Just outside of Porto is the magic Douro Valley, one of the most picturesque areas in Portugal: roads finding their way in the valley, terraces covered with vineyards and awe-inspiring mountains. For centuries, year after year, grapes were grown and fortified in Douro Valley before traveling in oak barrels on traditional boats called rabelos to age in the cellars of Gaia. If you’ve already visited Porto and went port wine tasting in Gaia, you’ve probably already tasted the sweetness of the grapes grown in Douro Valley. But finding out everything about the process behind the final product is a different story and for this, one should see the Douro Valley at least on a day trip from Porto.
Read this short travel guide for everything you need to know about a visit to the Douro Valley.
What is the Douro Valley known for?
The Douro Valley is one of the most ancient wine regions in the world. It is mostly known for its amazing rolling hills that border the steep valley of the Douro river. The warm summers, countless hours of sunlight and undulating curves, that give the grapes maximum exposure to the sun, made the region perfect for viticulture and wine production. Thus, the Douro valley is home to numerous wineries that produce most of Portugal’s Port, as well as rich red wines and vinho verde.
Due to the unmatched beauty of the landscapes, road N222, that crosses the valley, was recognized as the World’s Best Drive. The train ride through the Douro Valley is not less spectacular and is known as one of the most beautiful train journeys in Europe. Douro Valley was also awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.
A brief history of the Douro Valley in Portugal
Viticulture has been practiced in the Douro Valley since ancient times. The Romans made wine from the grapes grown in the valley during their long occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.
Centuries later, because of the war between France and England in the 1600s, the latter started to import wine from Portugal. However, because of the long distance, the wine was already vinegar when it reached its destination. In order to continue to export wine to England, the producers in Douro valley had to find a solution for the issue.
They decided to add aguardiente, a very strong brandy with 77% alcohol. This increased the alcohol content of the final product to almost 20% and stopped the fermentation, preserving, at the same time, the natural sugar from the grapes. Following this fortification process, resulted the port wine as we know it today, sweet and strong. The English loved it, as it was also a good substitute for whisky during the long winter months.
In the past, the wine produced in the Douro Valley was transported by traditional boats called rabelos to Gaia, where it was stored. However, the wine was shipped from Oporto, not from Gaia, and became known internationally as port wine. Over time, the transportation method changed, from boat to train and tracks, but most of the process is based on the same pattern.
Best things to do in the Douro Valley, Portugal’s famous wine region
There are plenty of things to see and do in the Douro Valley, as well as an ever-increasing number of ways of experiencing all the region has to offer in terms of scenery, wine, food, culture and history. However, I can’t imagine anyone going to Douro for whatever reason and not visiting at least a winery for a port tasting. You wouldn’t be blamed even if this was the only reason for your visit to the Douro valley either.
Experience a Wine Tour
You can book a guided tour of the Douro valley with wine tastings from Porto or just book the tastings yourself by contacting one of the many wineries. The visits usually include a tour of the wine estate, a quick introduction to the process of wine production and a tasting of some awesome wines. Keep in mind, that port wine is just one of the products of these wineries. Don’t be surprised if you’ll also be offered red or wine wines. They are also produced in the valley.
Some tours go even farther. For example, if you visit in September, during the harvest season, you might have the chance to actively participate in the grape harvest an stomp, an unique experience in Portugal. You could also try to blend your own wine.
Here’s a list of quintas where you can book a tour yourself. The first three are close to Pinhão and easily accessible if you get there by train and don’t have a car at your disposal:
- Quinta do Seixo
- Quinta das Carvalhas
- Croft Port
- Quinta do Tedo
- Quinta do Bomfim
- Quinta de Pacheca in Regua
- Quinta da Portela de Baixo
- Quinta de Santa Cristina
- Quinta do Pôpa
- Quinta de S. Luiz
Discover some stunning viewpoints
The valley of Douro is also known for its amazing views. If you travel by car, you have the freedom to choose your stops. If you opt for an organized tour, the guide will do this for you, but you can still take a look at the description and check if any of the most famous viewpoints is included. By train you don’t really have an option, but I’ve read that the entire ride is really scenic. In any case, don’t leave your camera at home, as the landscapes are stunning.
Here are some of the most sought viewpoint:
- São Leonardo da Galafura – 30 minutes driving distance from Peso da Régua
- São Salvador do Mundo
- Panoramic Way – on the old road to Sabrosa
- São Domingos
- Casal de Loivos – 10 minutes driving distance from Pinhão
For more viewpoint and details on how to get to them check out this article.
Go hiking or cycling
The vineyard-covered hills surrounding the Douro River are a perfect place to go hiking or off-road cycling! There are several trails one can choose from to get into nature and enjoy the beauty of the area from places that can only be accessed on foot or by bike. However, this might not be an ideal summer activity because of the extreme high temperatures and lack of shade. If this is a thing you want to do, maybe you should plan your Douro valley trip in spring or fall.
Go paddling or kayaking
There aren’t many tour operators offering this kind of activities in the Douro valleys, but if you’re keen on doing it, you can. For example, if you stay overnight at Quinta do Tedo, you can also go kayaking with them. There’s also the possibility to combine an 1-hour rabelo tour with a kayaking one. Other options are to take part in a stand-up paddle class or rent a kayak from Pinhao.
Do a picnic in Douro Valley
If you don’t go on an organized tour, you’ll have to decide where you eat each meal. Why not pack some local types of cheese, ham, codfish cakes, marinated olives, salad, bread, homemade jam, fruit and a bottle of wine and enjoy a picnic at a lovely vineyard? Some quintas also organize their own picnic and provide guests with an already prepared picnic basket. One example is Quinta do Tedo and the picnic with a view experience can be booked here.
Discover the Douro River on a boat ride
The perfect way to discover the Douro valley is by going on a trip along the river itself. Kayaking might not be for everyone. For those that are more fond of an effortless experience, there are boat tours. These are done with modified old wooden rabelos, previously used to carry wine barrels through the dangerous waters from the Douro Valley to Gaia.
Taking into consideration that the Douro is the heart of the region and that if offers you the chance to view the slopes from a different angle, a visit to the Douro Valley wouldn’t be complete without a cruise! Many of the full-day tours from Porto include an one hour boat ride. If you are on your own, you can book your boat trip from Pinhão in advance here.
Visit some wine villages
The highlights of the Douro Valley are, without any doubt, the wine and nature itself. But if you have more time to dedicate to the region, the towns and historical wine villages in the Douro Valley might come as a nice surprise and show you a different side of Portugal . There are some of the top sights:
- Douro Museum in Regua
- The schist chapel at Picoto de São Domingo in Provesende
- Bread and Wine Museum in Favaios
- Museu do Trevões focusing on local traditions and rural life
- Monastery of Salzedas
- The town of Lamego and the Shrine of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios
- An aromatic garden built on the ruins of Monastery of São João de Tarouca
- The castle of Numão near Pocinho
- A medieval fortified bridge in Ucanha
How to get to the Douro Valley
During our trip to Portugal we were also working. So we could only arrange day trips for the weekends and it didn’t made sense for us to rent a car. However, if you have more time at your disposal, we truly believe that the best way, by far, to explore the Douro Valley is by car. Check availability and prices here!
The Douro Valley is a short drive from Porto and makes for an epic road trip. This way you’ll have more freedom to enjoy the spectacular viewpoints and flexibility when it comes to choosing the wineries you visit, as most of them are out of reach from Pinhão by foot. One more reason to rent a car and drive yourself is N222, between Peso da Régua and Pinhão, awarded as the World’s Best Drive in 2015.
If you decide to drive along the valley of Douro yourself and taste the fine wines produced there, you’ll definitely need accommodation. Check some affordable options here!
If you want to go on a self-guided trip in the Douro valley, but don’t think driving the curvy roads is a good idea, you can take the train from Porto to Pinhão, the main town in the Douro Valley. This is also the cheapest option and the train ride is worldwide famous for its scenic views. Check the schedule and prices here!
Pinhão is also home to one of the most beautiful train stations in Portugal, decorated with blue and white traditional ceramic tiles. In case you choose this option, the biggest disadvantage is that you won’t have many vineyards to choose from when it comes to tastings. The best options are Quinta do Bomfim and Croft Porto.
On the other hand, you can only visit 2-3 vineyards anyway. So this might not be a huge drawback, if you’re not set on a specific one. Besides, Croft has a wonderful pink port wine that was our favorite by far. And we’ve tasted many ports in Douro Valley, Porto and at home. This was the only one that simply vanished.
This is my least favorite method of seeing the Douro Valley from start to end. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage everyone to get close to the river on an 1-2 hours boat trip on the Douro, but a full-day trip means slow transportation, less to no flexibility and you can only view the vine-covered slopes from one angle. However, this might be the perfect option for someone out there. So I just wanted to say that, if this is you, it is possible. Check out this one day Douro boat tour from Porto or this one!
By organized tour
Another option is to join an organized tour from Porto which includes transport, at least a viewpoint, tastings, lunch and a river cruise in Pinhão. This is a great choice if you have limited time. However, you can’t personalize these tours, they are one size fits all and they usually don’t include the great and less known wineries. The tour we chose included two wineries, one was Casa dos Barros, a small producer and Quinta S. Luiz.
The first one was pretty nice and we were allowed to check out the house and the estate on our own. The tasting included three tawnys of different ages, cheese, olive oil and bread. A guide taught us a lot about the production, how to tell if what we are given is a port or not and how to correctly taste it. We also had lunch on the estate with a pretty view. I particularly liked their white wine that was fruity and worked great with fish.
The second stop was nice, but not such a great experience. We enjoyed the breathtaking views and were given a quick tour of the vineyards. Sadly, the wines were not great and the information we were given was not that interesting. I can barely recall anything.
Here are a few options to consider from Get Your Guide:
- Douro Valley: 3 Vineyards Tour with Lunch – this doesn’t include a boat trip on the Douro, but includes 3 vineyards, lots of port and has great reviews. I felt 2 were not enough, even if we had two rounds of wines at one of the wineries. The amount of wine was ok, but I’d have liked to see 3 different vineyards instead.
- Douro Valley Tour: Three Vineyards, Lunch, and River Cruise
- Douro Valley 4WD Tour with Wine Tasting and Picnic
- From Porto: Douro Valley w/ Boat Tour, Wine Tasting & Lunch – if you only want to visit two wineries.
What’s the best time to visit the Douro Valley?
Summers are extremely hot and winters are cold. The best seasons to enjoy the activities in the Douro Valley are spring and autumn. Between the two, fall is the better choice, as this is when the grapes are harvested (September/October, but varies from year to year) and the leaves change color. This is also the busiest season. Make sure to book accommodation and activities well in advance.
Keep in mind that in autumn there’s also a risk of rainy days. We got to Douro valley on the worst day of our one month trip to Portugal and there were only 2-3 days with rain over the entire period.
If you’re too late, but want to taste some great wines and are flexible regarding your destination, you can also take a look into what the Republic of Moldova has to offer:
How many days should I stay in Douro?
This mostly depends on your time and flexibility. But knowing what I know now and considering you want to enjoy Douro Valley at its best, I’d spend at least 2-3 days there. This way you can better appreciate the landscapes, culture and gastronomy. If you don’t have so much time and base yourself mostly in cities, I’d still recommend you visit Douro Valley at least on a day trip from Porto.
Where to Stay in the Douro Valley?
Most of the big wineries also have accommodation, so you can wake up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise over the terraced vineyards. Here are some nice places to choose from:
To sum up, I’m glad we finally got to experience the Douro Valley for ourselves. It was absolutely worth it, even if only on a day trip from Porto. Go to enjoy the vine-covered rolling hills and mighty Douro river while sipping a glass of vintage port. If you have the good fortune to be able to spend more time in the Douro Valley, you have plenty of activities to fill your time and the memories will last a lifetime.
Pin this article for later to help you plan your future trip from Porto to the wine region Douro Valley!
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