As I order a glass of Port wine in Ribeira, I can’t help to reflect on how much Porto as improved itself. In my last visit to the Invicta — the undefeated city as it’s usually called — in 2013 the winds of change were already in motion. Now, three years later, the city’s potential is in full bloom.
Increasingly cosmopolitan and outward-looking, Porto is sought by people that want an alternative experience of Portugal. Steered by the Mayor Rui Moreira, there’s an emphasis on the refurbishment of run down areas, such as Baixa and Ribeira, and regeneration of the public space. The opening of new low cost routes to Francisco Sá Carneiro airport brought lively crowds in search of what Porto has to offer. Add some music festivals throughout the summer months and you have a recipe for a dynamic melting pot of a city.
Walking down the renovated Rua das Flores, in downtown Porto, is a great welcoming card. The lively street, closed to traffic, is filled with small shops — selling nationwide traditional products, such as preserves and cork products — and independent cafés. As tiled buildings share the same space as commissioned street art pieces, it’s easy to see the charm of downtown Porto.
Many of the renovated tiles covered buildings host airBnb apartments, like Ana’s studio apartment on the number 45. The airy, minimalist entrance hall sets the tone for the rest of the building. Wooden floors, white walls and a small rail with plants between apartment doors. Making clever use of its limited space, the studio encloses the bathroom area in a white rectangle box close to the door. The open plan kitchen divides the functional areas from the lounge and bedroom. Small details — prints, pillows and flower vases — give it such a contemporary feel that you could easily fell you’re in Stockholm or Copenhagen.
Baixa is a desirable location to experience Porto by foot; S. Bento station, Ribeira and Clérigos tower are a stone throw away. But it’s also well served by metro stations to take you further than the city centre.
Worth to mention
If you’re looking for a a bit more space, Ana has a one bed apartment in the same building.
For a feel of the genuine Porto’s guesthouses, the arty quarter of Cedofeita is a good option and it’s not far away. This grittier part of town has a great deal of independent designer shops and art galleries, and it’s interesting to witness how the traditional businesses of Porto coexist with a new creative culture.
Livraria Lello & Irmão
Rua das Carmelitas 14
As I walk in the door, the immediate reaction is to look up. The ceilings, adorned with carved wooden panels and stain-glasswork, are the crown jewel of this bookstore. Founded in 1906 by José Lello, the bookshop is one of the oldest in Portugal and one of the main attractions in Porto. The neo-gothic building is impressive as a whole but the details are, perhaps, the most interesting part. Along the walls of the ground floor, effigies of the great Portuguese authors — Eça de Queirós, Camilo Castello Branco and others — observe the visitors and compete for their attention with the crimson staircase that leads to the top floor.
The bookshop, one of the best in the world according to The Guardian, hosts thousands of tomes and was used as inspiration for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter universe — no wonder she decided to have the launch of the new volume here.
Also worth a visit
Estação de S. Bento
Praça de Almeida Garrett
Tiles are everywhere in Porto. From the façades to the interiors, it’s hard to find buildings that don't make use of the painted tin-glazed ceramic work. But amongst all of them, one of the most unique is S. Bento railway station. As I walk into the vestibule, 20 thousand tiles form several panels depicting landscapes and scenes from Portuguese history. As the station is as much as a tourist attraction as it is a transportation hub, dodging people with their eyes glued to the high walls is part of the experience.
Rua Miguel Bombarda 61
In a pedestrian intersection of Rua da Cedofeita and Rua Miguel Bombarda, Ó! Galeria is not just an art shop. The gallery, located in the middle of Cedofeita art district, focus on elevating the illustration as more than ‘a minor art form’. With several exhibitions through out the year, the gallery gives emerging artists a space to display and sell their work.
Rua de Ceuta, 54 • €
“Yes, Miss. A true Gelateria has both ice creams and sorbets!” was the answer to my question about dairy free ice goodness. For more than three decades, this ice cream parlour has been serving up artisanal recipes and bringing generations together in their love of the refreshing treat. More than a gelataria, Sincelo is an institution where Portuenses have their fondest memories.
When the mythical space struggled to keep doors open, its loyal costumer based stepped forward. Teresa Aguiar commissioned one of Porto’s best design studio, This is Pacifica, for a rebrand. Stepping away from the standardised ice cream shop language, the design focus on an unique and abstract 80’s inspired universe. A monochrome logo stands out against the multiple coloured illustrations and hand-painted murals that adorn the walls. From the old decor, the only thing that survived was the outdoor sign — the sundae cup with a ribbon with the shop’s name — and serves as a welcoming card seen from afar.
As I tuck in to my orange and melon sorbet, by the big open front window, I feel at ease. With their moorish sorbets (with Jamie Oliver's seal of approval) it’s not a surprise that this place is intrinsically connected to Porto’s heritage.
Also worth a visit
Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira 249 • €€
In a land where meaty dishes reign supreme, daTerra is a refreshing alternative. Downtown’s branch — the other one is in Matosinhos — offers a daily lunch buffet with hot dishes and salads. In an area where restaurants are on the small side, the spacious dinning area with a lot of daylight makes it a good place for groups. Smoothies, juices and desserts are an extra but are worth it. The moorish vegan chocolate cake — closer to a mousse than a cake — is a indulgent way to end the meal.
The friendly staff is there to answer all of your questions. And if asked, they’ll even give you a recipe of one of the dishes.
Rua da Assunção 9 • €
In the shade of Clérigos tower, Hand Go is a small pizza shop catering for vegans and non-vegans alike. Selling pizza by the slice, the day’s options rest on the glass enclosed counter. The small space doesn’t offer much space to sit but since the concept it to takeaway, the near by Cordoaria garden is a good place to sit and enjoy a cheesy slice.
How to get there
Alongside the budget airlines, TAP Portugal and British Airways fly directly from London to Porto. Prices are affordable throughout the year but fares increase during Summer season and Christmas time (May - September / December).
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