Gaia and Porto for Wine, Food, and Old European Charm
By Tab Hauser
The UNESCO heritage city of Porto was founded over 2000 years ago. It is a pretty place with colorful orange roofs, picturesque views, tiled churches, old buildings, and narrow cobblestone streets.
The Romans called it Portus Cale (warm port) as it is located on the Douro River, two miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The famous Port wine gets its name from the city.
Located on the Douro River’s southern bank is Vila Nova de Gaia, or simply, Gaia. Gaia until a few years ago was usually a short visit for tourists coming to taste Port wine from one of 18 “lodges” that give tours and tastes.
When visiting this area, consider two days for Porto, and a full day for Gaia.
Much to do in Gaia
The best way to get to Gaia from Porto is to walk the Dom Luis I Bridge. If you are coming from Porto’s, Cais da Ribeira on the river, you can walk the lower deck of the bridge to the waterfront on Gaia. Alternatively, you can take the Douro River Ferry, a taxi service from one side of the river to the other lasting just 3 minutes.
If you walk the upper deck you can take the gondola down to the river or continue 13 minutes to the WOW Porto Cultural District.
Gaia’s waterfront is a lively place. Along the river, you will find restaurants, stores, boat tours, and wine lodges. Anchored by the offshore are replicas of the old wooden Port wine boats complete with barrels and flagged by vineyards.
The boats make a nice photo with Porto in the background. The indoor mercado is a diverse place for lunch.
WOW Cultural District
In 2020 WOW was opened in Gaia on the hill overlooking the Douro River. It is located adjacent to the Yeatman Hotel and the Taylor Fladgate Lodge which are under the same corporate ownership. The complex has seven museums all with a real “wow” factor to them. There are also 12 restaurants, shops, and a wine school. WOW was built in carefully restored historical buildings that cellared Port wine.
The Ultimate Wine Museum in Porto
The Wine Experience is one of the most detailed museums of its type in the world. Wine here is exhibited in a fun, interactive and tasty way.
Topics include grape varietals, soil diversity, and where in the world it is grown. A 10-foot dissected model of a grape helps you understand this ancient fruit.
There are 15 interactive exhibits on smell, and wine regions as well as a screen that helps match a wine suited to your taste.
The tour ends with a sampling of three wines. Whether you have a casual interest in wine or an oenophile, don’t miss this place.
9,000 Years of Drinking History
While the Wine Experience teaches you all things wine, The Bridge Collection is about the history of how it has been served. The Bridge Collection is where drinking and archaeology meet. This fascinating museum has over 2000 artifacts spanning 9,000 years. The collection consists of drinking and serving vessels made from terracotta, rock crystal, brass, gold, silver, pottery, and glass.
To get the most out of the collection take a guided tour given at 11 AM and 3 PM. Here you will get a narrative of some of the rarest, most unusual, or novel pieces.
The tour starts at a 9,000-year-old wine vessel and continues with artifacts from both ancient and modern civilizations. There were several old and unusual glasses made for drinking games. (I suggested they exhibit plastic cups and a ball used for beer pong and was told it was not a bad idea.)
All Things Chocolate
The Chocolate Museum starts with the history of chocolate and literally ends with it melting in your mouth. Walking through several rooms you will find exhibits on where chocolate came from, how it is grown, and its worldwide farming migration.
You get to understand the difficult process of harvesting cocoa pods, cutting them up, and drying them before they are used commercially. An interactive exhibit has you smell the different characteristics of chocolate. (Chocolate has 600 aromatic characteristics verse wine which has 200).
One screen matches your taste with the style of chocolate you may like. The tour ends past their factory with a tasting. Allow time to linger and shop at their store.
Back to School
Before leaving WOW it was back to school. The Wine School gives classes on a variety of wine topics. The class I chose dealt with learning and tasting wines from five of Portugal’s many regions. Multiday courses are available if you are on an extended vacation.
Three more WOW museums we hope to return to include the Cork Experience, the fun Rose Experience and an exhibit on fashion. You can read up on them at https://wow.pt
Port wine is an important part of Porto and the region. I recommend anyone with an interest in this fortified wine click Taylor’s easy-to-learn guide.
While much of the world thinks Port wine comes from Porto, it is actually from Gaia. Port wine is produced upriver in the Douro Valley and shipped to Gaia for aging.
Until 1963, shipping was done on 60-foot wooden boats that would carefully navigate the currents of the river. It is now done by truck.
It is said there are a few reasons why Gaia cellars and distributes Port wine. These include the climate too hot or cold to cellar in the Douro Valley. Another reason was the wind and sun exposure is better Gaia over Porto.
Lastly, centuries ago a tax had to be paid to the Bishop of Porto. Moving it across the river was a tax dodge.
While the riverfront is lined with lodges to tour or taste, I recommend two excellent producers that are up the hill and away from the busy waterfront.
Taylor’s history dates back to 1692. They are considered one of the top producers of Port Wine. Visitors take a detailed 60-minute audio tour while walking through their massive cellar and rooms displaying their history and processing.
The tour ends with a tasting of two Ports with an option to purchase additional exceptional wine at a reasonable price.
While there, I recommend lunch at their Barao Fladgate Restaurant for the exquisite food and a perfect view of Porto. Reservations are required for the tour and lunch at https://www.taylor.pt/us
Graham’s Port Lodge
W & J Graham’s was established in 1820 and is run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Symington Family.
They are also considered a leader in the world of Port. Graham’s cellars were built in 1890 in Gaia. Visitors here get a guided tour of their immense cellar. This is followed by a walk-through of their impressive historical collection of vintage Ports.
After the tour, there is a tasting of three Ports. I recommend you purchase a charcuterie and a glass of your favorite Port to enjoy on their large balcony overlooking the river. https://www.grahams-port.com/
Porto is a walkable city. It has open squares, narrow streets, and colorful homes that were not affected by the great earthquake in 1755 that destroyed most of Lisbon.
I recommend starting your visit with a “free” walking tour. Free walking tours have become popular worldwide. People on tour are expected to tip the guide on what they felt the service was worth.
These walking tours generally do not allow the time to go inside sites but are a good way to get familiar with a city.
Our 2 ½ hour walking tour started at Fonte Dos Aliados by the municipal building with a dozen other tourists led by Aleksandra our guide. She walked us by several important sites and streets explaining what we were seeing. Below are some highlights. www.guruwalk.com
Gomes Teixeira Square (Lion’s Fountain)
In the center of this square is a fountain with four green-winged lions gushing water. In one corner is the “side by side” Carmo and Carmelitas Churches.
What people see first are the detailed tiles on the side of the building in what looks like one large church. Looking closer you actually see two churches side by side. They are split by one of the world’s narrowest houses. This was done to keep the nuns and monks separated.
On another side of the square is the Lello Book store. It is considered one of the most beautiful bookstores and a go-to place for Harry Potter fans. There are usually long lines and a fee to enter that is refunded if you buy a book.
Torre dos Clerigos was completed in 1763. The church was one of the first baroque styles built in Portugal. The 75-foot tower is the highest in the country and can be seen from all over Porto and Gaia. For a fee can you climb its 225 steps.
Sao Bento Rail Station
The Sao Bento Rail Station in the old town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This French Beaux-Arts building was completed in 1916.
What brings people here are the 22,000 hand-painted tile murals that decorate the large entry room. The scenes pieced together depict Portugal’s history. It is one of the country’s most photographed places.
From the station cross the street to Nata Lisboa for their delicious egg custard tarts.
Rua das Flores
While Rua das Flores was laid out in the 16th century, it was in the 19th century that it gained the reputation for having the most expensive shops in Porto. Today this narrow pedestrian way is worth strolling down.
The Best View
Everyone visiting Porto should take the time to visit Miradouro da Vitoria for the best panorama views of the city. From here you will see most landmarks, bridges, Gaia, and the orange-colored roofs of hundreds of buildings.
Cais da Ribeira is the section below Porto along the Douro River. It is a popular neighborhood with colorful terraced or stacked houses and buildings making it very picturesque. It is a lively part of town with many (pricy) restaurants having good views.
Dom Luis I Bridge
After our tour passed through several narrow streets and a few more old churches, it ended on the Dom Luis I Bridge. Do walk this bridge for its views of the river, Porto to your right and Gaia to the left. In 1866 it was considered the longest arch bridge in the world spanning 565 feet.
The bridge was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel and has similarities in construction to the Eiffel Tower. The lower deck of the bridge connects the waterfront areas of Cais da Ribeira and Gaia. The upper deck connects the top of Porto to the top of Gaia. A gondola takes people to the waterfront from there.
Funicular at the Bridge
When walking across the lower deck to Porto take the steep funicular to the top of the city. You will be treated to good views of the river, bridge, and Porto’s medieval walls.
While I have not been to a Mc’Dees in 50 years, I do recommend visiting their branch near the Sao Bento Station.
Here, McDonald’s took over the location of the old Imperial Coffee Shop. Inside you will see a large stained glass wall, original art deco designs, and chandeliers amongst the self-ordering kiosks.
I loved staying at the Yeatman Hotel. It is located on picturesque seven acres on the hill in Gaia. This boutique, luxury property has 89 spacious rooms and 20 suites. After checking in, guests will have an OMG moment when they step out of their private terrace or balcony and stare at the view of the entire city of Porto. An outside afternoon nap on the balcony lounge chair or a sunset cocktail should not be missed from here.
What I liked about staying here is that you are away from the bustle of central Porto, yet only a 15-minute / $6 Uber ride to it to a beautiful resort. The Yeatman Hotel is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group
The Yeatman Wine Spa takes up 21,000 square feet on two floors. Access between floors is via stairs through a giant wine barrel. This leads to 10 treatment rooms, a Roman spa, a Turkish bath, and a private windowed room having a whirlpool hot tub. For quiet time, there is a separate sundeck and an area with heated lounge chairs. The hotel has a large gym as well as an indoor and outdoor pool with views of Porto.
There are three restaurants on the property. This includes their two-star Michelin Yeatman Gastronomic Restaurant, the Portuguese-inspired Orangier, and Dick’s Bar and Bistro. Their daily morning breakfast would be on par with having a fine Sunday brunch.
When here, walk the floors to view all the art and artifacts. Each elevator has a 360-degree photograph giving you the impression you are in the Douro Valley or a large wine cellar. website
Recommended Porto and Gaia Restaurants
The Golden Catch located at WOW specializes in the freshest seafood.
The Barao Fladgate Restaurant in their lodge offers a contemporary European menu with a lean toward Portuguese flavors. Here you get fine food, flawless service, and a great view.
The Orangerie Restaurant in the Yeatman Hotel offers beautiful night views of Porto and Gaia. The service was very attentive and the food was simply delicious.
The Francesinha Sandwich is a must-try when in Portugal. Put your calorie count and cholesterol on hold for this worthy lunch that unless you are very hungry can be shared. This hearty sandwich has layers of local sausage, cured ham, and steak and is topped with melted cheese and a flavorful tomato sauce.
Two good sources for travel information on Porto are: