The unofficial capital of Portugal’s north, Porto carefully matches its reputation as the nation’s hardworking, multicultural industrial centre with the striking beauty of the historical town, perched like a jewel beside the river Duoro. Ambitious public works have temporarily introduced the odd bit of scaffolding here and there, yet the ultimate, and admirable, aim seems to be the achievement of a sensible balance between the past and future.

Getting your bearings

Porto’s old quarter (Ribiera) sits on a small hill that slants down to the broad Duoro River a few kilometres from the rugged Atlantic coast. While the greater city spreads out in all directions, the Unesco World Heritage-listed centre, with its 14th century walls, winding cobblestone streets and buildings covered with distinctive azulejos tiles, can easily be explored by foot in a day. The narrow streets are full of interesting shops, bars and seafood restaurants serving Portuguese delicacies. Hop on the tram or a bus and you can soon be down at the Foz – a relaxed residential area by the beach where the British used to keep their bathing houses. Take a walk along the coastline and you’ll find plenty of places to stop and enjoy an alfresco coffee as you watch the waves smash into the rocks.

A tasty drop

Facing Porto from the opposite side of the Duoro River is Vila Nova de Gaia, a sizeable town where the port is cellared for maturation. The vineyards are a few miles up the river, in the Duoro Valley, and for years were transported down to port on small rabelos boats, although road tankers are used today. Many of the port wine cellars in Gaia offer tours with free tastings. Otherwise, head to the Port Wine Institute where you can try a wide range of styles and brands, or else trip up to the wineries themselves in the rugged Duoro Valley.

Worth a look

Azulejos tiles
The story goes that government laws of more than 100 years ago insisted residents keep the facades of their homes in better condition. Wily Portuguese discovered it was easier and cheaper to tile, rather than paint their homes, meaning that these striking and colourful tiles can now be seen decorating homes right across the city. Sao Bento station, for example, has about 20,000 such tiles, which tell a detailed story of the country’s history.

Church of Sao Francisco
If you ever wondered what happened to all the gold Portugal plundered from Brazil, just have a look at the dazzling interior of this church. Rendered in the 18th century, the incredibly intricate gold giltwork covers the walls and the ceilings.

Duoro Bridges
Steep cliffs rise up from the edges of Duoro, making a series of five spectacular bridges a monument to the city’s development. The Don Luis Bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel in a style that may remind you of a certain famous Parisian tower.

Serralves Foundation
This delightful institution showcases contemporary art and is Portugal’s most popular museum. The foundation incorporates Casa Serralves, an attractive art deco house, and its extensive and carefully maintained gardens.

Bonus points for: Beauty to ponder over a glass
Loses marks for: Beaches you can’t swim at