From across the Rio Douro at sunset, romantic Porto, the country’s second-largest city, looks like a pop-up town. A colourful tumbledown dream with medieval relics, soaring bell towers, extravagant baroque churches and stately beaux-arts buildings piled on top of one another, illuminated by streaming shafts of sun. If you squint you might be able to make out the open windows, the narrow lanes and staircases zigzagging to nowhere.
Porto’s historic centre is the Ribeira district, a Unesco World Heritage Site where tripeiros (Porto residents) mingle before old storefronts, on village-style plazas and in the old houses of commerce where Roman ruins lurk beneath the foundations. On the downside, here and in other parts of the city centre stand many dilapidated early-20th-century town houses, left to crumble as the young and moneyed flee to the sprawling suburbs by the sea.
Yet despite signs of decay, in the last two decades Porto has undergone a remarkable renaissance – expressed in the hum of its efficient metro system and the gleam of Álvaro Siza Vieira’s Museu de Arte Contemporânea and Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música.
Culturally, Porto is more relevant than much larger global cities. The birthplace of port, it’s a long-running mecca for wine aficionados. Riverside wine caves jockey for attention in nearby Vila Nova de Gaia, with scores of cellars open for tastings. With tasty new kitchens springing up regularly, its palate is slowly growing more cosmopolitan. And thanks to a number of superb venues, Porto residents dance to many of the world’s top rock, jazz and electronic artists. On warm summer nights many a plaza can feel like one enormous block party.
Of course, you’ll be forgiven if what you remember most are the quiet moments: the slosh of the Douro against the docks; the snap of laundry lines drying in river winds; the shuffle of a widow’s feet against cobblestone; the sound of wineglasses clinking under a full moon; the sight of young lovers discreetly tangled under a landmark bridge, on the rim of a park fountain, in the crumbling notch of a graffiti-bombed wall…
Best places to stay in Porto
Top 10 European travel destinations for 2013
Size isn’t everything: Europe is just one quarter the size of Asia, one third the size of Africa, but its pull for travellers is unmatched around the world.
Porto destination guides
The world's greatest bookshops
Bookshops are a traveller's best friend: they provide convenient shelter and diversion in bad weather, they're a reliable source of maps, notebooks, and travel guides, they often host readings and other cultural events, and if you raced through your lone paperback on the first leg of your trip, the bookshop is the place to go f.
Panoramic Porto Tour
Porto is rich with well preserved treasures, including monuments in the Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Neo-classical style. See the major sights such as Cathedral, Real Companhia Velha Port Wine Cellars, Clerigos, Foz and Boavista.
Santiago de Compostela and Viana do Castelo Day Trip from Porto
Cross the border into Spain and retrace part of St James Way – a sacred route followed by centuries of pilgrims – on a visit to Santiago de Compostela from Porto. On this memorable day trip, explore Compostela's famous cathedral and the city's UNESCO World-Heritage-listed Old Town. Back in Portugal, pay a visit to the town of Viana do Castelo during the return ride to Porto.
Urban treasures in Porto
It never takes long before people realize that Porto is an extraordinary city.