Drink in the beauty of Portugal's vintage second city, where spring is in the air, and the Douro flows as fast as the tawny stuff

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Why go now?

The city known to Brits as Oporto holds a tidy advantage over the UK in terms of latitude, with temperatures already feeling pleasantly spring-like. And British visitors needn't fret about their longitude either; Portugal is the only nation in continental Europe that keeps to GMT, so you won't lose vital visiting hours while in the air (or have to reset your watch, phone, iPod, BlackBerry, digital camera and alarm clock upon arrival).

Porto is still enjoying the rejuvenating benefits of its year as European Capital of Culture in 2001. Now, with a spanking new metro system and some funky modern architecture in place, there's a real sense of a city enjoying itself – the nightclubs on Rua de Passos Manuel are packed with partying locals at the weekend.

Touch down

The Portuguese national carrier, TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.flytap.com), flies from Gatwick and Heathrow; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) connects Porto with Bristol, Liverpool and Stansted. The city's briskly efficient Francisco Sá Carneiro airport (named, without irony it seems, after a Portuguese prime minister who was killed in a plane crash in 1980), lies 10km north-west of the city.

Line E of the metro (the purple line) runs every 20 minutes from the airport to the centre, taking 25 minutes to Trindade station (1), where it meets the north-south line D (yellow). The single fare is €1.90 (£1.45). A taxi takes about the same length of time and costs €20-€25 (£15.40-£19).

Get your bearings

Set just inland from the Atlantic coast, the historic centre of Porto occupies the northern side of a gorge at the mouth of the Douro river. On the opposite shore lie the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia (see An Aperitif). The two conurbations are linked by a series of six elegant bridges, the most impressive of which is the two-deck Ponte de Dom Luís (2). Rising from the waterfront, a chaotic series of narrow streets runs sharply upwards to the Sé (3), Porto's steely 13th-century cathedral. Beyond, the east-west axis formed by Rua dos Clérigos and Rua de 31 de Janeiro meets the relatively wide boulevard of Avenida dos Aliados near São Bento railway station (4), and looming at the northern end of Aliados is the camera municipal or city hall (5). The main tourist office (6) is nearby, at 25 Rua Clube dos Fenianos (00 351 223 393 472; www.visitportoandnorth.com; open 9am-5.30pm Monday-Friday, 9.30am-4.30pm at weekends). Here you can purchase a Porto Card (€11.50/£8.80 for two days). This confers free public free transport, and also provides free or discounted entrance to most museums.

Check in

The Pestana Porto (7), at 1 Praça da Ribeira (00 351 223 402 300; www.pestana.com), is a bright, newly renovated building right next to the cafés strung out along Cais de Ribeira. Inside, the foyer is a pleasing mix of granite and velvet, the rooms stylish and modern. Doubles from €154 (£119) including breakfast; river views from €186 (£143).

More old-school is the Grande Hotel do Porto (8), at 197 Rua Santa Catarina (00 351 222 076 690; www.grandehotelporto.com), the city's shopping artery. Opened in 1880, its narrow façade belies the vast hotel within; the public spaces feel slightly fusty, but the rooms themselves are surprisingly chic. Doubles from €107 (£82), including breakfast.

It might be a 10-minute walk from the city centre, but the spearmint-blue Hotel Eurostars Das Artes (9), at 160-164 Rua do Rosário (00 351 222 071 250; www.eurostarshotels.com), is well worth the legwork, with its minimalist interior comprising plenty of wood and glass, and designer furniture throughout. Doubles from €75 (£58), including breakfast.

Take a view

Porto's undulating topography means that there's a view lurking round almost every corner, but for the full 360-degree monty, head up 225 steps and 75 metres to the top of the 18th-century Torre dos Clérigos (10). From here, the city's red roofs ripple out far below you. Admission €2 (£1.50).

Take a hike

Start by admiring the azulejos (painted tiles) within São Bento railway station (4), then turn eastwards up Rua de 31 de Janeiro towards yet more tilework: the chipped yet charming exterior of Igreja de Santo Ildefonso (11), on Praça da Batalha. From here take Rua Cimo de Vila towards the Sé (3) (open 8.45am-12.30pm and 2.30pm-7pm daily). Inside, an arched ceiling rises above a narrow nave, and there's a €3 (£2.30) charge to visit the cloister. Just down from the Sé, the long top span of the two-deck Ponte de Dom Luís (2) thrusts out over to Vila Nova de Gaia; the top vertigo-inducing span is reserved for metro trains and pedestrians. Pass over it to the Mosteiro da Serra de Pilar (12): once a monastery and now used by the military, the terrace is still accessible to the public, and the views are spectacular.

Window shopping...

...is about the only thing you can afford to do on Rua de Miguel Bombarda, the western end of which is devoted to a dozen or so modern-art galleries, each displaying expensive canvases in pristine white rooms. It's worth delving deeper into the four-storey Arte em Parte building (13) (00 351 934 134 392) at no 457, where gallery space jostles with rooms selling techno records and high-fashion shoes, and there's a bohemian café at the back.

Lunch on the run

Pastry shops, or pastelerias, abound in Porto, offering all sorts of tempting tarts to take away, from about €1.50 (£1.15) a pop. However, if you prefer to remain seated while you digest, the elegant Café Majestic (14) at 112 Rua de Santa Catarina (00 351 222 003 887) is the place. Big mirrors, pink stuccowork and lots of gilt – and the cheese and ham croissants (€4/£3) aren't bad, either.

Take a ride

Boats were once the only way to transport the grapes harvested inland out to the coast. Now commerce gives way to pleasure: you can bag all six of Porto's bridges in one of the regular 55-minute boat rides leaving from the Cais de Ribeira (15) (€10/£7.70 per person).

An aperitif

Well, there's only one drink in town. White port is the aperitif, of course; its tawny and ruby cousins should be drunk only postprandially. You can join a tour at one of the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia (famous names include Sandeman, Graham's and Taylor's), although during winter months many are closed at weekends. One exception is the Calém port lodge (16) at 26 Avenida Diogo Leite (00 351 22 374 6660; www.sogevinus.com; open 10am-6pm daily, tours €2). Here, visitors will learn more than is sensible about this heady brew and can admire the vast vats in which it is stored, before tasting – and even buying – a bottle or two.

Dining with the locals

Tripe is a local speciality (indeed, locals are known as Tripeiros, or "tripe eaters"). Fans can sample it at Tripeiro (17), at 195 Rua de Passos Manuel (00 351 222 005 886), a simple-looking place with a frosted-glass frontage, where main courses start at around €15 (£11.50). If that sounds too offal for words, then head to the Palácio da Bolsa (18), the squat stock-exchange building on Rua Ferreira Borges. Here, the O Comercial restaurant (00 351 223 322 019; closed Sun) is grand and formal, but the prices are surprisingly reasonable (starter of foie gras €8/£6.15; lasagne main course €11/ £8.50), and the view over the water at night is spectacular, with the port lodges' neon signs shining like beacons.

Sunday morning: go to church

All that glitters is pretty likely to be gold in the medieval Igreja de São Francisco (19) on Rua Infante D Henrique (00 351 222 062 100; open daily 9am-5.30pm). Apparently, 400kg went into the gilding of it (although when Napoleon invaded in 1809, he decided to use the place as a stable, so some fell off). Mass is no longer celebrated here, but a €3 (£2.30) ticket entitles you to enter the church and the rather creepy ossuary below.

Out to brunch

Sunday starts quietly in Porto, but one place you're guaranteed a snack is Guarany Café (20), at 85-89 Avenida dos Aliados (00 351 223 321 272; open 9am-midnight daily), which was founded in 1933 and has a huge South American-themed mural. Omelettes from €8.50 (£6.50).

Cultural morning

Take the metro to the Casa da Música (21), at the Rotonda da Boavista (00 351 220 120 220; www.casadamusica.com), Porto's extraordinary concert hall, which opened in 2005. Like an Escher drawing, the geometry of the exterior defies sense; inside, steel staircases, warped windows and weird tiling give way to an auditorium filled with light. English-language tours take place at 11am and 3.30pm Monday-Friday, 10.30am and 4pm Saturday and Sunday; and cost €3 (£2.30) per person.

A walk in the park

From the Casa da Música, take the 502 bus westwards along Avenida da Boavista to the Fundação de Serralves contemporary art museum (22), at 210 Rua Dom João de Castro (00 351 226 156 500; www.serralves.pt). Here, there's free entry until 2pm on Sundays (otherwise open 10am-7pm Tuesday-Sunday, admission €5/£3.80). The museum is a study in whitewashed cool, and its contents – although occasionally baffling – are certainly worth seeing. But the park in which it all stands truly dazzles, with a rose garden, arboretum, lake, and even a small farm.

Write a postcard

Chelsea FC fans may wish to write home and remind their friends of that glowering "special one" of football management, José Mourinho, who rose to fame with FC Porto and whose face currently adorns several vast hoardings in the city. Porto (00 351 225 570 400; www.fcporto.pt) play at Estádio de Dragao (23), to the east of the city centre. Crystal Palace supporters will prefer the Jardim do Palácio de Cristal (24), a steeply raked park with commanding river views, for the fulfilment of their postcard-writing duties.

Icing on the cake

What about the majestic power of the Atlantic as it batters against Europe's western extremity? A single-line tram runs from the riverfront below the Palácio da Bolsa (18) to the seaside suburb of Foz do Douro every 20 minutes, terminating just east of the shady palms of Jardim do Passeio Alegre. From here, it's about five minutes' walk along a concrete jetty to the lighthouse that marks the mouth of the Douro, where huge waves whack the pier with an audible thump.