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DOURO VALLEY

Major Rivers of the Iberian Peninsula

Amazing Douro Valley

The UNESCO-listed Douro valley, in central-northern Portugal, is a highlight of any visit to the country. While it’s most famous for the port and vinho verde (green wine) produced there, tastings, vineyard tours, and being part of the harvest are just a few of the many reasons to spend time there.With spectacular scenery, jaw-dropping train rides, boat, kayak, and hiking trips, and plenty of great architecture, it’s an area that justifies far more than the day, or two most visitors allocate to it.Whether you’re visiting for a few hours or a week, here are a dozen of the top things to do when you’re in the Douro Valley.

THE AREA

Departing from Porto, where the river flows into the sea and where the Douro wines (table wines and Port wine), produced on its hillsides, also end up, there are various ways to get to know this cultural landscape, listed as a World Heritage Site: by road, by train, on a cruise boat and even by helicopter. None will leave you indifferent. Following a route between the viewpoints that offer the best vistas, you need to cross the river from north to south and back again. But along the way you can admire breathtaking landscapes over the river and visit vineyards, towns and villages until you reach Miranda do Douro, the point at which the river enters Portugal.

RESTAURANTS

Being a coastal city, it has some fantastic seafood, and the nearby Douro Valley isn’t exactly the worst place to find meatier morsels…! With a proud culinary heritage and some excellent local wines to wet your mouth with, the Douro region certainly is a top gastronomic destination. Here is a shortlist of some of the best restaurants in Porto and the Douro Valley, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself there.

Douro Valley Activity

THE RIVER CRUISE

The Douro river flows for over 500 miles from north-central Spain all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and is the lifeblood of the region. Port wine was traditionally floated down the river in flat-bottomed boats to be cellared in Porto, but these days, much of the river traffic is cruise boats of all shapes and sizes. If you’re only visiting the Douro Valley on a day trip, many tours go one way by train, and the other by boat, so you get to experience the majestic scenery from two distinctly different viewpoints. There are plenty of other river cruise options, however, including multi-day trips where you spend the night onboard. Shorter boat trips starting in the valley are also available and are ideal for those planning to spend one or two nights in the region.

EXCITING KAYAK

If group tours aren’t your thing, but you’d still like to get out on the water, consider renting a kayak instead. Many of the quintas (country estates) offer kayaks to guests who stay with them, typically for use on smaller, calmer tributaries of the Douro rather than the main river itself. It’s the ideal way to explore some of the region at your own pace for an hour or two. Be sure to wear a hat and apply plenty of sunscreen during the warmer months, and take some water with you, since you’ll be sure to work up a sweat with all that paddling! For those more serious about their kayaking, companies like Douro Kayak offer multi-day itineraries through the region.

TRAIN SCENERIES

The train line from Porto through the Douro Valley and on to Spain was an engineering masterpiece when it opened over 130 years ago. It spans the country with dozens of bridges and tunnels. You can still ride from São Bento station to Porcino, swapping onto a Douro line train at Régua, five times per day. It’s a beautiful ride, especially between Régua and Porcino, where the line follows the river as it clings onto the side of the steep Douro gorge. The right-hand side of the train has the best views of the river and vineyards for most of the trip. On Saturday afternoons in summer, a historic steam train runs between Régua and Tua. Complete with drinks and onboard musicians, it’s an experience well worth having if you’re there at the right time.

PORT WINE TASTING

No trip to the Douro Valley is complete without tasting the drink that makes the area famous. Fortified port wine has been made there since the 17th century, and dozens of producers offer tasting experiences of one sort or another. If you take a day tour from Porto, it will include at least one or two tastings. You will typically get to try each of the standard types (ruby, tawny, and white), plus a vintage variety, and have a short tour of the facilities. Be sure to leave some space in your luggage to take a bottle or two home with you—if you haven’t drunk it all first!

VINEYARDS TOURS

If you’d like to get closer to the action, some wineries and Quintas offer tours of their vineyards as well. If you’re spending the night there, a tour may be included in the price, but almost all also offer tours to day visitors for a small fee. Be sure to book ahead by phone or email, as most don’t offer "walk-in" tours due to the need to have staff available. A few tour companies include a vineyard tour as part of their day trips, but be sure to confirm the details if this is something you want to do.

CRUSH GRAPES WITH YOUR FEET

If you’d like to be more involved with the Douro’s most famous export than simply drinking it, time your visit towards the end of September. That’s typically when the region’s grape harvest takes place, with pickers descending on the vines in a frenzy as soon as conditions are perfect. Many of the vineyards let visitors participate in the harvest, but be warned, it can be hot, back-breaking work! For something a little less strenuous, not to mention unusual, see if you can participate in the traditional "grape stomp" instead. The best grapes are crushed by foot in a large vat, rather than being put through machines, and after a rigorous sterilization process, you can help out. As the exact harvest time changes based on the weather, so does the crushing that follows. Try to build a little flexibility into your schedule if you can, and contact your accommodation before booking for more information about the timings.

HELP OUT WITH THE OLIVE HARVEST

Just because you’re visiting the Douro in the colder months doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the harvest experience. Olives are the region’s other major crop, and unlike grapes, they’re ready to be picked in winter. Most of the olives are destined for use in oil, but some do make their way to tables in Portugal and farther afield. Several companies offer day trips from Porto, where you get to watch and participate in the experience as well as enjoy the fruits of your labor. The harvest starts in December and is typically completed by February.

INCREDIBLE ROAD TRIP

The narrow, winding roads through the Douro Valley aren’t for the faint-hearted, but if you’re confident behind the wheel, it’s a spectacular drive. In fact, the N222 between Peso de Régua and Pinhão was voted the best driving road in the world by rental company Avis in 2015. Even beyond that particular 17-mile stretch, the region’s roads are far more than just a way of getting from one place to another. Allow far more time than you think you’ll need. Not only because of all those corners and steep drop-offs but also to stop at all the miradouros (viewpoints) that dot hilltops and vantage points along the way.

EXPLORING PARQUE NATURAL

For a Douro experience of a different kind, forgo the wine tastings and train rides, and head into nature instead. Stretched along the Douro river for 75 miles where it forms the border with Spain, the deep ravines of the Parque Natural do Douro Internacional are very much a forgotten part of the country. To experience the best of the park in a day, take a river cruise through it from the International Biology Station in Miranda do Douro, where you’re likely to see many of the 170+ bird species found there, including peregrine falcons, eagles, vultures, and more. Driving routes are also available (buy a map from the park office), or if you’ve got more time and energy, check out some of the many hiking trails.

CLIMBING MOMENTS

For fans of Baroque architecture, a visit to the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies) on the top of a hill in the town of Lamego is a must. Construction of the impressive chapel started in the mid-1700s and didn’t finish until the early 20th century. While it’s possible to drive up to the chapel, most visitors climb the 600+ steps to the top instead. Dozens of statues, fountains, and other large decorative elements are found on the staircase and terraces along the way. The pelican fountain near the beginning of the walk is arguably the highlight.

GLIMPSE OF HISTORY

If you’re spending time in Peso de Régua, especially on a hot or rainy day, it’s well worth checking out the Museu do Douro. In this modern museum full of information about the history of the region and the port production process, for €6 you get well-curated exhibits, both temporary and permanent, and (unsurprisingly) a port wine tasting at the end. Seniors and students under 25 pay half price, while children under 12 enter free. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during summer, closing half an hour earlier in winter. It's ​shut on December 25, January 1, and May 1.

BREATHTAKING HELICOPTER RIDE

If you’re short on time and long on money, there’s no better way to see the Douro Valley than by taking a helicopter tour above it. Also operating in Porto, local company Helitours offers 20, 30, and 45-minute trips around the Douro that take in some of the best parts of the region. The different tours focus on architecture, landscapes, or both, or you can rent a helicopter and pilot to tailor your own experience, including a food and wine stop.

Travel to Douro Valley

BUS

A similar option in terms of pricing is to take a bus to get you from Porto to the Douro Valley. There are several companies offering this connection (Porto-Régua): Rodonorte and Rede Expressos. Rodonorte has a bus from Porto to the Douro Valley departing at 7h00 and the last one at 14h30. The one way ticket costs €9,50. Rede Expressos’ first bus from Porto to the Douro Valley departures at 10h00 and the last one at 18h15. The one way ticket costs €9,50. Pro tip: Honestly, there is no advantage by getting a bus to get you from Porto to the Douro Valley, as it is not cheaper (nor does it take less time) than a train ride. It may come in hand if, for some reason, there are no more spots available on the train.

PRIVATE TRANSFER

A private transfer is, naturally, the most expensive way to get from Porto to the Douro Valley. This is, however, the most convenient one if you are staying a couple of nights in the region, as the driver can pick you up from your hotel in Porto and take you to your accommodation in the Douro Valley.

RAIL

One of the cheapest ways to get from Porto to the Douro Valley is to take the train, a ride is famous for its scenic views of Douro river. You have a direct IR connection (InterRegional) every two hours starting at 7h15 (then 9h15, 11h15…) until 19h30. The price is currently set at €9,75 (Porto – Régua). The slightly cheaper alternative is to take two trains (An Urban followed by a Regional one – you need to switch trains at Caíde train station). However, given the fact that you'll only be saving €1,35 and wasting extra time to switch trains, I really recommend you to take the direct IR train to get from Porto to the Douro Valley. Train is the best way to get from Porto to the Douro Valley you are only going to stay one day in the region.

CAR RENTAL

For the ones out there who love to drive as much as I do, renting a car is the best option to get from Porto to the Douro Valley. Please keep in mind that even though the ride from Porto to Peso da Régua (the main city in Douro Valley) runs very smoothly on the highway, the roads on the region itself are narrow and windy and not suitable for the fainted heart. But if this piece of information does not deter you from driving in the region, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view on your way from Porto to the Douro Valley. Driving from Porto to the Douro Valley is the best option for those looking for complete freedom and flexibility. However, keep in mind that if you plan to indulge on wine tastings in the Douro Valley, it would be completely reckless and dangerous to drive afterwards!

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