Porto: Portugal’s lesser known, endearing, darker wild child. Just a year ago my best friend and I found ourselves on the other side of the sea in this sleepy northern Portuguese city with no plan to speak of. We’d spent a few days in Lisbon seeing all the required sights, but felt as though we'd been unable to tap into the ethos of the City of Seven Hills.
A train ride north, and everything changed. Aside from Port wine, we knew nothing of the place. Granted, wine is always a good starting point. And with a backdrop so beautifully baroque (there’s something Medieval around every corner) it was an instant love affair.
Fortunately for us I’d been connected to a group of locals through a Portuguese friend. In what seemed to be the common theme running through Portuguese blood, we were taken in and treated with unprecedented warmth and genuine friendship.
With a population of around 200,000 people, Porto is a humble place. Its long history stretches from Roman times to when it became an influential center of the Portuguese noble class during the country's colonial era. The historic center of the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, due to the fact that it's one of the oldest European settlements with a wealth of various architectural styles and unrivaled monuments.
So should you ever opt for Portugal over Spain (yes, I said it), the city of Porto awaits. Here’s a quick guide to some of the city’s must-see and underground spots.
BARS & RESTAURANTS
When I think of an inviting Southern European café, it’s Café Vitoria. The space is dimly lit, there are copious palm fronds, and a back sitting area with traditional blue Portuguese tiled walls. Order the local apertif of choice — white Port wine with tonic and a squeeze of lime.
For a little taste of Brazil in Portugal, head to this two-floor corner spot. Expect expertly cooked steak and do as a Brazilian would do — top meat with farofa and pair with sides of rice and black beans, and sautéed collard greens. And ease it all down with a healthy glass of local red wine, of course.
Nights continue nearby at Café au Lait, a narrow bar and event space for minimalist types. Go after midnight and watch crowds spill onto the street as DJs proffer a selection of deep house, electronica and underground music.
It’s approaching early morning which means Europeans aren’t actually going to bed, yet. Cure munchies at the front door with assorted sweet and savory pastries before watching (or joining) locals on the dance floor
This cultural institution, located on the outskirts of the city, is a confluence of contemporary, modern, and art deco architecture. Designed by Alvaro Siza Vieira, the grounds include a museum, a park, and the distinct Casa de Serralves (the former villa of an influential family, pictured below). Serralves is an afternoon well spent.
Right away the building demands to be looked at. It looks as if someone from Northern Europe decided to place the concert hall directly in the middle of this worn Iberian town — which is partially true, since it was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. We were lucky enough to get an after hours tour of the space (one of our new local friends is a director there). Hidden rooms with experimental lighting and spatial layouts, a collection of Indonesian gamelan, and orchestra walls with gold plating are just a few of the unique aspects of the music house.
Porto is one of the few cities in Europe where Medieval structures and districts remained untouched by war. Catch a glimpse of a 12th century cathedral and admire the Romanesque architecture as you get lost among crumbling stairways and in hidden alleys.
Ponte do Dom Luís I
Walk over the city’s iconic bridge, completed in 1886. Spanning the Douro river, the bridge connects Porto to its adjoining neighbor, the town of Villa Nova de Gaia. It’s an interesting industrial addition to an otherwise ancient town.