Reasons Why Portugal's Douro Valley Should Be on Your Bucket List

Douro River, Portugal
Douro River, Portugal | © joyfull / Shutterstock
Photo of Joel Rabinowitz
10 September 2021

An unforgettable hiking experience or road trip awaits in the Douro Valley, Portugal, 100km (60mi) east of Porto. Curious travellers come here for an immersive introduction to Portuguese viniculture, but can get so much more than an insight into port wine production. Here’s why the Douro Valley should be on your travel bucket list.

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It’s a Unesco World Heritage site and the oldest demarcated wine region in the world

Boundaries were determined for the Douro Valley vineyards in 1756, making it the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. Grape harvest and wine production goes back 2,000 years, however, and the support of the people led to the recognition of the vineyards as a Unesco World Heritage site. The terraced fields on either side of the Douro River are like a patchwork quilt that would make any wine-lover’s eyes light up in an instant.

Vineyard-lined hillsides flank the Douro river | © BackyardBest / Alamy Stock Photo

You can experience port wine production and help in the harvest

Strong and sweet, port wine is the cultural treasure of the Douro Valley and has been attracting international wine aficionados since the 18th century. Participating in the harvest and production (including traditional grape stomping) towards the middle to the end of September is a unique way to appreciate this intensely flavoursome drink even more.

For the outstanding hiking trails

Portugal has an abundance of spectacular hiking opportunities and you’ll find some of the most scenic hiking trails in Portugal in the Douro Valley. From gentle strolls through the patchwork of vineyards, olive groves and idyllic villages to more strenuous climbs up to panoramic viewpoints such as Casal de Loivos, São Leonardo de Galafura or São Salvador do Mundo – there’s no better way to discover the picturesque scenery of the region than on foot.

Hike the Douro Valley trails for an intimate way to see the region | © Clara Fernandes / Alamy Stock Photo

You can stay at a country estate

Wine-loving travellers can stay at rustic quintas – country estates surrounded by sun-drenched vineyards and rolling hills. Country homes, many of which are more than 100 years old, have been converted into B&B-style lodgings, so you can spend peaceful days exploring the region and nights indulging in the wine and learning about the culture from local people. Quinta de la Rosa (near the village of Pinhão) and Quinta da Pacheca (near Lamego) are just two highlights in an extensive list of options. You can stay at Quinta da Pacheca on Culture Trip’s specially curated nine-day Portugal adventure, among a whole host of other fantastic destinations.

Country estates called ‘quintas’ dot the Douro Valley | Courtesy of Quinta de la Rosa / Booking.com

To explore the charming towns and villages

Although the Douro Valley is mainly renowned for dreamy landscapes, the towns and villages shouldn’t be overlooked. Pinhão, serenely situated at the confluence of the Douro and Pinhão rivers, is worth visiting for its delightful train station alone, adorned with 25 hand-painted azulejos tiles depicting the surrounding landscapes and vineyards. Admire the baroque architecture of Lamego’s resplendent hilltop chapel (accessible via 686 steps), or venture to Favaios to sample delicious local bread and renowned moscatel wines.

Lamego is home to a resplendent hilltop chapel | © Sergey Peterman / Alamy Stock Photo

You can plan a romantic boat trip

Sure, driving or taking a train will get you from A to B faster, but there’s no need to rush in the Douro Valley. Taking a boat trip on the Douro river is perhaps the more romantic way to travel, allowing you to appreciate the alluring scenery at a more leisurely pace. On Culture Trip’s exclusive small-group Portugal tour, you can enjoy a rabelo boat ride on the Douro.

To try the local cuisine

Don’t visit the Douro Valley on a diet – another reason to make your way to this part of northern Portugal is the local cuisine, and it’s anything but light. Follow locals to the neighbourhood tascas where meat, fish and hearty stews dominate the menus. Specialities include grilled bacalhau (salt cod), roasted suckling pig and octopus salad. Even if you’re not especially hungry, ordering a cheese and charcuterie platter to accompany a glass of the local wine is always a good compromise.

There are some extraordinary museums to visit

Learn about the region’s history, cuisine and wine culture at the Douro Museum in Peso da Régua, or visit the open-air Côa Valley Archaeological Park at the confluence of the Côa and Douro rivers, which features a fascinating array of prehistoric rock art dating as far back as 20,000BCE. Alternatively, take a trip to the Lamego Museum, which houses an impressive collection of artwork by esteemed 16th-century Portuguese painter, Vasco Fernandes, among numerous other religious exhibitions inside an 18th-century episcopal palace.

Tour the Côa Valley Archaeological Park to see prehistoric rock art | © Sergio Azenha / Alamy Stock Photo

You’ll get your adrenaline pumping on the river

Indulge in the array of water sports on offer in picturesque natural surroundings by canoeing, kayaking or water-skiing on the Douro river. Alternatively, cool off by taking a dip in one of the many designated swimming areas. Some of the most attractive fluviais (river beaches) can be found in Lomba, Castelo, Foz do Sabor and Congida.

It’s an excellent area for bird-watching

Many excellent bird-watching locations can be found in Portugal, and some of the very best spots are in the Douro Valley, which is home to more than 170 bird species. Get your camera poised to snap photos of several birds of prey (including some endangered species), such as the black stork, Egyptian vulture, griffon vulture, golden eagle, bonelli’s eagle, peregrine falcon, and the red and black kites.

You can see Egyptian vultures in the Douro Valley | Fernando Romão / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s easily accessible by train from Porto

A scenic train trip is waiting for anyone who has extra time to spend in Porto but is interested in exploring beyond the city. Depart from the magnificent azulejo-decorated São Bento Station and settle in for a rickety ride through rural Portugal, along the river and through lush green valleys on the Linha do Douro, the historic train route. Peso da Régua and Pinhão are two of the most popular stops, but you continue all the way to Pocinho at the end of the line.

Take the train from Porto to the Douro Valley for a picturesque ride | © Adina Tovy / robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

This is an updated version of an article originally written by Nina Santos.

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