Despite it's long-standing history with Port, Porto often gets neglected for Portugal's coastal capital Lisbon. But those in the know had told us that Porto is actually cooler than it's southern sibling, so we went to see for ourselves.
What makes Porto so cool is partly due to its total laissez-faire attitude. There is nothing try-hard about this city. As one of the oldest in Europe and a World UNESCO Heritage site, Porto has brilliantly managed to retain its beautiful old-world charm and yet combine it with a young, vibrant cultural and culinary scene.
Beautiful, crumbling buildings line up higgedly-piggeldy along the Douro River, no effort made to turn them into something they're not. Their pastel shades of terracotta perfectly complement blue and white azulejo tiles so frequently shown in pictures of Porto. And inside, the buildings house trendy restaurants, bars and boutiques, filled with happy tourists and locals sipping tiny coffees and tasting the country's famous (and not to be missed) pastel de natas (custard tarts).
Reason number two for Porto being such an excellent weekend destination is its size. You can take everything in and more over two to three days. It is split into two main areas along the river. Most of the attractions take place on the north side of Porto - there's the Bolhao market bustling with fruit and fish sellers, worth a visit, the Sé de Porto Catedral (one of the oldest buildings in Porto) and the Torre de Clerigos (climb to the top of the tower to see the best views in the city). On the opposite side of the Douro is Gaia, where you'll find over 20 port houses open for tours and tastings.
Speaking of tasting. Food is reason number three to visit. It's culinary scene is buzzy. At one end of the spectrum you've got its butch Francesinha sandwich, meaning Little French in Portuguese , made with bread, cured ham, linguiça (a fresh sausage like a chipolata), steak or roast meat and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries. At the other end are clever and eclectic chefs making a name for themselves worldwide from their kitchens in Porto. I read an article saying it was impossible to have a bad meal in Porto and although the Francesinha was not for me, I would be inclined to agree. Just order carefully.
That brings us to our fourth but not final reason for loving Porto so much; the sunshine. We visited in the middle of a grey February in UK and arrived to bright blue sunshine and 20C temperatures, after a mere two hour flight.
Vincci Porto: We needed a toddler-friendly hotel, not far from all the sites and with a good restaurant within baby-monitor-distance of our room. Vincci Porto ticked all the boxes. It's an art deco style building on the river, about 10-minutes from the centre of town and only 15 from the airport. Rooms have a modern look, they reminded us of the Ace Hotel. They're spacious and comfortable, with big bathrooms.
The breakfast was a highlight, everything from pastries to cold meats, cereal, fruit and bacon and eggs, plus a Nespresso machine, fresh Orange Juice and sparkling Portuguese wine. The restaurant has highchairs, bibs, plastic bowls and cutlery and a mini children's breakfast buffet. Dinner was more hit and miss, we had one great meal and one not so great meal, although both times the desserts stood out.
Armazem: This converted warehouse just off the river, west of Ribiera, is a vintage, trinket-hunter's dream. Filled with small stalls full of everything from vintage furniture to clothes and a great cafe in the middle serving small sharing plates, craft beers and cocktails in jam jars. Rua de Miragaia 93, 4050-554 Porto, Portugal
Largo de Sao Domingos: When the sun is shining in Porto there's no better place to be than in a square with a cold glass of wine and buskers playing pop songs on an electric cello. Largao de Sao Domingos or LSD is half way between the central sites like Torre de Clerigos and the river. It's alfresco terrace is on a raised platform in a pretty square, facing blue tiled buildings. The menu is short but refined, focussing modern European dishes and the staff - dressed in dungarees - are friendly. Largo São Domingos 78, 4050-253 Porto, Portugal
By the river: Both sides of the Douro River are lined with lovely alfresco cafes and restaurants. Some are more touristy than others but if you want good views and traditional Portuguese food then these are a great option for a pit stop, even if it's just to try a Pastel de Nata and cup of coffee.
Foz: Porto's upmarket seaside suburb just outside the city is a fabulous place for sundowners with Atlantic views. Walk along the sea front promenade along Avenue do Brasil and you'll come across some Ibiza-esque bars and cafes. We ate at Esplanada Praia dos Ingleses, which I wouldn't recommend for the food (very basic) but the sunset views are worth going for alone.
Vida a Portuguesa: I had big plans for scooping up cool clothes and piles of beautiful ceramics but travelling with a toddler and being six months pregnant scuppered this plan. Instead we just visited one shop, Vida a Portuguesa, which I would highly recommend - and I did come home with a fabulous green jug and a wicker basket for my daughter. The shop is split over two floors and has the look of a vintage department store. On the ground level you'll find toys, backpacks and odds and sods, while on the second level, it's all about Portuguese homewares. avidaportuguesa.com
Port houses: Even as a pregnant woman I knew visiting Porto and not going to a Port house would be a travesty. There are about two dozen or so open for visitors, offering tastings and tours. We opted for Taylors, which had a self-guided audio tour taking us around the history of the house and how to wine is created. Included in your ticket is a three glasses of Port to taste at the end.