Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, is as robust and intoxicating as the fortified wine that is produced here. Port wine has been aged, bottled, and distributed from here for over three centuries, and the historic port wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia on the southern shore of the Douro River are major tourist attractions.
There is more to enjoy in Porto besides a glass of port but, like a splash on a crisp white tablecloth, port has left an indelible mark on the city. At the heart of Porto is the historic Ribeira district. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996, it’s a heap of tall medieval townhouses that clamber up the steep north bank of the Douro all the way to the vast Episcopal Palace and imposing 12th-century Porto Cathedral. It’s easy to lose yourself amid the narrow, winding alleys that traverse this atmospheric and slightly seedy neighborhood-and as you do, you should remember that Porto’s rich architectural heritage of medieval tenements, baroque churches, iron bridges, and art nouveau stores, is evidence of the wealth that came to this city thanks to its pivotal role in the port trade.
Although much of Ribeira is muddled and muddy due to ongoing renovations, the riverfront promenade Cais da Ribeira, with its parade of colorful balconied houses, medieval arches, and a host of lively restaurants and pavement caf?s, is one of Porto’s most photogenic spots. It’s also a perfect spot to sample a glass of port.
Moored along the quayside you’ll see several grand, old, wooden boats. Known as a Barco Rabelo, this type of flat-bottomed, square-sailed boat first entered service in 1792 when they were used to carry port here from the vineyards high up in the Douro Valley. Nowadays, they’re used primarily to ferry tourists across the river to visit the wine cellars on the opposite bank.
An alternative way to cross the river to the cellars is via Ponte Lu?s I. This impressive, two-tier, iron bridge dates to 1886, when it was the longest arch bridge in the world. Road traffic now uses just the lower deck, while the lofty upper deck carries electric trains from Porto’s new Metro system alongside a pedestrian walkway. The view from up here is spectacular, but it’s best avoided if you’re acrophobic. If you think there’s something je ne sais quoi about its arched iron construction.something reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.you’d be correct, because this bridge was in fact engineered by one of Gustave Eiffel’s pupils, T?ophile Seyrig. Indeed, Eiffel and Seyrig together engineered Porto’s Ponte Dona Maria Pia railway bridge a decade earlier, in 1877, which stands upriver from here.
Port wine is ubiquitous even on a night out in Porto’s small but lively gay scene. Starting the evening at gay-mixed Caf? Lusitano in the trendy Cl?rigos neighborhood, I asked for a caipirinha, the Brazilian cocktail omnipresent in the bars and clubs of Lisbon, but here I was told they didn’t have that. Instead I was offered a local alternative of white port served over ice with tonic water and mint leaves. It was deliciously refreshing. With its chandeliers, wood-panelled interior, velvet upholstered chairs, and marble topped bar, there’s a grand air of the 1900s about Caf? Lusitano, an illusion broken only by the 21st-century collective of students, hip young locals, and handsome gay guys who today colonize this place.
On fine summer evenings, stake a claim outdoors at the bars on nearby Rua da Galeria de Paris. They are certainly worth a visit. Dating to 1903, this narrow street was originally conceived to be a chic Parisian-style arcade, but the planned glass roof was never built. Although the ornate art nouveau buildings fell into disrepair when the area fell out of fashion, they’ve recently been “recycled” as bars, restaurants, and specialist shops, and have become fashionable once again. Of particular note is Galeria de Paris. The original cabinets of this former textile shop have been retained and now display an insane mix of antique oddities, including vintage radio sets and model boats, making this a unique place to enjoy a drink or good and inexpensive Portuguese home cooking. It’s a very informal set-up, so grab a candlelit table when you can. There’s often live piano music, or a set by a local DJ, and come midnight, it gets as packed as a can of sardines.
The proper gay scene starts on weekends after 1 A.M. Having any gay scene is a relatively new phenomenon here. Even though Porto first celebrated Gay Pride in 2001, there wasn’t a proper Gay Pride march until 2006, but Porto’s gays and lesbians still know how to party. Flashy little Boys’R’Us is Porto’s best-known gay venue. Open for over a decade in the very heart of town, it’s always a lot of fun. A bit farther out, Pride is favored by a slightly younger and alternative crowd, and the DJ has a more varied playlist that embraces 80s disco classics and Portuguese pop as well as current club anthems, so it’s worth the extra effort. Both have occasional drag shows, and both attract a small smattering of lesbians. On Saturdays from 4 A.M., anyone who is still standing will migrate to Zoom. Occupying a former warehouse, this is Porto’s current gay hotspot, and with muscular go-go boys, huge mirror balls, and booming house music, it ticks every box.
It’s not only venues like Caf? Lusitano and Galeria de Paris that have lovely interiors echoing the 1900s. Continue to explore the Cl?rigos neighborhood and you’ll find what is rated as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. With a neo-gothic fa?ade and an interior that has remained unchanged since 1906, Livraria Lello is a magical place. Built as the flagship store for one of Portugal’s most prestigious publishing houses, I could easily envisage this as Dumbledore’s private library in the Harry Potter films. The amazing, attention-grabbing central staircase twists and recoils up and down in every direction like a two-headed art nouveau snake, while the books themselves are kept preciously in carved, glass-fronted cabinets. As if bewitched by a spell, famous Portuguese literary figures peer out from bronze bas-reliefs on the pillars. As well as being top-class architectural eye-candy, Livraria Lello also stocks some hard-to-find English translations of Portuguese literature, plus a wide selection of books all about Porto. There’s even a cosy four-table caf? at the rear, illuminated from above by a gorgeous stained-glass skylight, where you can chill with coffee or a glass of port.
Reminiscent of a general store from a bygone era, nearby A Vida Portuguesa laughs in the face of globalization by carrying a range of Portuguese products from yesteryear that, although still in production today, have resisted the urge to change with the times. Open since 2006 in the premises of an old-fashioned cosmetics warehouse that dates to the late 19th century, this retro emporium is a vast treasure trove of nostalgic household items from Porto and beyond.
Beautifully displayed in original fixtures and fittings, treats in store include hand-made Claus Porto soaps, individually wrapped in tissue paper and packaged in gorgeously patterned boxes, the designs of which have remained unchanged for decades; crisp Emil?o Braga notebooks, each one bound with a hand-sponged black and white “cloud” patterned cover, exactly as they’ve been since 1918; and Bordallo Pinheiro ceramics with designs dating back to 1884, the range includes plates, bowls, tureens, and serving platters in whimsical, natural shapes like cabbage leaves, strawberries, and fish. You’ll also find cans of olive oil, handmade chocolates, hand-woven wool blankets, nostalgic children’s toys, traditional aluminium cookware, and handcrafted jewelry, all produced in Portugal in the same way, and boxed in the same packaging that they always have been. Although you may be familiar with some of these items (Claus Porto soaps are exported to the United States, and Oprah is said to be a huge fan), there’s plenty more to discover.
I learned that one product, Couto toothpaste, is not only popular because it retains its original retro logo and strong minty taste, it also scores on its ethical credentials. Formulated by Dr. Alberto Ferreira Couto in Porto in 1932, it’s favored by vegans because it’s a natural product that was never tested on animals. Similarly, grand old grandmothers come here from all across Portugal to stock up on ?gua de Col?nia Lavanda or Benamor cleansing cream, products they’ve used and loved since they were girls. For us, it’s a fabulous place to shop, but for many locals it’s a proper nostalgia trip.
This neighborhood takes its name from the ornate Baroque Cl?rigos Church whose tall bell tower, Torre dos Cl?rigos, was the tallest structure in Portugal when completed in 1763. Today the tower is a popular tourist attraction, and for ?2 you can climb up 240 steep steps to enjoy the view from the top.
Despite Porto’s undeniable historic heritage, this is not a city trapped in the past. In fact, whenever Porto does look to the future, it does so with enthusiasm and success. Thanks to the city’s status as European Capital of Culture in 2001, audacious Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was commissioned to design a concert hall, and the result of this bold decision is Casa da M?sica. Completed in 2005, it’s an angular, precision-molded, white concrete structure that looks a bit like a meteorite that’s crash-landed from the planet Krypton. It’s a statement building that was applauded by the international design community (the New York Times hailed it as one of the most important concert halls built in the last 100 years) and, more importantly, by the people of Porto.
The 1,300-seat auditorium is unique in that it’s the only concert hall in the world to have two walls made entirely of glass. Terrible in terms of acoustics, glass is mostly avoided in such buildings, but here Koolhaas has used double layers of corrugated glass to produce a dazzling space that’s both acoustically sound and flooded with natural light. The inaugural concerts, featuring American rock musician Lou Reed, celebrated classical pianist Alfred Brendel, and Portuguese pop-rock band Cl?, set the tone. Since then, everything from classical concerts by Orquestra Sinf?nica do Porto to jazz to fado to hip-hop have been performed here. There’s generally something on the program that’ll appeal to a gay audience too, such as a screening of The Wizard Of Oz accompanied by a live classical score, or a concert by Antony and The Johnsons. If you don’t have concert tickets, for ?3 you can take a guided tour, which is perhaps the surest way to guarantee access to the exclusive sixth-floor VIP room, where cutting-edge elements like polished aluminum floors and rippled glass panels contrast with decorative walls of azulejos, traditional hand-painted blue and white ceramic tiles portraying idyllic pastoral scenes. It’s a very intriguing place.
Fans of contemporary architecture should also seek out buildings by local born architect ?lvaro Siza. Like Koolhaas (who won in 2000), Siza was 1992′s recipient of the Pritzker Prize, considered one of the world’s most prestigious architecture accolades. Excellent examples of Siza’s work include the University of Porto’s inspiring Faculdade de Arquitectura complex, and serene white Museu Serralves, which when it opened in 1999 was Portugal’s first large-scale contemporary art museum. My personal favorite is one of his earliest projects, the Casa de Ch? Boa-Nova. Built in 1963, this restaurant and teahouse is dramatically set amid massive boulders right by the Atlantic Ocean in Le?a da Palmeira, a 20-minute drive out of Porto. Although there are fashionable seaside restaurants closer to Porto in Foz do Douro, I think this one is worth the extra distance. If the mid-century modern-style mix of concrete, white masonry, and rich red Afzelia wood isn’t enough to lure you, maybe the promise of a lunch of baked cod, seafood feijoada, or clams cooked in a traditional Portuguese cataplana, enjoyed overlooking the ocean on the restaurant’s peaceful outdoor terrace, will persuade you.
For a more opulent fine dining experience, you can’t beat O Comercial. Located within the Pal?cio da Bolsa, Porto’s grand neoclassical stock exchange, this upscale restaurant brings a cool contemporary vibe to the historic surroundings. It seems like a real privilege to be allowed to enter this impressive building after hours, and once seated at your table you’ll feel equally privileged when presented with a menu that includes locally inspired dishes such as ribs braised in Douro wine with celery, and shrimp bread pudding, but remember to leave room for what is called “the best warm chocolate cake in the world.”
Although major chains like the luxurious Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa are present here, Porto also has a good selection of smaller and more individual hotels that are full of flair and personality. The Pestana Porto Hotel is a lovely, traditional-style, boutique option that enjoys possibly the best location in Porto. Situated right on the Ribeira waterfront, the majority of rooms in this distinctive, butter-colored historic building have views of the Douro River, some complete with charming little balconies. If you prefer something more contemporary and closer to the gay scene, Teatro Hotel Porto makes a bold statement by curtaining out natural light from most of its public areas to suggest the dramatic ambience of a theatre. A reception desk disguised as box office and rails of theatrical costumes add to the illusion-drag queens will love all the drama and draped velvet! The rooms themselves are spacious and modern, with fixtures and furnishings that all have a lovely golden hue. Built on the site of a revered theatre that was destroyed by fire in 1888, this brand new hotel was created by Portuguese-born architect and designer Nini Andrade Silva, and is a member of Design Hotels.
Of course you can’t visit Porto without sampling a glass of port, can you? Port wines aren’t actually made here: the grapes are harvested and fortified in the vineyards of the Douro Valley, then sent down river to age. As many date to the 1700s and 1800s, these cellars are fascinating places to visit.
There are numerous cellars to choose from, but my recommendation is Casa Ramos Pinto, founded by Adriano Ramos Pinto in 1880. Himself a notable young artist, he commissioned renowned artists and designers of the era like Ren? Vincent, Leonetto Cappiello and Leopoldo Metlicovitz to produce stylish advertisement posters that portrayed Ramos Pinto port as an alluring nectar. In one example, the serpent tempts a nubile Eve in the Garden of Eden with a delicate glass of Ramos Pinto port; in another, a smirking cupid uses a glass of port to seduce an about-to-kiss couple. Clearly, Adriano Ramos Pinto was a genius marketing guru who understood that sex sells, making Ramos Pinto an international success. The company quickly conquered the Brazilian market and by the beginning of the 20th century was responsible for half the port wine exported to South America. Indeed, reproductions of those posters are still as popular as ever.
Today, Ramos Pinto is owned by French-based Roederer Group, producer of the luxury Champagne, Cristal. The wine cellars have been open to the public since 2002. Guided tours explain how port is made, and you’ll be rewarded with tastings and have an opportunity to shop at the end of the tour. Buying vintage port bottled in the year you were born is a wonderful souvenir (but the older you are, the more costly a gift it will be). What makes this place stand out from the rest is the fact that you can visit the historic corporate offices as well as the cellars. Unchanged since the 1930s, they’re a time capsule of paneled wood, brass, and stained glass, with a large and fascinating archive of those lovely old advertisement posters.
Port is probably favored most of all by the British. In fact, Britain’s Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force use a glass of port to toast the Queen at every formal dinner. It’s therefore not surprising that many of Porto’s most famous port wine cellars, like Sandeman and Taylor’s, are British in origin.
Although now owned by Seagram’s of Canada, a Scotsman, George Sandeman, founded Sandeman in 1790. In the 1800s, “brand” names were largely unheard of, but Sandeman wanted to give customers a guarantee of quality. So, in 1880 they became the first port wine cellar to export bottled and labeled port wine. Like Ramos Pinto, Sandeman’s stature increased in the 1920s thanks to its use of bold advertising posters: the most notable being the cape-clad silhouette of the now-iconic Sandeman “Don,” designed in 1928 by another Scotsman, George Massiot Brown.
Set halfway up the hill, Taylor’s takes a bit more effort to get to, but comes with the added benefit of a great onsite restaurant, Bar?o de Fladgate, which provides wonderful panoramic views of historic Porto from its sunny terrace. The menu focuses on local specialities, such as slow-cooked roast kid with turnip tops, and monkfish rice with prawns and rose shrimps, and the waiters happily recommend which wine, or indeed which port wine, goes well with each dish. One recommendation is the refreshing but curiously named Taylor’s Chip Dry white port.
At the end of 2010, the owners of Taylor’s opened a brand new luxury hotel here on the hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia. Its proximity to Taylor’s port wine caves means that guests of The Yeatman Hotel will never go thirsty. Among the five-star amenities is a Vinoth?rapie Spa, incorporating a tepidarium, hammam, Roman bath, and an indoor panoramic swimming pool. Using natural beauty products from French company Caudalie, treatments maximize the anti-oxidant qualities of the grape and include a red vine barrel bath, Merlot body wrap, the signature “Pulp Friction” massage with fresh grapes, and the “Premier Cru” facial-together proving just how good wine is for you.
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