Few countries the size of Portugal can boast about having two World Cities*. Gamma cities are defined as those linking smaller economic regions into the world economy. Porto is one of them. And we dare saying it is a special one.
First, a famous fortified wine is named after the city. Porto lies and flourished on the mouth of the Douro river – in whose valley the unique grapes found in Port wine grow – thus naturally becoming the base for the Port wine global expansion. Although the Douro valley was renowned for its quality vines since ancient times, the name Port (or Vinho do Porto) to designate the wine became established in the 1600s with the commercial treaties between Portugal and England. Notably, the 1703 Methuen Treaties gave Port wine its big push into the British markets and ultimately to nowadays dessert menus the world over.
In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal, Portugal’s prime minister whose influence and power had been enhanced by his handling of the catastrophic earthquake which had destroyed most of the city of Lisbon the previous year, established state control over the Port wine trade in the form of a company, the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro, with a monopoly on trade with England and Brazil as well as the production and sale of brandy in the north of Portugal. In 1757 the first comprehensive classification of the Port vineyards was carried out (almost a century before a similar exercise was carried out in Bordeaux).
Second, it named its country. With a history dating back to 300BC, the settlement of Cale was renamed Portus Cale when the Romans conquered the Region in the second century AD. Portus Cale became commonly used to designate the region between the Douro and Minho rivers (the latter sets the current northern border of Portugal). It evolved to Portucale and its modern form of Portugal, eventually baptizing the whole country as it expanded southwards.
But Porto’s allure is not just in its antonym or history. Its charisma is very real, its charms well set in the present. The cultural and economic centre of an urban area with more than 2 million inhabitants, its diversity and dynamism can be noted on many fields. Porto’s natives (Portuenses) often say – In their distinctive Portuguese accent – that Porto is a Nation (o Porto é uma Nacão) and garishly defend its uniqueness. And they have good reason to do so.
Porto’s historic centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, crediting its long and diversified architecture. The Cathedral and the Clérigos Tower or, shifting focus to indoor beauty, Livraria Lello (bookshop) and Café Majestic, are just examples of the city’s eye candy. Stylish Rua de Santa Catarina, the picturesque Ribeira (Douro’s waterfront), the Port wine cellars (Caves) or the iconic high bridges are no longer well-kept secrets. We don’t know how much these surroundings inspired J.K. Rowling, but with the first chapters of Harry Potter having been drafted when she lived in Porto, we take the liberty of assuming a bit of the city lives in the top-selling books.
In 2001 Porto shared (with Rotterdam) the designation of European Capital of Culture, which left Casa da Música as architectural innovative legacy. Feeding much of the city’s cultural life, Rem Koolhaas’s Casa da Música hosts three orchestras and a cultural foundation. From the turn of the century, the establishment of the Serralves Museum (designed by Alvaro Siza Vieira) is noteworthy. Nowadays it is one of the most visited museums in Portugal and an European reference in contemporary art.
More recently, The European Destinations Agency attributed Porto the title of The Best European Destination three times (2012, 2014 and 2017). With the establishment of more international flights (Ryanair established a hub in Porto) and the renewed interest of international travellers, Porto’s tourism industry is booming. Many foreigners are also choosing to call the city home.
The food scene in Portugal owes something to Porto as well. The fleet that kicked off the Portuguese – and indeed European – maritime expansion set off from the city, in the year 1415, to conquer the North African trade centre of Ceuta. Having sacrificed all the meat available to the expeditionary force, all that remained to the population were the guts (tripas). Necessity is the mother of invention: with only the animal guts to work with, the local ‘chefs’ channelled their creativity to make a delicious dish. Six centuries later, tripas à moda do Porto are a mandatory dish in the Portuguese gastronomy and the nickname tripeiros lives on to title someone from Porto. The much younger Francesinha (Little Frenchie) may not carry such a noble history. A rich sandwich (ham, sausages, steak, cheese) on a unique sauce (based on tomato and beer), it is said to result from an emigrant in France and Belgium, who tried to introduce the croquet-monsieur in Portugal, during the 1960s, only to find little enthusiasm. Although he was from the Alentejo, he moved to Porto and introduced some adaptations. They were obviously well received, as the Francesinha went on to become a cultural symbol of Porto.
The cultural journey of the city shall not overlook its passionate football culture. With two top clubs in the Portuguese League, FC Porto and FC Boavista, each with impressive city stadiums built for the Portugal-hosted Euro 2004 UEFA Cup, the city proudly became a powerhouse of football over the last decades. Tension and excitement are always in the air when the two city clubs meet or, even better, when the Lisbon rivals Benfica or Sporting visit.
The dynamism of Porto goes much beyond tourism and culture, however. The entrepreneurial spirit lies in the soul of the city. It has always played a key role in the country’s economy and its metropolitan area hosts many of its largest corporations. Having established itself as the main economic centre of the North, Porto is a central piece in of much of the activities that take place in the Region. Much like with the case of Port wine, the heavily industrialized Northwest of Portugal sees in Porto a key point of contact with the rest of the world. Industries like textile, clothing, footwear, food processing, paper, cork, metalworking, chemicals and oil refining are but a few examples that have a strong regional presence and critically rely on Porto.
Porto may indeed be a Nation within a Nation. But year after year it’s also been crossing borders and setting its foot deeper in the world.