Few European cities can match the variety, the history and the sheer good value that are packed into Portugal’s charming northern capital of Porto. Here’s how to enjoy it, and where to stay
The “default city”: you probably have one. When someone asks where they should escape for an indulgent fix of culture, cuisine and cool, what do you answer: Paris? New York? Milan?
My standard responses always used to be pretty constant: for history, the solution had to be Rome; for energy (with a beach attached), Barcelona; for art and accessibility, Amsterdam. But this year the default has crystallised as somewhere else entirely: Portugal's stylish, yet delightfully disorderly, second city: Porto.
The motivations are many. Access, for a start, has become much easier: the northern Portuguese city has regular flights from Gatwick and Heathrow on TAP Portugal, while Ryanair has introduced links from Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Stansted - the latter so frequent that it is almost a shuttle service. And Porto's 21st-century airport has a hyper-efficient underground link into the city it serves, providing the kind of seamless, stressless journey that short-breakers crave.
Yet despite its ultra-modern flourishes, Porto's historical roots run deep. The city has a location astride a gorge just before the Douro river spills into the Atlantic, which is both strategic and magnificent.
Beneath a battalion of bridges, the oldest quarter of the city crumbles charmingly down to the river. Some of the houses in this tangle of alleyways are now being reborn as craft workshops, but this part of Porto has a definite "lived-in" feeling - and it has been lived in for millennia. Set-piece monuments are many. Presiding over the populace is the cathedral, whose dour interior constrasts with courtyards that are dazzlingly lined with azulejos, the ornate blue-and-white tiles that define Portugal. For the best priestly panorama, though, ascend to the top of the 18th-century "Tower of the Clergy", as the Torre dos Clérigos translates, 75m above the city.
From this viewpoint, you can appreciate the alluring layout of Porto: compact and crowded near the river, but to the north opening up with fine 19th-century architecture arrayed around grand squares. To the south: well, the aroma that wafts in with the sunshine is the "angels' share" of the port that matures its way to perfection on the left bank of the Douro.
Order a coffee at one of the many cheerful cafes, and another of Porto's desirable dimensions will become evident: it is the cheapest big city in the euro zone: 55 cents is the standard price for a short, strong shot of the black stuff. With the pound precarious, Porto is the place to stretch your sterling.
Take accommodation. At a time when €100 is becoming the base figure for a half-decent double in a large European city, earlier this year I paid just €45 for a family of four, including breakfast, at the clean, central and friendly Pensao Aviz. I also checked out the startling new Rivoli Cinema Hostel, an imaginative conversion of an old office building into a dramatic venue celebrating celluloid heroes; a double room here costs €42, including breakfast. And if you were to choose the place from which to push the boat out - the quayside Pestana Porto - you would still pay only €152 including breakfast; river view rooms cost €182; these are the prevailing rates in mid-June 2009.
Once you are settled in, you have so much to explore. The public transport network itself comprises flourishes of history, with antique trams trundling prettily across terrain that has the same comfortable folds as a crumpled duvet.
Everyone has their favourite Porto century, but mine is definitely the 19th: the railway station is one of those rare temples to the train; Ponte de Dom Luís is the high-level (and low-level) bridge that straddles the Douro most dramatically; and Livraria Lello is the bookshop that bypassed the 20th century, to emerge on the other side as a wonderfully ornate, slightly doddery anachronism that still has a brisk trade in the printed word.
If you have previously experienced Portugal only among the golf courses and timeshare resorts of the Algarve, Porto is a world away; yet if you need a beach, the city can still deliver. Its seaside suburbs straggle prettily up the coast, with predictably delicious fish on offer at the waterside cafes and restaurants. Or aim upstream into the Douro Valley, one of the most beautiful river trips in Europe.
Last time I checked, few other European cities could offer anything like that diversity - yet at the same time remain relaxed, almost crime-free (are you listening, Rome and Barcelona?). I have told anyone who cares to listen that it's the city for the sophisticated 21st-century traveller seeking the simple life. And I'm glad to say that the people who have taken my advice are also now ambassadors for the fine city of Porto.