THE WEEKEND: We booked a long weekend in Porto by chance, listing everywhere in Europe with mild weather and reasonable flight times for a London getaway. And thank goodness we did, because this city – a rabbit’s warren of vertiginous alleyways pulsing with street music and imbued with the aroma of centuries-old port – is one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever been.
WHERE TO STAY? The InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas is located in the heart of the old town, a 15-minute walk from just about everywhere you might want to visit in the historic centre. The building – nominated in 1996 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – has at various points in its history been a monastery, a bourgeois palace, and a nineteenth century high society hub.
Now a 5-star hotel, it boasts 113 bedrooms, an opulent restaurant (think chandeliers, greenery hanging from the ceiling, and a grand piano), a magnificent art deco staircase, plus a gym, spa, and everything else you might need for a weekend exploring the city. Breakfast was served out on the terrace, amid a symphony of the brightly tiled buildings for which Portugal is famed. The staff seemed delighted we had chosen Porto over the more frequented Lisbon, and were full of tips to help us make the most of our brief stay.
WHAT TO DO: We had three priorities for our long weekend: food, port, and Harry Potter. The first two we’ll deal with below, but on the third, Porto – where JK Rowling lived and taught English while writing the first book – deserves its reputation as an inspiration for wizarding world we’ve all come to know and love.
Entering the Livraria Lello bookshop (€5 tickets, five minutes from the hotel, expect a queue) is like stepping into Hogwarts library itself, with winding staircases that seem to defy the laws of physics, mystical stained glass panelling, and mysterious faces carved into the woodwork that leer at you while you’re browsing the overstocked bookshelves.
Across the road a fountain bedecked with the stone griffins that inspired Gryffindor bubbles serenely. But if you’re more into churches than teenaged wizards, never fear. Round the corner is the Clérigos Tower, whose 240 steps will take you to the summit of the city, with panoramic views of twisting alleyways and the majestic Douro river, out to the sea beyond. THE
FOOD: The specialist seafood restaurants in the old fishing quarter of Matisinhos, a short metro-ride from the city centre, are rightly world-famous – but to concentrate on these alone neglects the wealth of other options. The crispy deep-fried onion with black garlic mayonnaise in Cevejaria Brasao is worth the visit alone. And no one should leave the city without trying the intimidating-yet-delicious Francesinha (literally “little French girl”), the Porto take on the croque monsieur. Stuffed with smoked sausage, rare steak, and covered in a spicy beer-based sauce, it’s the perfect fuel for all those hills.
AND AFTER THAT: The clue’s in the name: Port-o. A quirk of 13th century licensing law means the city’s port lodges are all on the south bank, in Gaia, tantalising weary travellers with bright signs that beckon across the river.
We were wavering about the value in taking a tour (wouldn’t it make sense to spend the money on more port?) but in the end we succumbed. And thank goodness we did. Graham’s Lodge, nestled on a ridge gazing down at the Douro, was the highlight of the trip. For half an hour we were led through the cellars among looming barrels and vats of fortifying wine, the largest of which held a staggering 73,000 litres. It was a lesson in both history and science, telling the tale of two Scottish brothers in 1820 whose family enterprise became a pioneer in winemaking techniques that remains a world-leader today.
We gazed upon a bottle of vintage port allegedly worth €12,500, and wondered how much the cellar spent on security. The ports we were given to try may not have been the price of a flat deposit, but they were still divine: specimens of both ruby and tawny varieties, from a range of ages. Hand luggage restrictions meant we couldn’t buy on the spot, but we spent a small fortune in Duty Free bringing a taste of Porto home with us.
NEED TO KNOW: The InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas offers rooms from €174 per night. Flights to Porto depart from all London airports.