Porto's old town stretched along the edge of the River Douro. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

No taxis, no buses, no trains, no trams. Porto is so wonderfully compact that my own two feet are all I need to explore its heart.

Portugal's second-biggest city may boast a tangle of steep, narrow streets and alleys, but those who choose to walk them will have their labour rewarded.

This is no Paris, Rome or Barcelona: Porto is not a city blessed with an array of famed attractions. Its charms are more subtle and can be best unearthed by wandering.

On the far west of Europe, Porto does not pull the throngs of holidaymakers which can blight some of the continent's other seaside cities.

Its southerly sibling Lisbon is Portugal's economic and political hub, and the nation's chief tourist drawcard.

Porto, however, loses little by comparison with the capital.

Perched on the elevated banks of the River Douro near the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, its setting is beguiling.

A soothing or sharp breeze, depending on the season, sweeps in off the sea across the city's manicured parks, through its cobbled lanes and along the Douro.

This pristine waterway marks Porto's southern edge, with Vila Nova de Gaia - technically a separate city - on the opposite side. Flanking the river is Porto's rugged old town, Ribeira. Its buildings can range from derelict to splendid in a jarring yet appealing fashion.

This is not a polished precinct tailor-made for foreign visitors. It is a warts-and-all suburb which in many parts shows the wear and tear associated with a history stretching back more than 2000 years.

Porto is one of the oldest cities in Europe and some efforts have been made to revitalise its most ancient neighbourhood. But for the most part Ribeira is a timeworn place with a jumble of architecture ranging from Baroque to Neo-Classical and Belle Epoque.

Perhaps due to its crumbling appearance, Ribeira has been somewhat abandoned by locals, particularly younger citizens who prefer to reside in the more fashionable suburbs by the sea.

As a result, the old town has a languid pace. On foot, this atmosphere is intoxicating. You can easily find yourself sidetracked from striding its streets in favour of joining the locals convened over a coffee and pastry in a parkside cafe.

Even in the old town's heart, on the Avenida dos Aliados, there is little bustle. The stateliest part of the district, the boulevard is punctuated by grand edifices, bookended by the granite and marble town hall, with its soaring bell tower, and the Praca da Liberdade, a compact square with a striking statue of King Pedro IV on horseback.

From his lofty vantage point, the late King of Portugal and Emperor of Brazil can spy the impressive glass arches of the nearby Sao Bento Station.

For more than a century, commuters have walked beneath the station's giant tiled atrium on their way to catch trains to the north of the country.

With no intention of leaving Porto just yet, I mingle between the locals, admiring the station's alluring architecture.

Just a few minutes away, en route to the Douro, I come across the stunning Porto Cathedral. Originally constructed more than 800 years ago, it has undergone many renovations through the centuries, leaving it with an eclectic architectural style.

From high on its terrace you can almost glimpse the riverside entertainment zone along Cais da Ribeira. Here, myriad cafes, restaurants and bars offer calming vistas of the Douro in the shadows of the Luis I Bridge.

In a city renowned for its bridges, none is more iconic than this one. When it was opened in 1886, it boasted the longest iron arch in the world, at 172m. Its size may no longer cause wonder, but it remains popular among the tourists who drift beneath its span on sightseeing cruises of the river.

Many boat operators ply these waters, typically offering one to two-hour cruises which pass the six main bridges linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia.

From Ribeira, the Luis I Bridge can be traversed on foot, providing access to some of the leading port wineries which gave the city its name.

These port wine lodges, spread along the cliff side which borders the river, invite visitors to sample their products and tour their labyrinthine ageing chambers.

Prices are inflated by tourism but are still reasonable by Australian standards. Porto, on the whole, is a very affordable city for visitors, due to the struggles of the country's economy.

A comfortable hotel in a central location can be secured for as little as $60 a night, while food, drink and entertainment are reasonably priced. Visiting outside the peak tourist season in summer provides even greater value.

Transport, too, is cheap and easily available via taxis or the comprehensive network of public buses, trams and trains. Or you could follow my lead and just use your feet.

FACT FILE

Porto is a year-round destination, thanks to its mild climate. The average daily maximum temperature hovers between 14C and 26C over the course of the year. It is at its most crowded during the summer, from June to August. But even during this period it is not flooded with tourists like many other European cities.

Direct flights to Porto are available from most of Europe's main aviation hubs. From Lisbon, the easiest way to reach Porto is by train, which takes about two-and-a-half hours and costs about $40.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West