• Photo: Neirfy / Shutterstock


Portugal's second-largest city, with a population of roughly 280,000, considers itself the north's capital and, more contentiously, the country's economic center. Locals support this claim with the maxim: "Coimbra sings, Braga prays, Lisbon shows off, and Porto works." Largely unaffected by the great earthquake of 1755, Porto has some fine baroque architecture but its public buildings are generally sober. Its location on a steep hillside above the Rio Douro, though, affords exhilarating perspectives.

The river has influenced the city's development since pre-Roman times, when the town of Cale on the left bank prospered sufficiently to support a trading port, called Portus, on the site of today's city. The 1703 Methuen agreement with England, giving commercial preference to Portuguese wines, provided Douro Valley vineyards with a new market. It was in Porto that Douro wine was first mixed with brandy to preserve it during the journey and improve it over time. The trade is still big business, based across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Porto is also a cultural hub, thanks to the Serralves Contemporary Art Museum and commercial galleries, many clustered along Rua Miguel Bombarda, and now to the stunning Casa da Música, or House of Music, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Foz do Douro, where the river flows into the Atlantic, is another fashionable spot.

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