Why Everyone’s Buzzing About This Part of Portugal

Jun 12, 2019

Porto is so ancient that its former name, Portus Cale, gave rise to the word “Portugal.” But the city is also so of-the-moment that it’s generating headlines like “the Portland of Portugal” in The New York Times Style Magazine and “Portugal’s Most Creative City” in Conde Nast Traveler. Of course, during the centuries in between—the early 1700s, by most accounts—this town at the intersection of the Douro River and the Atlantic Ocean gained fame in an entirely different context: as the source of the world’s Port supply (a distinction that still holds true).

But lovers of ancient treasure, contemporary art and World Heritage-designated drinking aren’t the only travelers making their way here: Hotel buffs are all over the current hospitality boom, foodies can’t get enough of the new culinary creativity—and adventurers are realizing that vinho is hardly the only enticement beyond city limits.

And if any of the above calls to you (or more likely, all of the above), here’s something else that may well seal the deal: direct flights between Newark and Porto from April 29 to October 25 on United Airlines.

Read on for the highlights that hold the most appeal, then plot your course—and pack your bagagem!

For wine lovers

A healthy pour of port is all but mandatory here. The town is so intertwined with the sweet, fortified wine that bears its name that you can't experience one without the other.

One of the best ways to get your fill and understand the extent of the varietals? Take the quick water taxi ride to Vila Nova de Gaia on the south shore of the Douro River, home to dozens of the region's signature wine lodges. Many offer tasting tours of their facilities, where you can learn how port is made and aged. A few can't-miss stops: the elegant Churchill's Visitors Center (though it's not Winston's, he was known to keep his Kent cellar stocked with dozens of bottles of port); CV Kopke, reportedly the oldest port wine house and home to a single-vintage tawny called Colheita that you'll want to try; and Cockburn’s Port Lodge, where the humongous wooden cellar harbors an impressive collection, not least, Cockburn's Special Reserve. 

Or head a bit farther into the World Heritage-listed Douro Valley—as of 1756, the first formally demarcated wine region on earth. Mind you, people have been making wine here for millennia, and Port is just a fraction of what you'll find (and taste). Explore the area by river cruise (these range from day trips to weeklong sails), helicopter (you'll stop for a wine-paired lunch ) or historic steam train (linking the towns of Régua and Tua between July and October). And if you happen to be here for vindimas (the September-October harvest), so much the better: Several wineries, from Quinta do Popa to Quinta das Carvalhas, have harvest-specific programs that may well see you picking and stomping grapes, for starters. 

For fans of fab hotels

If you're truly taken with Port, don't stop at drinking it: Stay at the new House of Sandeman Hostel & Suites, the first hostel by a port wine brand: the venerable Sandeman, founded in 1790. Housed in an iconic wine cellar building just across the Douro river from Porto, this haute hostel comes with stunning vistas of Porto and the Douro—especially from the superior room, where you’ll even get your own turntable and records to keep the party going once you've left the area's tasting rooms.

If you'd rather be in the city center, check out Torel 1884 – Suites & Apartments. Housed in two buildings—a 19th-century palace plus a nearby apartment building on one of the city's trendiest streets—this newcomer nods to the age of Portuguese explorers, with gorgeous rooms named for the era's spoils (silk, sugarcane, porcelain, etc.) Or consider Infante Sagres, Porto’s historic grande dame and recent recipient of a head-to-toe refresh that restored the hotel's former five-star glory.

Six Senses Douro Valley, Photo by John Athimaritis 

For something a bit more tucked away, head to the new Villa Foz Hotel & Spa boutique hotel in a 19th-century manor. Don't miss the sublime house spa, and specifically the Five Elements aromatherapy massage. Speaking of spa retreats, we should also note that this August brings the highly anticipated new suites to the beloved Six Senses Douro Valley, a beautifully renovated 19th-century manor house on 19 riverside acres that overlook vineyard-covered hills. Though the the Six Senses Spa will have you plenty blissed out with the likes of grape pulp scrubs and vineyard body wraps, the wine fridges in the new hotel suites will finish the job with stellar selections of Douro varietals.

For the culture vulture

Not for nothing did Conde Nast Traveler just deem this the most creative city in Portugal: Everywhere you look, from the centuries-old facades to the street art masterpieces that adorn some of them, Porto's underlying artist's soul is clear. One of the best places to commune with it? Fundaçao de Serralves, the cultural powerhouse celebrating not only its own 30th anniversary—but the 20th of the museum within: the Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Porto’s renowned architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. Among the museum's gardens and galleries, don't miss the retrospective of work by Joan Jonas, acclaimed multimedia artist (through October 31), in partnership with the Tate Modern of London.

Another of this summer's hot-ticket exhibits: Pablo Picasso. Suite Vollard, at Palácio des Artes in downtown Porto through September 11. This collection of 100 etchings from the 1930s was commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, the Parisian art dealer who'd bought the Picasso's first prints. Bonus: Admission includes a glass of Taylor’s port wine at Taylor’s Lounge, next to the exhibition rooms. 

If your tastes lean more 21st century, check out the recently opened Salut Au Monde! Curated by Pablo Berástegui in the Espaço SP620 gallery, this diversity-focused contemporary photography series takes the viewer from the deserts of California (The Hawks Come Up Before The Sun, through June 28) to the mountains of Kashmir (Where the Flowers Still Grow, July 17–Oct 26).

The buzzy art scene along the gallery-lined Rua de Miguel Bombarda is also worth checking out, as is the lineup of concerts and performances at the striking Casa da Música. But even if you don't go there for the music, go for the architecture: The building was designed by the fabled Rem Koolhas—one of countless reasons this city has become a pilgrimage site for other architects and fans of architecture in general. In fact, Porto is home to two acclaimed contemporary architects, both recipients of the prestigious Pritzker Prize: Álvaro Siza Vieira (whose Boa Nova Tea House and nearby Piscina das Marés are musts) and Eduardo Souto de Moura (check out his Casa das Artes). But as you'll quickly discover, the centuries-old architecture is just as stunning. (See: the baroque Torre dos Clérigos tower with Rococo interior carvings and panoramic views from the belfry).  For the best overview, book an architect-led tour of Porto’s design landmarks.

And one last cultural note, as it were: Unite with Tomorrowland, the renowned international electronic dance music festival, will be celebrating its 15th anniversary in Porto (among other European arts hotspots) on July 27.  

For the foodie

If you're going to be known for one thing—culinarily speaking—it might as well be the francesinha: a sausage, ham, steak, bologna, and cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg and beer gravy, and surrounded by nest of fries. And until fairly recently, foodies flocked here for that meaty-carby wonder alone. But now they're coming for other reasons, too: new restaurants with cutting-edge takes on classic Portuguese cuisine. A sampler includes chef Vasco Coelho Santos' tiny Semea by Euskalduna (try bacalhau à Bras); chef Ricardo Dias Ferreira's Elemento (where every dish is cooked over a wood fire, and the grouper on the embers is a standout); and chef Pedro Barreiros' (aka Pedro Limão) soon-to-debut Non-Restaurant & Bar (expect fresh takes on the chef’s grandmother's specialties).

Meanwhile, Miguel Castro e Silva—considered the father of Portuguese fine dining—has partnered with another celebrated local chef, José Guedes, on Restaurante Causario, where the duo is offering fine dining with a comfort food twist (think veal with tuber mash in port wine sauce). If it's a Michelin-starred feast you crave, however, head to The Yeatman’s Restaurant in Vila Nova de Gaia, where chef Ricardo Costa's seasonal tasting menus pair gorgeously with the city views (and of course, top local wines). For bonus indulgence, stay in the hotel that houses the restaurant: The Yeatman is a longtime favorite where some of the suites will have you sleeping in—wait for it—a high-concept wine barrel. 

For the adventurer

Want to work off all of the above? Or just give your quads a scenic run for their money? Book a cycling trip in the Douro Valley, through olive groves and undulating terraced hills, past scenic quintas (wine lodges) and spectacular vineyards, with a stop for lunch and (naturally) a tasting at a wine estate. Portugal Bike Tours offers van transport to the riverside village of Pinhão, where you can pick a hybrid, road or e-bike.

Peneda–Gerês, Portugal’s only national park, is a doable—albeit long—day trip from Porto. With its forested mountains, abandoned villages, magical waterfalls and medieval monasteries, the park is perfect for hiking, kayaking and canyoning. 

If you have more time to spare, head further afield to the Côa Valley on the border with Spain (about three hours from Porto) in the Alto Douro. Another amazing hiking spot, the valley is also home to wild Garrano horses, Iberian wolves and cliff-breeding birds (to say nothing of the World Heritage-listed archeological site with prehistoric rock art). Stay overnight at safari-style Star Camp in Faia Brava Reserve, or book a longer trip with Miles Away, a local tour operator that also offers trips to some of the most hidden quintas; deluxe overnight river cruises; and fly-camping in the Douro, with starlit alfresco dinners.

Ready to go? Book your nonstop flight to Porto from Newark on United Airlines. and start your trip planning with three perfect days in Porto.

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