Port wine became popular in England in the late 17th century, when British merchants who settled here began to add brandy to the wine of the Douro valley to prevent it from souring during transit. They discovered that the sweeter and stronger the wine, the better the taste. In 1703 Britain and Portugal signed a treaty providing for the exchange of cloth from England for barrels of Portuguese wine. This paved the way for the enormous expansion in the 18th-19th centuries of the Port trade.
Birthplace of Henry the Navigator, Portugal’s second largest city has a rich history dating back to the Phoenicians who came to trade in the 8th-century BC. Later the Romans developed settlements on both sides of the river, giving them the names Portus and Calus. Spread along the steeply tiered hillsides, Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site sitting at the mouth of the Rio Douro, the river traversing northern Portugal’s major wine producing region, the Douro DOC, where the port wine grapes are grown and harvested, with most still being shipped to the Port warehouses for maturation and export. Today the heart of the port wine trade is found on the steeply terraced hills across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, a suburb devoted to the aging, blending, and shipping of port wines. Many of its fifty-some port lodges are still in British hands, and some are still family-run, such as the esteemed Croft and Ramos Pinto. Most are open daily to tours.
A quick 72 hours is just about enough time to sample the charms of this gracefully faded, unassuming, hard working city, but you will need more time to sample its gastronomic scene in Portugal’s second culinary capital.
Stroll the alleyways of its Dickensian, cobblestoned quayside, Cais de Ribera, which sits below the towering Dom Luis I bridge, an Eiffel disciple edifice connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia.
Visit its Baroque churches, peek into its old- fashioned shops, some selling just one item. Gaze at its lovely glazed tile work, azulejos, relax on a short river cruise down the Rio Douro to the Atlantic. Take a tour, or two, of its Port lodges after visiting its excellent Museum of Port Wine, and of course, sample more from a vast selection of Ports on the relaxing terrace of the Port Wine Institute. But there is more to enjoy here than wine: striking contemporary architecture abounds, courtesy of the prestigious Porto School of Architecture. The Serralves Contemporary Art Museum was designed by native Pritzker Prize winner Alvaro Siza Vera, along with the oceanside Boa Nova Tea House, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright. The 2011 Pritzker Laureate, Eduardo Souto de Moura, has left his mark on the new Porto metro stations.
A visit to Porto isn’t complete without a short trip to the coast, where the Douro meets the Atlantic, on the charmingly rickety, circa 1930s, #1 tram, with a visit to the Tram Museum along the way. You will alight at the fashionable, well-to-do neighborhood of Foz de Douro, which is blessed with a captivating and photogenic old quarter, Foz V elha, where the Porto School of modern architecture blends seamlessly with its ancient, tiled fishermen’s homes. Visit its two fortresses, trendy shops, pulsating clubs and gourmet restaurants-by-the-sea and stroll its classically elegant seaside promenade that runs along its pristine, Blue Flag beaches.