Cross to the south side of the Douro river, over the Ponte Dom Luís I, and you leave the city of Porto for the separate town of Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia), though the distinction is irrelevant to visitors. The riverfront here – facing Porto’s Ribeira – has been similarly developed in recent years with a long line of cafés, bars and restaurants; cruise boats dock along the esplanade, while the wooden craft with sails are known as barcos rabelos, the traditional boats once used to transport wine casks downriver from the Douro port estates.
The views are, if anything, better from Gaia than from the Porto side, looking back across to a largely eighteenth-century cityscape, with few modern buildings intruding in the panoramic sweep from Palácio de Cristal gardens to cathedral towers. The quickest way here from Porto’s upper town is to take the funicular down from near Praça da Batalha and walk across the bridge; or buses #57 and #91 run from São Bento across the bridge and along the Gaia riverfront.
Gaia, of course, is completely dominated by the port wine trade, whose company lodges and warehouses spell out their names in huge letters across the roofs. The lodges are lined along the riverfront and tucked away up the steep eighteenth-century back streets, and though most have long since been bought by multinationals – including famous brands like Cockburn – they still try hard to push a family image. Almost without exception, they offer tastings and tours, conducted in English, with a view to enticing you to buy their product. Most lodges are open daily between May and October; some close at weekends in winter, or are only open then by appointment; where there’s an entrance fee, usually just a couple of euros, the amount is deducted from anything you buy. Tours of the smaller, lesser known companies (like Barros, Almeida or Cálem) tend to be more personal than those of larger producers, but they are all pretty informative and you’ll soon know the difference between a tawny and a ruby, and which vintages are best. For much more on port and its history, including the best lodges to visit, turn to the colour section