Having recently got better acquainted with port wine in Porto, it seems only fitting to take a look at the region this lovely liquid originates from. The Douro valley has more than just the perfect climate and soil for cultivating grapes. The undulating curves of its hillsides create a beautiful and dramatic landscape which changes with the seasons.
The endless rows of terraced grape vines are nothing more than dark gnarly stumps during the winter but come April, the leaves gradually transform the hills until they are covered with green stripes. By harvest time in September, a warm metallic colour scheme starts to take over with gold, copper and bronze tones decorating the slopes. If you want hands on experience of the harvest, this is the time to come. You can pick grapes and even crush them by foot in some vineyards.
The vineyards might not look all that impressive in February and March but the clouds of pink and white almond blossom do. This is a great time of year to visit the Upper Douro and the area around Foz Côa, which gets far too hot in summer to do it justice. If you’re interested in walking or cycling in the Douro, spring or autumn are the best times to come both in terms of colourful scenery and comfortable temperatures.
How to get around the Douro valley
There are three main ways of exploring the Douro valley: by road, rail or river. If you have several hundred euros to spare you can also rent a helicopter but I’ll focus on the cheaper options here, including walking and cycling.
Boat trips on the Douro River
Douro river cruises can last from an hour to two or more days with or without meals and vineyard visits. I haven’t yet experienced one of the longer journeys but the short boats trips I’ve done have been a delightful way to enjoy the landscape, especially the International Douro Natural Park.
Many of the tours from Porto combine rail and river so you go one way by boat and return by train. Or vice versa. They can be quite busy and noisy, especially in peak season, so it might be preferable to make your way into the Douro wine region by other means and take a shorter boat trip while there, e.g. on a private sailing boat with a picnic on board.
This tour gives you the option of a 1-hour cruise on a traditional rabelo boat:
Along the Douro
If you do go by train, you can begin your journey at the beautiful São Bento station in Porto or any of the riverside stations as far as Pocinho. If you get on before Ferradosa, try to get a window seat on the right hand side of the train for the best views of the river, the hills and the wine estates through the rather grubby glass. Once the train crosses the river, you should switch to the left side of the carriage.
In the summer, there’s a special historical train which runs between Régua and Tua on Saturday afternoons with entertainment and light refreshments plus a little free time at Pinhão so you can stretch your legs and admire the beautiful azulejos that cover the station walls and maybe grab a drink at the riverside café.
One advantage that the train has over driving is that the train tracks pretty much hug the riverbanks. So close, in fact, that you can see people fishing. In places, the water is so calm you can see a mirror image of the striped curves of the hills. The scenery changes the further along the Douro you get and after a while, the quinta (wine estate) signs become further apart and the landscape more barren but still impressive.
Driving around the Douro valley
If you choose to explore the Douro by car, especially if you head up into the hills, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the valley. Unless, of course, you’re the one behind the wheel, in which case you’ll need to keep your eyes firmly on the windy narrow road.
Don’t let that put you off as you can always park up and admire the scenery from one of several viewpoints (miradouros) such as the Miradouro de Assumadouro, Casal de Loivos or Miradouro de São Leonardo da Galafura.
If you have a car, you’ll also be able to pop into wine estates for tours and tastings, although you’ll need to be very careful not to actually drink much if you’re the driver. There are several themed routes, such as an olive oil route and a Cisterian route you can follow or mix and match the highlights to suit yourselves.
The three port wine routes explore the vineyards, viewpoints and monuments in the different wine regions of the Douro valley, namely Baixa Corgo (below the Corgo river), Cima Corgo (above the Corgo) and Douro Superior (Upper Douro). For more information about the wine villages route, check out my post: Exploring Portuguese wine villages in the Douro Valley.
The N222 between Pinhão and Régua was voted the World’s Best Drive in 2015. I’d also recommend the N101 from Régua through Mesão Frio in the direction of Amarante and the N322-3 between Pinhão and Alijó.
See this post for tips on How to Rent a car in Portugal and Avoid Sneaky Charges
Walking in the Douro
There are plenty of walking trails within the Douro valley, some planned and marked out by the local councils, others provided by the wine estates themselves. Ask at the local tourist information office for route leaflets.
Several tour companies offer self-guided or guided walks in the area ranging from half a day to multiple days – let me know if you’d like me to put you in touch with one of them.
Do bear in mind the weather conditions if you’re thinking of walking in the Douro Valley or the Alvão and International Douro national parks. In summer, it really isn’t advisable or pleasant because of the extreme temperatures and lack of shade and winter can be quite grim.
Cycling in the Douro
If you’re staying at one of the quintas (wine estates) in the area, they may have bikes for rent and be able to suggest suitable routes for you, or include a bike tour as part of their package. Otherwise, you can easily find a tour company which caters to cyclists with or without their own bikes.
Day Trips in the Douro
If you’d rather let someone else take care of the logistics and take you to some of the Douro’s best spots, a tour might be a good option. You can do full day trips, either private or small group, starting and ending in Porto if you only have one day to spare.
A standard day trip from Porto may include a stop in a town like Amarante or Lamego and a wine tasting session at a winery. Others may focus more heavily on the wine and wineries with visits to two of them plus lunch at the renowned DOC Restaurant or on a quinta and perhaps a boat trip.
Most tours will involve wine tastings if not meetings with the wine makers and these can be tailored to you suit your interests. Read this post for more information about a day in the Douro.
My recommendation would be to stay at least one night within the valley to avoid a long, tiring journey and better appreciate the landscape, culture and gastronomy that this beautiful area has to offer. This gives you far more flexibility and enables you to visit different wineries, villages and historical sites as well as take a boat trip, walk or have a picnic in the vineyards or just relax and enjoy the views.
Need help with your Douro Valley experience?
Are you interested in exploring the Douro Valley? If you would like help planning your itinerary or finding the right tour or accommodation, use the button below to tell me what you’re looking for and I’ll see how I can best support you:
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