Porto City Break 2015

The Regatta de Barcos — held on the afternoon of the Festival of Sāo Joāo.

Having visited Lisbon, toured the Alentejo and some of the Algarve, the new summer schedule Easyjet flight from Manchester to Porto was just too much to resist. Porto has featured in a few articles in Monocle magazine too, so we just had to see for ourselves what Portugal's second city had to offer the intrepid traveller. 

We were mightily impressed! Much is made of visits to the Port Wine Lodges and although this is an essential part of every visitor's schedule including — eventually — our's, the city has much more to offer; although you do have to do some research to get the most from a friendly city that has put a lot of effort into enhancing the environment for residents and visitors too.

Our visit inadvertently coincided with the Festival of Sāo Joāo on 23/24 June — an experience not to be missed!

The shaded entrance to the Mercardo Bom Successo. [Photo courtesy Hotel da Musica].

Accomodation

Although there is a flurry of new small-scale apartment and hotel accommodations, we could not find any that satisfied our requirements on all counts. Some very central offers are in very 'touristy' areas, other big chain hotels are some distance out of town and others would only suit those on package tours with all transport provided. Our choice was the Hotel da Musica was near the Rotunda Boavista, a major transport hub and some 5/10 minutes from the city centre by Metro. It was a good balance and a very interesting concept: being built within the Mercardo Bom Successo — a refurbished and reconceived municipal market building constructed in a modern style in 1952. It now houses a range of stalls offering various reasonably priced fast-food eating and drinking options that can be consumed within the building or under the huge concrete entry canopy [overlooking a small[ish] bus station!]. We used the market facilities a lot during our visit.

The hotel entrance and reception is on the northern end of the building. The hotel has a long first floor corridor of rooms with external windows, plus three more floors built entirely within the market structure — all in a contemporay style themed around music— it's  very close to the iconic Casa de Musica auditorium, a huge, lop-sided concrete cube on the Rotunda Boavista. Breakfasts were good: a pleasant environment with attentive staff, fresh fruit, a hot 'english style' option, an excellent selection of breads, cakes and pastries and filter or espresso coffee — and the opportunity to socialise with other guests.

It's worth checking the hotel website regarding it's exact location and entrance, especially if you travel from the airport by Metro. We returned to the airport by taxi — for 2 people it was €26.00.

The musical theme in the rooms at the Hotel da Musica. [Photo courtesy Hotel da Musica].

Getting around Porto

We kept being told that Porto was a small city, but we spent quite a bit of time on public transport to get around and gain an impression of the city and visit just some of the recommended venues.

The city is very well served by a fast Metro system, a very comprehensive bus system [STCP], plus the Funicular dos Guindais and the Teleférico de Gaia cable car on opposite sides of the Rio Douro. The city has also retained three tram lines that are essentially tourist attractions. A multiple journey ticket titled 'Andante' is available from the ticket machines in the Metro stations and from bus stations [not valid for the funicular or cable car]. For the uninitiated, operating the ticket machines can be confusing, there are too few of them at major stations, some only accept coins, others offer a small denomination note facility and others include a credit card facility, but sometimes reject non-Portuguese credit cards. To alleviate these problems, security guards are on hand to help at the busiest times and locations. Porto has a big bus map [€0.50 — available from bus stations] that proved very handy during our visit. The bus routes we used most were 203 [Rotunda Boavista to Foz], 500 [Foz to City Centre], 900/901/906 [Cais de Gaia/Douro South Bank to City Centre]. As mentioned taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap too.

Respite from the heat with white wine at the Pria do Luz beach bar.

Porto Itinerary

We had no fixed itinerary for our visit to Porto and as the city was experiencing a heatwave with temperatures in the mid-thirties Celsius for the first 4 days of our visit — we headed to the beach. To the west of the city centre at the mouth of the River Douro and the Atlantic Ocean is Foz, now an upmarket suburb of Porto with some very stylish single residences on either side of Avenida Marechal Gomes da Costa that runs down to the ocean from Avenida Boavista — and charming tree-lined streets just behind the Avenida Brazil that borders the Atlantic. Our choice of beach bar along this stretch was at Pria da Luz, a confection of white canvas awnings, umbrellas and director style chairs offering just the right respite from the heat with food and drinks to match. Our wafer thin beef carpaccio with pesto, feta salad, bottle of white wine and litre of water was €33.00 — so good we visited on quite a few occassions during our visit. The little Mercado Foz do Douro was doing a roaring trade in lunches at bargain prices — as evidenced by the clientele of builders and decorators taking time out for the Menu dal Dia at around €7.50 — with wine! We also dropped in on Tavi, a confectioners and pastry shop with a rather gaunt extension viewed from below but inside a charming restaurant with views to the ocean, where we were accommodated for a brief drink, although thay had just started serving lunches.

Casa da Musica. Photo by João Messias. [Courtesy Hotel da Musica].

A few hundred metres from the the Hotel da Musica and Mercardo Bom Successo is the Casa de Musica, adjacent to the Rotunda Boavista, Designed by Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005 it appears marooned on a triangular plaza with a flight of uncompromising metal steps up to the entrance. We visited in the evening at the start of a performance, so we did not see the auditorium but the friendly staff, a contrast to the rather austere architecture, directed us up to the restaurant and terrace on Level 7. All raw concrete and industrial air conditioning, the restaurant had a central bar with big circular tables near the entrance catering for groups seemingly talking business and a more intimate section beyond. Along a corridor with sliding glass doors at the end and walls comprising coloured light panels was the terrace carved out of the roof of the building like the prow of a ship with a spectacular, rather scary view: looking over the Rotunda Boavista and beyond — it's open for lunch and in the evening for drinks.

Ornate provisions shop opposite the Mercado do Bolhão in central Porto.

On Saturday morning the streets of Porto were thronged with shoppers in addition to visitors making for the Mercado Bolhao, a 19th century iron and stone structure surrounding small permanent cabin-like market stalls and an upper storey with open greengrocery stalls. It's in a rather delapidated state, but vibrant with all manner of produce, beverages and fabrics. The surrounding streets have many small shops, some with highly decorated frontages, although some upper storeys are in a sorry state of repair. Nearby is the Avenida dos Aliados remodelled in 2006 by Porto architect Alvaro Siza Vieira with the Cámera Municipal {City Hall] at the upper end and culminating in Liberdade Square with a statue of King Pedro IV on a horse — and a huge temporary sound stage erected for the Festas de Sāo Joāo on our visit.

Small scale provisions shops abound in Porto city centre — this features bacalau [dried cod].

Cooler weather on the Monday and most cultural institutions being closed, we went on the red Metro Line B north beyond the airport to Vila do Conde, an estuary town with a long history of shipbuilding and fishing. It also has a celebrated huge aqueduct built to bring water to theimposing white Convento de Santa Clara that dominates the old town from it's escarpment above the Rio Ave. Following the Rua de Tras dos Arcos under the aqueduct to the convent and it's adjacent church, we then headed downhill to the riverside old town, preparing for the Festas de Sāo Joāo later in the week. We visited the Tourist Centre/Casa do Barco that had ane excellent display of a fullsize diesel fishing boat and documentary photographs of the old fishing and processing industry, while outside was a floating reproduction of a caravel the Nau Quintentista from the 16th century that transported Portuguese navigators on their voyages of dicovery around the world. We also had a great set lunch at Cais da Vila — a charming small restaurant overlooking the river.

The Villa Serralves from the formal 1930s style park.

Tuesday, we hopped on the 203 to the Fundação Serralves — a pink 1930s villa designed by the French architect, Charles Siclis, and Marques da Silva, a famous architect working in Oporto at that time with a contemporary art gallery designed by celebrated contemporary Porto architect, Álvaro Siza, set in a restored park originally designed by French architect Jacques Gréber to complement the villa.

The 1930s style garden terraces designed to complement the villa by Jacques Gréber in the park of Fundação Serralves.

The Museum and Gallery of Fundação Serralves designed by Álvaro Siza.

Photograph: Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves. [Courtesy Hotel da Musica].

Poster for Vila do Conde Festa Sāo Joāo 2015.

Festa Sāo Joāo

On Tuesday 23 June is the evening event for the Festa Sāo Joāo — complete mayhem in downtown Porto! There is a wonderful firework display along the Rio Douro and on the Ponte Luis 1 bridge and everyone wants to get as close as possible to see the show and engage with their fellow Portuenses — by tapping them on the head with plastic hammers, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and eating grilled sardines. The Metro runs all night to get revellers back home, but trying to get a ticket or additional journeys on your Andante card earlier is a nightmare as so many people are pouring into the city centre. Having made it into the city there is an amazing crush of people wandering about heading down to the riverside. We had booked a meal at DOP, a restaurant in the Palacio des Artes in the city centre and after the hour it took to get a ticket and a very slow perambulation with the crowds through the city we had a wonderful meal and then found a perch to see the fireworks around 11.30 on the terrace of the Mercado Ferreira Borges, now a restuarant and music venue — glass of white wine €1.00 — a great spot to see the show. We got back to the Hotel da Music around 02.00 am and the funfair in the centre of the Rotunda Boavista was still in full swing.

View of the Doro from Jardin do Palacio de Cristal.

Wednesday 24 June is a public holiday in Porto so all galleries, museums and shops are closed — a good time to do the tourist thing and visit the park the Port wine lodges. The Jardin do Palacio de Cristal is accessed from Rua Dom Manuel II and is home to the new Biblioteca Municipal Almeida Garrett, the unloved and unlovely Pavihão Rosa Mota sports pavilion and viewpoints at the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Rio Douro. The gardens comprise various discrete elements, a cafe and peacocks roaming the main pathways. We found no southern exit to the riverside, so retraced our steps to the main entrance, although a side exit on Rua de Entre-Quintas to the Museu Romântico da Quinta da Macieirinha, previously home to the exiled Carlos Alberto of Savoy, King of Sardinia, who died there in 1849, leads down the hill via narrow, windy lanes. Cutting through to Rua Nova da Alfandega, following the tram route to/from Foz, we stopped for a drink at the unpretentious little Sports Association Bar/Cafe on Cais da Estiva. Further along on Muros dos Bacalhoeiros, above the very 'touristy' Praça Ribiera is the highly recommended Wine Quay Bar — only open after 4pm to catch the sun and offering good wines and tapas size bites. We wanted to make an attempt to see the Port wine lodges on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the Rio Douro, so consulting our big bus map, we caught a 901 to Graham's, who have made the most of their higher location: the Vinum restauarant and  wine bar has a charming vine clad terrace, perfect for enjoying a glass of wine, tapas bites and the stunning view.


The Vinum Restaurant Terrace Room at Graham's Port Wine Lodge.

The view of the Rio Douro and City from the Vinum Restaurant terrace at Graham's Port Wine Lodge.

We noted from posters that at 5.00 pm the Regatta de Barcos — held on the afternoon of the Festival of Sāo Joāo —was to be staged on the river, so we wandered down from Graham's to see these traditional boats under sail. Around the alloted time the boats with colourfully attired crews were towed downstream and a bit later the spectacle reappeared under sail, accompanied by other small craft and much jostling to get good camera angles by those on shore. Great to see the regatta, but it took ages for the bus back to negotiate all the traffic at either end of the iconic Ponte Luis I bridge.

Dining in Porto

Eating out in Porto is great value for money: we had more lunches and dinners here than we can recall in one week on any other trip! As mentioned the offer at the Pria da Luz Beach Bar was very good. In the evenings we ate local to Rotunda da Boavista at the eponymous Churrasqueira where veal cutlets were the size of T-bone steaks; the Casa AgrÍcola on Rua do Bom Sucesso, a very attractively designed cafe/bar with an upper dining room, friendly staff and a very good mernu and in the Mercado Bom Sucesso where there are numerous good quality fast food options: pulled suckling pig filled buns with a glass of fizz, pizza, seafood, risotto, ham and cheese, pinchtos style snacks and wine bars too — all very popular with local residents at lunch time and in the evenings.

Upper level of Mercado Bom Sucesso with Hotel da Musica upper levels above.

Interior of Mercado Bom Sucesso. The decorations are paper versions of pots of herbs to celebrate the Festa Sāo Joāo.

The gourmet high points of our visit was evening meals at DOP, celebrated chef Rui Paula's restaurant in the city centre and O Paparico, #1 restauarant in Porto according to Tripadvisor. Both were excellent: the DOP meal was a set menu for Festa Sāo Joāo of numerous small plates inspired by the festival theme. The chef/patron himself visited every table and the windows were open to the crowds, making for a very jolly experience. O Paparico was very different: a taxi ride from the hotel through non-descript suburbs to an unmarked door indicated by the taxi driver. This led to a candle-lit, stone-clad dining room, tables draped with crisp linens and glassware with numerous staff in attendance. Typically Portuguese, our table had selected starters in place: a bacalau ceviche and a pate with port wine; we chose some and ordered a scallop starter from the menu too, plus some glasses of white wine. Main courses are sized as sharing plates and were presented in sequence. A big basket of bread was provided and we selected the sommelier's second choice of red wine: nearer our budget. It was an amazing experience, excellent cooking and discrete staff and a fantastic bargain at around £66.00!

Queueing for pulled suckling pig in a bun, small bag of crisps and a glass of fizz at the Leitão do Zé stand in Mercado Bom Sucesso. 

Regional cheeses, olives and churros at Mercado Bom Sucesso.

Observations

Porto has a wealth of intriguing older buildings in the city centre, many being in poor repair and, as mentioned, small artisan and contractors shops too — we noted a street with electrical supplies and builder's tools shops just behind the City Hall. The mayor and municipality are actively refurbishing older buidings for occupation at reasonable rents and some entrepeneurs have utilised older buildings for vacation apartments, hotels, cafes and restaurants. One such street in Rua das Flores housing numerous new enterprises adding to the life of the city.

The lively entrance to Rua das Flores opposite Estāçio Sāo Bento in Porto city centre.

Refurbished palatial building on Rua das Flores.

So, we got around quite a lot — thanks to our trusty transport map — and got a feeling for the city, and some of the surrounding areas. Our visit to Vila do Conde showed us northern Portugal at a smaller scale and we would like to explore more of Foz. We did not take the train along the Rio Douro valley or take a boat trip — three hours on the train, eight hours on the boat! There are a number of cultural institutions we listed, but did not visit and buildings of architectural interest we would like to see next time. Porto initiated an architectural Open House event 4-5 July this year, allowing visits to buildings not usually open to the public. So maybe we'll co-ordinate our next trip with a future Open House event.