Tom Sweeney has a new favourite city, but still prefers fish fingers to Portuguese salted cod
FOR 15 years Krakow was my favourite short-break destination, but after just four days the other week in Porto it’s all change at the top.
My only previous visit to Portugal’s second city was in April 2010 when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano blew its top and grounded flights throughout Europe. On that occasion, I couldn’t get out of the place. Now I can’t wait to go back.
It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with Krakow, which I’ve been to three dozen times and will always rave about. Rather, I’ve fallen head over heels for Porto – well, head over hills, because it’s not exactly flat.
While many of the streets are steep, food and drink prices are quite the opposite. A three-course lunch that Desperate Dan would have struggled to finish, including wine, coffee, a traditional custard tart (pastel de nata) and a glass of port, came in at €18.50.
In a city by a river and a stone’s throw from the ocean, fresh seafood figures on every menu, as does the ubiquitous bacalhau, or rehydrated salted cod, for which there’s a different recipe for each day of the year.
That’s 365 too many for me. When it comes to cod, the only guy I deal with is Captain Birdseye, who’s known in Portugal as Captain Igloo, which makes more sense for a fella who peddles frozen fish.
The early November weather played its part in seducing me (18C and clear blue skies every day), and although the 7.45am Ryanair flight from Dublin involved setting the alarm for OMG o’clock, it meant I had checked in to my hotel and was sipping something cold in the sun by midday.
This is actually a tale of two cities. On the north bank of the River Douro sits higgledy-piggledy Porto, with its colourful buildings climbing the hill – the picture that appears on every postcard. On the south bank is Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the port wine warehouses and cellars with their in-house bars and restaurants.
Both municipalities, which are linked by the Dom Luis Bridge (snap your spectacular sunset selfies from the top tier), have their charms.
In Gaia, the number one draw is World Of Wine (wow.pt), whose investors couldn’t believe their luck when they realised it could be shortened to WOW, which perfectly sums up the visitor experience.
You’ll learn the history of the grape-growing Douro Valley and the white, ruby and tawny ports that for centuries have made many a drinker a martyr to gout (try white port with tonic and you’ll never drink G&T again).
WOW, which has seven permanent exhibitions, is a fascinating attraction for tipplers and teetotallers alike, but I was embarrassed to discover when I stepped on an electronic scales that I weigh 15,593 corks (I’m trying to get it down to 14,000).
Before nipping back across the Dom Luis, take a ride on the cable car (gaiacablecar.com) for great views, and don’t get back on the plane without doing the 50-minute six bridges river cruise (€15, tomazdodouro.pt).
For a city soaked in 2,000 years of history, it’s curious to note that three of Porto’s most visited must-sees are the ornately-tiled Sao Bento railway station, which opened in 1916; a store built in 1910 that sells nothing but beautifully-decorated tins of sardines, which have become as collectable as football cards (The Fantastic World of the Portuguese Sardine, conservasportuguesas.com); and a bookshop – but not just any old bookshop.
Harry Potter author JK Rowling lived and taught English in Porto in the 1990s, and Livraria Lello (livrarialello.pt) is said to have inspired the library at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Occupying a neo-Gothic building dating from 1906, it features a crimson staircase that spirals like a nautilus shell to reach a mezzanine floor and stained glass skylight. There’s a €5 fee to step inside (book online to avoid the queues that snake around the block), but it’s redeemable on purchases. More than a million tourists visited Lello in 2019, prompting the local authority to permanently close the street outside to traffic.
The bookshop is a two-minute walk from the 75-metres-tall Clerigos Tower (torredosclerigos.pt), which opened its doors in 1763 and is the official symbol of Porto. If you’re going to climb the 240 steps to the panoramic balcony six floors up, bear in mind that the incredibly narrow stairway wasn’t made for those who are no stranger to a fish supper.
Pity the poor pilgrims dithering outside the imposing 12th century Se Cathedral, clearly torn between setting out on the 259km Portuguese Camino to Santiago de Compostela (caminoways.com) and giving it up as a daft idea and heading for the beach instead.
The No1 tram – a trundling old conveyance that used to traverse the hills of San Francisco – takes only half-an-hour to run from the promenade to where the river flows into the ocean in the Foz do Douro neighbourhood. Here, and in nearby Matosinhos, you’ll find beach bars serving ridiculously cheap but fab food and some great restaurants.
If you’re a football fan, the FC Porto interactive museum (museufcporto.pt) is one of the best in the world. Located within the club’s Estadio do Dragao, which is also the name of the metro station outside, the museum is so interesting that it’s easy to spend three hours wandering among the exhibits.
The 50,000 capacity stadium was inaugurated in 2004 with a match between Porto and Barcelona, and in the visitors’ line-up that evening was a 17-year-old Argentinian striker named Lionel Messi, who was making his first team debut. He went home disappointed after Porto won 2-1.
You’ll want to sample the nightlife, so head for the string of indoor and outdoor bars and restaurants around Rua da Galeria de Paris in the same neighbourhood as Livraria Lello. Most places are busy every night, but often not until 11pm or later, which is why so many hotels serve breakfast up to 11am – a kindness I took full advantage of.
Porto is known as A Cidade Invicta – The Invincible City – for its resistance to a 13-month siege during the Liberal Wars of 1832-33. For invincible, read unbeatable, because that’s exactly what it is. My flights are already booked for the Sao Joao festivities in June.
From December 1, all arrivals to Portugal must show a negative test result for Covid-19, even if they have a digital vaccination certificate. See visitportugal.com and reopen.europa.eu for the latest travel rules and restrictions.
Tom stayed two nights in the 5-star Torel Avantgarde Hotel (torelavantgarde.com) and two in the 4-star Porto Bay Teatro Hotel (portobay.com).
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Porto and back on Monday and Friday mornings from €16.99 one way. Metro trains connect the airport with the city centre (30 minutes, €2.60 one way).
Tom was a guest of the Porto Convention and Visitors Bureau (portocvb.com). For more information, see visitportugal.com and visitporto.travel