Portugal’s second city is one of Europe’s oldest. It’s been inhabited since Roman times and Ribeira, its UNESCO-listed centre, is a delightfully shabby jumble of skinny townhouses, sun-dappled squares and laundry-strung alleys which spill down to the barge-lined quaysides of the Douro river. But it also has a distinctly modern edge, with burgeoning culinary and cultural scenes, a sparkling new metro system, and an ever-increasing array of stylish hotels, apartments and B&Bs.
From Porto, the languid river winds its way out to the spectacular Douro Valley, the oldest wine-producing region in the world. It’s famed for its microclimate, and its steep banks are covered in terraced vineyards. There’s a host of quintas (wineries) to visit, as well as pretty waterside towns and Baroque churches to explore.
Porto is also the gateway to the bucolic Minho region, which stretches north as far as the Spanish border. Sparsely populated, it’s often referred to as the 'green corner' of Portugal thanks to its lush forests and cultivated valleys. It’s home to vast, unspoilt beaches, but most come here to hike in the Peneda-Gerês National Park.
The traditional home of Port wine, Vila Nova de Gaia sits across the river from Ribeira and is officially a city in its own right. It’s best accessed via the soaring Ponte Dom Luís (take the funicular up from the quayside and walk across, or catch the metro). There’s a multitude of port lodges offering cellar tours and tastings - our favourite is Taylors thanks to its elegant restaurant, wandering peacocks and panoramic terrace.
Porto’s charmingly dilapidated market has barely changed since 1914. It’s a raucous assault on the senses, with dangling pigs’ hooves, live roosters, goose-neck barnacles and piles of fruit. Go with an empty stomach and an open mind, and get there early (many stalls start to pack up by late morning).
Housed in a former prison, complete with barred windows and dungeon-like cells, Porto’s renowned photography museum hosts rotating exhibitions by local and international photographers. There’s also a fascinating display of historic cameras on the top floor, which has fantastic views out over the city’s rooftops.
Porto is one of Europe’s most exciting culinary destinations, with innovative new eateries popping up every month. Highlights are Cantinho do Avillez, whose imaginative dishes include the likes of ‘exploding olives’; the iconic Bull & Bear, which will transform your opinion of rustic ingredients like Beira blood sausage; and Book, where the menu is presented as chapters of a novel. We also love Paparico, a candlelit, cave-like restaurant which serves the best G&T in town. For something more low-key, head to one of the many family-run places on the quayside.
Porto is home to 2 bold icons of contemporary culture: Alvaro Siza Vieira's Museu de Arte Contemporânea, whose gardens alone are worth a visit, and the edgy Casa da Música by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The latter hosts all manner of jazz, pop and classical concerts, so check what’s on during your stay.
Lello, set in Porto’s university quarter, is one of the world’s most ornate bookshops. Its spiralling staircase, panelled walls and stained-glass ceiling look like something from the pages of Harry Potter and are said to have inspired JK Rowling, who spent several years living in the city. It stocks tomes in English and Portuguese, and there’s a little café on the top floor where you can treat yourself to coffee and cake.
For a breath of sea air, jump on Porto’s antique wooden tram and rattle out to the coast at Foz do Douro. There’s a lighthouse and a pretty promenade to explore, along with plenty of beachfront bars where you can sit back, sip cocktails and watch the sun set over the Atlantic as waves crash onto the sand. If you want to surf, head to Matasinhos or to Praia do Aterro in Leça da Palmeira.
The Douro Valley offers incredible views at every turn; drive or hike anywhere and you’ll end up stopping every few minutes to take photos. One of our favourites is the vista from the lookout point at Casal de Loivos, which is perched high above the town of Pinhão. You'll have to negotiate numerous hairpin bends on the way up, but you’ll be rewarded with a stunning panorama over the meandering river far below.
The Côa Valley is home to rock art from the late Stone Age, with hundreds of animal engravings that are more than 25,000 years old. Most sit within the Côa Museum and Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitor numbers are strictly limited to preserve the rocks, so it’s best to book in advance. You can also arrange night-time visits to see the carvings by moonlight – an unforgettable experience.
Portugal's first national park is spread across granite massifs with soaring peaks and plunging valleys. Its wooded forests are among the last refuges of endangered Iberian wolves and great eagles, and there are several breathtakingly beautiful hiking trails to choose from. We also recommend walking or cycling along the ‘ecovia’ which runs along the southern side of the Lima river, between Ponte de Barca, Ponte de Lima and the coast at Viana do Castelo.