Affordable, Old-World Living in a European Haven

It’s evening on the waterfront quay. The lights from the many cafes cast a golden glow into the night. Lights gleam golden, too, across the broad expanse of the bridge spanning the river, whose waters shine black in the darkness.

Welcome to Porto.

The spring evening is mild here in Portugal’s second city—perfect for strolling the scenic riverfront. A murmur of voices rolls out of the packed cafes, and laughing couples, chatting in half a dozen languages, throng the largely pedestrian street. Across the river, the many caves (wine cellars) that have made this city famous loom like ghosts in the dark.

Wine bars and trendy restaurants dot this newly chic seaside city. Its urban beaches, on the nearby Atlantic, put sand and surf within easy reach. And its cosy, historic city centre, with its colourful tiled buildings and its parks and squares, invites you to explore.

Porto is already one of Europe’s most popular “holiday break” destinations. Now it has begun to grab expats’ attention, too, thanks to its low costs; cool, mild climate (summer temperatures ranging from the high teens to the low 20s); seaside location; many English-speaking locals; and an ambience that is both friendly and sophisticated.

“It has everything we really like in a city,” says expat Barbara Wolfe, who lives here with her husband Bill.

Expat couple Tom and Laine Berning found it met all their criteria, too: “A place with good public transport, a lot of culture and you can get to that culture without driving. Walking neighbourhoods, places that are safe and places that have excellent quality food,” says Laine.

Porto seems expressly designed for those who like big-city style in a small package. The greater urban area has about 1.5 million inhabitants, an international airport, concert halls, sports centres, hospitals and other big-city amenities. But the heart of the city is home to only about 250,000 people. This gives it a comfortable feel, with friendly, personable locals, a very walkable city centre and residential neighbourhoods that are easy to reach.

I stayed in an area toward the outskirts of the centre, in an artsy, slightly bohemian neighbourhood of galleries, family restaurants and shops featuring up-and-coming clothing designers. Yet I was only about a 20-minute walk from the historic centre’s popular riverside area. This is where tourists tend to concentrate…and for good reasons. Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities and its centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. Beautiful churches and public buildings, leafy parks and boulevards, venerable cafes and restaurants and worn cobbled streets are everywhere, so there’s plenty to see and do.

But the centre can also be a great place to live, if you like city bustle. Stores sit cheek by jowl on narrow streets, and you’re never far from a sidewalk cafe for your morning coffee. Down side streets hide small, local restaurants where the lunch special is a bargain and the wine is quaffable and cheap. Take the Taberna do Santo Antonio, for instance, located in a maze of hilly streets, its daily specials, typically meat and fish dishes with rice or potatoes, cost €4.50 ($6.60). And wine—on tap—is just 80 centimos ($1.17) a glass. It’s hard to work up a bill of more than €7 ($10) here…even if you’re thirsty.

Food shopping is easy in the centre as small supermarkets are everywhere. Or, if you prefer, try the colourful and well-stocked traditional market. Here you’ll find a wealth of greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers…even lunch stalls. The market’s casual wine bar is a great place for a shopping break and an aperitif; a glass of locally produced white wine costs just €1.50 ($2.20), and a heaping bowl of olives to accompany it is 50 centimos (73 cents).

And it’s easy to avoid the centre’s tourists. They mob places like Cafe Majestic, where J.K. Rowling allegedly wrote parts of Harry Potter, but a 10-minute walk away, off the swankier avenues, you can enjoy your coffee at half the price.

If you want to stay in this area, short-term rentals start from about $80 a night through services like Airbnb. Long-term rentals are scarce but you can buy small apartments in nearby (but less swank) neighbourhoods starting from about $200,000.

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