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A guide to Porto and the Douro Valley

Helen Alexander

Senior Contributor

This picture-perfect corner of northern Portugal makes for a relaxing weekend away and offers something for just about every kind of traveller – delicious food and drink, heaps of historical buildings and plenty of opportunities to take to the water.

Explore the Douro River

The third longest river on the Iberian Peninsula charts a 5560-mile course across Spain and Portugal, ending at Foz do Douro where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Travel from Porto to the Douro Valley on a scenic cruise and you’ll have the chance to see one of its most enchanting sections.

Passing terraced vineyards, wine estates and sleepy villages - it’s worth disembarking at Pinhão. This sleepy town is dotted with quintas, where guests can sample the region’s famous port wine. If you really want to immerse yourself in a rural way of life, spend the night at Quinta de la Rosa with its fine-dining restaurant, elegant suites and river views.

Porto itself spans the river, with the Ribeira (old town) on one side and Vila Nova de Gaia’s collection of historic port lodges on the other. Luckily, there are plenty of options when it comes to travelling across this always-busy stretch of water. For starters, the city is home to six bridges – from the Maria Pia bridge, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel and built in 1877, to the strikingly modern Infante. Tick them all off as you sail under them on a one-hour boat trip or walk across the top deck of the iconic Luiz I bridge for breath-taking views of the city.

Alternatively, ride the rickety wooden Tram 1 from Ribeira to the end of the line at Passeio Alegre and walk back to the city centre along the waterfront, stopping at one of the beachside bars for a glass of port, of course. 

Impress your Instagram followers

As you make your way around Porto’s pretty laneways you’ll come across hundreds of examples of the region’s famous azulejo tiles. Traditionally blue-and-white, some of the best examples of these ceramic beauties can be seen at the 18th-century Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls) with its exterior that’s painted with scenes from the lives of saints and the stunning example of rococo architecture that is the Igreja do Carmo (Carmo Church).

Whether you are planning on taking a train to the Douro Valley or just passing Sao Bento Railway Station on the way to the old town, pop inside to see learn more about Portugal’s past – from its royalty to its agricultural heritage – via the frescos painted on the 20,000 tiles that decorate the grand interiors. Another imposing building that shouldn’t be missed is the Se Cathedral, which represents the historical centre of the city.

Capela das Almas

Uncover some urban oases

From the water, Porto’s hills and steep streets might look like they are packed with buildings, but look a little closer and you will see lots of parks and gardens waiting to be explored. Palacio de Cristal, which was designed in the 19th century, is filled with aromatic plant and medicinal plant gardens, and offers some stunning views over the city.

Nestled under the landscaped lawns of Praça de Lisboa, which is home to a smart alfresco bar during the summer months, a number of high-end shops line the ultra-modern Passeio Dos Clerigos. When you are finished shopping for luxury labels, the historic Livraria Lello bookshop awaits at the other end. Gaze up at this incredible 1906 neo-Gothic construction and it’s easy to see how it was the inspiration for one of the Harry Potter books, which JK Rowling started writing while working in the city as an English teacher.

A short taxi ride away, more rural beauty awaits at Serralves. With its pastel-pink art deco museum, strikingly minimalist contemporary art gallery, stunning formal gardens, sprawling farmland and vegetable patches, it’s easy to spend a whole afternoon here. 

Carmo Church

Feast on local fish

One of the most famous markets in Europe, Mercado do Bolhão is currently being spruced up and, as a result, traders have been relocated to a temporary space a couple of streets away from the neoclassical original that was completed in 1914. Classified by the government as a Monument of Public Interest, be sure to swing past this decades-old food hall to sample local produce and pick up foodie souvenirs.

On the other side of the water, on Vila Nova de Gaia’s waterfront, Mercado Beira-Rio is full of independently owned food stalls making it a great lunch stop before hopping on a cable car and soaring over the area’s red-tiled roofs towards the hilltop Jardim do Morro. While at the market, tuck into Portuguese classics like roast suckling pig sandwiches and salt cod at the communal tables, and be sure to familiarise yourself with the range of beers on tap from local brewer Super Bock.

Tinned fish might not sound that appetising, but miss out on Porto’s delicious fishy offerings at your peril. From tuna and anchovy to sardines and mackerel, these salty conservas have been a part of Portugal’s culinary heritage since 1853, which is when the national canning industry was born.

Sample a selection, alongside cheese and charcuterie boards, while sipping some of the country’s best wines and enjoying the waterside views at Wine Quay Bar and tuck into rustic home-style cooking at the incredibly friendly Tascö on Rua do Almada to sample rojões (fried pork and potatoes) and salt cod fritters, as well as a variety of petiscos (think super-sized tapas).

For fine-dining fare, Michelin-starred Antiqvvm sits in a serene corner of town. The multi-course tasting menu offers a great opportunity to sample its award-winning food. 

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