There’s no better way to get your bearings in the beautiful northern Portuguese city of Porto than to take a cruise up the Douro River and through the historical city centre, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Built on the steep hills alongside the river, Porto, unlike Lisbon, hasn’t suffered any major disasters. So its medieval quarters are better preserved, as are the Sé Cathedral, with its stunning views, and the S. Francisco Church with its beautiful gilt woodwork interior.
The cellars that are home to Port — the sweet, fortified wine — are in Gaia, on the other side of the river. Beginners should take a cellar tour: you’ll learn about the wine’s history, the different types of Port and at the end, you’ll get to sample the wine itself. Taylor, Ferreira, Sandeman and Ramos Pinto are some of the cellars worth visiting.
Make another stop for a drink on the river in the Ribeira neighbourhood — a very popular spot by night — or simply admire the bridges immortalized by the famous and prolific local filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who, at age 100, is the oldest active film director in the world.
Don’t forget to walk through the city’s main arts thoroughfare, Miguel Bombarda, which is lined with some 20 galleries and home to some intense partying when new exhibits are opened.
The Atlantic is near, so when the city buzz gets tiring, enjoy a refreshing walk at the Foz do Douro, where the river meets the ocean. For something unexpected, visit Palácio da Bolsa, the Stock Exchange Palace, with its neo-Moorish hall inside.
Cruising on the Douro
There are several ways to cruise up the river, according to your budget, timeframe or preferred size of boat. It’s a relaxing way to enjoy the vine-covered slopes of the Douro Valley, which was the world’s first demarcated wine region. Take a one-day return trip or return by train and boat.
Art and nature in Serralves
Make a stop in the beautiful setting of the Serralves Foundation, home to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which hosts o the city’s best exhibitions. Don’t miss the huge park, with its guided tours and kid-friendly activities.
Casa da Música
This innovative building by Rem Koolhaas has been acclaimed for its extraordinary architecture. Purpose-built as a music venue, the House of Music stages concerts from classical to jazz. Take a look inside at the artfully-lit spaces, twisted staircases and improbable angles.
Good to know
Where to stay: Star Inn, a modern low-cost design hotel, has the best deals, from about $55, hotelstarinn.com. The best views are on offer at the heritage hotel Pestana Porto. From $270, www.pestana.com.
Where to eat: Try Casa Aleixo (R. da Estação 216) for its famous fish and octopus fillets; the city’s speciality, tripe; and aletria (sweet noodles) for dessert.
Dishes to try: More appealing than tripe is Francesinhas, similar to a croque monsieur but with sausage and other ingredients as well as a special sauce.
When to go: Spring and autumn are appealing in Porto, but the night of June 23 is an unforgettable experience as everyone takes to the street to celebrate the patron saint, S. João. If you go, be warned: The tradition is to hit one another with plastic hammers or long leeks.