But here you can find a whole new side to the country, filled with colourful, ramshackle houses, quirky bookshops, serene rivers and, most importantly, bottles and bottles of port. Here’s our top tips for what to do when you get there. 

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Cruise the River Douro

Need to get your bearings? A Douro Azul river cruise down the Douro, which divides the city of Porto from neighbouring Gaia, is a great way to get a sense of what the place is all about. On any other scenic river in the world, the banks would be lined with wildly expensive five-star hotels.

But here in Porto, due to strict property laws (and the recession) this has been avoided, so instead you’ll see brightly-painted houses, some smart, some completely unkempt, some tagged with graffiti – it’s a refreshing, down-to-earth sight. The cruise will also take you under historic bridges such as the Luiz I, a design collaboration between Théophile Seyrig and his teacher Gustave Eiffel, of Paris fame. 

More: Cruises start from £8.50.  
douroazul.com

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Get arty

You could love or hate contemporary art and you’d still enjoy a visit to the Contemporary Art Museum of Serralves. The spacious gallery itself is interesting – there are no permanent exhibitions here, but a series of installations by Portuguese and foreign artists.

The real draw is the salmon-pink art-deco mansion, Casa de Serralves, which sits inside an 18-hectare park. The Jacques Gréber landscaping around it looks like a painting, so carefully crafted that even the colours of the gravel on the paths and water in the pond have been adjusted to make them complement each other. Look out for the gigantic shovel installation by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in the grounds too.

More:  serralves.pt

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Climb a tower

It’s got to be done – all 240 steps of the winding staircase to get to the top of the Clérigos Tower, one of Porto’s most iconic monuments, attached to the 18th-century Clérigos Church. From the top you can get a 360-degree view of Porto. 

More: Entrance £2.50.  
torredosclerigos.pt/en

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Go shopping

Porto has hundreds of tiny boutiques, vintage shops and general knick-knack stores, but the most interesting has to be Livraria Lello in Porto. Frequently topping ‘world’s best bookshop’ lists, it’s been trading since 1881 and has the kind of old musty paper smell that you should be able to bottle and buy.

It’s got a more recent claim to fame, too – the winding red staircase in the centre of the store is said to have inspired JK Rowling’s description of Hogwarts school in the Harry Potter series, as the author lived in Porto teaching English for a couple of years. 

If you’ve managed to hang on to any of your holiday spending money after a visit here, hit Porto’s Saturday flea market. This city tradition draws out all of Porto’s hipsters, who you’ll find rummaging through baskets of Seventies platform shoes, old vinyl records or snacking on fresh cakes. It takes place from 2.30pm at Rua Alvares Cabral. 

More:  portoturismo.pt;  esnporto.org

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Visit a vineyard

Just a few hours’ drive from Porto, you’ll find yourself in the Douro Valley, which is all dramatic green slopes lined with rows and rows of fruit-packed vineyards. Not only is it deep-sigh beautiful in this region, but here you can learn about Porto’s most famous export – the sweet, fortified goodness that is port.

At Quinta do Panascal, an old family-run wine estate, you can learn about the grape-growing methods that date back to the 18th century, including the barefoot stamping of their grapes during harvest season. You can also wander through the vines and, of course, sample the goods – this particular area is where the renowned Fonseca port is produced.

If you find the tipple on its own a little heavy, do what the trendy Portuguese do and mix white port with tonic and mint. It’s goes down dangerously easy – you’ve been warned. 

More: fonseca.pt

 

Helen travelled courtesy of TAP Portugal. For more information on Porto and the north of Portugal visit  portoturismo.pt

 

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Eat, drink, sleep

Eat

Budget: The historic Majestic Cafe used to be a famous meeting place for artists, poets and writers to gather in the Twenties. Lots of the original furnishings are still here and you can admire them over lunch or a thick hot chocolate. 

Midrange: It doesn’t come much quirkier than Book restaurant and bar, which used to be a bookshop and uses old paperbacks as serving mats. The cuisine is traditional Portuguese with a few modern twists.  

Luxury: You’re in for some serious surprises when you order the tasting menu at DOP Rui Paula, where you can taste everything from light, fresh seafood dishes to fizzing lollipops. Mains from £17. 

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Drink

Budget: One of the cheaper places to grab a beer in the Ribeira part of  Porto, Prioridade Bar has a lively atmosphere and regular drinks deals. Beers from £1.50. (Rua da Lada 76/78; tel. +35 1965 429 594)

Midrange: The interior of Galeria de Paris is crackers, with dolls, antiques and even a huge car hanging from the walls. Eerie or cool? You decide. Drinks from £2. (Rua Galeria de Paris 56; tel. +35 1934 210 792).

Luxury: Another ultra-trendy hangout is the Casa do Livro, which has regular live music and looks like you’re in someone’s (rather smart) living room. Drinks from £2.50.(Rua Galeria de Paris 85; tel. +35 1919 676 969)

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Budget: Simple, comfortable rooms are available at the Oporto Poet’s Hostel. Plenty of facilities are available for guests, including kitchen and wi-fi. Dorm beds from £15pn. 

Midrange: Find a retro, classic movie-themed lobby and rooms overlooking the city of Porto here. Hotel Vila Gale is a relaxed, central place to stay in Porto and a good base for exploring the city’s action. Double rooms, including breakfast, from £65pn.  

Luxury: Waking up in a room at the glamorous Douro Palace Hotel Resort & Spa overlooking the rolling hills of the Douro Valley is a real treat. Double rooms, including breakfast, from £80pn. 

 

Photos: Getty; Thinkstock; Porto Convention and Visitors Bureau