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Porto and the Douro River Valley, Portugal: Insider’s Guide

by WendyPerrin.com | February 11, 2021

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Portugal: Gonçalo Correia of Tours For You.

Trusted Travel Expert
Goncalo Correia

Gonçalo, who lives in Lisbon, knows every nook and cranny of Portugal the way only a native who’s spent years guiding travelers around the country can. He brings that level of detail to his custom itineraries, revealing how the traditional and the cosmopolitan go hand-in-hand in Portugal, where authenticity isn’t a buzzword but a way of life.  He specializes in the hidden gems—the wineries with excellent bottles for less than $10, the seaside villages that aren’t crowded with day-trippers—and is happy to book a wide range of accommodations, from small-town B&Bs to five-star palaces to rental villas and apartments that offer total privacy and more room to spread out.  If you want to combine Portugal with Spain, he’ll work with his colleague Pablo, a Spain native and art history aficionado who is particularly knowledgeable about Catalonia, Castilla y Leon, Basque Country, La Rioja, the Balearic Islands, and the Camino de Santiago—which he can arrange for you to follow on foot, by bike, or via horseback.  The special-access arrangements they can make—say, visits to famous monuments after they’re closed for the day and the crowds are gone, a cooking class with the owner of an Alentejo manor house, or entry to one of the private gastronomic societies in Basque Country—enhance a trip without adding too much to its cost. They can also arrange shore excursions in the peninsula’s many cruise ports.

Trips start at $850 per day for two travelers, including private guiding in cities and a custom-tailored self-drive itinerary in the countryside.

Things to Do and See

a house and vineyard in Douro Valley, Portugal

Douro Valley, Portugal. Photo: Mike Korn

Don’t miss
The town of Barcelos on a Thursday, when it hosts Portugal’s largest and liveliest open air market. Every Thursday vendors line up to sell just about everything you can possibly imagine, from wicker baskets to pottery, fruit, vegetables, antiques, linens, and more. The market is held in the old town center, so it’s a lot of fun to stroll history while doing some shopping.

Guimaraes, a short drive north of Porto, is one of the prettiest towns in Portugal. Its charming stone buildings sparkle from recent restorations. The Largo de Oliveira (main square) is the perfect place for a cool beer on a hot day. Nearby Braga and Viana do Castelo are also really quaint and idyllic.

Amarante, an idyllic village located just north of Porto. Its Igreja de São Gonçalo church is one of the most underappreciated in Portugal (the best views of it are from the nearby São Gonçalo Bridge), and the historic hotel overlooking the church, Casa da Calçada, is a gem, as is the Michelin-starred restaurant that resides there.

Don’t bother
The Lello Bookstore. It’s beautiful, but people line up literally for hours just to get in, thanks to a rumor that it served as inspiration for the Harry Potter series (never mind that J.K. Rowling says she’s never been there). The owners have never bothered to correct this rumor; they display loads of Harry Potter merchandise and even charge a fee to enter.

While in the city of Porto, avoid the 50-minute river cruises. You will end up on a packed wooden boat with 50 or more people. If you don’t get in there early and wait in a long line, you will be last to board—so all the outside seats will already be taken. Inside, you get hardly any view, and in summertime it can be boiling hot.

Cheap thrill
Climb to the top of the Arrábida bridge in Porto. It’s the only bridge in Europe you can climb legally. There are stairs all the way to the top of the arch, and from there you will have an impressive view along the river Douro to the Atlantic Ocean.

Porto, Portugal skyline view

Porto, Portugal. Photo: Mike Korn

Downtime
Take a morning stroll along the Gaia-side riverbank, then head to the Yeatman Hotel for brunch and a treatment at their vinotherapy spa (open to nonguests, but you’ll need to make an appointment). The “barrel baths” have knockout views of Porto.

Later on, walk across the top level of the Dom Luís I Bridge—which connects the hearts of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia—for some of the best views of the city.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Infante Sagres, in the city of Porto. Depending on the season, you can pay four-star rates at this five-star property right next to the main square. It’s a sister property to The Yeatman Hotel, which is the most luxurious place to stay in Porto, and the service, staff training, and quality of amenities are equivalent—but for a fraction of the price. For many, the savings are worth giving up a spa, huge swimming pool, and Michelin-starred restaurant.

The Vintage House, a boutique property on the banks of the Douro, in the town of Pinhão, that reopened in spring 2016 as a five-star hotel. All of the rooms have balconies that overlook the river. The standard rooms are the best value, as most people in the Douro spend their days out and about. (If you’re mid-trip and want more time to rest in your room, try the more expensive Six Senses Douro Valley instead). The hotel is walking distance from Quinta do Bomfim, one of the oldest wine estates in the region.

Restaurant the locals love
If you really want to eat like a local, head to a cervejaria for the local Francesinha, a type of sandwich with multiple layers of smoked meats and cheese, covered with a locally made hot sauce and normally served with fries. You’ll find them on any cervejaria’s menu, but the best versions are at Cervejaria Majara, where they top the sandwich with a giant prawn, and at Cufra, where it’s said that only three people know the recipe for the delicious hot sauce.

Dish to try
Peixe ao sal. Not to be confused with bacalhau, the ubiquitous salted cod, peixe ao sal is baked in a large dish filled with sea salt. The salt is cracked open and the moist fish (normally sea bass or dourada) melts in your mouth. Order this when dining in the Matosinhos district.

Meal worth the splurge
The best splurge in the area is actually on the Douro River: the DOC restaurant, built on stilts and accessed via a small bridge. Sit outside and order the tasting menu. (There is a sister restaurant in Porto with equally good food, but the ambiance of this one is better.)

Casa de Chá da Boa Nova, from famous Portuguese chef Rui Paula, is about a 15-minute drive outside the city, in a building designed by Pritzker Prize winner Alvaro Siza; both the food and the dramatic views are simply amazing.

Prime picnic spot
If you are driving through the Douro Valley, there are a number of scenic vantage points with jaw-dropping views over the terraced vineyards and the river Douro. Most have picnic tables, so grab a bottle of wine and some cheeses in a local supermarket and enjoy the view.

Best Time to Go

Late September and early October, which is typically the time for the grape harvest in the Douro. You can participate by picking grapes (more fun than it sounds) or—better yet—stomping the fruit à la I Love Lucy with your own two feet.

Worst Time to Go

Generally speaking, November through February can be gray and rainy—and even without rain, the wine country isn’t as pretty when the vineyards are denuded. Many wineries close during the winter, particularly around Christmas and New Year’s. From December to February, the Douro can also flood, closing some roads and making getting around a headache.

Instagram Moment

Igreja das Carmelitas. This church in the center of Porto is covered with a striking pattern of blue and white glazed tiles that make for a great photo op.

The Souvenir

Thirty-year-old port to share with your friends back home; Graham’s makes one of the best.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Thinking you can experience the Douro Valley on a river cruise. Passengers on river cruise ships spend most of their time stuck on board and can visit only those wineries that are accessible by bus. They miss the small towns, the family-owned wineries without any parking for large vehicles, and the charming hotels with vineyards where you can enjoy wine from the barrel or even stomp the grapes during harvest.

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