Why go now?
Porto is a city on the rise, tempting travellers with its pretty old town, excellent wine bars and golden rooftops. This isn’t a destination for those who want up-to-the-minute cool – this is the spot for long, seafood dinners, slow strolls through sleepy streets and a white port and tonic as the sun sets. It’s traditional Portugal at its finest, without the crowds of Lisbon or the tackiness of the Algarve. And with the addition of a new service from Monarch and a wealth of other budget flights available, it’s never been easier to get there.
Get your bearings
The rambling old town forms the heart of the city, with beautiful buildings adorned with tiles and sloping, cobbled streets. The Douro River underlines the city, with Vila Nova de Gaia just over the bridge. As both slope down towards the river, it’s not hard to find a great viewpoint of the terracotta rooftops and dreamy architecture. There are a few great spots further out of the city, but for the most part you’ll be fine exploring on foot. The tourist office (1) can be found on 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos (00351 223 393472; visitporto.travel) and is open every day from 9am-7pm or 8pm in high summer.
Take a hike
Start at São Bento train station (2), purely to take in its incredible interior. Inside, the walls are lined with illustrative blue and white tiles, depicting scenes of former battles and the history of transportation. From there, stroll up to Liberty Square (3), past the gorgeous façades of the surrounding buildings, and head up Rua das Carmelitas to Igreja do Carmo (4), another example of a stunning tiled façade. From there, hit up the Bombarda district around Miguel Bombarda Street (5), for cool street art, galleries, vintage shops and cafés (bearing in mind most won’t open until midday).
Porto is punctuated by the Douro river (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Lunch on the run
You can’t leave town without trying a Francesinha. This meat-laden sandwich is a kind of devil’s croque monsieur, filled with ham, sausage and steak, doused in melted cheese and slathered in a hot tomato sauce. The best place to pick one up (figuratively – this is definitely a knife and fork job) is Cervejaria Brasão (6) (brasao.pt), a popular local spot. Book in advance, order a glass of Super Bock beer and stick to just a half portion (€7.40) – it’s more than enough.
Book lovers will adore Livraria Lello (7) (livrarialello.pt), one of the most visited bookshops in the world. You have to get a ticket (€5.50, redeemable against purchase) to enter, and if you don’t get in early you’ll be fighting the crowds, but it’s worth it. JK Rowling wrote the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when she lived in Porto, and you can feel the influence of this bookstore, with its intricately carved bookshelves and elaborate winding staircase. You’ll find all the European high street shops on Rua de Santa Catarina (8), with cute delis and pastry shops down Rua Formosa.
Porto is stuffed with little wine shops that serve up glasses of excellent Portuguese vintages for a euro or two. But this is the city of Port, so it would be rude not to indulge. Most of the port wine cellars are over the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia, with beautiful views back to Porto. Head to the rooftop bar of Espaço Porto Cruz (9) (porto-cruz.com) and order a Cruz Rosemary (€6) with white port, ginger, rosemary and tonic.
Grab a francesinha, the ultimate sandwich (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Dine with the locals
Stroll back over the Luís I Bridge and you’ll find a parade of restaurants lining the riverside. FishFixe (10) (00351 917 625 408, facebook.com/FishFixe) has tables by the water and the higgledy-piggledy restaurant itself is more than charming. Unsurprisingly, it’s a fish-heavy menu, doling up local catches like sea bass alongside tapas-style starters.
One of the hottest tables in the old town is Cantinho do Avillez (11) (cantinhodoavillez.pt) from hotshot chef José Avillez. There’s a global and slightly molecular feel to the menu, but the simple Hazelnut dessert is the showstopper, with creamy mousse, ice cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.
Out to brunch
Porto is just turning on to brunch, but it’s not served everywhere. Try O Diplomata (12) (00351 960 188 203, facebook.com/odiplomatabar) for pancakes loaded with fresh fruit or melted chocolate. Alternatively, head into a confeitaria and pick up a custard tart or a pastéis de bacalhau (codfish fritter) to eat in one of the squares. For a caffeine kick, order a Cimbalinho (espresso) and you won’t be disappointed – coffee here is taken very seriously.
A walk in the park
The Jardins do Palácio de Cristal (13) make for the perfect stroll, with beautiful views of the city from lookout points. The resident peacocks swanning around the gardens are a neat touch, too. Walk the whole loop and you’ll have a great view of Vila Nova de Gaia and the river, with manicured gardens in between.
Porto is the birthplace of port (Getty Images)
Take a ride
For the most part, you’ll hardly need public transport, as the old town and the city centre are compact and easily walkable. But if you want to explore further afield, the Metro (en.metrodoporto.pt) will get you where you want to go. You’ll pay an initial 60c for a card, then rides cost between €1.20 and €2.75, depending on the zone. If you want to take in the local scenery, a river cruise will show off the length of the Douro – try DouroAzul (douroazul.com), which offers hour-long river cruises from 9.30am-6pm every day (from €12).
Take the metro out to Casa da Música (14) (casadamusica.com) and take a tour of the concert hall and home of the symphony orchestra – the innovative architecture is fascinating, and you might just catch a whisper of rehearsals. Tours in English run daily at 11am and 4pm and cost €7.50. Afterwards, take the 203 bus to the Museum of Contemporary Art (15) (serralves.pt) at Serralves. Get a ticket that combines the museum, the art deco Serralves Villa and the gardens for €16. In the summer, it’s open every day bar Tuesday from 10am-7pm (8pm on weekends).
Visit Porto’s futuristic-looking concert hall, Casa da Musica (Getty Images)
The icing on the cake
The Yeatman (16) (the-yeatman-hotel.com) is one of the most highly regarded hotels in Portugal, and with good reason. It’s not just for guests, either – locals head over the river to enjoy a glass of wine and the view back over to Porto. If you can swing it, The Restaurant is the only spot in Porto with two Michelin stars, and dining there is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (dinner starts at €100 for four courses).
Monarch (monarch.co.uk) flies to Porto from Birmingham, Luton and Manchester, with fares starting at £42 one-way. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, Edinburgh and Liverpool year round, and Birmingham seasonally, from £19.99 one-way.
The airport (17) is seven miles out of the city centre. The easiest way in is by Metro – the purple line runs into the city centre every 20 minutes, and costs €2.55. A taxi will take 20 to 30 minutes and cost between €20 and €30.
On one of the cutest streets in the city, the Mercador (18) (porto.mercador.com.pt) is a charming, pastel-hued guesthouse with stylish rooms at a great price. Doubles from €101, B&B.
Smack bang in the middle of the city, Hotel Teatro (19) (hotelteatro.pt) is a sleek, central option. Doubles from €150, B&B.
The Yeatman (16) (the-yeatman-hotel.com) has some of the best views in town (especially from the infinity pool) and an extensive, yet reasonably priced, wine list. Doubles from €315, B&B.