A visit to Porto is still about port, the sweet red wine fortified with brandy that made the Portugal's second-largest city famous. Spruced up to host the 2004 World Cup, Porto is also a charming old town, with innovative restaurants, elegant cafés, and several first-rate museums. Another plus: Portugal remains about 20% cheaper than other Western European countries. So greenback-toting tourists can still indulge in Continental-style luxury here without breaking the bank.
I spent three days there last August, truth be told, mainly for the wine. My first stop was the swanky port bar, Solar do Vinho do Porto, which pours dozens of brands. A tasting menu featuring three different ports was a steal at $9. I sampled a Churchill's Dry White Port, a Quinta do Infantado 1998 LBV (Late Bottled Vintage), and a Burmester 10-year-old Tawny Port. But even nondrinkers can order a glass of fresh orange juice, and savor the views of the Douro River from the bar's hillside terrace.
For dinner, I headed to Se Senta Se Tenta, which is gaining attention for dishing up tasty modern riffs on Portuguese classics. The restaurant's version of the country's ubiquitous bacalhau came as a cod filet resting on a potato galette and topped with an egg soufflé. The excellent three-course meal, along with a hearty red from northern Portugal's Trás-os-Montes district, in this sleek but friendly restaurant came to less than $40 per person.
Porto is a walking city, so the next morning, I lost myself in the Ribeira district, the riverside maze of cobblestone streets named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. I ducked into São Francisco church to check out the gold-leaf interior, an over-the-top example of Portuguese baroque architecture. The catacombs below, which once served as the church cemetery, were an ideal if spooky place to take a break from the summer heat.
Back outside, it was a straight shot up the Rua Mouzinho da Silveira to the São Bento train station just north of the Ribeira for a peek at another main attraction: The 1930s frescoes composed of nearly 20,000 azulejos, or hand-painted tiles, depicting the history of transportation. The theme is not surprising, given that explorer Henry the Navigator was born in Porto and even stars in one of the massive works.
I then wandered back down to the riverside boardwalk Cais da Ribeira to catch a ride on a motorized version of the barcos rabelos -o the boats once used to ferry port wine into town from the vineyards upstream. I felt like a wine barrel, crammed onto the small boat with all the other sightseers. But the nearly one-hour, $10 cruise is the best way to admire the city's half-dozen bridges, such as the double-decker Dom Luis I span pictured in many postcards.
Thirsty again, I headed off to Vila Nova de Gaia across the river to visit a few of the storehouses where port is matured and bottled. If there's time to see only one, stop in at Taylor's Port, among the oldest British-run producers. Taylor's tour and tastings are free. This winemaker doesn't hold back on serving the good stuff, either. One of the ports I tried was a 10-year-old Tawny, which usually retails for more than $25 a bottle in the U.S.
"Port is really the result of a historical accident," recounted Taylor's trilingual guide, Frédéric da Costa, during the tasting. In the late 1600s, France and England got into a trade dispute, ending with the British banning French wine. To fill the gap, England turned to Portugal for red wine, he said. But because the drink had a longer way to travel, winemakers added brandy to stop the fermentation. Hence port, a much sweeter and stronger wine, was born.
After the tour, I needed some downtime. The Majestic Cafe, a Porto institution since the 1920s, was the perfect spot. I settled into one of the leather banquettes for a leisurely tea service, including scones and a slice of custard pie served by white-jacketed waiters. All this pampering cost me $12.50.
Another day, I hopped on a local bus to the city's contemporary art museum, the Serralves Foundation, housed in a splendid 45-acre estate about two-and-a-half miles west of the town center. On display are works from the 1960s to the present by Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, and others in a light-filled building designed by Porto native Alvaro Siza Vieira. Allow time to stroll in the estate's sprawling modernist gardens dotted with sculptures. Entrance to the museum and park costs $6.50, but I went on a Sunday morning when admission is free between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
At the end of the line was Garrafeira do Carmo, a shop known for its big selection of ports. A bottle of Taylor's 20-year-old tawny port cost me $41.50 -- 11% less than Taylor's own gift store charges and as much as a 17% savings on U.S. prices. Taking home a bottle was a great way to make Porto memories last a bit longer.
By Eric Wahlgren