Church bells ceremoniously ring, cruise boats parade the river that slices through the city, and Porto’s striking hillside monuments and emblematic bridge are aglow in amber hues as the sun dips into the horizon. Sipping a fine port from the Douro Valley on the airy terrace of The Yeatman Hotel, I can’t rip my eyes away from the city’s dreamlike landscape.
There’s good reason why Portugal’s second largest city is Europe’s of-the-moment destination. Located on the northwest coast and a three-hour train ride from the capital of Lisbon, Porto’s city center shines as a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and boasts architectural wonders from baroque and gothic-style churches to buildings adorned in azulejos, painted ceramic tiles. Its compact size makes it easy to spend a few days wandering the cobblestone streets that meander high into the hills and overlook the picturesque Douro River. Magical moments are everywhere—after all, this is where author J.K. Rowling lived and taught English before bringing the wizarding world of Harry Potter to life.
Each day in Porto becomes a treasure hunt for new patterns of tiles and ornate buildings, and even bookstores and transportation hubs are worth a visit. Traveling or not, visit the São Bento train station—arguably one of the world’s most exquisite train stations—to soak in its French Beaux-Arts design and walls wrapped in blue-and-white tiles that portray stories of Portuguese life and history. Move to the nearby Livraria Lello bookstore to peep its stained-glass windows and theatrical, red-carpeted staircase that gives off Harry Potter vibes. While it’s a busy attraction ripe for photos, take the time to peruse its well-curated book collection. Enjoy a few hours leisurely strolling high-fashion Rua Santa Catarina, and dreamy Rua das Flores dotted with chic boutiques including Claus Porto, which sells fragrant soaps beloved by Oprah. Stop for lunch at Bistro Flores restaurant that’s nestled in a 16th-century palace to indulge in limpets from Madeira, braised prawns, and other Portuguese haute cuisines.
In a city marked with bridges, a “Six Bridges Tour” on a rabelo (wooden boat) down the Douro River offers the chance to pass under towering passages like the iconic Dom Luis I bridge which connects Porto with neighboring Vila Nova de Gaia. Don’t miss walking the bridge at sunset; or breathlessly climb the spiral stairs of the looming Clérigos Tower for another incredible perspective.
Porto is the mecca of port wine—the term port was actually derived from the City’s name—so, cross over to Vila Nova de Gaia for tastings at port wine cellars that rule the riverfront. (In the past, wine barrels from the Douro Valley were transported by boat and stored in cellars there.) The options for tours and tastings can be dizzying but must-visits are the last Portuguese-owned port house, Ferreira, as well as Taylor’s, which has made fine port since 1692. Injecting new energy into the historic area is WOW, The Cultural District, a massive complex armed with numerous restaurants and bars and 7 interactive museums that highlight everything from the city of Porto itself to fashion, cork (ever-present in Porto goods from handbags to wine stoppers), chocolate, and wine—basically, everything that defines Porto. Fans of Fort Lauderdale’s Seaglass Rosé Experience should visit The Pink Palace to sample a range of rosé wines and snap Instagram-worthy photos in front of whimsical backdrops. Drop in for an in-depth wine tasting at The Wine School, and don’t miss The Bridge Collection, which showcases an impressive collection of drinking vessels from all over the globe and presents fascinating insights on drinking customs. “The museums are filled with lightbulb moments. We’ve tried to answer questions that people may be thinking but are afraid to ask,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership and WOW.
For unrivaled vistas of the river and Porto’s cityscape, retreat to The Yeatman, a 5-star wine hotel perched on a hill adjacent to The Cultural District. Every guest room offers a balcony or terrace flaunting those covetable views, and the hotel exudes luxurious touches like corridors that serve as art exhibitions and elevators wrapped in 360-degree photographs, including one which replicates a hot air balloon ride. Spend the day floating in their infinity pool overlooking the city and soak up golden hour on their river-fronting terrace with a glass of wine.
Escape from the city yet still be minutes away from the action at Vila Foz Hotel & Spa, a regal 19th-century mansion situated in the posh seaside neighborhood of Foz where epic sunsets along the ocean are celebrated nightly. Savor an unforgettable meal at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant that’s dressed in gilded period details worthy of royalty. Chef Arnaldo Azevedo masterfully creates a tasting menu that centers around the sea along with surprises like foie gras formed like gold medallions and a faux “egg” cocktail that you pop like an ethereal bubble and drink. After a night’s sleep in a roomy suite in the main manse or in the more modern building, enjoy a gratis breakfast that indulgently includes oysters and Champagne, and then hideaway in their peace-inducing spa. Be sure to walk Foz’ oceanfront promenade and have lunch at Restaurant Onze, a casual-cool restaurant serving regional specialties with an inventive spin.
Further experience northern Portugal’s magic with a day or overnight trip to the Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. Its dramatic landscapes of quintas (country estates) androlling hills will take your breath away. Have one of the best meals of your life at DOC, a Michelin-star restaurant by Chef Rui Paula that’s suspended above the Douro River and feels like you’re dining on a cruise ship. Each artful plate boasts foams and decadent sauces that drape fresh fish and meats. After lunch, embark on a private boat tour down the river with Magnifico Douro to float past hillside vineyards carved out like patchwork quilts. A standout is Quinta da Pacheca, a prestigious estate with stunning vineyards that still harvests grapes by hand and offers a wide array of unique wines, including old ports. Hotel guests can even sleep in rooms fashioned like wine barrels.
Venture to the Vinho Verde wine region, packed with lush green landscapes, where longtime Quinta da Aveleda will make you believe in fairytales. Located in Penafiel, less than an hour from Porto, this quinta has been in the Guedes family since the 1870s and they’ve created dreamy backdrops at every turn. Tour the estate fitted with ivy-covered buildings, English-style gardens with ponds and bridges, and a stone tower ruled by adorable goats; or book a bread-making class and then enjoy lunch overlooking the vineyards paired with their award-winning wines or brandy. Spend a few nights at the remote Monverde – Wine Experience Hotel, a luxury property that’s shaped around its heritage vineyards and touts suites with their own pools for ultimate relaxation and privacy. Book their “Winemaker for a Day” experience to craft your own wine and take home your creation.
With TAP Air Portugal’s direct flight from Miami to Lisbon, northern Portugal should top your bucket-list for 2023. visitportugal.com
By Angela Caraway-Carlton.