A culinary guide to Porto, Portugal's ever-evolving second city
With an extravagant new wine-themed attraction and a galaxy of top-quality restaurants, Portugal’s second city is sending out a siren call to food enthusiasts far and wide.
When you have wine in your mouth, evaluate the flavours — bitter, sweet, acidic — and once you swallow, evaluate the burn and aftertaste. How long is the aroma present in your throat? That bitterness is the tannins, they give a tingling in the gums and tongue. The sweetness is the residual sugar. And the higher the acidity of the wine, the more saliva secreted.”
I’m being taught how to taste wine. It’s not a wine-tasting per se but one small part of the journey through Porto’s new World of Wine (WoW) a ‘cultural centre in the historic heart of the port wine industry’ that aims to demystify wine. Adrian Bridge, the man whose vision to create a whole ‘world’ of tourism attractions for Porto came to fruition last July after seven years of work, is sitting on a terrace outside this series of six museums, with accompanying restaurants, bars, shops and wine school. “We wanted to preserve this historic area, it’s very beautiful. We didn’t want to change the way the city looks, we just wanted to repurpose it,” he tells me.
Opposite Porto, on the Douro River’s southern bank, the city of Vila Nova de Gaia is home to the historic lodges that received and aged barrels of port transported by barge downstream from the vineyards in the Douro Valley. It’s here that WoW shines a light on wine — not just the region’s headline-grabbing fine port wine, but all kinds of wine, here in Portugal and across the globe. “People think wine is a complex subject but hopefully we make it fun and easy to digest,” Adrian explains.
The quality of the content at WoW is extraordinary, as is its diversity: apart from wine, visitors can learn about the making of chocolate from bean to bar, the uses of cork, as well as the history of Porto and the country’s north, and its culture and people. The aim is to create more for visitors to see and do than just hop from port cellar to port cellar. And Adrian isn’t alone in his mission — WoW’s recent opening solidifies a transformation of the city and its surroundings that’s been slowly happening over the course of a decade.
When I last visited Porto, more than seven years ago, the city’s gastronomy was hearty and heavy — famous for tripe soups and a beast of a meat-and-cheese sandwich called the francesinha. At the time, Pedro Lemos, whose eponymous restaurant held one of the city’s two Michelin stars, told me there was a regrettable local preference for quantity over quality. But today, Porto and the surrounding area has a brace of two-Michelin-star restaurants, two one-star establishments and many more that seem to be well on their way to similar culinary heights.
At Pedro’s restaurant, on a backstreet of the little seaside town of Foz do Douro, on the city’s western fringe, I catch up with the chef. He describes the year before the pandemic as a golden moment for the city’s culinary scene. “In 2019, Porto was booming. Everyone was travelling and we felt we were in an international city again. During Portugal’s period of maritime exploration [known as the Discoveries, spanning the 15th and 16th centuries], we were everywhere, buying everything — so, of course we’ve always had influences from other countries. But I still like to share my vision of real Portuguese food, so on every menu I like to have a traditional dish.” On my visit, this is a riff on rancho à Minhota, a stew of smoked sausage, beef, potatoes, pasta and chickpeas. But here, rather than a fulsome plate that would fill the stomach for an ocean voyage, this is a gentle odyssey: for me, a new journey, but for my dinner companion — a Porto native — one that took her back to her grandmother’s kitchen — in terms of flavour, if not technique.
Back in the city centre, at Euskalduna Studio — a restaurant firmly on the map for those on a culinary pilgrimage — chef Vasco Coelho Santos, who’s cooked in some of the finest restaurants around the world, tries to nail the culinary zeitgeist for me. Porto’s long-held penchant for exploration, immigration and experimentation makes up the core of his theory. “Even recently, it was just hamburgers and pizzas and francesinhas. But people with more adventurous palates came and it helped the city open up to a different concept. I opened this place five years ago, when I was 28. It received a lot of acclaim and helped a lot of young chefs — who were just like me — to see that they can be disruptive and diverse, to introduce something new and not be afraid. A lot of visitors now come to Porto just because they have reservations at these brilliant restaurants.”
The newfound breadth of Porto’s dining scene is epitomised by the creativity in Vasco’s kitchen. Euskalduna is influenced by Japanese omakase dining (where the chef selects what’s served); patrons sit around a counter, talking to the chefs as they prepare the dishes and pour the wine. But Vasco believes many Portuguese restaurants are actually underrated by the Michelin system. “In Portugal, we have a problem with Michelin stars,” he says. “The regional inspectors concentrate on Spain too much. It’s very unfair.” Eating his tasting menu — made up of ‘moments’ and ‘pauses’ — I have no doubt that accolades are on their way.
Starless but shining
Almeja is another Porto restaurant on the cusp of glory, I’ve no doubt. Chef João Cura presents a menu influenced by his travels in India, but one that simultaneously reaches back into his childhood memories. On my visit, the 10-plate experience begins with a vegetable curry samosa, where João plays with Portugal’s fondness for cinnamon in its pastries, sprinkling icing sugar on top for sweet devilment. The last is a dessert of sweet curry cream, mango tartare, coconut ice cream and spiced coconut crumble.
“It was about five years ago when the food of Porto really began to change,” João says. “Before that, young chefs who’d worked in kitchens around the world were mimicking what they’d learned there. But then we realised we could do our own things, with our traditional recipes, our travelling and our skill. The customers also changed in terms of what they wanted to eat — they were now much more into the quality than the quantity. And, of course, the tourism boom helped a little bit.”
Tradition isn’t something everyone wants to play with, however. Nuno Rocha owns one of the last artisanal sardine-canning factories in Portugal. Located in Matosinhos, Conservas Pinhais produces the Nuri brand of sardines. Here, in season, the small fish arrive in the morning and are tipped into large marble tanks to be sorted.
A family business established in 1920, much of the work is done not by machines but by the hands of generations of women; they sort the sardines and brine them, peel carrots, de-stalk chillies, fill the cans, then hand-wrap them. “It’s about the legacy of the 100 people who work here with us,” says Nuno. “If we replace them with machines, we lose much more than the quality of the product, we lose this legacy.” A visit to the factory — a deep dive into one of the city’s ancient, living, culinary traditions — is accompanied by the sonorous sound of the snipping of the tails and gills of sardines by the women on the production line.
A city that can trace its origins back to the Celts and Romans, now with six grand bridges spanning its golden river, Porto is picking up the pace again after Covid. Easier to navigate than its bigger sibling, Lisbon, and quickly garnering culinary accolades, it’s no longer a city of the ‘bishops and the bourgeois’, as it was once known — it’s a heart-singingly vibrant place where food and wine take centre stage. “Henry the Navigator (one of Portugal’s great seamen and land conquerors) lived in a house just over there,” Adrian Bridge tells me, pointing across the Douro from WoW. “Now the new adventurers, looking for discovery, are coming to us.”
Exploring Porto with Ansel Mullins, co-founder of Culinary Backstreets
What makes Porto different?
There’s so much to say about the cuisine here, from tripe to octopus fritters, but my favourite aspect is that the city is a window into the kitchen of the entire north of Portugal, which experienced waves of migration over the past century. In short, there’s much more to Porto than Porto, which is what makes it Porto.
Porto is famed for the gutbuster sandwich known as the francesinha. What else should food-lovers be trying?
People line up for a bifana [a type of sandwich] at Conga, but I go there for a bowl of papas de sarrabulho, cumin-laced offal stew, which is a tasty reminder of the influence of the Minho region to the north.
What's your favourite shop?
Step into Casa Arcozelo, a tiny shop by São Bento Station, and you’ll be greeted by its septuagenarian owner from Arcozelo selling cheeses and smoked meats from his hometown, east of Viseu.
Culinary Backstreets offers small-group food tours of Porto lasting five to six hours for $125 (£90).
Getting there & around
Airlines flying direct to Porto include British Airways from Heathrow; EasyJet from Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester; Ryanair from Stansted, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester; TAP Air Portugal from Gatwick; and Wizz Air from Luton.
Average flight time: 2h20m.
The Porto Card offers free and discounted entry to various attractions, including museums, wine cellars, sightseeing buses and boat tours. It can be upgraded to include free use of public transport. From €6 (£5.10). visitporto.travel
When to go
Early and late summer are ideal times to visit Porto, when temperatures average a balmy 16-20C and there’s little rain. Winter sees some of Portugal’s coldest and wettest weather, however, with temperatures dipping below 10C.
Where to stay
Doubles at Vila Foz Hotel & Spa from €280 (£239).
Doubles at Maison Albar Hotels Le Monumental Palace from €250 (£213).
How to do it
Classic Collection Holidays offers three nights at five-star Vila Foz Hotel & Spa, Porto from £549 per person, B&B, based on two adults sharing. Includes return flights and private transfers.
Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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