48 hours in Porto

It is best known for port wine and offal, but in 2001 it will officially become Europe's cultural capital. Will the title put Portugal's second city on the map?


Why go now?

Why go now?

It's Porto's turn in the hot seat of European culture as, along with Rotterdam, it's European City of Culture for 2001. A spirited, unpretentious second city with a strong British connection (only we call it Oporto) and a fancy for tripe, they've been tarting up the tat for months and, by now, should have put back everything that they dug up to prettify the place. But you might want to shift away from the traditional weekend - almost everything shuts on Sundays.

Beam down

GB Airways flies daily from Gatwick on behalf of British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.britishairways.com ), and TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.tap-airportugal.pt), flies daily from Heathrow and Gatwick, with fares starting at around £170 return. From Manchester, Portugalia (08707 550 025, www.pga.pt) flies each evening from Monday to Friday. The airport is 11 miles north of the town. Once you arrive, a taxi into the city should cost around £9; local buses take a lot longer but cost only a pound or so. The economy option is to fly with Go (0845 60 54321, www.go-fly.com) from Stansted to Lisbon, starting at £88 return, and then take the train for three hours north to Porto.

Get your bearings

Porto totters unsteadily but dramatically on the north side of a gorge at the mouth of the Douro river. On the south bank is Vila Nova de Gaia, with the port lodges. From the waterside cafés and bars on the Cais da Ribeira, the city uses its labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways to haul its way up the steep granite hill to the Sé (cathedral), before sprawling up and down and out to the sea. There's a good tourist office (00 351222 052 740) opposite the câmara municipal (city hall) at the top of Avenida dos Aliados, which is open daily from 9am during the week and 10am at weekends.

Check in

Some of the best views of the city are 240 steps up, at the top of Torre dos Clérigos. But book a room on the eleventh floor of Hotel Tuella Torre, 282 Rua Goncalo Sampaio (00 351 226 071 800), and you'll have uninterrupted views across the city to the sea for around £40 a night and, more importantly, a lift to take you there. If you'd rather be down in the thick of it, try the Pestana Porto Carlton Hotel (00 351 223 402 300), slap bang in the middle of the Praça da Ribeira for £65 a night. On the other hand, Castelo Santa Catarina, 1347 Rua Santa Catarina, (00 351 225 955 99) is out of the way in the peace and quiet of a palm shaded garden with rooms for around £26 a night.

Take a ride

If the cramped city streets become too claustrophobic, the seaside suburb of Foz is the easiest place to jump in a cab and head for fresh air. Brits used to come here in the mid-19th century to bathe in the Atlantic, but don't bother packing your cossie as the water is bearable (and the beaches cleaned) only between May and September. Instead, join the locals who come here simply to relax and read the weekend papers.

Icing on the cake

The Ponte de Dom Luis I is the bridge which links Porto with Gaia, and the spectacular focal point of the Ribeira. It's a beautiful metal sculpture with two tiers, enabling you to can walk along the upper tier and gulp down fresh air as you get the most amazing views of the city from its giddy heights.

A walk in the park

Porto does have beautiful parks, but if you're searching for sanctuary then head for Cemitério de Agramonte (generally open from 10am-5pm). The cemetery is beautifully kept and you can join the stray cats wandering through the grand avenues of mausoleums, which are more ornate family homes than the ones they actually lived in.

Bracing brunch

The most famous café in Porto, Café Majestic (112 Rua de Santa Catarina) lures the city's ladies who lunch for a spot of breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea. Portugal's Catherine of Braganza introduced the tradition of afternoon tea to England when she married King Charles, so they have to be good at it. Coffee and a cake in this gilt and marble setting costs £2.50, or you can splash out on delicious veal steak with mushrooms for the grand old sum of £5.

Take a hike

Two days of hiking up and down Porto's historic quarter, and you'll be fit for anything. The area from São Bento station down to the Ribeira and back up to Clérigos and the Jardin de João Chagas is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A living museum, it's all shabby chic iron balconies, makeshift washing lines and sinister-looking doorways, some of which turn out to be entrances to hairdresser's. Start at the station, admiring the floor to ceiling blue and white azulejos (that's tiles to you and me) and heave your way up the short but steep walk to the Sé a bulky old cathedral founded in the 12th century (open daily except Sunday, 9am-12.30 and 2-6pm). Up here you're at eye level with the terracotta rooftops, so get your breath back and have a good gawp through everyone's windows before heading down to the river. From here, it's all back uphill. Pass Henry the Navigator's unremarkable house and the Bolsa stock exchange and head back into the warren of streets and squares above Rua des Flores, where real Porto culture hangs.

Lunch on the run

There are plenty of tiny workers' cafes dotted around to grab a quick espresso and a plate of fried fish cakes (Pasteis de Bacalhau) for around £2.50. To give your legs a rest, stop off at O Muro, 87 Muro dos Bacalhoeiros. A kitsch little café set on the old city wall overlooking the river, it offers Codfish Rice - spicy casserole of cod and rice - at just over £4, and you can leave your mark in one of the books the owner keeps for customers to write witty, insightful comments - "make love all the time and don't shop", for example, was particularly thought-provoking.

Cultural afternoon

What's Porto famous for? Exactly. Port. As Dr Johnson said, claret is for boys and port is for men. If you are around during the week, take yourself off for a tour of one of the many port lodges. Try Sandeman's, open 9.30am-12.30pm and 2-5pm from Monday to Friday. If you just want to sample the finished results, you can try them all at the Solar do Vinho do Porto (Rua de Entre Quintas). Hidden away behind the Palácio de Cristal park, this bar is all the things that Porto isn't; quiet and sophisticated. You can sip hundreds of ports whilst admiring the view through the tiny rose garden that suddenly falls away to the river, a very long way below you. If you're not sure where to start, the waiters will help you and prices range from 57p to £11 a glass.

Window shopping

Not a sophisticated city, Porto's shopping has a very provincial feel to it. For some reason, they have a lot of knitwear shops. But the best bargains are shoes. Rua de Santa Catarina and Rua de Cedofeita are the main shopping streets, where a pair of heels can set you back as little as £10.

Demure dinner

Porto is not the city to come to for sumptuous feasts. Its residents are known as Tripe Eaters - an unfortunate nickname bestowed upon them when they kindly gave Henry the Navigator all their meat to keep him going on another of his expeditions, leaving themselves only tripe. You can get stuck into some basic food (that isn't cow's stomach) with the locals at Casa Cardoso (58 Rua de Fonte Taurina). Whether you choose Bacalhau - dried salted cod, soaked in water to re-invigorate it - or steak, (there's not much else to choose from), everything comes with homemade chips, rice and lettuce. Basically, it's just something to soak up all the booze.

Aperitif

The alleyways around the Ribeira have the liveliest bars, with Rua de Fonte Taurina having more than its fair share. Esta-Se Bem (open 9pm-4am), is a typical Porto bar; open fronted, brightly lit, it looks like a café and is full of men. O Cais is a cosy, dark cavern and the second oldest bar in Porto and, as with all Porto bars, it has U2 on the stereo and football on TV. Or head out to Praia do Ourigo in Foz. Subdued lighting and waves lapping against the shore means it's always full of couples. A Vodka Praia (vodka with lemonade) costs £3. And wherever you go, a Super Bock beer costs just over a pound.

Sunday morning: Go to church

Virtually every street has at least one church gloriously decorated with azulejos. Igreja do Carmo stands on the corner of Praça de Gomes Teixeira and has an entire tiled façade, created in 1912 by Silvestre Silvestri, depicting the battle between the Christians and Pagans on Mount Carmel. Rua de Santa Catarina is deserted on a Sunday and it's the best time to stand outside the Capela das Almas and admire the beautiful tiles which are stuck back on the wall with Sellotape.

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