I’m really into “second cities” these days. For generations, Industrial Age powerhouses in Europe turned into what we would call “the rust belt,” while their elegant “first city” counterparts enjoyed the luster of the Information Age. But over the last decade or so, the rust has become a trendy accessory and industrial ruins have turned bohemian chic.
A prime example is Porto — the hub of Portugal’s north and the country’s second city. Just three hours from Lisbon by train, it’s fiercely proud of what distinguishes it from the Portuguese capital as it ages happily along the Douro River — along with most of the world’s port wine.
Spared by the 1755 earthquake that toppled Lisbon, Porto is charmingly well preserved. Block for block, it may be even more full of gritty, Old World charm than Lisbon. Houses with red-tiled roofs tumble down the hills to the riverbank, prickly church towers dot the skyline, mosaic-patterned stones line streets and flat-bottomed boats called “rabelos” ply the lazy river.
The city comes with a steady sea breeze and a seagull soundtrack. Being on the ocean, Porto has weather that’s always changing. You’re likely to get sun and rain at the same time — causing the locals to exclaim, “A widow’s going to remarry.”
Porto offers two high-impact sightseeing thrills: the postcard-perfect ambience of the riverfront Ribeira district and the opportunity to learn more about — and taste — port wine that ages just across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. (Aficionados of port — or of dramatic scenery — can use Porto as a springboard for visiting the nearby Douro Valley, where grapes grow on steep stone terraces.) Porto also features sumptuous Baroque churches and civic buildings, a bustling real-world market hall, atmospheric lanes of gloriously tiled houses, a variety of good restaurants, appealing boutiques and quirky but worthwhile museums.
The Ribeira (literally “riverbank”) district is the most colorful and touristy quarter. Strolling the Ribeira Embankment, while popping in and out of shops that line the way, is Porto’s best lazy-afternoon activity. Be sure to duck into the back streets where time-worn faces and once-dazzling facades seem to ferment into an intoxicating sip of port-for-the-eyes.
Downtown Porto is compact but steep, making distances seem longer. Foot-weary travelers take the “Six Bridges” cruises (operated by several different companies) that leave continually from the Ribeira riverfront. These relaxing one-hour excursions float up and down the Douro River, offering a fine orientation and glimpses of all of Porto’s bridges, including the majestic steel Ponte Dona Maria Pia designed by Gustav Eiffel, architect of Paris’ famous landmark.
For wine connoisseurs, touring a port-wine “lodge” — where the wine ages for years — and sampling the product is a must-see attraction. Port is a medium-sweet wine, usually taken as a digestif after dinner. For some, port is an acquired taste — but it’s one worth cultivating. As I always say, “Any port in a storm…”
In the district of Vila Nova de Gaia there are 18 lodges open for touring and tasting. At any lodge, the procedure is about the same; travelers simply show up and ask for a tour. Sandeman, the most high-profile company, is sort of the Budweiser of port — a good first stop for novices. If you don’t have much time, several tasting spots in downtown Porto are more convenient, though they lack the wine-cellar experience.
In addition to tasting wine, consider taking a food tour in Porto. These tours are trendy throughout Europe these days. They’re timed for an early lunch or dinner, last around three hours, come with over a mile of walking and include four to eight stops. The tours are pricey, but if you think of them as a meal as well as a tour, they make the splurge easier to justify.
Porto natives are known as “tripeiros” (tripe-eaters), compared to Lisboans who’ve been dubbed “cabbage-eaters,” and you may encounter tripe stew on your food tour. Along with this local specialty, there’s plenty of seafood and meat on Porto menus. A favorite sandwich is the “francesinha,” which is like a Portuguese French dip with a tomato-based sauce. Picnic sandwiches and scenic perches — for people-watching, views or both — are easy to come by in lively Porto.
The town’s two most famous foods — tripe stew and a quadruple-decker sandwich drenched in sauce — say it all: This place is unpretentious. Locals claim they’re working too hard to worry about being pretty. As an oft-repeated saying about Portuguese cities goes, “Coimbra studies, Braga prays, Lisbon parties … and Porto works.”