Porto: An Apéritif for the Senses

The medieval riverside Ribeira district of Porto in Portugal

A visit to Porto is a galvanizing experience. You’ll notice it as soon as you arrive. It’s the colors that hit you first. Under the rays of a glorious autumn afternoon, hues of cinnabar, tangerine, and lemon twist and twine—and speaking of citruses, does the orange juice here taste…tangier? The steady sound of chatter fills the air, and you feel yourself swelling up with a wave of joie de vivre, a jubilant exultation of simply being. This is a magical peninsula where happiness pursues you, and in the sanguine center of northern Portugal, delight and inspiration drip down every cobbled street. Bem-vindo ao Porto, there’s so much to discover.

Flanked by the Douro River, Porto is a living work of art. Intricate façades of azulejo adorn the walls of churches, stations, and casas around the city. Brought to Portugal from Seville in 1503, the glazed ceramic tiles derive their name from the Arabic al zellige (الزليج), meaning “polished stone.” While they initially imitated the geometric and floral designs of Byzantine mosaics, the azulejos gradually took on a life of their own, with many of them depicting religious scenery or significant chapters of national history. Today, these white and blue tiles have become one of the most symbolic images of Portuguese culture.

Man standing in front of blue tin-glazed ceramic tiled façade
The ornate Capela das Almas or “chapel of souls” can be found on Porto’s main shopping boulevard, Rua de Santa Catarina.

Perched at the top of the riverbank in the Baixa, Porto’s downtown area, the granite bell tower of the Church of Clérigos watches vigilantly over a humming metropolis. Constructed during the 18th century, it is an opus of baroque art, one of many period masterpieces found throughout the city. Surrounding the church are strings of cafés, pâtisseries, and boutiques, all calling out to saunterers and shoppers with their curation of local specialties: mighty francesinhas, a most extravagant Marie Antoinette of sandwiches comprising layers of bread, cured ham, smoked sausage, roast beef, and cheese topped off by a fried egg and a generous drizzle of beer sauce; vinho verde from Minho, a traditional region to the country’s far north; stylish handbags and accessories made of cork, a major Portuguese export; and an infinite assortment of gourmet canned fish—lavishly packaged sardines, salmon, tuna, and mackerel preserved in everything from olive oil with rosemary to pickles and piri piri sauce. To taste the essence of Portugal, one needs only to peel open a tin.

The tinned fish collection at Loja das Conservas and scenes from Porto's downtown Baixa area

Over by the riverside neighborhood of Cais da Ribeira stirs the old spirit of the city. This is undeniably the most beautiful part of Porto, where wooden, flat-bottomed rabelo boats lazily drag themselves across the water. Previously used for ferrying wine, these days, they transport a different kind of cargo: passengers. All along the quay, splendid old houses press up neatly against each other like narrow rows of glass gem corn. Nearby, from the lower deck of the monumental Dom Luís Bridge, hot-blooded daredevils brave twenty-meter plunges into the dark, swirling river for a few euro, continuing a well-established pastime and Ribeira tradition.

Scenes from Porto, Portugal

Numerous chic restaurants dazzle and lure in spectators with their array of culinary highlights. Owing to its old-world beauty, the Ribeira is a popular spot to sit and sample the best of Porto’s cuisine, including the classic tripe and bean stew. As the story goes, during the dawn of the Age of Discovery, good meat was used to supply the ships being built on the banks, and the residents of Porto themselves were left with meager rations of offal meat like tripe. Henceforth, they were known as tripeiros, or tripe-eaters. Fortunately, both nautical expedition and the city itself flourished during following centuries, and a stroll along the waterfront today will uncover many another exquisite dish such as oysters in lime juice, scrumptious salt cod fritters, and tenderly braised Iberian pork cheeks.

Pork cheeks braised in port wine

On the other side of the Douro, fragrant smoky chestnuts roasting under a pleat of sun-baked roofs welcome visitors to Vila Nova de Gaia. The two cities of Porto and Gaia are inextricably linked in more ways than one. Apart from sharing a common etymology—Portus Cale, or “Port of Cale”—Gaia guards Porto’s most precious commodity: port wine, which, like the country, also takes its name from this very place. In dimly lit and cavernous cellars, winemakers with generations of passed-down knowledge fortify and age liquid joy by the barrel. Colossal oak vats keep the sweet whites and fruity rubies, while smaller casks are reserved for caramel tawny port. Sip on a vintage tipple or a peppery rosé port cocktail up on the terrace of the stunning Espaço Porto Cruz: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a livelier or more sensory setting to watch the city unfurl into the evening. Saúde!


Where to stay

Feels Like Home Santa Catarina Prime Suites, situated in the heart of Porto between the Baixa and Ribeira neighborhoods, is a traditional townhouse that has been transformed into a beautiful and modern bed-and-breakfast. In addition to 24-hour reception, complementary breakfast is served in the room. Doubles starting from €76.50.

Where to dine

Embark on a gastronomic adventure inspired by Portuguese maritime discoveries at Terra Nova. On the Ribeira waterfront looking out over Gaia, you can dive into the world of fine codfish and fresh oysters. About €60 for two.

Where to unwind

From where the Douro spills out into the open ocean, an unbroken stretch of sand dotted with beachfront bars leads to the Capela do Senhor da Pedra. This miraculous chapel perched between civilization and the briny blue has withstood the moody Atlantic waves for over three hundred years.

A small chapel on the rocks by the sea

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