What To Do In Vila Nova de Gaia: Sipping My Way Through The Port Houses Of Porto
Without question, the #1 thing on my Porto itinerary was getting to do a bunch of port tastings. Except I quickly learned while doing my research that the famous port lodges on the south side of the river are *actually* in a separate city called Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia).
So I excitedly traipsed over the bridge to Gaia, prepared to sip my way through the city.
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How much time should I spend in Vila Nova de Gaia?
How much time will really depend on how many port lodges you visit, and especially if you’re doing guided tours. Personally I recommend spending at least a half-day over here for the casual tourist…maybe one guided tour and tasting, one other tasting, and time to wander. I spent two half-days.
While port is the huge draw, you absolutely need to spend some time here even if you’re not a drinker (or think you hate port), because it’s a huge cultural and historic center for Portugal’s wine industry and a great way to experience Porto. I’m sharing all of the things I recommend in Vila Nova de Gaia below.
What this post will cover
- The waterfront
- Port houses I visited in Vila Nova de Gaia
- Two unique experiences: Porto Cruz & Vinum
- The Half-Rabbit
- Where to get good coffee & snacks
- How to get to Vila Nova de Gaia from Porto
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Fall in love with the waterfront
Orienting yourself to Vila Nova de Gaia is pretty easy. The famous Ponte de Luis I double-decker bridge spans the Douro River between Porto and Gaia. I’ve included some more detailed instructions for how best to get across the bridge at the bottom of this post.
Whether you’re here for the port or not, the waterfront in Gaia is an awesome place to spend some time. First, you’ve got stunning views across the river of Porto, plus the famous Dom Luis I bridge.
Hop a boat for one of the famous “six-bridge” sightseeing tours, sit on a patio with a glass of wine and people-watch, or browse the little kiosks of beautiful cork handicrafts. Regardless, the waterfront here is one of the beating hearts of Porto…even though it’s *technically* not in Porto.
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Once you step off the bottom level of the bridge, you’re greeted by red-roofed cellars as the eye can see. Vila Nova de Gaia is known for one thing—port wine lodges. It’s home to a vast network of temperature-controlled cellars filled with barrels of ruby, tawny, and white ports, and the buildings proudly proclaim the family names.
There are so many different port houses here (more than 60), it would take a month of concerted effort to try them all. Some have lots of tasting options, some have great patios or rooftops, and some need reserved ahead of time. Do a bit of research ahead of time to see what you’d most enjoy, but then be flexible once you’re there. This post will help you out as you plan your trip.
For the most part, the port houses seem to keep similar hours, from around 11am to around 6pm and often a large break around lunchtime. That’s not set in stone and each lodge may be a bit different, just what I noticed walking by the different signs.
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Visiting port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia (Porto)
Because I’d already spent a day out in the Douro Valley touring wineries (quintas), I had a strong baseline knowledge about how port is made, the history, and the Douro Valley. Plus, I work in the alcohol business and have spent a lot of time at wineries.
So for me, I was wanting to visit different types of port houses and try different types of port, rather than spending lots of time on tours learning. However, regardless of what appeals to you, you can find it here. If time allows, I’d recommend visiting a blend of the large, well-known ones (like Cálem) and more under-the-radar ones (maybe Poças).
I’ll share a little about the port houses I was able to visit below, and also will include a shortlist of ones I wanted to visit but wasn’t able to.
Vinhos Quinta do Noval
Quinta do Noval has been in operation since 1715, and is one of the first houses you’ll run into once you cross the bridge. They don’t offer tours, only tastings, and so are a great option for just dropping in without a reservation.
I tasted five different ports, including an extra-dry white and a vintage, and enjoyed the view while sipping.
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Cálem is one of the most well-known names in port, and their port lodge along the riverfront offers different options depending on the experience you want. You can do guided tours and explore their museum (I do recommend booking ahead). I’ve heard the groups are quite large, up to 40 people, which isn’t really my vibe.
If you’re not wanting to do the whole tour, you can also just pull up a chair and taste some of their wines. Part of what brought me here is that they offer a rosé port, which felt unique. It had lots of juicy and sweet berry notes. I also tried their Lágrima, the sweetest they offer (I think), which has a rich golden color more honey and dried fruits flavors.
And then the 40-year tawny, which was delicious, but not sure I could tell a dramatic difference between a really good 20-year and the 40-year. As I mentioned in a different post, a tip I was given by my Douro tour guide was that the 20-year tawny is typically considered the best value (quality for money).
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Kopke is the oldest port house in Porto, opened in 1638. They don’t offer tours, but rather a small tasting room. You can select what you’d like to taste off a pretty extensive menu, including trying some of the rarer (more expensive) options.
I was really tight on time when I stopped here, as they were closing for lunch within 30 minutes. But I wanted to try an aged white port here (fairly difficult to find, but I’d heard Kopke had them), and located a 30-year white on the menu that fit my needs. They give you some chocolate to taste it with as well.
I’d tried a 20-year white previously and I don’t know that I could tell a major difference between the two, relative to the cost. Maybe if I tasted them side-by-side? But it was absolutely delicious.
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Graham’s might be the most well-known name in port internationally (maybe along with Taylor’s, Ferreira, and Sandeman). Their port lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia isn’t along the riverfront, but instead is a 15-minute walk uphill that offers some of the best views of Porto.
They offer guided tours, which need to be reserved in advance. I didn’t actually choose to go here (and wouldn’t have), but the local tour company I worked with for some of my trip planning got its wires crossed and so I was booked here.
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The tour is very thorough and quite long, or at least felt super long as I’d been walking around all day and my feet were killing me (I was only a few months off foot surgery). We started in front of a map, learning about the different parts of the Douro Valley and the history of the port industry, as well as Graham’s part in it.
We spent time in the barrelhouse, learning about the port-making process, different types of port, and then got to walk through the family’s personal vintage caves. There’s a little brand museum toward the end as well.
For me, because I’d done winery tours out in the Douro Valley already and learned tons, this was pretty much all duplicate info. If this is the first or the only port lodge you’ll visit, the tour would be really valuable.
The tour culminates in the tasting room, which is quite expansive. I’d been signed up for the premium tasting, but I’d already had two of the three ports in my Quinta do Bomfim visit and Vinum 5-course lunch. They don’t give you any explanation or tasting notes or anything…literally you just sip it yourself and leave.
To me, the Graham’s experience just doesn’t feel very special, so wasn’t as appealing. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, their overall offering is good, just feels a bit generic.
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While we’re on the subject of Graham’s, you can visit the patio at their restaurant, Vinum, for a drink and beautiful view of Porto. OR you can devour an amazing lunch or dinner, which I highly recommend.
I’ve written a separate post about my delicious 5-course paired lunch at Vinum, from the buttery thinly-sliced roast beef on peppery arugula with a light honey mustard dressing to the insanely rich duck breast embedded with foie gras. I would do this again in a heartbeat.
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Espaço Porto Cruz
One of the interesting things you should check on along the riverfront is Porto Cruz, a five-story building that celebrates Porto’s wine history and culture in innovative ways. As you move through the different floors, you can see interactive exhibits on the Douro Valley, try 3-D wine-making games, and have a wine tasting with a sommelier.
But the real draw is their terrace bar on the top floor, which has interesting port cocktails and amazing 360-degree views of the city. It’s supposed to be a great place to watch the sunset, and somewhere you can try a porto tonico cocktail (white port and tonic).
I was super bummed because when I tried to visit (to have a drink and watch the sunset…which was a bust anyway), it was on a day they close early (Sunday) and they are closed on Mondays, so I wasn’t able to experience it. You can see up-to-date hours of operation here.
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Other port houses to consider in Vila Nova de Gaia:
- Taylor’s – They offer a self-guided tour, good if you’d like to be more independent. It ends with a tasting of two ports in a beautiful garden-like setting.
- Croft – Founded in 1588, they offer guided tours and the tasting has three port wines. It’s a bit further uphill so is often a little less crowded, and you can drop in to their tasting room or beautiful outside patio. My research indicates they offer a chocolate pairing with some tastings, so check that out.
- Poças – This is one of the very few port wine lodges in the hands of a Portuguese family (most are British-owned and have been for centuries). Famous for their old tawny ports (Colheitas).
- Sandeman – Though a well-known name, I’ve heard it’s more rustic and less modern. They have an outside patio and bar that’s a big draw.
- Offley – My research indicated that this was one of the more interesting cellar tours.
- Caves Burmester – Founded in 1750, they have a rich history to share and each visit (supposedly) ends with a tasting of their Fine White, Fine Ruby, and Special Reserve Tawny Ports, and it’s said they provide chocolate and sweets to complement the tasting.
- Real Compnhia Velha – Founded by the King and the Prime Minister in 1756, this is located further away from river and said to be a more intimate experience.
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Half Rabbit art installation
I LOVE THIS LITTLE GUY! Okay fine, big guy. Located on the corner of Rua Dom Afonso III, the Half Rabbit is a must-see if you’re visiting Vila Nova de Gaia. From further away it looks like a mural, but it’s actually a more tactile installation made entirely out of trash.
Portuguese artist Bordalo II (known for creating animal-inspired art using trash and found materials) painted the right half in fun colors, but left the left side unpainted, for contrast.
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There are other fun (much smaller) glimpses of street art as you wander the streets of Vila Nova de Gaia as well.
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Snacks & coffee in Vila Nova de Gaia
It can’t be “all port, all the time”…sometimes you need other sustenance. First, let’s talk coffee. GOOD coffee, I mean.
If you’re needing your caffeine fix I strongly recommend 7g Roaster. Tucked back off the waterfront, the coffee shop and patio is a little oasis of calm. The coffee is delicious, and they offer some interesting light food options as well.
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There are a lot of snacking options in Vila Nova de Gaia as well, with kiosks lining the waterfront.
I tried the bacalhau at Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau, a gaudy monstrosity aimed at tourists. They’ve combined the famous codfish cake with the most recognized Portuguese cheese, Serra da Estrela, for a gooey (if somewhat bland, overpriced) snack.
I tried the fried dough snacks called farturas. There seem to be two different types, but I got the one that looks kind of like a churro. Decent, though the filling I chose was a letdown.
I also snagged a couple scoops at Gelados de Portugal, which has really unique local flavors such as ovos moles de Aveiro, pastel de nata, Madeira banana, and chestnut with port wine. I tried the latter two, though it was hard to choose. Flavors were pretty good though the texture was a little grainy.
How to get to and from Vila Nova de Gaia
Getting to Vila Nova de Gaia from Porto proper is pretty easy, just a matter of walking across the Dom Luis I Bridge (there are other ways, like water taxi, as well). The first time I did it, though, I made a rookie mistake that caused me problems since I was on a tight timeframe.
I used Google Maps to get from my hotel to Dom Luis Bridge, and it naturally took me to the top of the bridge since that would be closer. And it was a gorgeous day to walk across, with amazing views of the city. Problem was, I needed to be down on the riverfront. I couldn’t find a taxi to get where I was going.
So my only real option was taking the cable car down, which is €6 one-way or €9 round-trip (before 6pm). It’s not a bad option, especially when you can enjoy beautiful views, but is more expensive and the line can be long (thankfully it wasn’t that day). Unfortunately I still had a 15-minute uphill walk once I got down there.
So my tip is, if you’re wanting to actually get over to Vila Nova de Gaia and get started drinking port, you want to walk over the lower level of the bridge instead. You can walk down to the Ribeira riverfront in Porto, then find the bridge across, which dumps you out right along the port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia.
If you end up at the top of the bridge on the Porto side but don’t want to go through the hassle or cost of taking the cable car down in Vila Nova de Gaia, you can grab the funicular down instead. It’s about €2.50 one-way and pretty quick. It’s a good way to re-position yourself as you’re exploring Porto, and save yourself a huge hike up the hill later.
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Where to stay in Porto
I stayed at the lovely Monumental Palace, and it was a true 5-star experience…not over the top ridiculous luxury, just beautiful, efficient, special, and excellent on every level. Great central location as well.
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So I’ve given you a jam-packed list of which port tastings in Porto (well, really Vila Nova de Gaia) you could consider, as well as what else to do while you’re on this side of the river. You would be insane to come to Porto and not spend a couple half-days exploring this side!
Other wine sipping you’ll love:
- Exploring the Wineries of Portugal’s Douro Valley
- Sampling Argentina’s Wine Country
- Road Tripping Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wineries
- Other urban alcohol explorations: Louisville’s Old Forester & Rabbit Hole distilleries
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