PORTO, Lisbon - Depending how you feel about carefully developed tourist attractions, the label “Disneyland for adults” might not sound too appealing.
But for this curious and gluttonous adult, spending a few days fully immersed in food and wine, fashion and textiles, architecture and nature, heritage and craft, ecology and chocolate, and culture and history was a slice of smart and tasty heaven.
All things considered, the better description for my first trip to Porto would be "wow."
More than accurate, it's literal because I spent the majority of my five days at WOW, the New Cultural District. Launched in 2020 and originally called World of Wine (hence "WOW"), the complex includes seven interactive and educational museums, a dozen bars and restaurants, a wine school, shops, and event and temporary exhibition spaces, all housed in former port wine warehouses that have been converted and refit for the 21st century. The immense, €107 million project is the creation of my host, The Fladgate Partnership, the port wine consortium whose labels include Taylor's, Fonseca, Croft, and Krohn, led by CEO Adrian Bridge.
Let's talk about geography for a second. WOW is located in Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side of the Douro River across from Porto. ("Vila nova" translates as "new village," but it's more commonly referred to as simply "Gaia.") The Atlantic Ocean is a few miles to the west; the Douro Valley and its famous vineyards are an hour down river to the east. The distance between Porto and Gaia is so narrow you could swim it, but it's more picturesque to walk along the upper or lower levels of Ponte Luís I, depending whether you want to be along the waterfront or uphill, both of which have their offerings and sites.
Now let's talk about history, past to present. Notwithstanding its great tradition of exploration, Portugal is an historically conservative country, and for far too long, the Catholic Church and its iron-fisted bishops not only ruled Porto but had a tendency to hoard all the best real estate for themselves. Gaia was the industrial area of Porto, filled with warehouses used for wine and port production — storage, bottling, administration, and shipping. Traditionally, the wine produced in the Douro Valley was aged in Gaia's warehouses before being shipped around the world. The fastest way for the juice to make the journey on special rabelo boats was often the most perilous: The Douro River is shallow and speedy, and more than a few barrels end up on the bottom of the river. (One imagines that afternoon dips in the sunshine left swimmers a little tipsy.) Today the wine is shipped via train or efficient highway, with rabelos now used as in-river billboards for the port companies or as transport for tourists across or along the river.
With the passage of time and the evolution of traditions and regulations, more and more companies began aging their wines and ports where they were harvested in the Douro Valley, leaving their warehouses to fall into disrepair and abandon. Some were converted into port wine tasting rooms, but the city already has more than the market can sustain. Thus Gaia, like many warehouse districts around the world that no longer serve their original industrial purposes, found itself ripe for redevelopment in recent decades.
The same time, by the way, that Portugal began growing in popularity with travelers, and that former investment banker Adrian Bridge became managing director of the Taylor Fonseca Port Group, expanding the company and its portfolio into The Fladgate Partnership. Affable and charming yet also no nonsense, Bridge immediately struck me as a let's-get-it-done, cut-through-red-tape, make-it-great visionary. I could totally imagine him looking onto his expanse of warehouses, wondering how he could leverage them not only to drive business in innovative and engaging ways but also to take advantage of growing interest from tourists hungry for new experiences. Well, Mr. Bridge, mission accomplished.
I spent a few days at WOW, with a good three or four hours dedicated to each of its seven museums. Because I'm that nerd who looks at and reads everything, it wasn't enough for me. (To each their own: My husband was through every one a solid hour before me.) The museums all have engaging interactive elements, immersive displays, reams of educational text, full- and oversized dioramas, tasting areas, recreated cityscapes, and personalization options (do you know how much you weigh in wine corks or what your wine personality is?). Let me break them down.
The cups, goblets, vases, ewers, and other drinking vessels cover 9,000 years of drinking. I saw Chinese blackware, alabaster from Mesopotamia, and pottery from Canaan — and that's just from the 3rd century B.C.E. (Wine in Canaan? I wanted to call Sister Margaret and talk about Jesus's first water-to-wine miracle.) Zipping through time, I took photos of Egyptian blue turquoise (circa 1150 B.C.E), a Roman glass chalice (5th century C.E.), Mesoamerican silver (1438-1533), delicate glass from the Venetian golden age of the 17th century, and a collapsible silver cup with built-in compass used by soldiers in World War I (talk about needing a drink). This is Adrian Bridge's stunning and exhaustive personal collection — an assemblage that museums like the V&A in London and the Met in New York City would probably give an eyetooth to make theirs. The Collector's Choice piece of the month when I was there was a 1695 silver tankard originally owned by Sir Edward Astley of Norfolk. In the video narrated by Adrian, I learned that tankards had lids not only to keep detritus from falling into the swill but also to make it harder to poison the drinker. Cheers!
This exhibition is designed to demystify wine, starting with a giant cross-section of a grape. I leaned about soil types, roots, varietals, and the difference between wine grapes and table grapes. (Wine grapes are smaller, with seeds, more juice, thicker skins, and more sugar.) I followed a year in the life cycle of a grape vines around the world (pruning happens in January in the northern hemisphere and in July in the southern), learned the influence of oak on wine, and walked into an oversized wine barrel. According to the interactive What Grape Are You? quiz I took, I'm an arinto, a "versatile, high-quality white grape used to produce lively and sophisticated still or Champagne white wines." In the playful corresponding portrait evoking the grape, Arinto is likened to "a stylish independent woman, equally at home in every situation." (Muito obrigada. I'll take it.) A "street" meant to evoke a traditional Portuguese town is lined with rooms dedicated to every different wine region in the country. The corresponding video is, according to my notes, "totally mesmerizing." The Aroma experience at the end includes sniffing stations and a guided tasting.
My vinicultural education got even deeper in a workshop at The Wine School, another WOW offering. Portuguese wine is the main focus — the country has some 250 indigenous grape varieties, so there's plenty to cover — but international wines are also covered in the small (no more than six participants) and engaging discussion and tastings that explores wine's structural characteristics, aromas and flavors, and color.
You know what I didn't expect to care about so much? Cork. Turns out this tree is a wonder, and will probably help save the world from its imminent destruction. Why do I say that? Because its bark not only totally regenerates every nine years, but one tree can absorb about 14 million tonnes of CO2 every year — 3-5 times more than what a regular tree can do — and can live up to 200 years. Portugal produces 55 percent of the world's cork, a number that keeps rising, which is no bad thing because, in addition to those aforementioned qualities, cork is 100 percent natural, recyclable, renewable, and nothing in the plant is wasted. The Ancient Egyptians used cork to fish; to the Ancient Greeks, corks symbolized freedom. The Romans used it for roofing and military footwear; the Coca-Cola company used it as a bottle stopper from 1886 until the 1960s. Today, cork has found its way into surfboards, yoga blocks, Olympic kayaks, fashion runways, and onto the space shuttle. For €1, I got a cork stopper engraved with the name of my brother's restaurant. (Happy birthday, Peter.) For free, I stepped on a scale and learned I weigh just under 13,000 cork wine stoppers. The dazzling array of objects for sale in the museum shop shows just how versatile a material cork is.
I did expect to like this museum experience, and I was not disappointed. Portugal is an incredibly important global center for textile manufacturing. How important? Well, in 2019, the country produced enough fabric to wrap around the equator eight times. (Planet Earth, I don't have to remind you, is widest at its waistline.) Leather production is also very important, with 90 percent exported around the world, making it one of Portugal's fastest-growing industries. Exhibitions and displays are dedicated to fashion from raw thread to finished product, with spaces dedicated to great Portuguese crafts of footwear and filigree jewelry, and, on the top floor, contemporary fashions. The museum is not housed in a warehouse but rather in an 18th-century home that has always been owned by wealthy merchants. An unexpected and beautiful stop in the museum is the chapel attached to the house created by Italian-born Portuguese Baroque architect and painter Nicolau Nasoni. The chapel and what remains of its frescoes have been carefully restored. The museum exit is through a fashion boutique, one of several shops in an arcade in a converted warehouse.
For five millennia we have been transforming cacao into bites and beverages, and for many chocolate isn't a snack so much as it's an obsession. Here's the place to fuel the passion and discover the origins of the treat, see how it goes from plant to package, and learn why it was so sacred for the Maya and so charged for many others. Fun fact from a display: In 1662, "Pope Alexander VII officially decrees chocolate 'Liquidum non frangit jejunem' ['Liquids (including chocolate) do not break the fast'], ending the long-standing controversy around the consumption of chocolate during Lent." A timeline places chocolate into historical perspective (George Washington included chocolate in soldiers' rations during the American War of Independence); framed vintage advertisements reveal that Lindt and Venchi have been marketing their wares for ages. Videos show people harvesting the plant; smelling stations let visitors sniff the difference between Madagascar and Indonesia varietals. Once you've learned about chocolate and how to market it, you might be inspired make your own. You can personalize bars (they make great souvenirs) through an automated kiosk. Or for a serious, hands-on, behind the scenes deep dive at roasting, melting, blending, tempering, and tasting, take a tour of The Chocolate Factory or sign up for a port and chocolate tasting workshop with one of the master chocolatiers.
Yes, friends, there's more to Porto than wine, food, and fashion. There's history, and it's recounted in lively ways in this museum, which I really did not spend enough time visiting. Favorable geographic conditions — access to the ocean, a mild climate, a navigable river, and fertile terroir — have made Porto an attractive destination since the dawn of human time, starting with the Middle Paleolithic 120,000 years ago and into the Iron Age, when the Celts called Gaia "Cale." The Ancient Romans kept the name and referred to the town across the river as "Portus Cale," thought to be the precursor to "Portugal." (Say it quickly.) Fast forward about a thousand years, and we get to the golden age of discovery, and the ugly ages of conquest, colonization, and wars. History: It ain't always pretty.
A museum experience dedicated to rosé wine with photo-ready stations set up with wine bottles you can climb into, beach umbrellas you can lounge under, vertical garden walls with pink flowers, a vintage pink Cadillac you can pretend to drive, and a pink ball pit with flamingoes and watermelons? Well, this one is a little silly, and perhaps best enjoyed at happy hour (you get several glasses of rosé along the tour) or else skipped altogether if, like me, you're allergic to spaces that seem to have been created purely for their Instagram value. (Yes, okay, I got into the pool and even took selfies, but I sure as hell didn't share them anywhere.)
Oh, You're Thirsty and Hungry?
Of course you're thirsty and hungry. All you've done is think about food and wine since you got here. On the WOW campus are a dozen bars, restaurants, and cafes. Most have themes and decor related to their corresponding museum experiences. Vinte Vinte, the chocolate cafe near The Chocolate Story, has cacao-shaped chairs and cacao-printed wallpaper, and a menu of ganaches, truffles, and brownies. 1828 steakhouse is named for the year that the Portuguese Civil War broke out. T&C on the ground floor of the Wine School is located in a renovated port wine cellar. Especially nice on a sunny day after hours in the museums was sitting outside in WOW's main plaza with a few white port spritzers and snacks, soaking in the day. At night, fun light shows are projected onto the buildings.
The best meal I ate was not at one of the dozen WOW outlets, but rather on the terrace at Barão Fladgate, the fine-dining restaurant upstairs from the Taylor's Port cellars, which I had toured earlier in the day. The meal was refined and wonderful, but the elaborate port wine pairing meant I forgot to take any notes. The grounds are lovely, and I was entertained by a peahen mothering her trio of chicks in the garden, though even more so by the arrogant rooster who strolled among the tables, stopping only to admire his reflection in a mirror. (True.)
Where to Stay
In 2010, The Fladgate Partnership opened The Yeatman Hotel, the only luxury hotel and spa in Vila Nova, into the hillside just uphill from WOW. As expected, the wine theme is strong, starting with the welcome at check-in: We were greeted with a glass of Taylor's Chip Dry port. It was only 10 a.m., but we couldn't risk insulting our hosts. So for good measure, we asked for seconds. (When in Porto...) The terraced landscaping evokes the terroir of the Douro Valley vineyards. The pool, which boasts incredible views onto Porto, is shaped like a wine decanter. All 109 rooms and suites are named for Portuguese wines and most have terraces and views onto Porto. The Bacchus suite has a round copper bathtub and a free-standing fireplace; the bed in the presidential suite is encircled by an historic port wine barrel. Floors four through nine all have different exhibits dedicated to the history of Porto and Gaia, to the Age of Discovery, to an art school collection of Galo de Barcelos, the rooster that's the symbol of Portugal.
The spa offers a range of treatments and services with Caudalie grape-infused Vinothérapie products and programs, and the Roman bath, hammam, and sauna are optimal ways to recover from overly wine-infused outings. The Yeatman Gastronomic Restaurant, led by chef Ricardo Costa, serves classic and contemporary Portuguese cuisine and has been awarded two Michelin stars. The Orangerie serves a la carte lunch and dinner, Dick's Bar & Bistro (named for Dick Yeatman, who ran Taylor's for much of the 1900s) serves 109 different wines by the glass. We had our buffet breakfast on the terrace in the sunshine every morning.
The decor in our room (#606, Quinta de Pancas) was classic, comfortably, and uninspired — painted wood headboard with matching side tables; paneled bookcase lined with bottles of port, coffee table books and novels, ceramic vases and jugs; photos of the Douro Valley; a spacious bathroom with a big tub; a desk and upholstered chair; yellow walls and blue curtains. The best part was our balcony overlooking Porto. I know I keep talking about the views, but they really are special, as evidenced by the dozens of photos I took from the breakfast terrace, our balcony, and the pool.
Plan Your Trip
Porto International Airport (OPO) — gleaming and modern, with efficient, electronic passport controls — is 20 minutes by car from The Yeatman Hotel. We walked everywhere: along the river in Vila Nova, across the bridge and all over Porto. We took Ubers when we went farther afield to Fundação de Serralves (Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art).
Entry for each museum costs 20€ with the exception of Pink Palace, which is 25€ (but you get several glasses of rosé with admission). Packages that bundle two (34€), three (45€), or five (65€) museums experiences are a much better value.