Porto: Europe’s Newest Design Capital

Registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, the historic center of Porto in northern Portugal is located along the Douro River facing the Liberdade Square, Porto’s main city square, placing groups within walking distance to oodles of cultural highlights. Just a few of these include the Bolhão Market, a 2-tier building selling everything from fresh fruit to household goods; and the Ribeira, a medieval district filled with Art Deco restaurants from the Belle Epoque ending at the riverfront square, Praça da Ribeira. Whatever you do, check out the 88 year-old Cafe Majestic, regarded as one of the 10 most beautiful bistros in the world.

Mostly, Porto is recognized for its famous port wine, derived from the Portuguese word for “port.” Not so well known, Porto is a hotbed for creative innovation in design and architecture that melds protected historic buildings with contemporary and avant garde design. The region gained international press this year with local architect Eduardo Souto de Moura winning the Pritzker Architecture Prize–the Nobel Prize for architecture sponsored by The Hyatt Foundation.

Here are some of the highlights:

On the hotel front, the 105-room InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas opened on Liberdade Square in July after a $43 million renovation. It occupies a 250 year-old palace originally built as a monastery, with towering ceilings and arches trimmed out with massive crown molding and MoMA-worthy chandeliers. The legendary Cafe Astoria on the ground floor has been the most popular place for fresh pastries in Porto since the early 1900s, while the SQUARE Restaurant serves fine dining Portuguese, also blending new and old recipes.

Eduardo Souto de Moura’s works include the 2004 Braga Soccer Stadium, inspired by ancient South American Inca bridges.

Moura also designed the Burgo Tower in Porto, a 20-story building adjacent to another structure described by the Pritzker jury as “two buildings side by side in dialogue with each other and the urban landscape.” It is credited as one of Europe’s first mid-Century modern buildings.

Another one of Moura’s work includes a subway segment in Porto, where the many one-way streets make it more convenient for travelers to use public transportation like the metro, buses, trams and trains. Or just walk.

Casa da Musica (House of Music) is a major performance space designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Finished in 2005, the new venue has become an icon. Some call it the most important concert hall built in the last 100 years. It houses three orchestras: Orquestra Nacional do Porto, Orquestra Barroca and Remix Ensemble.

And the new Casa das Historias Paula Rego Museum is a structure of two pyramid-shaped towers in red-colored concrete in Cascais. The museum, the “House of Stories,” opened in 2000 and showcases the works of renowned Portuguese contemporary artist Paula Rego. An auditorium is available to groups of up to 200 for meetings.