Easy Escapes: Porto, Portugal

Francesca Rice grabs an early spring break in picturesque Porto, Portugal’s second largest city


Francesca Rice grabs an early spring break in picturesque Porto, Portugal’s second largest city

Francesca Rice grabs an early spring break in picturesque Porto, Portugal’s second largest city

Why go? For the beautiful views over the Douro River, for the dramatic Atlantic coastline, for lazy walks around the characterful old town, for the relaxed atmosphere, and for the delicious wine – Porto is the historic home of port. The city is perfect for a romantic break, a little off the beaten track but with plenty to enjoy. There's an air of faded, old-world glamour to the tiled buildings, grand churches and soaring bell towers of the World Heritage-protected historic centre, now blended with a more contemporary vibe from the colourful street art that covers the city’s crumbling walls. 

Enchanted nights: panoramic views and an old-world atmosphere are good reasons to visit Porto © Turismo de Portugal/Paulo Magalhaes

When? Make the most of Porto’s warm and sunny climate between April and September, especially if you fancy spending time on the nearby sandy beaches of Foz or Gaia. July and August are the most popular months, with temperatures in the mid-twenties, but the warm weather continues into autumn, and winters are mild.

You really must… Wander around the cobbled streets of the city centre, taking in the faded, Beaux-Arts architecture. You can climb to the top of the Clérigos Tower (torredosclerigos.pt) to enjoy panoramic views across the city, and check out the hilltop Sé cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century. It's one of Portugal’s finest monuments, along with the impressive São Francisco Church, with its dazzling, gold leaf-covered Baroque interior.

Another must is a walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge (you can take a quick bubble lift to the top), which was designed by the famous Gustave Eiffel, with incredible views over Porto and the Douro River. You should also poke your head into the São Bento railway station – the anteroom is covered in beautiful azulejos (traditional tiles), which depict famous scenes from Portuguese history. Art-lovers should take a wander around the Miguel Bombarda neighbourhood, where you can visit independent galleries showcasing an eclectic mix of paintings, prints and photographs. The Museo Nacional de Soares dos Reis (museusoaresdosreis.pt) houses an impressive collection of Portuguese paintings and sculptures.

Finally, visit one of the port wine houses, located across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. A good one is Taylor’s (taylor.pt), where you can tour the cellars and learn how port is made, and taste three different varieties for just £4. If the weather’s warm, take a leisurely stroll along the riverbank to the coast, where you can relax on the sandy beaches of Foz. It’s a bit of a trek, so you might want to hop on one of the city’s old-fashioned trams instead. You could also take a taxi to the Gaia beaches, which are slightly more unspoilt. Taxis are a cheap and easy way to get around, so don't hesitate to use them.

Wine-lovers check in here: an executive room at The Yeatman Hotel

Stay at: The Yeatman Hotel (from £164, the-yeatman-hotel.com), located in Vila Nova de Gaia, boasts breathtaking views over Porto. Each of the 82 elegant and spacious rooms is decorated in a classic style, and has its own private balcony overlooking the city. The Yeatman is a dream hotel for wine-lovers – it has established partnerships with a large number of Portugal’s finest producers, and has one seriously impressive cellar, offering 82 different wines by the glass.

The wine theme stretches to the hotel’s award-winning Vinothérapie Spa, where you can enjoy treatments using specially blended wine-based Caudalie products – a 25-minute red wine bath costs £47. There is also a wellbeing and relaxation area which includes a Roman bath and sauna, and leads onto the hotel’s indoor panoramic infinity pool. The outdoor infinity pool (lead image) is a real highlight, with amazing views and a spacious sun terrace.

The Yeatman Restaurant serves traditional Portuguese dishes with a contemporary twist, and is the only restaurant in Porto with a Michelin star. Sign up for the frequent Wine Dinners held on Thursdays (£43 per person), where you can enjoy a set menu from Chef Ricardo Costa (think sea bass ceviche and suckling pig), paired with wines from one of The Yeatman’s partners. And don’t forget to enjoy a cocktail at Dick’s Bar – it has a private members’ club vibe, and outside tables so you can admire the city by night.

(Image credit: fabrice demoulin)

An eyeful of Eiffel: the bridge over the Douro River linking Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia

Dine at: Besides The Yeatman Restaurant, we like Ode Port Wine House (facebook.com/odeportowinehouse), an intimate and pricey venue (mains from £15-£17) on the riverfront, where you’re encouraged to eat at a leisurely pace, and all the ingredients and dishes are authentically Portuguese, with a modern twist. Go for the delicious sausage with mango to start, and try a red wine from the Douro region. O Paparico (opaparico.com) is also highly recommended (mains £16-£36) - it’s a little way out of the city so take a taxi, but worth the journey for the impressively traditional décor, warm atmosphere and gourmet dishes, which are all meant for sharing including a melt-in-your-mouth steak.

For lunch, order some croquettes at Clérigos Vinhos & Petiscos (clerigos.net). It’s in a great location right in the centre of town, has a fun ambience, and offers tasty but cheap bites. And don’t forget to pick up a traditional pastel de nata pastry at the Majestic Café (cafemajestic.com) on Rua Santa Catarina. Founded nearly a century ago, it’s one of Porto’s iconic venues - JK Rowling is said to have written a large chunk of the first Harry Potter book here. Food in Portugal is generally quite cheap. Pastries only cost about £1.50, and tapas are reasonable – from £1.50 to £8 per plate. A good local sparkling wine such as Campolargo costs £10.

As for nightlife, Porto is a university town so there’s a buzzing atmosphere on weekends. Head to the Rua Galeria de Paris, where students pour in and out of the many bars lining the cobbled street. We like the slightly more sophisticated Champanheria da Baixa (champanheriadabaixa.com), where you can order champagne and sparkling wine by the glass.

Delightful deli: pick up some gifts to take home at this art nouveau grocery store in Rua Formosa © Turismo de Portugal/Antonio Sacchetti

Bring home: Buy a book at Lello Bookshop (lelloprologolivreiro.com.sapo.pt) on Rua das Carmelitas. It’s one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, and is a real must-see thanks to its stunning arching double staircase and stained-glass windows. You can shop for wines, gourmet conserves and traditional pottery in the Portuguese style at Galo Louco on Rua Ferreria Borges (facebook.com/pages/Galo-Louco/143735459047415). The Village on Rua do Ouro (thevillage.com.pt) is another great place to buy local gastronomic goodies, from cheese to olive oil. And buy some port, too, which is not just for Christmas...

For high street shops, Rua de Santa Catarina is the city’s best known street where you’ll find the likes of Zara (much cheaper than in the UK), Mango and H&M. There are also several high-end shops – from Marc by Marc Jacobs to Max Mara – in the area around Rua das Carmelitas, while Fashion Clinic (two locations, fashionclinic.pt) is the city’s most prestigious boutique, selling the likes of Prada and Miu Miu.

Book now: Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Porto from London Stansted, from £52 return. Francisco Sa Carneiro Airport (porto-airport.com) is a 20-minute taxi ride from the city centre (from £15), or take the metro (metrodoporto.pt).

Info: Portugal (£16.99, Lonely Planet) is an up-to-date guide. Useful websites are visitporto.travel, lonelyplanet.com/portugal/the-north/porto and visitportugal.com.