Many visitors, when planning their trip to Portugal, think of the expansive beaches of the Algarve, the historical cities that were the birthplace of the Kingdom of Portugal, at the heart of the ‘old world’, and the bustling modern centres of Lisbon and Porto. There is, however, another side to this beautiful country, and that is the lush greenery, valleys and rivers of its interior.
The Douro River is one such destination, long overlooked but now blossoming into one of the most popular rural destinations in the world. In fact, the Douro runs through the heart of the city of Porto, providing easy access to the verdant landscape that heads east into the heart of Portugal from its mouth at the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
Visitors to Porto who are staying in the city for more than a few days may want to take the opportunity to get out and explore the delights of the Douro for themselves, and a river cruise is the perfect way to do this. Douro trips can last anything from an hour or two to a full day or even several days, and there is certainly plenty to see and experience.
One of the main draws of the area is, of course, the wine industry, especially Port wine, which is the mainstay of the area’s viticultural activity. The Douro region has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in its own right for the way in which its people, history, culture, and natural environment have been mutually influenced by the area’s tradition of wine production. One of the best ways to appreciate the extent to which this is the case is from the waters of the river itself.
Most of the Douro valley tours depart from Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite banks of the river from the main centre of Porto. Trips can be pre-booked via your travel agent, online or directly with the operator, or you can ask for advice and recommendations at your hotel reception. There is little to choose between the different providers, so you can rest assured of the comfort of your boat and the quality and knowledge of your guide.
A short Douro trip will mostly carry you through the heart of Porto itself, along the key side, past ancient buildings and taking in the city’s six historical bridges, of which the most famous is the Dom Luis I, spanning the river between Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Designed in 1886 and inspired by the work of the French architect, Gustave Eiffel, this bridge is protected by UNESCO. In fact, Eiffel himself was responsible for another of Porto’s bridges, the Maria Pia railway bridge, which is named after Maria Pia, former Queen of Portugal.
If time allows, a longer Douro trip is recommended, heading deep into the heart of the Douro valley. Leaving behind the rooftops, spires, bridges, and crowds of central Porto, your Douro boat trip heads out into the verdant open countryside of the surrounding area. As you approach Barqueiros, steep valleys rise majestically from the banks of the river, swathed in vines which are grown on terraces, with different grapes at different heights in order to maximize the unique weather and soil conditions of the area.
Here begins the highlight ― perhaps even the raison d’etre of your trip into the Douro Valley ― a visit or series of visits to the local wine producers. Those with an interest in Port wine, whether for history or taste or both, will enjoy taking the opportunity to visit the many vineyards and wine distilleries that line the valley during their Douro boat trip. The tasting opportunities are endless and it is a fascinating way of finding out more about the Port wine industry whilst experiencing first hand the local landscape and culture.
There are many delightful boutique hotels from which to choose for your overnight stay in the valley. Organised tours will usually include a stay in a particular wine hotel within one of the quintas, all of which offer a good standard of accommodation, from comfortable and convenient to boutique spa. Expect to sample plenty of the local nectar, both on tours of the distilleries and alongside your gourmet meals.