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.
Dining with the locals
Book ahead for dinner at Restaurante Traca at Largo Sao Domingos 88 (restaurantetraca.com). The three-tiered dining room serves contemporary and northern Portuguese dishes. Around €80 for two with wine.
Just across the square is celebrity chef Rui Paula's DOP (ruipaula.com) where tripe and salted cod are interpreted in a smart, modern manner.
Go to church
The Romanansque Se (cathedral) rises like a fortress above the city from Terreiro da Se (diocese-porto.pt; 9am-12.30pm and 2.30-7pm daily; Sunday mass is at 11am). Started in the 12th century, Baroque flourishes such as a silver altarpiece, red marble fonts and cloisters plastered with azulejos were added. Henry the Navigator was baptised here.
A walk in the park
The drab, Fifties, domed pavilion that marks out Crystal Palace park belies the original structure it replaced – a glass and iron palace that dazzled the city when it was completed a century earlier. Stroll the park's shaded pathways that draw neat lines between manicured lawns and ornamental shrubs and fountains as you survey the Douro below. Access is via Rua Dom Manuel II (open 8am-9pm daily).
Out to brunch
The sleek Bull & Bear at Avenida da Boavista 3431 (bb gourmet.net) serves a brunch buffet, noon to 4pm at weekends: pick from breads and pastries, gravadlax or eggs any which way; €15.
The Serralves Foundation at Rua Dom Joao de Castro 210 (serralves.pt; Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm, to 8pm at weekends; €8.50) is a tranquil park, Art Deco villa and Pritzker Prize-winning contemporary art museum.
The park is dotted with works including a Claes Oldenburg sculpture of a giant trowel, while the pink villa houses temporary exhibitions and furniture belonging to the original inhabitant, Count Carlos Alberto Cabral. The main museum displays a permanent collection of contemporary Portuguese art, a library and cinema.
Take a ride
Trundle down to Foz, Porto's beachy suburb on a vintage tram. Hop aboard Line 1 on Rua do Ouro, then settle back into the 1920s car as it skirts along the Douro out to the Atlantic; €2.50 each way (portotramcitytour.pt; every 30 minutes 9.30am-8.30pm).
Icing on the cake
Graham's at Rua do Agro 141 (grahams-port.com) is a cut above Vila Nova de Gaia's riverside port lodges: it offers a sophisticated experience, thinner crowds and magnificent views from its hilltop perch. Explore the 1890 cellars, stacked with thousands of port casks and the renovated museum, then taste a selection of ruby and tawny ports (from €5) or nab a table at its lauded restaurant, Vinum. Sophie Lam/The Independent