Scotland on Sunday Travel Wishlist - Porto, Portugal

Love Lisbon? Put the second city on your post-lockdown bucket list

Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 12:15 pm
Updated Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 12:18 pm
The red roofs of downtown Porto and the Douro River at sunset.

MARK ATKINSON

One of the best parts of arriving in a new city is that first taxi ride. It’s often the first communication with a local and can set the tone for how you view people from your destination. I’ve had a few cracking cabbies over the years, but no-one comes close to my man in Porto.

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He was wearing the blue-and-white stripes of the Porto football team, so I ought to have clocked he was fairly passionate about his city. We exchanged the usual taxi pleasantries in broken English and he launched into what I should see in his city, before a quizzical: “Where have you travelled from?” Lisbon was my answer, by train, which got him even more boisterous.

Porto has rich cultural sights to explore at a less hectic pace than the capital.

The two principal cities in Portugal have a healthy yet heated rivalry. Asked what I made of Lisbon, I was positive. However, I was told, under no uncertain terms, that I would like Porto more. Prettier buildings, the Douro is a nicer river than the Tagus, the seafood is better in Matosinhos than Belem, and that Super Bock beer trumps Sagres every time. I sensed a bit of inferiority complex, that the north dislikes the south, but the intensity on show made me look forward even more to my three days in this country’s second-biggest city.

Porto sits on the mouth of the Douro river and is split in two by it. The northern side is the more historical and home to the Ribeira quarter, which is protected under UNESCO world heritage status. Narrow streets chisel up the hills, much like Lisbon – you can get lost pretty swiftly, and as this city has its steeper parts, your feet will suffer if you go too far off-piste.

The landmark to keep looking out for is the Dom Luís I Bridge, a structure that has no right to be beautiful due to being made of metal, but catches the eye nonetheless. It links up Ribeira with Vila Nova de Gaia and is one of the main features of this city. For the tourist, it connects old Porto with the swathes of port houses on the south bank. Cafes and restaurants rest in its shadows.

For me, Porto is a real treat for the taste buds. It has some of the best restaurants in Portugal – most of the high-end eateries are found next to the port houses – but it is worth taking a trip out to Matosinhos, a suburb to the north brimming with exceptional seafood options. Bacalhau – essentially salted cod – is the local speciality, but I recall feasting on skate wings, grouper and snapper in abundance.

Porto with its narrow, hilly streets, is made for wandering.

One of the more quirky offerings in Porto is a Francesinha. This looks like a heart attack on a plate and I refused to order it, instead passing responsibility over to my wife, Charlotte. This monstrosity is a toasted sandwich with layer after layer of burger meat, pork, and ham. It is smothered in cheese and a spicy tomato and beer-based sauce, with skinny fries as an accompaniment. It looked horrendous, but I found enough courage to try it and I was surprised how tasty it was. Apparently the sauce is the key component.

Port, naturally, is a key ingredient of a sojourn here. Strolling round Gaia, you will see all the anglified household names such as Cockburn’s and Graham’s, but the smaller, independent labels often offer the best tours and merchandise. If fortified wine isn’t your thing, day trips out to the Douro valley take between 60 to 90 minutes and you can visit one of the world’s best wine regions. White wine from here is refreshing, zesty and fruity – very hard to beat.

Porto has a compact city centre that is well-connected by a metro and tram system. We stayed in the Boavista area at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which was extremely comfortable and affordable. A ten-minute journey has you in town and I quite liked being in a local area, with little bakeries and restaurants that a tourist won’t always find in good supply.

I’m not always an advocate of open-top bus tours, but given Porto’s topography and the spectacular views you get over the river and across the Atlantic Ocean, I’d recommend one here. The tiled roofs of the old town contrast with the sprouting modern buildings that are a by-product of Porto’s growing commercial influence. The beaches of Leixoes, Matosinhos and Espinho are not far away if you want some sand in your shoes.

On our final night, I asked Charlotte the all-important question: which city is better, Lisbon or Porto? She was conflicted, having enjoyed the Portuguese capital’s Pasteis de Nata too much. Porto certainly comes close. It has a really chilled, relaxed vibe and the addition of port and the Douro valley into the mix gives you a day-trip and escape from any hustle and bustle. It is a cheap city to enjoy, the people are friendly and the optics are very pleasant indeed. I’ve been to Lisbon twice now and I like it a lot, but it is constantly hoaching, while Porto feels untapped.

My taxi driver wouldn’t agree, but just like a pint of Super Bock and Sagres, I’ll happily enjoy both.

Porto is split in two by the Douro river and the Dom Luís I Bridge is an eye-catching landmark

Narrow streets chisel up the hills, much like Lisbon

MARK ATKINSON

Portuguese city on the mouth of the Douro river feels like an escape from the hustle and bustle and, writes Mark Atkinson, it’s an ideal place to wine and dine

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