Travel: Raising a glass to Porto, the city break that's slightly off the beaten track

Picturesque Porto.Picturesque Porto.
Picturesque Porto.
It's tempting sometimes to think of Portugal as Spain's poor relation.

Certainly, it has nothing like the land mass, the history nor the infrastructure of its Iberian neighbour but, in the modern era of eco-tourism and the innate urge we all have to find new pastures for weekend city breaks, all these ‘drawbacks’ probably add to Portugal’s appeal.

Certainly, much of the country has a charming, rustic quality, as if it’s only now waking up to the possibilities of tourism and opportunities for growth.

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If you can forgive the loud brashness of the Algarve on its southern, the rest of the country seems to meander through the seasons a little more politely, happy for you to pop in but not inclined to erect the neon ‘welcome’ signs just yet.

Surfers have long known that the beaches of the north and central regions of Portugal offer some of the finest waves in the world; the wilder, greener interior, too, has its charms.

Its cuisine has long been regarded as one of the finest in the world and, for the full-on metropolitan experience, Lisbon can hold its own with any of the great cities of Europe.

But if you’re looking for charm, history, sparkle, cuisine, nightlife and, it has to be said, some pretty good beaches, too, well within reach, Porto just about has the lot.

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We took in Portugal’s second city while touring the country by motorhome. Basing ourselves just north of the city, at the village of Vila Cha, we were able to get into Porto via an economical

Metro ride which took us into the centre for less than €4 return.

It’s tempting to take advantage of the Metro’s capacity for carrying your bikes on board the clean, spacious and popular trains but we found that Porto is a city best seen on foot. It’s big enough to have enough for a two-day stopover but its essence is small enough to capture in just a day, if that’s all you have.

From the Trindade station – the main hub for travellers arriving from the north – the trains disgorge you out onto the Avenida dos Aliados, leading you south towards the Douro river, as much a part of Porto’s character as the Thames is of London’s.

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But there’s no rush to get across it and explore the port wine cellars on the other side.

The plethora of museums, markets, bars and restaurants – all bathed in the sunshine that seems perpetual in this corner of Iberia – means there is ample to see and do here before you immerse yourself in Porto’s synonymous product. Don’t get too distracted by the high-end shops of the Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira and you’ll soon come across the old Mercado Ferreira Borges, a Beaux Arts-style market that’s been turned into a very hip arts centre, exhibition space and concert venue.

From here, you’ll begin to catch a glimpse of the river between the narrow streets and the high, colourful old houses, merchant stores and restaurants that make up Porto’s waterfront quarter.

Once on the quayside, Porto’s majesty becomes clear as the spectacular Dom Luis I bridge grabs your attention from the east. When it was completed in 1886, it was the longest bridge of its kind in the world and carried trains and pedestrians from Porto’s main heart to the port cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia on the southern bank of the Douro.

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While its historical significance has faded, it remains an amazing structure and now has the added benefit of a connected cable car system – the Teleferico de Gaia – carrying awestruck passengers down the hill right to the centre of the wine trade.

If you find yourself here around lunchtime, you’re spoilt for choice for places to eat and drink. All the great port producers of the world are here, close to the Douro vineyards, and most of them offer fascinating tours of their cellars, plus generous tastings as they try to entice you into taking a vintage bottle back home. We preferred one of the little backstreet bars which offer personalised guides to some of the lesser marques for about €10 and throw in enough nibbles to keep you going until the evening when you can splurge in one of the classier restaurants back on the other side of the river.

Before then, don’t miss one of the free, hidden treats of Porto – the amazing tiles on the walls of the Sao Bento station. Around 20,000 of them tell Portugal’s history in fascinating friezes and are beautifully preserved in the station’s vestibule.

They’re a remarkable sight and if this is your last vision of Porto before you leave, it’s a perfect way to remember one of the great cities of Europe… and encourage you to come back and see more.

Travel facts:

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- Martin Wells travelled to northern Spain with Brittany Ferries.

- The company offers up to seven weekly return crossings from the UK to Spain.

- Depart from Portsmouth or Plymouth, and travel to Santander or Bilbao in around 24 hours.

- Prices start from just £220 each way for car plus two people, including an en suite cabin.

- For more information or to book, call 0330 159 7000 or visit the visit website.