Cultured capital Lisbon, baking hot Faro and golfer’s paradise the Algarve… come summer, Londoners descend on Southern Portugal in their droves. And who can blame them? Try pastéis de nata once, and you’re done for.
But there’s more to the mainland than the Time Out Market and BJ’s Oceanside. North Portugal is well worth doing, even if you haven’t ticked the old faithfuls off first. We spent a summer there, road testing the best hotels, restaurants and posh transfers (for research purposes, you understand). So, you can trust us on this one.
Here’s the plan: fly direct into port haven Porto, or book a car ride up from Lisbon. Save a few days for exploring the Douro Valley wine region, before finishing up in fairytale town Amarante. Don’t worry, they have egg tarts up there, too…
With its musical, medieval Ribeira and dizzying cobbled streets, Porto is a delight to simply wander around. You can take in dazzling river views and the perennial party atmosphere from dozens of great restaurants and bars, before resting weary feet at a refined wine lodge or port tasting.
Port producers like Burmester, Sandeman, Calém and Taylor’s compete to offer cellar tours, while boat trips along the Douro offer everything from fine dining to full-on private parties. The food scene is bubbling, too. You’ll find some of the country’s best restaurants in Portugal’s second city, with incredibly reasonable prices.
Best things to do:
- Porto Running Tours offer a novel (not to mention time-saving) way of getting to know a new city. We met cheery guide Sergio outside our hotel, embarking on a revitalising 10km jog over bridges and up hills, learning amazing facts along the way. Runs are filmed with a GoPro, so you can show off about exercising on holiday for years to come.
- Livaria Lello – A whimsical bookshop so beloved, staff pioneered a ‘book drive-thru’ for customers during lockdown. People queue for hours, just to snap a pic on its world-famous red staircase.Be sure to turn up long before opening time (even if you’ve pre-booked a ticket).
- WOW – that’s the World Of Wine. A collection of nine brand new, super modern museums that make up Porto’s new cultural district. Their aim is to shine a light on the most important Portuguese industries and traditions, from fashion to wine, cork to chocolate. It’ll keep you busy on a cloudy day.
- Portoalities food tour – A brilliantly personal, hand-picked tour of Porto, centered around the very best food and wine lodges. Sara can give you tips on the most authentic tascas, quiet places to read your book, and where to seek the city’s best ice cream.
Where to eat: Casa de Chá da Boa Nova
Fiercely dedicated to the very freshest fish and seafood, this two Michelin star property is worth every minute of the detour out of town. Perched on rocks piled high above the sea, the building itself is so stunning it’s been declared a National Monument – and the view of crashing waves is even better.
Chef Rui Paula assuredly wows his guests with simple, deft cooking outshone only by the spectacular setting, ever present thanks to a retractable glass wall, which is rarely raised. Tasting menus are available in three different sizes, starting at 110€. They showcase plenty of flair, but months later, we’re still thinking about the perfection with which Paula cooked the simplest white fish.
Some of the finest sushi chefs in Portugal can be found in Foz, busy in the open kitchen at Terra. Supremely friendly staff couldn’t be more passionate about their place of work, and no wonder: the setting is gorgeous and the food second to none.
Unbelievably, 24 pieces of expertly-made sushi will set you back just 28.80€, so make sure you push the boat out with chicken yakitoris from the Robata grill, tuna tartare with spicy mayo and crispy shari, and jumbo tiger prawns with shrimp butter tagliolini.
Where to stay: Gran Cruz, Ribeira
Smack in the middle of Porto’s historical waterfront, Gran Cruz House’s seven rooms have bags of character. Shared spaces are absolutely tiny, but no matter, as there’s much to get out and explore. In your room, exposed granite lintels are juxtaposed with bright Portuguese artworks and modern gold fixtures, creating a romantic, cosy feel.
Throwing open a front-facing bedroom window, the scene below crackles with energy. Boats slowly make their way down the river, while crowds gather around live musicians directly below. Covers of popular songs waft their way up to your new digs as you unpack (but don’t worry, they stop at 10pm). Still can’t sleep from all the excitement? Hunt down the bottle of Porto Cruz hidden in your room, for a nightcap.
DON’T MISS: Casario, the hotel restaurant offering a twist on traditional Portuguese dishes. Enjoy veal carpaccio with Azores cheese or roasted pumpkin ravioli with almonds from the high outdoor terrace, high above the bustle below.
Cocorico Luxury Guesthouse
A total hidden gem with a central town location (five minutes from São Bento Station), Cocorico‘s 10 surprisingly spacious rooms are beautifully decorated.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the converted townhouse has a refined French feel. The covered outdoor terrace is just perfect for a cocktail come the evening, after a scenic stroll over the Dom Luís I Bridge.
We loved our 66m2 (!) suite, its double height ceilings whitewashed, Ibiza-style to create a warm, sunny vibe. A duplex, it’s perfect for families or groups of friends, with a lounge area to chill out in and a glorious freestanding tub (what’s a bath between friends?).
Breakfast starts with excellent jam and pastries (obviously) followed by fruit, then eggs made to order.
DON’T MISS: Round the corner is Casa Guedes, a constantly busy, mega cheap and super cheerful snack bar so beloved it’s got its own stall at NOS Primavera Sound in Porto. Get the pork shoulder sandwich, doused in gravy.
Le Monumental Palace
Also French, a stay at Le Monumental Palace is an altogether fancier affair. Billed as your ‘five star second home’, this ‘casually luxurious’ former 1930s cafe is a member of Leading Hotels of the World. Its Art Deco facade rises up from the magnificent Avenida dos Aliados, the lively brasserie’s music enlivening the outdoor seating.
Highlights include a cosseting Nuxe wellness space complete with basement pool, three restaurants helmed by Michelin-starred chef Julien Montbabut. and a gloriously chic breakfast experience.
Nothing is too much trouble for staff here, who fall over themselves to recommend the best dishes to start your morning. Your mind will be boggled by the choice of viennoiseries, ‘Marinhas’ cheese, yoghurt mousse, French toast, homemade cake, eggplant and tofu, plus gluten-free everything. We weren’t sure what ‘revitalising water’ was, but we ordered it anyway.
DON’T MISS: Surf lessons with I Surf – You might not associate Porto with surfing, but it’s possible and the waves can be excellent. Charming ex-Londoner turned surfer dude Jorge will pick you up at Câmara Municipal do Porto (the town hall, conveniently outside Le Monumental) then drive you to a pretty, unpolluted surf spot.
There you’ll spend two hours learning the theory, and perfecting your technique. The water’s a little chilly, but thick wetsuits take care of that. It’s a brilliant day out and a welcome break from the city heat in high summer.
Ah, how we adore this hotel, which enjoys a stunning location a few minutes’ walk from the riverfront, on historical Rua das Flores. The building is 500 years old, seamlessly fusing the classic and the contemporary with two different buildings. A 16th-Century palace (connected to an 18th Century chapel) sits next to a new wing, built from scratch.
A landscaped, walled patio provides an oasis of calm set back from the crowds, which can be admired from several of the rooms’ balconies. Breakfast is very decent, boasting a comprehensive buffet and eggs made to order. Special mention goes to Bistrô Flores, serving the likes of Alentejo black pork chorizo and João Espírito Santo swordfish.
A tiny spa offers a dipping pool and sauna, but the real highlight is the treatment menu. We slept through most of an excellent Ayurvedic massage (always a good sign), relieving stiffness after days of walking up steep, cobbled hills.
DON’T MISS: Iconic soap shop Claus Porto is directly opposite. Make sure you pop in for souvenirs.
Torel Palace, Porto
The latest project from majestic hotel group Torel Boutiques, Torel Palace is housed in a (pink) palace dating back to 1861. An impossibly boujie sanctum set hidden from the chaos, its defining feature is a leaf-covered ‘Claraboia’ (skylight), under which guests enjoy excellent breakfasts and languorous dinners at famed BLIND restaurant. Chef Vitor Matos pays homage to José Saramago’s best-known novel Blindness by serving up ‘blind’ feasts, revealing the menu afterwards.
Detailed stucco work and heavy furnishings add a grand feel to 24 unusual rooms, each named after Portuguese writers and poets like Fernando Pessoa and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Ours featured a wraparound balcony with views of the pool and a large, mirrored wall structure dividing the lounge and bedroom, with a quirky (yet private) bathroom set up.
DON’T MISS: A trip to Foz. Scoot, cycle or take the No. 1 tram to the posh Foz area, set back from Praia da Luiz city beach. Check out the Mercado da Foz do Douro farmer’s market, then spend a few blissful hours in Serralves contemporary art museum and gardens.
Just a couple of hours on the train (8€) or a quick drive from Porto, lies the vine-threaded countryside where port wine comes from. Offering a striking contrast to the festive feel of Porto, the sleepy Douro Valley is best for a true rest. If you’re into slow travel, you should opt for the six hour boat ride from Porto’s Ribeira.
Time of the essence? Grab a ride with ever-reliable Daytrip like we did (shameless plug). Priding themselves on providing a super comfortable, timely service, their kind and chatty drivers are experts on local culture and more than happy to stop off at beauty spots. We jumped in a Mercedes E-class straight to our hotel, which if you read on, we’ll recommend for a quintessential Douro experience.
Where to stay: Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo
A place to get blissfully bored, Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo is a mouthful, in the best way. Wine geeks will feel well at home, knowing the Douro region’s very first study of monovarietal planting happened here in 1979.
Vine-strewn restaurant Terraçu’s is a destination in itself, one of the very best in the region, with a Portuguese family home feel. Three and five course menus explore seasonal cuisine, paired with the winemaker’s selection of Quinta Nova wines. Favourite dishes span confit ray fish with citrus fruits and vegetable barley from the garden, and sirloin veal loin from Trás-os-Montes. All are served with spectacular views of the lush, winding valley, with walking paths down to the river.
Just a few minutes’ drive from scenic Pinhão train station (hotel staff will pick you up if you ask nicely), your focus is directed to the nature surrounding the property. Indoors you’ll find rustic exposed beams, a huge farm table and 11 exceedingly comfortable bedrooms, brought up to date with modern bathrooms and Farrow And Ball-like paint.
DON’T MISS: A tour of the adjoining, pleasingly old-fashioned Wine Museum Centre, and the chance to be a Winemaker For A Day, concocting, bottling and labelling your very own mixture.
‘Amar’ being the Portuguese verb ‘to love’, it’s no surprise Amarante’s scenery is achingly romantic. Criminally overlooked by the guidebooks, this fairytale town is just 40 minutes drive from both Porto and Douro. Hiring a car is a great idea for a Porto, Douro and Amarante road trip, as the vistas are second to none – but many of Douro’s hills are steep and intimidating. If you prefer to concentrate fully on the views, make a booking with Daytrip to get you safely to your hotel.
Pulling up in Amarante, you’ll hardly believe you hadn’t heard of it. Set in the verdant agricultural lands of the Minho region, it’s where Portugal’s famed semi-sparkling ‘green’ wine, Vino Verde, hails from. The Tâmega river cuts through the town’s old-fashioned cafes and shops, a striking arched bridge (the Ponte São Gonçalo) leading you straight to the grandiose entrance of, in our humble opinion, the area’s best hotel.
Where to stay: Casa da Calçada
Stretching up from behind historic walls, sunshine yellow Casa da Calçada is hard to miss. Sharing a postcode with Michelin star restaurant Largo do Paço, it’s a love letter to refined, elegant travel (and as such, can be very old fashioned in places). The jewel in its crown is the shady pool area high up in the hillside, complete with a cafe and manicured gardens offering lovely views.
Chef Tiago Bonito draws visitors from far and wide with his modern Mediterranean cuisine, telling a Portuguese origin story that travels through the flavours of his beloved country. Gorge on a tasting menu that could feature sea urchin, Azores pineapple, pil pil clams, almond and orange blossom, while hand-picked hot teas are served up with pomp and ceremony. Think white tablecloths and hushed service. Wear your fanciest outfit and come hungry.
DON’T MISS: Staff will drop you off at Amarantrilhos bike shop and tour agency, from which you can cycle along an abandoned train track (now a long and easy cycle path) Look out for defunct Chapa train station: charmingly overgrown, it looks like something from a Roald Dahl film set. Get lucky and you’ll spot its seamstress occupant mending clothes on an ancient Singer in her cluttered doorway. A magical adventure.
You can fly direct into and out of Porto from London, but there’s no reason you can’t take a Porto, Douro and Amarante trip onto a few days in Lisbon. Do as we did and book a scenic day’s drive up from the capital (Daytrip to the rescue, again!).
That way, you can stop off for a languorous lunch in one of the unmissable spots along the route up North. Choose spiritual Coimbra (home to the historic University) and medieval town Obidos, circled by a fortified wall. This is the birthplace of local cherry liqueur Ginjinha, and the ideal spot to toast a truly excellent holiday. Felicidades!