Why go now?
There's an old saying "while Lisbon shows off, Porto works", but Portugal's northern second city is enjoying innovative urban regeneration that preserves the fine architecture of its historic heart. In addition, its location on steep hills overlooking the river Douro provides a wealth of picture-postcard views. The city's compact size and relaxed pace makes it the perfect place to lose yourself in its puzzle of cobblestone streets. Porto hosts the world-renowned fantasy, sci-fi and thriller film festival, Fantasporto ( fantasporto.com) from 25 February to 5 March. Most films are in English with Portuguese subtitles.
Gatwick-Porto is one of the few routes on which easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) competes directly with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) – and, indeed, TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com). Ryanair also flies from Liverpool and Stansted, and TAP Portugal from Heathrow. Porto's sleek airport is 10km north-west of the city.
Reach Trindade station (1) in the city centre in half-an-hour on metro line E (every 20 minutes). Every passenger must buy a stored-value Andante ticket from the automatic machines. A trip to any station on the system costs €2.75, which includes a €0.50 payment for the card itself; hang on to this, because you will need to re-charge it for further travel. Alternatively, buy an Andante Tour pass from the airport tourist office. This card allows you unlimited journeys on all metros, buses, trams and funicular. Travel for 24 hours is €5, or €11 for 72 hours.
Get your bearings
Trindade station (1) is just above the Camara Municipal (2), the city hall that marks the top end of the 19th-century city centre. At its core is the big, rectangular Aliados, officially an avenue but in effect the main square. South of here the streets get more tangled, and the buildings older and scruffier, as the ground falls away towards the beautiful gorge of the Douro river. This waterway is straddled by six elegant bridges, the most impressive of which is the two-deck Ponte de Dom Luís I (3). On the south shore lies Vila Nova de Gaia, officially a separate town, which you smell before you see thanks to the conglomeration of port lodges. Other notable landmarks include the cathedral (4) and São Bento railway station (5). The most convenient tourist office (6) is at Rua Infante Dom Henrique 63 (00 351 222 060 412; portoturismo.pt). It opens from 9am-7pm daily.
Vera Cruz Residencial (7) on Rua de Ramalho Ortigão 14 (00 351 223 323 396; residencialveracruz.com) offers good, cheap accommodation slap bang in the city centre. This clean but basic three-star hotel has a fantastic roof terrace overlooking the main square. Doubles with breakfast start at €42. Another budget option is the Rivoli Cinema Hostel (8) at Dr Magalhaes Lemos 83 (00 351 220 174 634; rivolicinemahostel.com), where you can lounge around in the manner of a Hollywood extra; €17 a bed, including breakfast.
For luxury, book into newly opened wine-spa hotel The Yeatman (9) in Vila Nova de Gaia (00 351 22 013 3100; the-yeatman-hotel.com), which plays on the city's heritage as the home of port. The five-star hotel has an enormous wine cellar and a decanter-shaped swimming pool. The spa offers vinotherapy including grape-pip scrubs and barrel-bath soakings. Doubles with breakfast from €180.
Take a hike
Porto's towering city hall, the Camara Municipal (2), dominates the northern end of Avienda dos Aliados and is a good place to start any walk. Built in the 1920s, the city hall is as grand as any in Europe, with a 70m granite tower and clock face. Walk down the main avenue and turn left on to Rua Janeiro 31 to admire the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso (10) – an 18th-century church whose façade is decorated with superb traditional Portuguese blue tile azulejos. Amble along Rua de Augusto Rosa and take the steps down to the city's Funicular dos Guindais (11) (8am-8pm daily, €1), whose 45 per cent gradient is one of the steepest in the world. Emerge from a 90m tunnel to a bird's-eye view of the city's most iconic landmark: the double-decker Ponte de Dom Luís I (3) – partly designed and inspired by Gustave Eiffel, and with echoes of his tower in Paris.
Take a view
For the best panoramic sweeps, continue over the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia. Dotted along the esplanade (12) above the river are public benches affording fabulous views of Porto's historic cityscape. You'll see the traditional wooden rabelos sailing boats that were used to ferry the wine casks down the river from the vineyards higher up the Douro valley.
Lunch on the run
Tucked away opposite the Mercado do Bolhão (13) at Rua Formosa 339 is the Confeitaria do Bolhão (14) (00 351 222 009 29), a striking Belle Époque café with good-value pratos do dia specials including soup, main course and a freshly squeezed juice for a remarkable €5; no other city in the euro area offers such a bargain.
The Mercado do Bolhão (13) is a hugely colourful and bustling marketplace in the city centre on Rua Formosa with original 19th-century wrought-iron gates. Earthy stallholders compete loudly with one another as they peddle their wares – fresh flowers, meat, fish and even haircuts. Further down from the market, the Florista Libania (15) specialises in bonsai trees – the window displays are worth a visit alone. For high-street labels head to Rua de Santa Catarina (16).
White port is the apéritif of choice; its tawny and ruby cousins should be drunk only postprandially. The celebrated port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia include Sandeman, Graham's and Taylor's, but in winter many are closed at weekends. One exception is the Calém port lodge (17) at Avenida Diogo Leite 344 (00 351 22 374 6660; calem.pt; 10am-6pm daily). You learn everything about port and admire the vast vats in which it is perfected before tasting a glass.
Dining with the locals
The city's maritime past and its fertile coastline has led to a cuisine rich in seafood. Antunes (18) at Rua do Bonjardim 525 (00 351 222 052 406) is a local favourite that uses wood-fired ovens to prepare the city's signature dish, bacalhau – salted cod cooked with potatoes. Mains, dessert and wine total about €15 per person.
Sunday morning: go to church
Start your day in the wonderfully eccentric Igreja dos Clérigos (19) which brings a sense of theatricality to Sunday prayer. The Baroque interior resembles a mini-opera house with a chandelier, marble floors and private boxes set high in the wings. Then climb the 225 steps to the top of the adjoining "tower of the clergymen" (10am-noon and 2-5pm daily, €2). After catching your breath, survey the heart-stirring vistas from what was once Portugal's tallest structure.
Out to brunch
For a slice of Paris in Porto, try the new Boulangerie de Paris (20) at Rua Gonçalo Sampaio 395-401 (00 351 22 609 3619; 7.30am-8pm daily). Two brave French pastry chefs are confident they can convert the locals to the joys of Parisian delicacies, with temptations from the baguettes to the mille feuilles.
The Casa da Música (21) at Rotunda da Boavista (00 351 220 120 220; casadamusica.com) is a dynamic concert hall dedicated to the creation and celebration of music. Conceived to mark Porto's status as Europe's Cultural Capital a decade ago, this cultural centre also offers guided tours (in English daily at 4pm; €3) and events ranging from jazz to traditional Portuguese fado.
The Casa da Música is also a transport hub, with its own metro station. From outside, catch bus 203 or 207 to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea (00 353 226 156 500; serralves.pt; 10am-7pm weekends, 10am-5pm Tuesday to Friday; €7). Designed by Porto architect Álvaro Siza Viera, it is a minimalist, modern, white stucco building with stark, simple lines. There is no permanent collection but exhibitions draw on the works of local and international artists since the 1960s.
A walk in the park
The €7 admission fee for the museum entitles you also to explore the well-manicured Fundação Serralves park, with clipped French lawns, rose gardens and avenues of trees dotted with art installations that include a giant spade. The Casa de Serralves provides a pink Art Deco focus for the park.
The icing on the cake
Porto is blessed by its proximity to the rugged, dramatic Atlantic coastline. It provides an exciting beach escape blissfully free of crowds the crowds.
The most enjoyable way to reach the sea is aboard one of the city's antique, rickety trams that rattle along the right bank of the Douro. Tram 1 takes about 20 minutes from Ribeira (22) in the city centre and costs €1.45 for a single ride to Foz do Douro – a former fisherman's quarter but now the city's most upmarket suburb.
Arriving in Foz, stroll along the seafront to see the ferocious Atlantic waves crash down. Then watch the sun set from one of many beach-level cafés.