Portugal's second city and capital of the north is still reaping the benefits of its stint as European Capital of Culture in 2001 — its ancient, tumbledown streets continue to be restored while investments of capital and confidence have created modern accents such as Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Musica (www.casadamusica.com). On 23 June, Porto has a huge street party for the annual Festa de Sao Joao, celebrating Saint John the Baptist.
Get your bearings
You can explore most of Porto without public transport, but prepare for thigh-burning ascents. The ancient Vitoria district shoots up from the Ribeira riverfront of the Douro, with its tangle of towering townhouses and steep streets. The river is an intrinsic part of the city – it was here that the nation's shipbuilding industry blossomed in the 14th century, where navigators departed for the New World in the 15th century and where the port trade flourished in the 19th century.
Port wealth is still evident in its neighbouring city, Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the water. You can reach it via Ponte de Dom Luis I. Around 10 minutes to the west, the Douro empties out into the Atlantic, fringed by beaches. The tourist office is at Rua Clube dos Fenianos 25 (visitportoandnorth.travel; 9am-7pm, until 8pm June to October) where you can buy a Porto Card for discounts on tours and admissions.
Take a view
The Teleferico de Gaia cable car winds up and down the riverfront of Vila Nova da Gaia from the top level of Ponte de Dom Luis I to the Douro's edge. The short but spectacular journey that gives you an elevated view of Porto across the water and the roofs of the port lodges – Sandeman, Taylors et al – beneath you. Tickets are €5 one way, €8 return (gaiacablecar.com; 10am-8pm daily).
Take a hike
Start on the Porto side of Ponte de Dom Luis I at the Ribeira riverfront, where colourful houses loom over touristy cafés as the medieval streets start to inch upwards. Walk along the Douro as far as Rua Alfandega then turn right, passing Casa do Infante, where Prince Henry the Navigator (who colonised Madeira and the Azores) was born in 1394 (10am-5.30pm; closed Mondays; free).
Walk up to Rua do Infante Dom Henrique, turn right and then immediately left to trace the side of a large square, with its statue of the explorer, up into the Vitoria district.
Follow Rua Mouzinho da Silveira until you reach Sao Bento station. Take a peek inside the early 20th-century station to see its magnificent azulejos (tiles) that depict the history of Portugal, then turn left down Rua dos Clerigos to the Clerigos clocktower, a landmark that soars above the Baroque church it's attached to and towers over the city skyline (torredosclerigos.pt).
Snake around to the right up Rua das Carmelitas and the modern Praca de Lisboa shopping complex it hugs, past the impressive azulejos that decorate the exterior of the church and convent of Nossa Senhora do Carmo and up Rua de Carlos Alberto until you reach Rua de Miguel Bombarda on your left. Amble along, stopping in the tiny art galleries and boutiques that line the cool, quiet street.
Lunch on the run
For proper peri-peri, head to Churrasqueira Domingos at Rua do Rosario 329 (churrasqueiradomingos.com); a plate of rotisserie chicken with a pile of chips costs €5.50.
On the corner of Rua das Carmelitas and Galeria de Paris, opposite the grass-roofed Praca de Lisboa, A Vida Portuguesa is a huge, old-fashioned emporium crammed with traditional Portuguese products – ceramic swallows, cork knick-knacks, tinned sardines and Claus Porto soaps in pretty, vintage packaging (avidaportuguesa.com). Almost next door is the Livraria Lello bookshop, at Rua das Carmelitas 144. Enter to find a dramatic, Neo-gothic revival interior, with a magnificent central staircase and stained-glass roof. Most shops close on Sundays.