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What To Do In Portugal’s Stunning Douro Valley
There are some places that feel like they’re under an enchantment. They transport you to another time, and make you forget the outside world exists. Portugal’s Douro Valley is one of those magical little bubbles.
Tucked away in northern Portugal, just a 90-minute drive from bustling Porto, the Douro Valley surrounds you with sweeping vistas, rolling hills covered in vineyards with a silvery river snaking through, and immerses you in a centuries-old wine-making culture.
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The Douro Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the oldest demarcated wine region in the world (boundaries were set in 1756). While it tends to fly under the radar a bit compared to well-known wine regions like Bordeaux or Champagne, wine has been being made in the Valley since the 3rd or 4th century AD.
But beyond wine, the area is chock-full of history…scattered through the villages you’ll find the remains of Iron Age settlements and Roman bridges, as well as Romanesque churches, Cistercian monasteries, and 17th-century palaces.
And though I didn’t have time on this trip, you can also venture slightly further afield to rich historical areas in northern Portugal such as Guimarães, Sistelo, Aveiro, and Braga.
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Where to stay
There are a couple approaches for where to stay in the Douro Valley—in one of the main towns for easy restaurant access, or pretending you live at a historic winery. I definitely went the latter route, but will give recommendations for both below.
I stayed at the 250-year-old Quinta Nova Luxury Winery House, which is perched high upon the valley’s terraced hills and looks out over one of the prettiest stretches of the Douro River. Quinta Nova (full name: Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo) is one of the most historic wineries in the area, listed since the first demarcation of the Douro wine region in 1756.
For me, spending a couple days cozied up in the manor house, reading and sipping wine on the terrace while the sun set over the Douro River, and wandering through the vines and down to the river for a breathtaking sunrise were some of my favorite experiences during my northern Portugal itinerary. I wish I could have stayed one more night.
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You can read my much deeper review of Quinta Nova, but overall my room was beautiful and comfortable, with lots of special little touches. The service was wonderful, incredibly welcoming. I loved roaming the grounds—like my sunrise hike through the vineyards, which I show at the bottom of this post—and sitting and watching the sunset while sipping delicious port.
While breakfast and the snacks I had there were great, the only place I felt Quinta Nova fell short (particularly given their Relais & Chateaux designation) was in the food at dinner. It could have been a late-COVID blip and maybe they’ve smoothed out, but I wished I could have tried dinner in town at least one night.
You can find and book Quinta Nova on Booking.com and TripAdvisor, including detailed reviews and price comparison (usually with some kind of cancellation option). You can also book directly through their website.
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If you want to compare a couple other historic Douro Valley wineries to find the best one for you, Quinta do Crasto looks absolutely amazing (and was my driver, Fernando’s, reco), as does Ventozelo. A few others that were on my list were Quinta do Vallado, Casa Das Torres de Oliveira, and Quinta da Pacheca.
And if you’d rather stay closer to town for easier access to restaurants there, I’d focus on The Vintage House, Quinta da Galeira, or Cantinho D’Os Reais in Pinhão, or DouroParadise or Casa da Azenha in Peso da Régua.
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How to get around the area
The Douro Valley is roughly 60-90 minutes from the Porto airport. Most people will fly into either Porto or Lisbon, and then you’ll need a way to get out to the valley. And let’s face it, it’s one of the world’s top roadtrip destinations, so I’d say that’s the way to go.
Many people will rent a car to be able to get around flexibly—public transit and taxis exist, but are limited. I probably would have rented a car if I hadn’t booked a private driver. Just be very aware of the extremely winding, narrow, hilly roads that crisscross the area. These roads are no joke (especially in the dark)!
For my visit, I had a local driver who not only picked me up from the airport and took me to the Quinta Nova, but took me around to a couple other wineries, an amazing gourmet lunch at Castas e Pratos, along the N-222 scenic route, to multiple viewpoints, and back to Porto. Fernando was amazing and super knowledgeable, and having a driver greatly simplified my transportation (and drinking).
You can also travel the Douro Valley by boat, train, and (bizarrely) helicopter. In fact, scenic boat or train trips through the Douro Valley are a bucket list item and I’d love to do that next time!
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What to do in the Douro Valley
There’s one “duh”, because the #1 reason to visit the Douro Valley is its famous port wineries. So we’ll spend some solid time on that below. But the region is also known for honey and olive oil, and has a really excellent food scene. It also offers what is considered one of the world’s most beautiful drives, with countless scenic viewpoints.
If you’re short on time or don’t have your own transportation, it’s worth checking out some of the different guided experiences you can have in the Douro Valley via GetYourGuide, A combination of winery tours, lunch, and short traditional boat trip like this one is very popular, either as a day trip from Porto or if you’re already in the area.
So let’s talk about what should be on your Douro Valley itinerary!
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Tour the historic port wineries
I personally have been a huge fan of port for years, but even if you don’t like—or don’t *think* you like—port wine, the Douro Valley wineries are a must-visit for anyone who loves food, wine, and gorgeous scenery. It’s also unique to get to visit wineries that are this old.
I got to visit two wineries (quintas) plus Quinta Nova (where I stayed), but wish I could have explored a few more. One thing to consider as you plan your trip is that many wineries book up weeks ahead, so don’t leave it til the last second. Or you can take a guided tour to make sure all the plans go smoothly.
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My first stop (and my favorite!) was Quinta do Vallado. Established in 1716, it’s one of the oldest and most famous wineries in the valley, still in the hands of the descendants of the legendary Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira.
I enjoyed an intimate tour (me and a family from the UK) through the barrel cellars, the vineyard, and other elements of the process. It was educational on not only the port-making process, but some additional history and culture of the area.
Then I had a lovely tasting of five of their wines, beginning with regular white and red wines (yes, most wineries make these too!) and then their 20-year tawny port (delish!). I also got a sneak tasting of their white port, which I fell in love with and has become a fave at home as well (check out my porto tonico cocktail).
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After a delicious lunch in Peso da Regua (more on that in a bit), Fernando took me over to Quinta do Bomfim, owned by the Symington family of Graham’s port fame. It’s in a beautiful location overlooking the river, and that’s reason enough to visit and spend some time on the patio (I hear they also do great picnic hampers to take away).
The tour itself was quite long and didn’t do as much for me…part of that is that you tend to hear a lot of the same process and history stuff, so doing multiple tours will start to get repetitive (I also work in the wine/spirits industry, so have heard it a LOT). The coolest part was probably the giant port barrels.
The tasting was fine but it didn’t feel like they brought anything unique to it, like we were tasting three of their most well-known and widely-available wines. I always like it when wineries include something you can’t get everywhere. Side note, if you’re staying in Porto, I recommend reserving the Graham’s multi-course paired lunch at their restaurant Vinum!
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Marvel at Pinhão’s historic colorful train station
This is definitely a must-do in the Douro Valley! The little village of Pinhão is beautiful and worth a visit no matter what, but the historic train station is the biggest draw. It’s covered in the iconic blue and white (and yellow) azulejos, vivid tiles that depict the process of port wine making and showcase what life was like in the area.
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I was obsessed with the azulejos (here, and in Porto), and loved how the railway station had this time capsule feel, as though nothing had changed since the 1930s when the tiles were installed.
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Soak in the amazing Douro Valley scenic viewpoints
As I mentioned at the outset, even if wine isn’t your thing, the Douro Valley is a great destination for natural beauty. You’ll fall in love with the way the Douro River snakes through the valley, with the undulating lines of terraced vineyards covering the hills.
I’ll talk about a few specific spots below, but you should also know that pretty much no matter where you look, you’re spoiled for scenic viewpoints high up on the hills.
Fernando took me to a few famous miradouros (viewpoints at the highest point of a hill, with spots to sit and rest). On our first morning we stopped by this one, which I think is São Leonardo da Galafura Viewpoint. It’s located between Vila Real and Peso da Régua, looking out over the Douro River on one side, and lots of hills on the other.
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He took me to this one near Pinhão after visiting Quinta do Bomfim. I believe this is in the in the village of Casal de Loivo, and it offers a panoramic view over this section of the valley. You can see the famous “L” that the riverbed does as it passes Pinhão.
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I’m not even positive where these two viewpoints are, but it again illustrates that you can find them all over the place!
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Indulge in northern Portugal’s delicious food
I’ve long been in love with Portugal’s cuisine (see: my ode to Lisbon), and agricultural areas like the Douro Valley are a wonderful place to experience both the traditional and the more avant garde.
I sampled a ton of the tasty dishes at Quinta Nova, where the breakfast spread was truly impressive. As you can tell from the first pic below, I definitely gravitated toward carbs 🙂 Portugal does love sweets, and that fluffy orange cake was my JAM. And then I loved trying different local cheeses along with a refreshing porto tonico cocktail later in the day!
The dinners at Quinta Nova were a little mixed, some great dishes but some that really fell short as well. As I mentioned early in the post, I wished I could have tried a couple more restaurants in the villages.
The Douro Valley was on my list of 10 places to visit in 2022!
And then there was the stunning multi-course lunch I had with wine pairings at Castas e Pratos. Located in one of the main villages in the Douro Valley, Peso da Regua, the restaurant is situated in a former train station warehouse, and has a cool modern but cozy ambiance.
I started off with a rich, buttery foie gras terrine paired with olive oil crispbreads, figs, and a sweet, complex Late Harvest wine, and it only got better from there. I reveled in my confit salted cod with smashed potato and red pepper foam (a modern twist on the traditional Portuguese dish), paired with a light white wine.
My dessert delighted me, a delicate white chocolate egg filled with passion fruit mousse, with a kind of shredded phyllo “nest” and some little crumblies and jelly bites scattered around.
And then I got to try a 20-year white port that BLEW MY MIND. Think of this type of aged port like you would a good bourbon or Scotch. It was smooth and intense, with complex notes of toasted almond and walnut, strong toffee and dried fruit notes, and hints of candied orange peel. *chef’s kiss*
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Drive the famous N222
As I mentioned at the outset, there are TONS of scenic drive options within the Douro Valley. Pretty much anywhere you go, you’re assured a beautiful view on your drive, so I wouldn’t stress about it too much. But you definitely should make sure that the N222 is on your itinerary.
Cutting through the heart of the Douro Valley, the N222 is considered by some to be one of the most beautiful roads in the world. This particular route stretches 16 miles (27 km), snuggling up to the river as it winds, connecting the tiny wine villages in the region, and occasionally climbing high for panoramic views.
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(Side note, this is a cork tree that Fernando pointed out to me on our drive. Cork is a huge export for Portugal, and you can find the trees all over here. A cork purse makes a great souvenir here.)
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It’s worth spending a few hours winding your way through the towns, stopping to marvel at Pinhão’s train station tiles, maybe hopping on a traditional rabelo boat trip for a bit, and sitting on a terrace sipping wine with this type of view.
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Don’t let sunset get all the hype
And last but not least, I strongly recommend you experience sunrise over the Douro River at least once.
Yes, yes, the sunsets are great. But the magic of watching the sun quietly rise over the vineyards, peachy-pinks reflecting off the river, with the slightly-spicy scent of olive trees around me…it’s a can’t-miss experience.
So don’t let Lisbon get ALL the hype in Portugal…take a trip north to experience one of the world’s historic wine regions and soak in all the views and local cuisine you can hold!
Other historic & amazing wine regions you’ll love:
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- A Weekend Of Wine In Oregon’s Willamette Valley
- Exploring New Zealand’s Nelson Winery Region
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