As a short break destination from the UK, Porto takes some beating. Fly direct from Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Bristol, Manchester, Luton, Gatwick and Stansted – phew, so many airports to choose from. With a flight time of just over two hours and no time difference to add on, we left Stansted at 9.30am and were eating cod balls on the Ribiera quayside by lunchtime. The airport is only 10 km from the city centre and is linked by good, cheap transport links. Or you could be lazy like us and take a taxi.
Where did we stay?
Our holiday was booked with holiday company Inntravel so the decision was in their capable hands. But I couldn’t have improved on their choice if I’d spent an eternity on every booking site on the internet. The USP of the Hotel Pestana Vintage has to be location, location, location. It’s on the waterfront, near to lots of bars and restaurants and overlooks the Dom Luis I bridge. From our bed I could see the bridge, and as it reminded me of the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle, I felt instantly at home. (Our bedroom window was just above the word ‘Pestana’ in the photo above.)
The hotel’s public areas had a retro feel to them and we loved the number of places where we could just sit and chill. The bar was pretty cool and served excellent caipirinha cocktails, the perfect aperitif before heading out for dinner. We ate at the hotel’s restaurant, RIB, on our last night and it was delicious. We had initially thought it was a bit pricey but the chateaubriand steak we chose proved to be excellent, served with different dips and side orders. Service from breakfast through to dinner was exemplary: friendly yet professional.
Where did we eat?
There’s a great vibe down by the river with countless cafes, bars and restaurants so we were spoilt for choice. I can highly recommend the small but perfectly formed restaurant Ora Viva which was in the Rua Fonte Taurina, just behind our hotel. A family establishment (brothers, I believe), this was the perfect spot for a good dose of comfort eating. Dougie plumped for roasted octopus and I was in heaven with my cataplana (copper pot) of monkfish – can you spot them in the photo above? Both dishes were about 14 or 15 euros and the bottle of local Douro wine about the same. A 3 euro homemade pud of ‘granny’s cake’ was superb.
On our second night we booked a table in the Forno Velho restaurant which seemed to be housed in contemporary catacombs but in fact was part of the nearby Hotel Carris. We had a sensational meal, the highlights being the octopus tempura (bit of a theme going here) and our desserts: a two-chocolate fondant with apple sorbet and strawberries in port with glasses of port on the side – in case we needed a tad more of the syrupy nectar.
We didn’t have one disappointing meal in Porto, from the kale and chorizo soup at Café de Cais to the creamy carbonara at the Ristorante San Martino, we found meals for all budgets. Washed down with a glass of Portuguese Super Bock beer or a Douro wine, we couldn’t fault the eating experience here. They eat at similar times to us Brits, so no going hungry waiting for the doors to open.
What did we do?
Livraria Lello bookshop– you can’t come to Porto and not seek out this glorious bookshop, hailed as one of the best in the world. There may be queues to enter but every inch of its dramatic staircase and sublime stained glass skylight is worth it. For more details and extra photos, check out my post about Portugal’s literary delights.
São Bento railway station – Named after a Benedictine monastery which was built on this spot in the 16th century, the station is renowned for the extraordinary tiled panels in the entrance hall. Painted by Jorge Colaço, the most important azulejo artist of his generation, they are breathtakingly beautiful, featuring historical events and picturesque landscapes. You don’t need to be using the station: just pop in and let your jaw drop.
Mercado do Bolhão – a thriving local market which is certainly worth mooching round, if only to admire the stalls groaning under the weight of multi-coloured produce. It was here I had my first taste of Pasteis de Nata, the traditional Portuguese custard tart. Once tasted, you’ll be buying them from dawn to dusk. You will notice I have no photos at all of any purchased tart – photography seemed to be the last thing on my mind when these little beauties were in my hand. You can also find some great value souvenirs – 1 euro for a fridge magnet. Trish’s Top Tip – If you’re edging close to your luggage allowance, just buy products made from local cork and they will be so light, they won’t make any discernible difference to the weight of your case.
A tram ride to Foz – If you’re visiting in the summer and need to cool down, head west to the Atlantic coast for a blast of fresh air. If you’re travelling in the winter, like we were, wrap up warm and take a bracing walk along the promenade. Tram 1 will take you from the waterfront to the beach and it’s less than half an hour’s journey. For 2.50 euros (each way) you can experience quaint old-fashioned transport and get cosy with the other passengers.
Tour and tasting at Graham’s Port Lodge – On the other side of the Rio Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia, you will find all the port lodges inviting you to come over for a tour and tasting. There are many to choose from so you could just sit in a bar in Porto and pick which sign, emblazoned on the roof tops, takes your fancy. Inntravel recommended Graham’s which happened to be the furthest away but I forgave them this because it was such an informative and entertaining way to spend a morning.
I am now a port expert, thanks to our guide, Darya, and have already put this knowledge to good use on our return as I now know my Ruby from my Tawny and my Vintage from my LBV. Husband Dougie was surprised that not everyone finishes every last drop of port during the tasting and I had to restrain him from minesweeping the other tables before we left. Trish’s Top Tip – Dougie and I both chose a different tasting package, in effect giving us six ports to taste between us rather than three.
Porto is pretty much perfect
Porto was an absolute delight. It’s small enough not to be overwhelming and although you have a bit of a climb to reach the upper part of the city, it’s manageable. There’s always the funicular to take the strain if you can’t face another uphill hike. I loved the narrow colourful streets with washing hanging out over balconies. I kept stopping to look at the intricate tiling on the buildings. It’s a city which made me feel instantly relaxed and contented – and that’s not just the port talking…
Disclosure: We booked our own holiday with Inntravel but were offered a discount in exchange for a review of the trip. All opinions are my own.
Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk 01653 617000) offers On the Waterfront, a walking and rail discovery of Portugal’s three great cities, Lisbon, Coimbra & Porto from £580pp based on two sharing including 6 nights’ B&B in 4-star hotels, self-guided city walking tours, and rail journeys Lisbon to Coimbra & Coimbra to Porto. Available 2 January-24 December. Flights (cost extra) into Lisbon and out Porto. The holiday can be taken in the opposite direction, flying into Porto and out Lisbon