In the second part of her post-lockdown Portugal city break series, Gina Baksa travels to Porto on the Atlantic coast.
You’ll need at least a week to explore a fraction of what beautiful Porto has to offer. But if, like me, you only have 48 hours to explore, then here are some of Porto’s must-see attractions during your stay in this UNESCO World Heritage city.
Porto is an ideal post-COVID city break. It’s only a 2.5-hour flight from London and just under three hours by train from Lisbon. It’s divided into two distinct areas: on the north side of the Douro River is Porto proper, the UNESCO World Heritage historic centre.
The southern part is home to the premium wine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia, including Taylors, Cockburns and Sandeman. Many of Porto’s finest wine houses were founded by British and Scots merchant families during the last century which had a considerable impact on the economic fortunes of the city.
We reached Porto by train from Lisbon, taking a slower route with a change at Campanhã, so we could arrive at the magnificent São Bento train station in Porto’s UNESCO-listed old town. You can’t miss the stunning blue, white and coloured Azulejo tiles here; all 20,000 of them adorning the vertiginous walls of this former convent-now-railway station. Designed by Jorge Colaço, the tiles depict scenes from Portugal’s battles, as well as more bucolic representations.
Our taxi took us south across the Douro via the iron span of the Ponte Luis I, up into the leafy terraced hills of Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the iconic Yeatman Hotel. Built just ten years ago, The Yeatman is now the premier luxury wine hotel in Porto and is managed by CEO Adrian Bridge who has done a fine job of elevating the hotel to its current award-winning status.
My superior room was spacious and comfortable with clever louvred doors in the bathroom that opened to give superb views of the city from the bathtub. And that terrace! Overlooking the pool and gardens and Porto beyond, this has to be the best view from any hotel in Porto.
The wide sweeping staircase at entrance level to The Yeatman (or take the lift) takes visitors down to the Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa area. You’ll find 2,000 square metres of space with a Hamman, sauna, Roman bath, gym, plunge pool and a gorgeous infinity pool with world-class views south across the Douro. The spa’s signature body and face treatments use vine-related products and Caudalie skincare. Crushed Cabernet exfoliation anyone? Or how about a Merlot wrap?
The Yeatman has food covered with a capital F. Head to the Orangeries restaurant for relaxed views over Porto. Or benefit from its two Michelin stars at The Yeatman restaurant, helmed by Executive Chef Ricardo Costa since the hotel’s opening in 2010.
The wine cellar at The Yeatman boasts 40,000 bottles overseen by wine director Beatriz Machado and was recently awarded the Best Regional Wine List in the World. Take a wine-tasting masterclass here or join The Yeatman wine club at www.theyeatmanwineclub.com. For souvenirs head to the gift shop on the reception floor with its fabulous selection of Ports and wines.
The views from my room were so enchanting it was hard to leave, but Porto beckoned. We began with a visit to Taylors Port Cellars located next to The Yeatman. Owned by the same group (The Fladgate Partnership), the cellars are open to the public for tours, tastings and I highly recommend their smart Barao Fladgate restaurant where we enjoyed a mouth-watering lunch of bacalhau fish with toasted almond crust and chorizo, followed by a to-die-for apple tart and cinnamon ice cream. Suffice to say my generous measure of Taylor’s Fine Tawny Port was superb.
Porto is a hilly city, so bring walking shoes and be prepared to climb. If walking’s not your thing, then some of the city’s trams can transport you up the steepest ascents, and a cable car will take you from the Gaia riverside promenade to the top level of the Dom Luis I Bridge.
The adjacent Morro gardens and the Serra do Pilar convent church here are worth visiting. You’ll get great views of the city from the Lookout point at Miradouro da Serra do Pilar and can take the metro from Jardim do Morro back to Porto city. Trams are very popular in Porto, and there’s even a tram museum down by the river at Massarelos.
Luckily, our postprandial walk was all downhill towards the Cais da Ribeira waterfront, where we caught a traditional ‘Rabello’ riverboat that took us under some of Porto’s magnificent bridges. These boats once transported Porto’s precious wine cargo; now they carry equally precious tourists. Each main bridge we passed under – there are six in the city, are all aesthetically very different, from the concrete span on the Arrábida bridge to Gustave Eifel’s masterwork called the Maria Pia bridge.
Tile Painting Experience at Gazete Azulejos
Porto is renowned for its exquisite hand-painted Azulejo tiles, many of which still adorn public and private buildings. The word ‘azulejos’ means polished stone in Arabic, and the tradition of tiling the exterior of houses arrived in Portugal with the Moors in the 13th century. Popular throughout Portugal, Porto has some fine examples, notably the São Bento railway station and the impressive Chapel of Souls on Rua da Santa Catarina.
To safeguard the history of the tiles, two dedicated women created the non-profit charity Os Azulejos do Porto specifically to catalogue each type of tile in Porto. This is a mammoth task that has to date raised nearly two-thirds of its €2.4 million budget. Visit the site at http://azulejosporto.pt for more information. We met the founders at a fun tile-painting workshop which helps to raise funds to support the project.