Central, Paris the Gare du Nord – and Porto has Sao Bento, where 20,000 hand-painted tiles tell the story of the city in all its quirky glory. It must be one of the busiest competitions in the world, even though most people don’t actually get on the train.
Where to stay
Top of the stack (and on top of the hill overlooking the river) is The Yeatman, but we’re staying at the sister hotel Infante Sagres which is cheaper and perfectly positioned. It was built in 1951 and has just undergone an extensive renovation.
The stained glass panels behind the main staircase (dating from 1945) are simply exquisite and on the other side of the building is the trendy Vogue Café serving deadly cocktails until the early hours.