Perched on the steep banks of the River Douro, Porto is Portugal's second-largest city and the heart of Portugal’s industrial north. A center for finance, culture, and cuisine, Porto has come into its own as a modern city with plenty to offer beyond its best-known export, port wine. The coast north of Porto is lined with pine forests; inland, the Minho region is equally verdant and harbors Portugal’s only national park, Peneda-Gerês. Upriver from Porto, grapes harvested to make port wine are grown in terraced vineyards in the sun-drenched Douro Valley. This is the start of Trás-os-Montes (Beyond the Mountains), a province with harsh but striking landscapes which harbor fascinating folk traditions.
Lining the river that made it a trading hub since pre-Roman times, vibrant and cosmopolitan Porto centers itself some 5 km (3 miles) inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Porto's architecture is more baroque than Lisbon's. Its grandiose granite buildings were financed by the wine trade that made the city wealthy: wine from the upper valley of the Rio Douro (Douro River, or River of Gold) was transported to Porto, from where it was exported. You can follow that trail today by boat or on the scenic Douro rail line, and there are now many wine quintas (estates) in the valley, many of which offer overnight stays.
The remote north is as stark as it is breathtaking, in the arid valley of the Rio Douro and in the deep, rural heartland of the Minho, a coastal province north of Porto. The Minho shoreline, home to vast fine-sand beaches and quaint fishing villages, has lush, green landscapes. Some locations have been appropriated by resorts, but there are still plenty of places where you can find solitary dunes or splash in the brisk Atlantic away from crowds. Inland you can lose yourself in villages with country markets and fairs that have hardly changed for hundreds of years. It’s worth planning ahead to make sure your visit coincides with a weekly market day (weekends are a sure bet) or one of the many summer festivals that draw locals back home.
Those with a penchant for adventure will find it in the winding mountain roads and far-flung towns and villages of Trás-os-Montes in the northeast. The imposing castle towers and fortress walls of this frontier region are a great attraction, but—as is often the case in rural Europe—it's the journey itself that's Trás-os-Montes's greatest prize: travel past expansive reservoirs, through forested valleys rich in wildlife, across bare crags and moorlands, and finally down to rustic stone villages where TV aerials sit in anachronistic contrast to the medieval-feeling surroundings.
The uncharted uplands of the northern Trás-os-Montes are called the Terra Fria (Cold Land), where you may spot some unusual forms such as Iron Age sculptures of boars with phallic attributes. It's believed these were worshipped as fertility symbols. There are traces of even more ancient civilizations, in the form of what is believed to be the world’s largest open-air museum of Paleolithic rock art.