A Gastro-romantic Escape to Porto

Story by Vincent Sung

Located on the banks of the Douro river, Porto fascinated through its history ‘in every tile’ and conquered the heart of far-away travelers, through its cuisine and the friendliness of its people. Since over 200 years, Porto was already world-famous for the fortified port wines made in the region. After Porto being declared European City of Culture in 2001, tourism boom increased years after years, backed by the Historic Center voted a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the riverside bairro of Ribeira.

After arriving at Oporto airport and quick check-in at the hotel, I started my first steps of discoveries walking around Porto’s waterfront known as the Ribeira, alongside couples of all ages, families, and group of friends, walking up and down the cobblestone streets with picturesque steep houses clustered up hills. Pedestrian-friendly roads lead to hidden terraces, where I was mingling with locals and tourists who came to enjoy the warm rays of the sun while sipping on Douro Valley wines or a wide selection of Porto. A couple of days are enough to see the main attractions unless you are a gourmet connoisseur like me and plan to visit several port wine lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia, located just across the Rio Douro (River of Gold). The capital of the North, which the poet Luís de Camões once christened as ‘the eternal name of Portugal’, has experienced an artistic and creative renaissance in recent years, thus becoming a cutting-edge city that boasts one of the most famous port and wines in the world.

For eating and going out, I was spoiled with choices with new restaurants, cafes, and bars opening up each year, along with a wide selection of boutique hotels.

Striking out for its innovative design, I had selected to stay at Hotel Vincci, which was previously an iconic building popularly known as the ‘Fish Bag’ stands. The eclectic warehouse, which dates back to the 1930s and was built by the architect Januario Godinho, was transformed into a unique hotel managed by the Spanish hotel chain Vincci Hotels. This four-stars establishment practically maintained the original structure. Its façade features magnificent bas-reliefs that echo the lives of the city’s fishermen. The interior design concept is based on an intricate Art Deco style that is reflected in the bright, expansive spaces. Facing the Douro river, the hotel offers guests a privileged view of its course towards the Atlantic. Featuring 95 rooms with minibar, WIFI and ADSL connection, satellite TV and daily newspapers along with a gym, private parking and a panoramic terrace. Highlights include the main hall for events and meetings, in addition to a trendy rooftop lounge bar.

Casa Musica

Gentrification might have taken over this historical city but the old riverside back-alleys of modern Porto, along many streets and squares, have been reconstructed and historic buildings restored to its former glory. After walking around the commercial center and seeing the Gothic cathedrals, I was looking forward to visiting the two most talked-about and essential cultural attractions: the world-class Fundacao Serralves museum of contemporary art, designed by a native from Oporto Alvaro Siza Vieira and modern architecture Casa Musica designed by Rem Koolhaas.

Fundacao Serralves has by far the best collection of contemporary art in Portugal. Cutting-edge exhibitions, along with a fine permanent collection featuring works from the late 1960s to the present, are showcased yearlong. The Museum of Contemporary Art (Museu de Arte Contemporânea) is an arrestingly minimalist, whitewashed space designed by local architect Álvaro Siza Vieira (internationally famous). The Mansion, dating from 1925, is also worth visiting for its art deco architecture. Designed by Jose Marques da Silva with Rene Lalique skylight, and a neo-baroque chapel that is completely enveloped within the pink walls. After art-intake, I needed fresh air and took a long walk in the marvelous 18 hectares Parque de Serralves. The proto-modernist park landscaping features lily ponds, rose gardens, formal fountains which adds a whimsical touch to the manicured French-style garden. To put the cherry on top of the pie, I visited the top-floor restaurant, which offers exceptional views above the whole estate and park. www.serralves.pt/en

Time for lunch! An affair taken seriously in Oporto! To reach the other bank of Douro River I took an old tramway, then walked over the 6-meters above water bridge (Ponte Maria Pia) crossing to Vila Nova de Gaia, which is synonymous with Port wine trade, a riverfront area with dozens of company lodges and warehouses (called ‘caves’), with some in business for over three centuries. Long lines of cafes, bars, and restaurants along with cruise boats docked along the esplanade are increasingly popular with tourists. First I went to visit the oldest one, Taylor’s Port which was established in 1692 and was dedicated to the production of fine Port wines for the past 325 years. Regarded as the benchmark for Vintage Port, the originally family-owned firm pioneered the ‘LBV – late bottled vintage’ port, as the world-leading producer. I took a private Taylor’s tasting tour (starts at 12 €/adult), which includes one LBV glass from 2012, a “ruby Port from a single year, chosen for its high quality and bottled after aging for four to six years in wood”. I could finally learn the differences between a Ruby and a Tawny. I could also enjoy their unique Extra Dry White Port.

Located next to The Yeatman, a luxury hotel opened in 2010 with long waiting A-list guests and almost always full, Taylor’s is amongst the wine producers that sponsor individual rooms and suites featuring objects that provide an insight into each winery’s unique history. Time for a gastronomic lunch at Barão Fladgate restaurant, with its stunning hillside terrace offering a panoramic view of Gaia and the bridges over the Rio Douro. The food leans more towards the traditional Portuguese cuisine, served in a contemporary way, sets in a comfortable and classy environment. Of course, a comprehensive choice of both wood-aged and Vintage Ports are listed in the menu. www.taylor.pt

After lunch, I headed to a 4pm English guided tour (7,5 €/person – free for children under 12) at Casa da Musica, a distinctively faceted spaceship-like form, which became quickly an icon of contemporary design. The all-white concrete and glass building had a big impact on local architects and the once conservative inhabitants, with its asymmetrical shape and innovative materials used by Rem Koolhaas and Ellen van Loon from architect bureau OMA.

The House of Music features two concert halls, one elevated shoe box-shaped Grand Auditorium with corrugated glass facades at both ends that can also serve as a dramatic backdrop for outdoor performances. Another smaller and intimate hall offering a flexible performance space with no fixed seating. Both halls are wrapped around by a winding series of rehearsal rooms, recording studios, a restaurant, terrace, multi-purpose bars, a VIP room, social spaces [worth noting is the Purple Room, with educational purposes alongside The Orange Room. The A Música Toma Conta de Mim (The Music Takes Care of Me) project invites children, from 3 to 10 years old, to get immersed in the sensory room, interacting with each other’s and discovering musical creations away from their parents who enjoy the concert in the main hall]. www.casadamusica.com

After a quick refreshing stop back at the hotel, I headed out for dinner at Fish Fixe, a pleasant stroll away along the Ribeira. Located on a hilly street along the river, as the name implies, fish is the main staples and is highly acclaimed in this Porto fixture. Best seating is outdoor allowing to be part of the constant animations happening from the busy street while enjoying views of the Ponte de Infante and the Ponte D. Maria Pia (an unmistakable work of Gustave Eiffel and the first railway crossing over the Douro dating back to 1877).

Try their freshly caught sardines (Filetes de sardinha com arroz) or the roasted octopus (Polvo à lagareiro) tender as butter.

Fish Fixe, Rua da Lada, 24 – Porto www.fishfixe.pt

During the four days stay, for every lunch and dinner, my culinary mission was to discover a different Portuguese dish. At Chez Lapin, I tried their rabbit entrée (Coelho a Chez Lapin), which was highly recommended by both locals and returning travelers. I ordered a baked codfish (Bacalhau com Broa) as main and accompanied all with a bottle of Vino Verde (white wine from the Verdes region) and finished a satisfying meal with a fortified Porto as a digestif.

Besides managing three restaurants, Douro Acima group also owns a fleet of cruise boats for day trips or for an hour. I highly recommend the six bridges cruise (50 min. 15 €/adult) which includes a free wine tasting. www.www.douroacima.pt

Another selection in my gourmet findings, Postigo do Carvao is a small quaint pub-like restaurant with a traditional interior reminiscence of old Portugal Petisqueira (tapas) with exposed greyish and light brownstones and dark wood interior, bringing a romantic touch to the place. The staff is renowned for their friendly and attentive service while the overall mood is very lively and cheerful (sometimes live bands play in the main room or some impromptu piano sessions by a dining guest can pop up).

Highly recommended and for a big appetite, is the seafood stew with white beans paired with an excellent (and inexpensive) house wine (red or white). More adventurous connoisseurs should try the Tripas a Moda do Porto (tripe Porto style). www.facebook.com/postigodocarvao

After four days of epicurean delights, I decided to head to the wine area of Douro Valley and experience the lodge lifestyle in smaller villages along the Douro. I had adopted Porto (or the opposite?) and add it to my top five list of potential retirement place to live under the blue skyline. From fourteenth-century Gothic churches, traditional eateries, dusty antique markets to fabulous beaches along Foz do Douro, dotted along by a plethora of restaurants, cafes and pubs, and two distinctive riversides with their distinguished flavors, Oporto is a beacon of Portuguese culture and spirit, all topped up with plenty of wine and of course, Porto!

Photos by Vincent Sung – Sung Studio

Kindly supported by Turismo de Portugal

Local coordinator: Luis Fonseca & Oasis Travel