Porto vs. Lisbon: Which city wins travel rivalry? - By Paul Ames, CNN
(CNN) — Lisbon has established itself as Europe's hippest city-trip destination over the past couple of years, but now it has a rival that's a little too close for comfort.
Portugal's second-city, Porto, is giving the capital a run for its money as the place to go for a unique blend of history, balmy weather, culture, cooking and nightlife.
With its old riverside center designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its chefs picking up a growing constellation of Michelin stars, as well as its world-beating wines and vast stretches of sandy shore on its doorstep, Porto certainty has a lot to offer, but can it really challenge Lisbon as Europe's capital of cool?
We've put the two leading cities of Portugal head-to-head to find who has the best beaches, the tastiest snacks, the most opulent old cafés and trendiest boutiques.
And because we like to give the underdog a hand, we've asked some hardcore tripe-eaters (as the inhabitants of Porto are known -- see below) to tell us why you should all be heading to their city by the sea.
They tend to hold strong opinions.
Take Rui Reininho, Portuguese rock superstar and front man with the legendary Porto band GNR.
"The baroque surprises, the escarpments of Romanesque granite, the almost obscene sincerity of the people, the impetuously golden river, the swooning camellias, the wild Atlantic filled with fish and seafood, the narrow streets awash with soap suds," Reininho enthuses. "You really shouldn't hesitate between Lisbon's tropical style and the Celtic, European liberalism of Porto."
READ: Lisbon might be Europe's coolest city; here are 7 reasons why
Tripe eaters v. little lettuces
If there's one dish to represent Porto, it's tripas à moda do Porto -- a stew of white beans, pig's ears, cow's stomach lining and other flavorful bits.
Associação de Turismo do Porto e Norte
The people of Porto are affectionately known as tripeiros -- roughly tripe-eaters.
The nickname comes from the city's signature dish, tripas à moda do Porto: a mess of white beans fortified with pig's ear, calves' foot, cow's stomach (aka tripe) and a cartload of other chewy bits.
Legend has it that Porto got its taste for offal in 1415, when the city's patriotic inhabitants handed over all their meat to a Portuguese army off to war in Morocco, leaving themselves with just the offcuts.
Lisbonites, on the other hand, are called alfacinhas -- little lettuces -- supposedly after the cries of hawkers selling freshly cut vegetables from market gardens that surrounded the capital.
Tripeiros will say that the food habits reflect the cities' contrasting styles: Porto is solid, no-nonsense, hardworking; Lisbon, laid-back, decadent and vain.
"It's the people that makes Porto special," says Sara Figueiredo, selling designer jewelry and locally crafted soaps in the gift shop of Porto's uber-trendy Serralves arts center. "There's all that history, but above all it's the people here, they are so welcoming."
Figueiredo knows her tripe -- her tip for a hearty helping is the Adega do Olho, a backstreet dive devoted to old-school Porto cooking, where a plate-load of tripas will set you back 3.50 euros ($4). (6, R. Afonso Martins Alho, 4000 Porto; +351 22 205 7745)
MORE: A food guide to Europe's best-kept culinary secret
Douro v. Tagus
Lisbon's Tagus River is a 15-kilometer stretch where you can spy orange commuter ferries and colonies of flamingoes.
PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Both cities sit on mighty rivers rushing towards the Atlantic Ocean after flowing west from sources in distant Spanish highlands.
Lisbon's Tagus spreads out before the city, forming one of Europe's largest estuaries: a shimmering surface some 15 kilometers wide at its broadest point. It's crisscrossed by little orange commuter ferries, has colonies of flamingos grazing on the far bank and reflects the sun's rays to give the capital its milky white light.
Porto wraps the Douro in a cozier embrace.
The city rises up on steep hills on both banks (although Vila Nova de Gaia, the historic south-side wine center, is technically a separate city). Its old neighborhoods cling to the slopes and look down on a flotilla of barcos rabelos -- high-prowed longboats that once carried kegs of wine down from upriver vineyards and now bob decoratively in the stream.
Snaking 200 miles through northern Portugal, Rio Douro (or "river of gold" in English) may be the world's most beautiful wine region.
Douro means "river of gold" and the dying rays of sunset give the waters a gilded glow. Among the five bridges spanning the Douro in Porto, the oldest, Ponte Maria Pia, is a curving iron arc built in 1877 by Gustave Eiffel, the tower guy.
"I love the bridges, especially Ponte Dom Luís I, which has two levels, one down below, the other way up above," says Ganna Bocharova, who moved to Porto 15 years ago and is part of Porto's Ukrainian community, the second-largest immigrant group after Brazilians.
"I really like it here," says Bocharova, out shopping with her family. "Porto is small and compact, you can walk or bike everywhere. The food is good, people are friendly. I'm here to stay."
MORE: The world's tastiest rail journey
Ribeira v. Alfama
Lisbon's old quarter Alfama has a lighter pastel-colored outlook comparing to Porto's Ribeira area.
PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
The historic cores of both cities comprise a plurality of medieval neighborhoods complete with winding alleys, flaking ochre facades and little squares overlooked by ancient churches.
In Lisbon, the best known is Alfama, spiritual home of Portugal's plaintive fado music, tumbling down to the Tagus. Porto's is Ribeira, clinging to the steep north bank of the Douro.
They share much in common, but are immediately distinguished by the raw material of their construction.
In Alfama, as in most of Lisbon, soft white limestone dominates. Old Porto is made of more somber gray granite. In paintwork, Alfama has lighter, more pastel shades, Ribeira prefers darker hues, and tiled facades. Ribeira is more tightly packed, more intimate, perhaps even a bit claustrophobic, but Ribeira -- for the moment -- has an advantage.
Years of tourism success have changed Alfama: These days you're more likely to hear the chatter of French tour groups than fado echoing down its lanes.
The last traditional grocery store closed in 2016. Souvenir stores and bars are mushrooming. Vacation rentals are pushing out the locals who gave the district its color.
While newer restaurants and attractions are coming to Ribeira, the historic neighborhood retains its edgy authenticity. (Rui Morais de Sousa/Turismo de Portugal)
Rui Morais de Sousa/Turismo de Portugal
Similar changes are coming to Ribeira, but it retains more of its edgy authenticity.
"Ribeira has those old taverns, a culture of tradition, that's characteristic of an old people. It's got good restaurants and then there's the river, the most beautiful part of our River Douro," says Maria Olinda Ramisio, a stalwart stallholder in another icon of old Porto, the Bolhão market, which has been providing the city with vitals since 1950.
Ramisio's sells tripe, blood sausage and other offaly treats like chouriço sausage made from pork marinated in port wine. Naturally, she has opinions on where to eat well in Ribeira, recommending the riverside Filha da Mãe Preta and D. Tonho restaurants.
Filha da Mãe Preta, Cais da Ribeira 39, 4050 Porto; +351 22 205 5515
D. Tonho, Cais da Ribeira 13-15, 4050-509 Porto; +351 22 200 4307
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Battle of the beaches
Lisbon's beaches stretch from the mouth of the Tangus to mainland Europe's most westerly point, near Sintra (in the picture).
Turismo de Lisboa
Both Porto and Lisbon are blessed with their proximity to miles and miles of Atlantic-splashed sand.
The capital's beach life starts at the mouth of the Tagus, stretches around the tony resort of Cascais, up to the blustery coves of mainland Europe's most westerly point near Sintra and the surfer hideouts further north. Across the river is the 20-kilometer (12-mile) curve of soft sand of Costa da Caparica and the golden crescents of soft sand cut in to the Arrábida hills.
Porto's beaches are even closer.
The resort of Foz sits within the city limits, where the Douro meets the ocean. Its strips of sand interspersed with rocky outcrops running north beyond the promenade are among Portugal's best urban beaches.
Foz also contains some of Porto's poshest real estate, plus a collection of hip boutiques, cool bars and trendy restaurants.
"Foz is an area that not so many tourists come to, they tend to stay in the center, but it's beautiful here. We've got the river, the sea, the beaches, great shops and restaurants. They should come out here," says Marta Marques, who designs children's fashion for the Foz-based Piupiuchick brand.
Undiscovered by many tourists, Foz boasts a collection of hip boutiques, cool bars and trendy restaurants.(Photo by Associação de Turismo do Porto e Norte, CC BY NC ND)
Associação de Turismo do Porto e Norte
For a bite, she recommends the Casa Vasco: "It's a small place, that's always full all through the day, at lunch time, or after work, when people drop by for a drink. It's relaxed, the terrace is always packed."
South of the Douro is the broad sandy shore of Espinho, further north is an almost unbroken string of beaches for every taste running up to the Spanish border, barely an hour away.
"Being primarily seen as a city break, many don't make the short hope down to the fabulous beaches we have," says Chef Ricardo Costa, whose restaurant in the fabulous The Yeatman hotel perched above Douro earned its second Michelin star this year (The Yeatman, Rua do Choupelo, 4400-088 Vila Nova de Gaia; +351 22 013 3100).
"On the south side of the Douro River there is 15 kilometers (almost 10 miles) of blue-flag beaches which are long and sandy and maintained in excellent condition. Lined by wooden walkways and cafés and restaurants, it's the perfect place to pass a lazy afternoon in the summer."
Of course, Costa also has an interest in what lies beneath those Atlantic waters.
"The fish market in Matosinhos is also a great experience," he says. "You need to get up early, it starts at about 5 a.m., but if you're a foodie it's a morning well spent."
Late risers can always sample Matosinhos' seafood over lunch, the ocean-front suburb is packed with superlative marisqueiras (seafood restaurants.)
Who owns the night ?
A night at Porto's uber-hip Galeria de Paris won't disappoint. (Photo by Município do Porto, CC BY-NC-SA)
Município do Porto
"The nightlife is amazing here. There are new places opening all the time, a bar on every corner. The atmosphere is really special."
So says Teresa Campos, student of nutrition at the University of Porto, as she takes a break from entertaining passersby as part of her tuna. Tunas are bands of student troubadours, clad in traditional black university capes who wander Portuguese cities playing guitars and singing folk tunes.
Campos and comrades of her all-girl troupe recommend the happening bars around Praça dos Leões and the ultra-hip Galerias de Paris area.
There are plenty of fancy new places for drinking and dancing the night away, but their favorite is Café Piolho, opened in 1909 and a hangout for generations of students. It served as a dissident meeting place during Portugal's long dictatorship. "Everybody goes there," says Campos. It's open from 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. (Café Piolho, Praça de Parada Leitão 45, 4050-011 Porto, +351 22 200 3749).
An old fishing shop-turned-canned fish bar, Sol e Pesca is one of the traditional bars at Cais do Sodré in Lisbon.
PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Of course, Lisbon is not exactly the sort of place where the young people are tucked up in front of the TV with a cup of cocoa at 10 p.m. The party scene in bar-backed neighborhoods like Bairro Alto and Cais do Sodré, and riverside clubs like Luz and Urban Beach are magnets for night owls from around Europe.
READ: 20 of Europe's most beautiful hotels -- from Ireland to Greece
Port v. Ginjinha
In battle of the beverages, Porto has a clear edge.
Lisbon's most typical tipple is ginjinha, a sweet, cherry-based liqueur sold in shots from venerable hole-in-the-wall joints around Rossio Square.
Port: Maybe the city's best gift to the (booze) world.
CS Hotels, Golf & Resorts
Porto's gift to the booze world is altogether more noble.
Port, which takes its name from the city, has been revered as one of the great wines for centuries, beloved by English lords, Russian tsars and connoisseurs the world over.
It's made from grapes grown up on the Douro wine region, a magnificent, UNESCO World Heritage site, made up of terraced slopes rising up from the meandering river, that starts about an hour upstream from Porto.
Basic wines are shipped down to the historic wine lodges in Gaia on the south bank where they are blended with brandy and left to ripen in bottles and barrels until they they reach their full grandeur.
"The whole port wine culture is completely unique. It's something really special. You've got all those wine lodges across the river that are centuries old, where the wine is left to mature," says João Brás, owner of Castelo Santa Catarina, Porto's quirkiest hotel, housed in a towering mock-medieval folly build in 1887 as a textile tycoon's mansion.
"Visitors should definitely visit the wine cellars, they all offer tours and tastings. There are basic tasting with the regular wines, but they should pay a bit more to sample the vintages."