I couldn’t quite visualise what Porto would be like – I’d been to Lisbon but I was kind of expecting Porto to be a slightly less interesting version of the capital. I was wrong – Porto is fantastic and well worth a visit.
Sure, Porto is famous for port – the fortified wine effectively invented by English merchants so they could transport wine further (and effectively bypass the French) – but there is a lot more to discover in this fascinating city, here’s three reasons why:
1. The blue tiles
Most of the exteriors of the buildings in Porto are covered in tiles. The tiles formed the practical purpose of protecting the buildings against the elements but they were also used for decoration – stunning blue colours used to create eye-catching patterns. For people that had a bit more money to spend on their buildings, the tiles could also be used to tell stories.
It was a technique that was originally developed by the Moors (who controlled this part of the world for centuries), the blue and white palette was influenced by the Delft school of the Netherlands, but the Portuguese have taken this type of tile work to a new level.
One of the best examples is the São Bento train station – a unique work of art, huge and elaborate images created in the iconic blue and white tiles. The multitude of churches across the city (with their interiors lavishly decorated in gold shipped back from Brazil) also used tiles on their exteriors for effective storytelling – particularly important in years gone by when much of the population was unable to read.
2. The food and the nightlife
There are some top-end restaurants in this town. My favourite is DOP in the Palácio das Artes building – this is traditional Portuguese flavours given a modern twist. I also like Quarenta 4 which is down near the docks – a bona fide seafood specialist.
The area known as ‘The Galleries’is where most of the bars and nightlife can be found in Porto. The Galeria de Paris was the first bar in this area to encourage people to enjoy their drinks outside in the street and now there’s a multitude of similar bars in this neighbourhood which sees the streets packed with people on Friday and Saturday nights. My favourite is Casa Do Livro where the drinks are good and the music is a fantastic mix of eclectic tunes.
3. The culture
Check out the Serralves Museum – a huge modern space devoted to temporary exhibitions from local and international artists. As well as the new museum building that houses the exhibitions, the enormous grounds also contains Casa de Serralves – a pink art deco masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. My other cultural highlight from Porto is the enormous sculpture created by Janet Echelman – titled “She Changes”it is a stunning representation of a fishing net, billowing in the breeze, it brilliantly connects Porto’s fishing heritage with its cultural identity of today.
Porto’s history is fascinating and ever-present. It envelops and engulfs you in every street, in every building, as you climb old stone steps, turn a corner, or look across the Douro River that has swirled and churned through this city across the ages. But Porto somehow blends this rich history of the past with a bright vision for the future. You can book a train on Rail Europe as I did and find out more about this wonderful city worth discovering.