Porto (Oporto in English) is Portugal's second-largest city and its capital of port wine. The 15th-century residence of the royal family, and a bastion of trade and mercantilism, the city is rich in the legacy of the past -- art treasures, medieval cathedrals, famous museums, a fine library, and other attractions. Many old homes trace their beginnings to fortunes made in Portugal's overseas colonies and, in some cases, to events leading up to the Age of Discoveries.
Every year, port wine is brought from vineyards along either side of the Douro River to lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, where it's aged, blended, and processed. In the past it was transported on flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos. With their long rudders and flapping sails, these boats with tails skirted down the Douro like swallows. Nowadays, they've nearly given way to the train and even the unglamorous truck.
The city, which is undergoing a major renovation and sprucing up, has never looked better. Some of its alleyways -- especially those around the old port -- look as if they haven't changed since the Middle Ages. Porto's labyrinth of steep streets, with their decorative azulejos (tiles) and wrought-iron balconies, often filled with potted flowers, is reason enough to visit the city.
Especially rewarding is the Barredo section, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Architect Fernando Namora, a Porto citizen, is supervising the restoration of this old-fashioned district. The sectors of Miragaia and Ribeira are also being restored.
The city also boasts a lively arts and cultural scene. The Serralves Foundation, one of the country's most dramatic cultural centers, often sponsors events. Many art galleries have sprouted up in the hilly Miragaia district, near the river. Poetry readings, art exhibits, and live jazz and rock concerts characterize Porto today.
An underrated stretch of coastal resorts and fishing villages lies between Porto and the southern reaches of the Minho district. The Atlantic waters, however, are likely to be on the chilly side, even in July and August. In recent years, the resorts have grown tremendously; they're known more to European vacationers than to Americans, who still prefer the Algarve. Overall, however, Porto and the coast to its north and south are among the most rewarding places to visit in Portugal.
Flying from Lisbon is the speediest way to Porto, though the express train takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours, and the motorway takes only 3 1/2 hours. Once in Porto, the transportation hub of the area, you can explore the coastal towns by bus or car.