Catavino Stories

Porto: A Gourmet’s Travel Guide

By Gabriella Opaz

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Overview

Atlantic to the west, rivers to the north, mountains to the east: Porto is spectacularly placed to garner ingredients. There is wonderful fish and seafood, rare breed meats, stunning charcuterie, fruit, nuts and vegetables. Porto has its signature dishes, but it also serves the traditional cuisine of all the northern regions, copious cooking for rural, manual workers, heavy on potatoes, rice and bread – yes, all at once.

Alongside tradition, modern cooking has recently come to Porto – a little later and slower to take off than Lisbon’s culinary revolution, but now rapidly gaining pace. Every month brings another new restaurant serving sensibly modest portions on beautifully arranged plates, still based on those great ingredients, with traditional themes tweaked. Blink, and a new bar appears, selling wine by the glass and petiscosPortugal’s answer to tapas. The Japanese have also spotted that fresh fish – there’s good sushi to be had in Porto.

If we haven’t convinced you enough, here are 10 delicious reasons to savor Portugal, along with 20 must try Portuguese dishes. If you”re craving tips to guide you expertly through the country, check out our Essential Guide to Traveling Portugal!

Porto Bar & Cafe Scene

There are cafés everywhere in Porto, from new hip coffee shops like BOP to big, ornate, historic cafés like Café Guarany or Café Majestic. A quick cafezinho or cimbalino (Porto-speak for Lisbon’s ‘bica’ Italy’s espresso) regularly punctuates the locals’ day. And a new breed of modern wine bar is multiplying, often serving petiscos, Portugal’s answer to tapas, along with wine by the glass.

Great areas for bars and cafés:

  • The Baixa West from the Aliados, north of the Torre dos Clérigos, this area is suddenly vibrant by day and night, bristling with arty little bars and eateries. 
  • The Ribeira – Porto’s riverfront west of the famous Dom Luis I bridge is a great place to enjoy the view and soak up the atmosphere. Though rivers of people tour this are, you can still find odd little gems – such as Wine Quay Bar, right on the Ribeira – good wines, good nibbles, great river views, or PROVA for lovely atmosphere alongside a glass of wine. 
  • Vila Nova de Gaia riverfront and hillside – (But the locals just call is Gaia.) Many of the port lodges have perfectly-placed bars to sell their wares: Sandeman’s terrace by the river, Porto Cruz’ rooftop eyrie, Graham’s wine bar scenically up on the hill. If you’re looking for the perfect tool to help you explore the Port Wine Lodges, check out the map we’ve created.

Porto Cuisine

Porto’s specialties are tripas à moda do Porto – tripe cooked with dried beans, vegetables, pigs’ trotters and offal and served with rice – and francesinhas, bread topped with steak, sausage and cheese and a beer-flavored sauce.

Fish and seafood are wonderfully fresh. Sardines – sardinhas – are the big local catch, traditionally served with boiled potatoes and grilled red peppers, and also mackerel of various kinds. But there’s a huge variety of other fish and seafood, some of it farmed along the Atlantic coast. Fish mostly comes grilled, or in a thick fish and potato stew, caldeirada de peixe, or in a kind of risotto, arroz – rice grows just down the coast. Grilled octopus – polvo – is a big thing in Porto. A clam and coriander dish famous all over Portugal, ameijoas à Bulhão Pato, was invented here. Trout might tickle your fancy, from the many rivers of Vinho Verde country just to the north, and in the early months of there year, the eel-like lamprey – lampreia – expensive, strong and oily. As in the rest of Portugal, the greatest treat, the greatest honor for a guest, is salt cod, codfish, bacalhau. Its gamey taste may take a while to love…

There’s delicious rare breed beef from long-horned mountain cattle such as Arouquêsa from mountains to the south-east, and Mirandesa, from Trás-os-Montes, north of the Douro wine region. Pork – in Porto you’ll meet the wonderful southern, expensive porco preto, the black pig of the Alentejo, and its amazingly rich hams and charcuterie, but up here in the north they also have their own special pig, the porco bísaro, which likewise makes delicious hams etc, particularly in Trás-os-Montes, smoky and full of flavour. Baby animals are a treat that you often have to order in advance in restaurants, kid or milk lamb, roasted in a wood fire, if you’re especially lucky. There’s game from the mountains. And the locals love all kinds of offal, from ears to tail!

Like the rest of the nation, Porto folk take many of their vegetables in soup. The famous one is caldo verde, a soup of cabbage, onions, potatoes and chouriço. Cabbage is Porto’s favourite vegetable, along with turnip leaves. And there are lots of dried bean dishes, laced with chouriço, black pudding or the like. Olive oil infuses everything. Portuguese oil used to be rustic, but Portugal has some great oils nowadays.

Not To Miss Porto Delights:

  • Sardinhas, bacalhau, tripas and francesinhas – Francesinhas can be awful, or yummy if you know where to go…
  • Marmelada with cheese – Marmelada is the wonderful quince paste the Spanish call membrillo. This combo may be a starter or a nibble.
  • Requeijão com doce de abóbora – Ricotta with pumpkin jam – for breakfast or dessert, another delicious combination.
  • Doces conventuais – Little eggy, almondy, super-sweet, to-die-for sweets/cakelets (convent sweets, because once made by nuns).
  • Queijo da Serra da Estrela – One of Portugal’s very finest cheeses, rich and gloopy when young
  • Presunto – Great cured hams, whether northern bísaro or southern porco preto
  • Cabrito assado – Roast kid
  • Sandwiches– The bifana, prego and francesinha and just some of the delicious sandwiches Porto has on offer!

Restaurants in Porto

Most of Porto’s restaurants are traditional, serving big portions of rustic food  that are exciting to explore, especially once you meander off the beaten path. Check out places such as: Adega Sao Nicolau, Antico, Casa Guedes, Conga, and Lareira for amazing sandwiches.

In huge contrast, there’s also a growing scattering of modern restaurants on both sides of the river, serving inventive Portuguese food in the form of petiscos (tapas), or in bistro or chic restaurant style, such as: Ameija, Cruel, DOP, and Euskalduna, a fabulously Basque twist on modern cuisine.

Vegetarian finds are also easy to come by. Check out: Epoca, O Burrito, and O Macrobiotico.

Where to find great restaurants:

  • Matosinhos – This is the place to go for fish by the sea, not 20 minutes via Metro. Full of fish restaurants, including tiny family ones, called tascas,  especially up near the port. Matosinhos also has big, smart, rather formal places with stiff, efficient waiters and large displays of fresh fish and seafood. Top picks include: O Gaveto and O Lusitano. 
  • Foz – This smart suburb by the estuary on the Porto side (take the tram/trolley along the river from the Ribeira), has several of the longer-standing modern restaurants, also chic sun-downer restaurants on the beach, and some newer ones, such as the excellent Pedro Lemos back in the little old streets.
  • Vila Nova de Gaia The latest additions to the growing number of modern-style restaurants are across the river in Gaia, some of them in the port lodges. And of course there’s the local Michelin star – the restaurant of The Yeatman.

Festivals in Porto

The festive highlight of Porto’s year is São João, the Feast of St John on the night of June 23rd when the city goes mad. It starts religiously, but it soon switches to street party mode, with live music, stalls, wine, sardines, fireworks, and people bashing each other over the head traditionally with leeks and garlic stalks, but nowadays probably with squeaky plastic hammers. It goes on all night, with midnight fireworks.

In February in the Palácio da Bolsa (fine old stock exchange), there’s the huge Essência do Vinho wine fair, with thousands of wines to taste, but we prefer Simplesmente Vinho in July that features natural and low intervention wines. For foodies, Essência do Gourmet, a big cookery and food fair might be worth your attention.

Sightseeing in Porto

If you’re here for the port, the lodges over in Gaia will keep you busy. Everyone spends time on Porto’s Ribeira, and a river trip on the Douro is a right of passage – a quick cruise between the bridges, a day trip upriver to Régua, or a longer trip up to the Spanish border. The Ribeira doesn’t stop by the river –  be sure to climb into its little winding streets. This is Porto’s oldest quarter. Further up is 19th century Porto, both grand and modest, the stately Aliados and the bohemian Baixa, and beyond and northwards again is more modern/residential Porto, around the Avenida de Boavista, which shoots straight out for miles towards the ocean. When you’re ready for some serious sea air, both Porto and Gaia have great surfy, sandy beaches, sometimes with rocks, sometimes dunes.

Here’s a shortlist of things no tourist should miss:

  • The Port Lodges – The caves, as the Portuguese call them, are where port has been blended and matured for centuries, all of them in Gaia. Walk across the two-tier Dom Luis I bridge. Most lodges are on the  touristic riverfront, but some are further up into town. Some are more or less museums, some are fully working cellars, some just tasting rooms or shops. Most are drop-in, for others you need an appointment. 
  • The top level of the Dom Luis I bridge – Walk beside the Metro and love the views.
  • Gaia’s cable car – Looking down on the lodges and across to Porto.
  • Livraria Lello – Beautiful neo-gothic/art nouveau bookshop in the Baixa.
  • Torre dos Clérigos – Landmark church tower in the Baixa – climb bravely to the top for spectacular views.
  • Igreja de São Francisco – Gilded church near the Palácio da Bolsa (Ribeira) with scary bones.
  • Villar d’Allen – Historic house with beautiful camelia gardens and its own brand of port

Local Markets in Porto

Porto has a long tradition of open markets, be it permanent or periodical markets like the Christmas market. This heritage stems from Porto’s food culture which is profoundly rooted in regional grandmother recipes, recipes that contain ingredients sourced across the North of Portugal. 

Our book, “Porto: Stories from Portugal’s Historic Bolhão Market” is a wonderful place to dive into Portugal’s rich culinary past, and a testament to Bolhao’s history!

Here’s a list of markets worthy of your time:

  • Bolhão Market is considered the last “fresh” market in Porto, where you can find fresh produce from nearby farms, as well as homemade bread, sausages and cheeses.
  •  Porto Belo Market: Beyond vinyls, vintage and accessories, Porto Belo features artesanal crafts and organic products like olive oil, teas and jams.
  • Mercado do Bom Sucesso, located in the business district, is perfect for a quick bite for families with small kids. It serves both fresh and prepared foods, and is ideal for anyone needing a vast array of culinary options. 

Accommodation in the Porto

Porto has the usual top international hotels (many of them up and out of center along the Avenida da Boavista), as well as some chic downtown hotels inserted into historic buildings, some of them very new conversions. There are also a lot of new boutique guest houses at relatively modest prices, often imaginative conversions of old Porto houses, some of them offering great service and gourmet breakfasts.

  • The Yeatman – The Yeatman, a Relais & Chateaux member, is the country’s first luxury Wine & Gastronomy Hotel, featuring the largest collection of Portuguese wines in the world. Nestled on a hillside amongst the Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, each of the 67 guest rooms offers sweeping views of the Douro River and the picturesque city of Oporto.
  • Pestana Vintage Porto – The 5-star Pestana Vintage Porto Hotel & World Heritage Site is romantically situated along the Douro River, right on the historic Ribeira Square. All guest rooms in this 16th-century building have a spacious bathrooms, double glazed windows and spectacular views to enjoy.
  • Eurostars Porto Douro – The 4-star Eurostars Porto Douro is located in the city of Porto facing the Douro River, just a 3-minute walk from the UNESCO World Heritage Ribeira and the D. Luís I Bridge. It offers free WiFi throughout the property.

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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.