From custard tarts to impossibly beautiful tiled churches and majestic cafes, Tamara Pitelen spends four days exploring Porto in Portugual, which is the world’s capital of port wine – aka ‘God’s nectar’ – and finds there’s a wealth of things to do and see that don’t involve the famous ruby red beverage.
A city of Catholicism, port wine, custard pastries, trams, colourful ceramic tiles, narrow and winding streets of cobble-stone, Porto, and its neighbour Vila Nova de Gaia, or simply Gaia, are built on either side of the River Douro.
Over the centuries, the Portuguese have shoe-horned as many narrow little buildings as possible into the steep hillsides. It’s a sea of orange rooves dotted with church spires and within its historic medieval streets are a wealth of things to see and do…
1. Eat a custard tart
My goodness, the people of Porto have a deep-rooted addiction for decadent pastries stuffed with custard if the plethora of bakery cafes that line the city’s streets are anything to go by. Called pastelerias, these pastry cafes entice the guileless tourist through seductive shop windows showing shelves that groan with all sorts of mouth-watering puff pastry and whipped cream temptations. You’ll find everything from croissants to cake, biscuits, slices, fruit tarts as well as all manner of inventive custard offerings enveloped in flaky pastry. Custard really is a big deal in Porto. The ubiquitous custard tart, known locally as pasteis de nata, or just nata, is almost a national dish. The nata is served warm and is a crisp pastry cup filled with a thick, wobbly custard dusted with cinnamon. I’m not 100 per cent sure but it may be illegal to leave Porto without having sat at one of the many pavement cafes with a coffee and a nata.
2. Take thee to church
Apart from custard tarts, if there’s one thing the Portuguese love, it’s a church. As you wander the narrow and steep streets and alleyway of Porto’s old centre, it seems that a turn around every corner reveals another incredible church, usually decorated on the outside in traditional blue and white porcelain tiles (azulejo) showing biblical scenes. These azulejo are Portuguese painted, tin-glazed ceramic tiles that have been produced for five centuries. Buildings around Porto are covered with them in all colours and designs but for the churches it’s generally the blue and white tiles only that are used. These churches are stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful. And it doesn’t stop on the outside. Step inside one of these churches to find a whole other level of lavish and ornate beauty within. Like a brightly coloured theatre of religion, there are weeping Madonnas, angelic beings, and bleeding statues of a cruficied Jesus, all intended to trigger a visceral response. Quietly take a pew and sit in awe.
3. Visit the Majestic Café
One of the world’s 10 most beautiful cafes, according to travel website www.ucityguides.com, the Majestic Café epitomises the air of slightly faded glory that Porto exudes. Oozing the glamour and splendor of the Belle Epoque of the early 20th Century, the Majestic was originally a luxurious coffee shop opened in 1921 called Elite. Its name was quickly changed though and it has since been a witness to the evolution of Porto.
Back in 1923, columnist Andre de Moura wrote in the Illustracao Portugal that “the cafes in Portugal have, up to now, been exclusively the hot bed of revolutionaries, the business meeting point of merchant groups, or where the obstinate aged listlessly pass the time.
“An example of what a café should actually be, however, has just been given to us. We are referring to the newest establishment of this modern type of café, that was inaugurated at of the important central points of Oporto, the entrance of the Rua de Santa Catarina. It is one of the most noble and luxurious cafes that we know of, for which its name Majestic (…) is most suited and justified. Ladies from the best of Oporto’s society frequent it and here we have a perfect example of the new and pleasant role of the café in our country.”
As de Moura alluded, over the years, the Majestic has been the meeting place of writers, artists, politicians, philosophers, and more.
Now a mecca for the well-heeled tourist, the cafe is about as close as you can get to stepping back into the 1920s without a time travel machine handy. Frozen in a bygone era of affluence and culture, the immaculate wait staff are in pristine white uniforms with gold trim, the walls are lined with huge mirrors framed in ornate wood paneling and animated cherubs smile down at patrons from near the ceiling, the chandeliers and gleaming marble add to overall air of opulence. We ordered the French toast and coffee. Beautifully presented, the dish was as rich as its surroundings; swimming in a diabetes-inducing syrup of honey, nuts, cinnamon and sugar. Nevertheless, artery damage or no, these things must be done.
Majestic Café, 112 Rua de Santa Caterina, Porto
4. Walk over Ponte Luiz 1
One of the bridges that stretches across the River Douro to connect Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia is a double-decked metal arch bridge with both an upper and lower walkway called The Dom Luís I (or Luiz I) Bridge. At the time of construction in 1886, its span of 172m was the longest of its type in the world. Both levels of the bridge offer breathtaking views of the River Douro and the cities nestled on either side. It’s a view that in many ways hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, although the many enormous signs on the right hand side that dot the skyline of Vila Nova de Gaia that shout the names of the 35 or so port wine brands based in the region, including Taylors, Offley, Croft and Sandeman, are no doubt a more recent symbol of Porto’s most famous exports.
Fun facts for engineering geeks! The bridge weighs 3045 tons and the top of the 172m arch measures 44.6m in height. The engineer of the bridge, Théophile Seyrig, had previously worked alongside Gustave Eiffel – he of the famous Parisian tower of which you may be familiar.
5. Visit the Hard Club
Dance your behind off all night at this huge central city club and performance space. As well as various rooms for dancing, there’s a bar, a restaurant and a café. There’s something on most nights of the week with artists from all over the world offering everything from trance to techno groove, neopop electronica, metal, drum’n’bass and goodness knows what else that this middle-aged white lady has never heard of.
Hard Club, Rua do Infante D. Henrique, 4050 Porto, Portugal
6. Tackle the Francesinha sandwich
Probably the world’s only sandwich that has its own festival, the Francesinha, which I’ve been told literally translates as ‘little Frenchie’ or ‘french girl’, is basically the Portuguese version of a Croque Monsieur – on steroids. It features ham, steak, sausage, cheese, two slices of bread, buckets of a beer-laced gravy, more cheese and then it’s all topped with an egg. It usually comes with fries as well. Although this super-sized sandwich is almost an icon of Portugal, we didn’t like it that much. Although it may be because we chose to sample this, um, ‘delicacy’ at a Portuguese version of McDonald’s. We were planning to sample the famous sandwich at the previously mentioned Majestic Café but when we perused the menu and saw the price tag of Euro 20 (£20), we baulked. Happily, the Francesinha is on the menu everywhere in Porto so we walked about two minutes from the Majestic and got one for Euro 6 (£6) at another cafe.
7. Buy a cork bag
Or a cork purse, a cork hat, a cork tablemat… who knew that cork was so versatile? Another of the region’s big exports, there’s not much the Portuguese haven’t tried making out of cork.
8. Ride the Gaia Cable Car (Teleferico de Gaia)
It starts at the top of the hill next to the Dom Luiz 1 Bridge, next to a glass-walled café and, in a ride that lasts just a few minutes, it takes you down by the river side of Vila Nova de Gaia and drops you into the heart of the tourist strip of port wine tasting cellars, or caves; a long line of restaurants with pavement seating; countless pastry cafes as well as market stalls selling souvenirs such as cork bags and water-colour paintings of Porto. Your cable car ticket also gets you a free tasting voucher at a nearby port wine tasting cellar.
9. Hot chocolate and sunset
Watch the sun set over the incredible view of the city and river below from the glass-walled café at the top of the hill next to the Dom Luiz 1 Bridge, which is by the entrance to the Gaia Cable Car (Teleferico de Gaia). I say ‘hot chocolate’ but you can have any kind of drink; I just particularly liked the hot chocolate because it was more like a cup of chocolate pudding that needs eating with a spoon.
One suggestion is to spend the afternoon down by the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, buying souvenirs, tasting port and eating custard tarts, then riding the cable car back up the hill to the top of the Dom Luiz 1 Bridge to watch the sun set.
Ok, these nine suggestions are just a few of the attractions that Porto has to offer. My tip would be to initially get yourself on one of the many open-top double decker tour buses that do hop-on-and-off tours of the city from 9am to 5pm daily. These include the Yellow Bus tours, the Blue Bus tours, and the Big Bus tours. Take your pick, they seem to be fairly interchangeable in their offerings but they’re a fantastic way to get to all of the city’s attractions and choose which ones you want to revisit at your leisure.