August 8, 2022

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econd-city syndrome presents in the likes of Rotterdam, Gothenburg, Marseille and Hamburg — cities constantly...

econd-city syndrome presents in the likes of Rotterdam, Gothenburg, Marseille and Hamburg — cities constantly compared to bigger siblings in size, stature, history, culture and even tourism potential (much like Cork is to Dublin). So, how can second cities compete?

Often better value, and usually easier to cover more ground in, they can also offer a healthy dose of humility, and lots of local eye-rolling at the highfalutin’ goings-on in the capital — a sentiment which translates in every language.
In a challenging climate where overtourism has presented significant problems to larger cities like Amsterdam and Venice, second and third cities are not only primed to take on a little excess, but are rightly jostling to steal the spotlight from capital cities.
Porto is a brilliant example. Meandering around the city for a couple of days recently, it wasn’t difficult drawing comparisons with Lisbon (hills aplenty, stunning architecture and detailed azulejo tiles, the captivating lilt of fado music) but the city cut an individual figure, too.
Better yet, you get two cities in one, with Vila Nova de Gaia and its iconic port cellars to one side of the River Douro and Porto proper on the other.
Together, they make up much of the metropolitan area, and it’s easily walkable in between.
The main connecting point between the two is the domineering double-deck metal arch bridge Ponte Dom Luís I, once the world’s longest of its kind. Arriving to the city via a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport, we were dropped off at the top deck of the bridge… and what a spot to take in the vista.
As the very first view of the city of Porto, this is truly breathtaking. There is something remarkable about the scale and size of the valley combined with the dual-level bridge that makes you pause for a few moments to take it all in, and a few dozen photos too.
This isn’t a bridge that’s just a monument, though: this is a working bridge — filled with people passing at all hours of the day, making the monument that defines the city something pretty much everyone uses daily.

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Russell and Patrick on their city break in Porto

Russell and Patrick on their city break in Porto
It’s also a great spot to stay. We checked into the four-star Hotel Vincci Ponte de Ferro (en.vinccipontedeferro.com), which occupies a unique collection of buildings right beside the bridge, overlooking it from top to bottom with views at every level of the hotel. The restaurant and separate wine bar both offer spectacular views of the bridge and city, particularly at sunset.
Much like the bridge, Porto is a city of two levels: the flat Ribeira riverside level and the upper level around the main train station, São Bento. Save yourself an ascent on foot every so often and hop on the Funicular dos Guindais, which runs up and down between the two levels.
A benefit of the varying heights is that the city offers viewpoints and vistas at every turn, one of the best being by the main cathedral (Sé do Porto), which itself is a unique mish-mash of architectural styles, from the 12th-century Romanesque original features to the Baroque and Gothic additions in subsequent centuries.
Culinarily, Porto’s crown jewels are The Yeatman (the eponymous two-Michelin-starred restaurant of the luxury hotel, led by chef Ricardo Costa), one-starred Antiqvvm and 16-seat dégustation restaurant Euskalduna Studio, but don’t worry if your purse doesn’t extend to fine dining — Porto is best explored via casual dining, which reflects the laid-back pace of the riverside city.
Working up an appetite from walking, we gear ourselves up for Porto’s signature dish: the francesinha. A gulp of courage is needed for this comfort-food feat of endurance comprising sliced pan-style bread sandwiched with hefty layers of ham, beef and linguiça sausage, covered in melted cheese, sometimes topped with a fried egg and always swimming in a house gravy sauce that each purveyor guards as their secret.
Think of a croque madame with the volume turned up to 100 to make the windows shatter. Though the francesinha mightn’t be to everyone’s taste, this is a dish you have to at least try once — there’s no obligation to polish the lot! In isolation, the various meat-filled layers are fine, but it’s the drawing of each wedge of sandwich through the rich, tomato-based gravy and molten cheese that is truly an act of edible pleasure. More often than not, it’s served with French fries… just in case you were still hungry.
Many claim the tastiest francesinha to be from Cufra or O Afonso (where Anthony Bourdain met his match), but we thought old-school Café Santiago was the best the city offered. It has an entire francesinha menu and over 60 years’ service.
Though Euskalduna Studio is better known, chef Vasco Coelho Santos also runs the convivial sharing concept restaurant Semea by Euskalduna, with a focus on cooking over fire and a beautiful terrace overlooking the river. The menu is punctuated by smaller seafood dishes but also offers heartier options of oxtail pie and monkfish rice. One standout for us was the French Toast with Cheese Ice Cream. There’s a warning that it takes a while to prepare, but the wait is worth every second, as a perfectly balanced, beautifully caramelised slab of French toast is presented with a soft, melt-in-the-mouth (and melt-in-the-bowl) scoop of velvety cheese ice cream.
One of Portugal’s most famed chefs, José Avillez runs a stable of restaurants across Lisbon as well as a sole outpost in Porto. Cantinho do Avillez imbues Portuguese ingredients with international inspiration and offers a cool, casual service. Similarly, restaurant and bar Mistu boasts an eclectic interior and menu, both referencing Africa, Asia and South America with lofty rooms, big windows and strong mezcal sours. It’s good for lunch or dinner, with signature dishes as well as staples like pasta and steaks.
Both Avillez and Mistu also open on Sunday and Monday, when other restaurants tend not to.
For brunch, the Hungry Biker brand operates two no-reservations cafés, Do Norte Café and Floresta, a couple of minutes’ walk apart — a younger crowd congregates daily, but more so on weekends for a healthier take on indulgent breakfasts. It’s a great way to start a Porto day.
Elsewhere, some good lunch options include Casa Guedes for its bifana pork sandwiches, Cantina 32 for petiscos (the Portuguese equivalent of tapas) and Traça, where the pork cheeks braised in port are sensational.
When in Porto, the clue is in the name: the fortified wine port made this city and region famous from the mid-18th century onwards (one of the world’s oldest appellations) and countless big-name port cellars are dotted around the hills of Vila Nova de Gaia. From Kopke and Cálem to Sandeman and Taylor’s, there’s no shortage of ways to learn about and taste port in its various forms. Many of the cellars offer tours and tasting experiences — a couple even have fantastic restaurants to really make the most of the whole gourmet experience, like Vinum at Graham’s.
You might expect port to taste sweet and insipid, but having it in the city that made it world famous is a must — look, it’s like having a Guinness or an Irish coffee on the other side of the world; it just doesn’t taste as perfect when not served at source. Sipping a glass of port (which expresses its years of barrel ageing and the high point of summer, when the ripest, most concentrated grapes are picked, in every single sip) is a way of life in Porto, but if you’re not into the red style, white port and tonic is your new favourite cocktail you never knew about!
To learn more about Portuguese wine, visit WOW (World of Wine), which combines seven museums in a new district celebrating the wine-producing heritage of this region — including dedicated museums on cork and rosé. If basing yourself in Gaia itself, five-star The Lodge Hotel (thelodgehotel.pt) is spectacular for a luxe stay here.
As a second city, Porto definitely gives chase to Lisbon, nipping at its heels with a familiar yet uniquely different offering, and in ways better positioned for two- or three-day trips and weekend jaunts. It’s more compact, just as beautiful, and its position as a gateway to the stunning vineyards of the Douro Valley is unrivalled.
Indeed, in the five years pre-pandemic, Porto enjoyed a bigger percentage growth in Irish visitor numbers than Portugal’s capital (28pc year-on-year compared to Lisbon’s 21pc, according to data from Visit Portugal Ireland).
“Porto is a city that seems to be constantly reinventing itself,” says Susana Cardoso, director of Visit Portugal Ireland. She describes it as a cosmopolitan place “that’s a fantastic option for a city break… it has imposing monuments, beautiful parks and a rich, original cuisine, set always to the backdrop of the Douro”.
Why should the capital have all the fun?
Three to see

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Miradouro da Serro do Pilar

Miradouro da Serro do Pilar
Golden hourCatch golden hour just before the sun sets from the Miradouro da Serro do Pilar for one of the best and most vast views from the monastery on the Vila Nova de Gaia side.
Coming up rosesMake your way to the Palácio bus or tram stop and explore the Casa do Roseiral (House of the Rose Garden) and the views from its beautifully manicured Jardim dos Sentimentos.

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Rabelo-inspired river taxis

Rabelo-inspired river taxis
Magical miradourosWho says viewpoints have to be at a height? Take to the water and see Porto from the Douro itself. Douro River Taxis snappily cross the river in old-school, Rabelo-inspired vessels.
Get there 
Ryanair flies direct from Dublin twice weekly (increasing to six days a week from April to October). Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly several times weekly between Dublin and Lisbon (about three hours by train from Porto), while TAP offers connecting flights to Porto via Lisbon. ryanair.com; aerlingus.com; flytap.com
Metro trains connect the airport with the city centre (30 minutes, €2.60).
For more information on Covid-related travel restrictions, see visitportugal.com and reopen.europa.eu. For more to see and do in Porto, see visitporto.travel

 

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