THE flags of Portugal, Porto and the European Union flutter outside the grand dowager Hotel da Bolsa. The decor could do with a lift but the hotel’s central location makes it a firstclass base from which to explore Porto. Bolsa Palace is close by, and from our third-floor room we gaze across the higgledy roofs of Ribeira towards the Douro and the port lodges in Gaia. Beds are comfortable, with crisp linen; the 36 ensuite rooms have satellite television and internet access. Breakfast is included in the tariff and is a bountiful self-service affair (look for the quince marmalade, a local specialty). Rates vary according to the season; standard doubles from about ($123). More: Hotel da Bolsa, Rua Ferreira Borges, 101; www.hoteldabolsa.com. Jill Hocking are piled in tempting profusion. A Perola do Bolhao, a traditional grocery store in Rua Formosa, gives a taste of food shopping, circa 1917. Bas relief tiles wreathed in flowers, plants and bountiful harvests gleam on the art nouveau facade. Inside there’s olive oil in tall bottles, bacalhau (dried salted cod) strung up like washing on a line, artisan cheeses and fortified wines of every hue.
In the narrow alleys near the cathedral, elderly blackgarbed women watch over cupboard-sized grocery shops; in one we see a cat on a blanket of newspapers snoozing on the scales.
Best lunch: Alfarrabista opened a few years ago at Rua das Flores 46, a modern addition in a precinct of traditional eateries. The cafe-restaurant features white tables and moulded plastic chairs set against crimson walls; stairs to the basement are painted rainbow colours. A delicious light lunch of soup, bread, salad and coffee sets us back just ($24) for two.
Best dinner: Despite its incongruously English pub-
Best riverside tram ride: Porto has two tram lines. We take the single-line No. 1 tram alongside the Douro to its mouth near the Miguel lighthouse. It’s a little brownpainted rattler, with brass fittings and windows flung open to catch the cooling sea breezes. The tram squeezes within 10cm of shop awnings and passes under the wide white span of the Ponte de Arrabida. To the right, ramshackle medieval houses pitch up the steep hillside.
Best coastal stroll: From the river mouth we take a concrete footpath winding northwest, along beaches and rocky headlands. Old-fashioned cafes sit on the sands next to modern restaurants of cool whitewashed concrete. There’s an invigorating sea tang and a sense of space here.
Further north is the seawater Leca Swimming Pool, designed in 1966 by Alvaro Siza. The architect set a concrete-walled pool among the rocks; from the beach the prospect is a perfect natural horizon pool and the infinite Atlantic beyond.
Best concert hall: The boldness of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s polygonal-shaped Casa da Musica, which opened in 2005, is an eye-catching foil to neighbouring fin de siecle buildings in the area near the Rotunda do Boavista. The hollowed-out block with a tilted external wall is fashioned from aluminium, glass and concrete. Natural light pours into the auditorium through walls of corrugated glass; at dusk, the concert hall glows pink. www.casadamusica.com.
Best palaces: The neo-classical Bolsa Palace, the 19thcentury trade exchange, was built to impress. The central Hall of Nations is topped by a massive metal and glass dome but the Arabian Room is Bolsa Palace’s jewel, a symphony of Moorish gold leaf, modelled on the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.
Porto’s Cristal Palace sits high above the Douro, a 1950s dome that replaced an 1860s exhibition and sports centre. The leafy romantic gardens are the draw here: stone terraces planted with olive trees, scented roses and medicinal herbs spill down the slope. There are grottoes and splashing fountains, cheeky rabbits and swaggering peacocks. The convivial cafe is popular with city workers.
Best day trip: The medieval town of Guimaraes, 75 minutes by train from Porto, is the original capital of Portugal and the birthplace of its first king, Afonso I. Guimaraes’s historic town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We clamber over the ramparts of the 10thcentury castle, built as a fort to protect the monks from the Normans and the Moors, and then wander the cobbled lanes of the medieval quarter. We eat lunch at Cor de Tangerina, a Fair Trade organic food restaurant overlooking the 15th-century Palace of the Dukes of Braganca. My lunchtime tortilla bursts with freshness.