CREATIVE HUBS: PORTO
Portugal’s second largest city has had a tough run. Once an industrial centre thanks to its riverside location, Porto was a lucky beneficiary of the vast Portuguese empire. Opulent townhouses, intricate bridges and baroque churches decked out in floor-to-ceiling gold leaf point to the wealth of the city’s past. Not to mention the legacy of its famous port wine, which became a favoured export to England in 1703.
But in recent years Porto has fallen on hard times. Along with Italy, Greece, Spain and Ireland, Portugal was one of the European countries hammered by the global economic recession. Job prospects became bleak, and many of those young locals who could afford to left the country in search of education and employment abroad.
A country in recession can often count on a creative boom. Refusing to jump ship or idly wait for tides to change, enterprising creatives have made the most of the city’s low rent prices. There has been an explosion of small, innovative businesses, and Porto’s forward-thinking mayor, Rui Moreira, is doing his best to support them by blocking the steady march of global chains.
Porto ranked in a number of lists of the best places to go in 2015, and there has been an influx of visitors to the city thanks to a web of new flight routes. They come for the bold architecture: a web of medieval, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, neo-Classical and Brutalist styles jostling for space atop Roman foundations. They stay for the hip hotels, design shops and galleries, as well as on-trend bars and restaurants, which all come at prices cheaper even than Lisbon.
In lifting its head out of a crisis, Porto has proved that it has more to offer than the sheen of its opulent history. Today the place is fortified, like the wine for which the city is so famous, by the proud spark of reinvention.
WHERE TO STAY
Rosa Et Al Townhouse
Located in the arts district and housed in a 19th-century building, this townhouse hotel has seven airy suites arranged along a winding spiral staircase, all decked out with Scandi-style furniture. The communal area is scattered with design books and a ‘help yourself’ decanter of port wine, leading out into a verdant garden.
The name of this hotel is a clue to its history as an arts college, but the real giveaway is in the design – all of the artworks displayed here were painted or sculpted by former students. The 17 rooms are spacious and retro in feel, while The Artist Bistrô offers a nightly tasting menu of five, seven or nine dishes.
If you like your hotels with a hefty dose of history, this is the choice for you. A member of the Design Hotels portfolio, this boutique is built on the former site of the revered 1859 Baquet Theatre, a vibrant hub of music and performance. Most of the suites have vintage gold bathtubs beside the beds.
WHAT TO SEE
New life has been breathed into this previously derelict mall, which is now home to 15 shops including a bakery, ceramic shop and vintage emporium. Keep your eyes peeled for one-off events like a DJ set, book discussion or pasta-making workshop.
Serralves Contemporary Museum
In addition to its calendar of well-curated exhibitions, Serralves is set in idyllic gardens with a lake and tea house and often hosts free concerts and immersive art events during warmer months. Save your trip for a Sunday when admission is free.
The seaside suburb of Matosinhos is a vision is concrete, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in serious seafood. Stroll around the local market, housed in a 1950s building, before settling into the terrace of Proa for a plate of gambas, or La Pulcinella for a pizza.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
One of Porto’s two Michelin-starred restaurants, Pedro Lemos is located in Foz Velha, an old-world neighbourhood overlooking the River Douro. Choose between a seat in the rustic dining room or the rooftop terrace before your second choice: a three, five or seven-course tasting menu?
With slate walls and wicker chairs, this industrial-chic spot is the place to come for sharing dishes divided into subheadings according to appetite. Be sure to order the bread basket, which comes with banana butter, and cheesecake for pudding – it comes served in a clay flowerpot dusted with with a layer of ‘dirt’ (Oreo dust).
Located on a picturesque square called Praça das Oliveiras (Olive Tree Square, which happens to be planted with a towering olive tree) this on-trend bar serves good wine and tapas-style nibbles at reasonable prices. It always has a buzz about it from 8pm onwards.