The Douro valley in northern Portugal has more than just the perfect climate and soil for cultivating grapes and a wine-producing culture that dates back centuries. The undulating curves of the Douro wine region’s hillsides create a beautiful and dramatic landscape which changes with the seasons and is so special it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.
Even in winter, when the endless rows of terraced grape vines contain nothing more than dark gnarly stumps, the scenery is impressive. From April, the emerging leaves gradually transform the hills until they are covered with ribbons of green. By harvest time in September, a warm metallic colour scheme starts to take over with gold, copper and bronze tones decorating the slopes until early November.
Best time of year to visit the Douro Valley
If you want a hands on experience of the Douro grape harvest, mid to late September is the time to come. You can pick grapes and even crush them by foot in some vineyards.
While the Douro vineyards are not at their most impressive in late February and March, there are clouds of pink and white almond blossom to brighten up the hillsides. 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 although there’s a risk of rainy days.
How to get around the Douro wine region
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 more affordable options here.
Boat trips on the Douro River
Douro river cruises can last from an hour to one 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, which lies beyond the Alto Douro wine region.
Some of the Douro day tours from Porto combine rail and river so you go one way by boat and return by train. Or vice versa. The scenery gets better once you get towards Mesão Frio and beyond Régua, which is towards the end of the journey unless you go to Pinhão.
Click on one of these short Douro River cruise tours to check availability and book online:
Cruises from Porto 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 1 or 2-hour boat trip while there, e.g. on a private sailing boat with a picnic on board or simply a shared wooden rabelo boat upstream.
These full day small group tours from Porto include the opportunity to take a 1-hour boat trip from Pinhão as well as great views, winery tours and lunch.
Click to see more details and check availability.
If you feel like taking control and being even closer to the water, you can rent a boat or a kayak – Pinhão is a good place to do this. Magnifico Douro will give you a 5% discount of boat trips and kayak rentals with my code: JULIE5.
Scenic train rides along the Douro River
If you travel to the Douro by train, you can begin your journey at the beautiful São Bento station in Porto or any of the riverside stations and travel as far as Pocinho. The views become appealing after about an hour and most scenic as you approach Régua and continue further upstream. One advantage that the train has over driving is that the train tracks often hug the banks of the Douro River. So close, in fact, that you can see people fishing.
If you board the train 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. 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.
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 glass of wine at one of the riverside cafés.
Insider tip: When searching the train website for timetables, don’t use the accents on place names, e.g. Porto – Sao Bento, not São Bento.
Driving around the Douro wine region
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 winding narrow roads.
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 have more choice over which wine estates you pop into 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 Douro 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 several walking trails within the Douro valley, some planned and marked out by the local councils, others provided by the wine estates themselves. You can ask at the local tourist information office for route leaflets but to be honest, they are often less than helpful. If you simply want to walk in the vineyards for up to a couple of hours, you’d be better off getting a map from one of the quintas (wine estates) or going through a tour operator.
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 weather 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. It’s also possible to hire bikes for short periods from some of the tour operators in Regua and Pinhão.
For more serious cyclists, there are specialist tour companies which cater to cyclists with or without their own bikes.
Day trips in the Douro
If your budget is limited or you simply don’t fancy an organised tour, my guide to a do-it-yourself day in the Douro my guide to a do-it-yourself day in the Douro wine region gives you the information you need to see the highlights without the need for a car or a tour. There are options for extending the experience if money isn’t so tight.
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.
These 1-day tours offer slightly different experiences including the chance to sample a different kind of Portuguese wine, vinho verde.
Click for more details
Stay overnight in the Douro wine region
My recommendation would be to spend 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 greater 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 simply relax and enjoy the views.
Ideally, you should try to find a room on a wine estate (quinta) but where you stay will depend on how you’re getting around. If you rent a car, you will have more options but even by public transport and with the help of local taxi services, you can find some special places to stay in the Douro.
Where to stay in the Douro Valley
In and around Peso da Régua
While the town of Peso da Régua is not particularly inspiring, it has plenty of restaurants and a train station, making it a possible base, especially if you don’t have a car.
I loved Casa de São Domingos, which is just outside the centre of Régua but still within walking distance. The beautiful building is tastefully decorated with quality traditional furnishings. There’s a pool and breakfast is plentiful. Click to see prices, photos and availability.
Quinta da Pacheca is a €5 taxi ride from the train station and the historical building is surrounded by vineyards. They have bikes for guest use and an award-winning onsite restaurant. Once there, they have a range of wine and food-related activities so you may not wish to leave! Check prices and availability.
Quinta de Tourais is next door to Quinta da Pacheca and with only two rooms, the experience is quite different. This is a fully operational small scale winery with an arty character and plenty of personality. There’s a small rooftop pool and possible access to the kitchen but it would help to have a car if you stay here. Check photos and availability.
If you want the ultimate in luxury surrounded by vineyards, the Six Senses Douro is the place to be. With a wine library boasting 750 vintages, onsite spa, gourmet restaurant, yoga and wellness programmes and sumptuous rooms, it’s wise to factor in plenty of time at the hotel. A car would help if you want to be independent but transfers and tours can be arranged if you’d rather not drive. Check out the options here.
Quinta do Vallado is delightful design hotel built from schist stone with tasteful, comfortable and clean modern rooms, onsite restaurant and outdoor pool. They offer cellar tours for guests and free parking. Some rooms have river views. Find a room with a view.
In and around Pinhão
Another possible base with a few restaurant options and easy access to wineries and boat trips is the village of Pinhão, another 30 minutes upstream. It has a beautifully decorated train station and pleasant riverside area although the village itself is rather drab. It’s easy to overlook that when you see the views and if you don’t have a car, it’s an easy option.
If you have a car, or are happy to spend most of your time enjoying the spectacular views, vineyard walks, bikes, restaurant, pool and other facilities, Quinta Nova Luxury Wine House would be the perfect place to stay, assuming you’re lucky enough to find availability. They offer transfers to the train station so a lack of transport isn’t an issue. Check availability and prices.
If you crave 5-star luxury and would rather be next to the Douro River and able to walk to wineries and restaurants, The Vintage House Hotel is for you. Recently renovated, this 18th century building offers every comfort you’d expect and overlooks the famous river, as does the outdoor pool. Check prices and availability.
Quinta de la Rosa is technically within walking distance of Pinhão train station although I’d take a taxi if you have luggage. A working winery with privileged views of the Douro, especially from the restaurant and pool, they offer beautiful rooms and suites at a reasonable price. Check options and availability.
If you’re on a tighter budget and can handle a few steps to get to your self-catering apartment, Casas Botelho Elias offer studios, 1 and 2-bedroomed accommodation with a pleasant shared terrace or private balcony. Check options and availability.
These are just a few of the more conveniently-located places to stay in the Douro Valley. There are many other delightful properties to choose from but the key, especially in May and September, is always to book ahead.
My post about villages in the Douro has more suggestions for accommodation if you have transport.
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