Look out, Porto! With the opening of a compelling new museum complex, neighbouring Vila Nova de Gaia is luring travellers to the other side of the Douro. By Chadner Navarro
The people of Porto, Portugal, like to joke that the best thing about Vila Nova de Gaia—their lesser-known neighbour on the opposite bank of the Douro River—is its view of Porto. Naturally, Gaia residents don’t take too kindly to that. (As someone who proudly lives across the Hudson River from New York City, I can empathise.)
But after last year’s high-profile opening of World of Wine , an entertainment district that champions Portugal’s cultural and wine-making legacy, this unassuming city of 3,00,000 is no longer known merely as Porto’s sleepy little sister. It’s the most buzz Gaia has seen since the great port producers set up shop centuries ago, lured away from Porto by milder temperatures and fewer taxes.
The first time I visited northern Portugal, in 2012, I stayed at The Yeatman, a luxury hotel set on one of Gaia’s riverside hills. The property’s grand reputation preceded it. Everyone I knew in Portugal raved about the Michelin-starred restaurant, the pools, the views. Meandering from one pastel-hued room to another, I was charmed by the Yeatman’s genteel romance. And when I craved a bit of whimsy, I plunged into the pool , a voluptuous, decanter-shaped refuge from the heat of high summer.
But everything about the property is oriented toward the imperial city across the river: every table at the restaurant, every bathtub, every treatment table at the spa. My days were spent in Porto: searching for the best francesinha, the cheese-smothered Portuguese answer to the croque-monsieur; exploring the contemporary-art-focussed Serralves Museum; perusing the aisles of the legendary bookstore Livraria Lello. Yes, I was sleeping in Gaia; my stay, however, revolved entirely around Porto. So maybe the joke was true.
In the decade since, the effects of Porto’s booming tourism industry have crossed the river, and investment has begun pouring into Gaia. But it wasn’t until the opening of World of Wine (WOW) last summer that Gaia cemented itself as a worthy rival. The size of seven American football fields, WOW is like its own neighbourhood, where terracotta warehouses seamlessly blend with port caves. There are 12 dining venues, including a restaurant serving traditional dishes such as caldo verde (potato-and-collard soup) and bacalhau com broa (cod with corn bread), a cafe dedicated to dessert, and even a fish-and-chips bar. There’s also a wine school that offers workshops for enthusiasts of every level.
Most game-changing of all, the complex—which took six years and USD 117 million to complete—houses several world-class art spaces, a nod to the kind of cultural district common in European capitals but previously non-existent in Portugal.
World of Wine’s cultural attractions include Planet Cork, where Portugal’s cork-producing heritage is exhibited through all the things that can be wrought from the material, including a surfboard created by Garrett McNamara, conqueror of the skyscraper-high waves off the Portuguese town of Nazaré. The country’s design and textile industry, now on the rise again, is celebrated at the Fashion & Fabric Museum. This restored 18th-century building displays fashion innovations from Portuguese designers, including Olga Noronha’s sneakers made from hair and a porcelain wig by Nuno Gama, alongside frescoes by Baroque artist Nicolau Nasoni. And then there’s the Bridge Collection, where World of Wine CEO Adrian Bridge shows his impressive personal haul of drinking vessels that span 9,000 years of history.
On a recent visit to the city, I wandered the alleys of the Cais de Gaia neighbourhood to 7g Roaster, a third-wave coffee shop where a vertical garden and warm wood set the mood for filtered coffee made with beans sourced from Colombia and Ethiopia. Upstairs, 7g runs the similarly design-forward 7g Roaster Apartments, a group of light-drenched vacation rentals with sleek, Scandi-style decor. Nearby, at chef José Cordeiro’s Blini(entrées INR 1,251–INR 3,163), I ate my weight in rice piled with razor fish and salt cod.
I checked in to the three-year-old House of Sandeman Hostel & Suites, a partnership between Independente Collective—a Portuguese hospitality group known for chic accommodations and bars—and Sandeman, one of the country’s historic port producers. My suite was done up in the vintage-inspired mix-and-match aesthetic that the brand is known for—a Wes Anderson lite, with gallery walls and record players. Of course, like any Gaia venue worth its salt, there were also plenty of French balconies offering postcard-perfect glimpses of Porto’s skyscape. On the patio, where the property hosts live music events, I sipped crisp Sandeman port-and-tonics before crossing one of the six bridges that span the Douro for dinner in Porto.
On the last day of my trip, I walked three kilometres along the river from the hotel to Afurada, a quaint fishing village that’s today part of Gaia, to have lunch at seafood restaurant Armazém do Peixe(entrées INR 2,428–INR 3,3100). Bright wooden boats glided by, and in the air were plumes of smoke perfumed with sardines as restaurants grilled the day’s catch.
On a small lot, women dressed head to toe in black were hanging their laundry out to dry, and lines of clothes billowed under the sun. It was as classic a Portuguese moment as I could think of and—for that evening at least—enough to make me forget there was anything to see on the other side of the Douro.
The Yeatman is a luxury hotel set on a riverside hill and overlooking Porto and the Douro. Doubles from INR 29,217.
7g Roaster Apartments are sleek with Scandi-style decor. Doubles from INR 11,256
House of Sandeman Hostel & Suites offers chic accommodation in a historic building. Doubles from INR 6,253
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