Rio Douro roughly translates from Portuguese as “river of gold.” When the setting sun catches it right, you can see why. The waters gleam like liquid bullion bars.
The Douro cuts across northern Portugal, snaking 200 miles from rugged wilderness on the Spanish frontier to the old city of Oporto and the Atlantic beyond. Grapes grown on its steeply rising banks have been sending forth legendary port wines for centuries. It may be the world’s most beautiful wine region.
Not enough? It’s also got spectacular landscapes and a scattering of World Heritage sites. Here’s the best Portugal’s golden river has to offer:
1. Tripe and tradition in Porto
From the upper deck of Dom Luis I Bridge, Porto presents a stunning urban landscape. Its heart is a UNESCO Heritage site centered on the quayside Ribeira district’s cluster of brightly painted houses. In winding alleys, restaurants serve the local delicacy: stewed tripe with beans.
Churches shimmer with blue tiles outside, gold within. Bolhao market is a foodie delight. Downtown overflows with stores unchanged for generations. Cinnamon toast at the 1920s Majestic Cafe is hard to resist.
Majestic Cafe, Rua Santa Catarina, 112 4000-442 Porto; +351 22 200 3887
2. World’s oldest graffiti?
In the 1980s, archeologists made a startling discovery where the Coa River joins the Douro. Rocks in the lush valley carry thousands of carvings: deer, goats, horses, horned aurochs – ancestors of modern cattle.
The 30,000-year-old prehistoric graffiti is perhaps mankind’s oldest outdoor art. Plans for a dam to flood the valley were scrapped and it’s now a UNESCO site. A striking hilltop museum decodes the Stone Age art and runs tours to the engravings. There’s relaxation nearby at the Longroiva spa hotel.
3. Port perfection
Port is a complex tipple.
It’s made using grapes grown along the Douro, fortified with brandy, then evolves into bafflingly delicious varieties. Dry whites are great for aperitifs and cocktails. Rubies and tawnies go with cheese or chocolatey desserts. Then come vintages, LBVs, colheitas, reserves and other superior nectars.
Port knowledge can be perfected with visits to the venerable lodges where the wines mature in Vila Nova de Gaia. Or upriver at the source of port in vineyard estates – quintas – scattered across the Douro hills.
4. Riding the river
Narrow barco rabelo sailboats no longer race down Douro rapids laden with wine casks. Still, there are plenty of ways to get afloat.
Sleek floating hotels provide weeklong cruises punctuated by plenty of wine-estate tastings. Ferries chug upriver for cheap and cheerful day trips from Porto complete with hearty on-board lunches and return by river-hugging railroad.
Private yachts and historic launches offer bespoke romantic sailings. All give unforgettable views of vine-covered terraces emerging from the meandering river.
5. ‘Buonos dies’ to Miranda do Douro
Portugal has two official languages: Portuguese, spoken by 250 million worldwide, and Mirandese, spoken by 15,000 around the frontier city of Miranda do Douro.
Your first lesson: “buonos dies” means “good morning.” Miranda has been sidelined since 1762 when invading Spaniards blew up a chunk of it and local bigwigs hastily relocated.
Remoteness allowed clifftop Miranda to preserve its language, medieval architecture and unique traditions. Menfolk perform a war dance dressed in frilly skirts and stripy socks. Locals venerate a statue of Jesus sporting a top hat. It’s famed for steak – at Restaurante Balbina they barbecue it on the fireplace.
Restaurante Balbina, Rua Raínha D’ Catarina 1, 5210-228 Miranda do Douro, Portugal; +351 273 432 394
6. Dining on lamprey
Douro delicacies include lamprey (parasitic, eel-like river critters) cooked in red wine with rice; pork innards in blood (papas de sarrabulho), baby goat (cabrito), fried octopus (polvo frito), salt-cod pie (bolo de bacalhau) and wonderful smoked sausages served with broccoli raab (alheiras com grelos).
Food is big here, whether in gourmet hangouts like The Yeatman, Largo do Paco and DOC, or rustic restaurants serving gargantuan portions – as is the case at Tasquinha do Fumo near Baiao or the belt-busting O Sapo in Penafiel.
7. Atlantic state of mind
Porto’s posh beach suburb of Foz do Douro is where the river meets the sea. It has palm-shaded promenades, Atlantic surf and super-cool beach bars.
Sunsets are wonderful. Sunny days see joggers, cyclists and strollers pass seafront parks, historic fortresses and a string of sandy beaches.
8. Staying in palaces, quintas, manors or grain silos
There’s a dazzling array of distinctive accommodation along the Douro. Urban palaces such as Palacio do Freixo, charming, family-run mansions like Solar Egas Moniz, even luxuriously converted grain silos.
Welcoming wine estates blend old-world elegance with modern design. Quinta do Vallado, Casa das Pipas, Morgadio da Calcada are worth looking out for, as are the staggering views from Quinta Nova Winery House.
9. Hopping on the Pocinho express
Trains take three hours from Porto to the end of the Douro line at Pocinho. Time will fly. The track clings to the riverbank, with breathtaking views at each curve. Tickets cost around €13 ($15).
Along the way are riverside stations brightly decorated with azulejos – painted ceramic tiles. Special trains with historic carriages run in summer.
You can buy luxury nine-hour rides on Portugal’s former presidential train, including a four-course gourmet degustation menu by a Michelin-starred chef.
10. Getting into the red
The Douro has been famed for port over 300 years. Now its table wines – especially robust reds – are generating international buzz. Wine Spectator placed two Douro reds in its 2014 world top four (a port was No. 1). In 2015, it ranked Porca de Murca red as the best buy under $20.
Touring the vineyards is a treat. Many estates are centered around historic homes with dramatic locations. In most you can visit and taste. In some, like mountaintop Quinta do Popa, or picturesque Quinta das Amendoeiras you can join the harvest, even crush the grapes, old-style by foot.
Quinta do Popa, N-222 Adorigo 5120-011 Tabuaço, Portugal; +351 915 678 498
Quinta das Amendoeiras, Alpouvar Cx 232-A, Ferreiras, Albufeira 8200-552, Portugal; +351 289 561 370
11. Eye-to-eye with soaring vultures
For 80 miles, the Douro forms the frontier with Spain. It’s wild. The river cuts deep canyons through a boulder-strewn plateau. Both banks are natural parks with viewpoints (miradouros) giving sweeping vistas.
Big birds are an added attraction, especially at Penedo Durao – a raptor hangout. Griffon vultures glide by on nine-foot wingspans, eying your picnic. Among smaller feathered friends: shaggy-headed Egyptian vultures, eagles, black storks, pink hoopoes and blue rock thrushes.
12. Banishing small-town blues
If you need a break from all the beautiful countryside, the region holds some enthralling small towns:
– Peso da Regua is a wine trade hub hosting the new Museum of the Douro (R. do Marquês de Pombal, 5050-282 Peso da Régua, Portugal).
– Historic Lamego boasts a hilltop church atop a 686-step baroque staircase (Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Monte de Santo Estevão, 5100-025 Lamego; +351 254 614 392).
– Amarante’s renaissance riverside is enhanced by a museum dedicated to local painter Amadeo Souza-Cardoso, “the best-kept secret in modern art” according to Paris’ Grand Palais gallery, which is currently wowing crowds with his work (Alameda Teixeira de Pascoaes, 4600-011 Amarante, Portugal; +351 255 420 272).
13. Seasonal selections
They say the upper Douro has “nove meses de inverno e tres de inferno” (nine months of winter and three of Hell).
Summer temperatures broil over 40 C. In winter, expect snow on the hills. By February they’ll whiten again with almond-tree blossoms. Spring is wonderful: vines shoot, wild flowers carpet the fields. Autumn brings reddening vine leaves; harvesting of grapes, olives and chestnuts; boar and partridge on menus.
14. Discovering cool Porto
It’s not all old stuff. The nightlife and creative scene make Porto a prime hipster destination. Much of the action centers around the galleries, boutiques and bars on rua Miguel Bombarda.
Architecture fans should check out the Serralves modern art museum (Rua D. João de Castro, 210, 4150-417, Porto) or a concert at Casa da Musica (Av. da Boavista, 604-610, 4149-071, Porto). Artists playing 2018’s NOS Primavera Sound festival include Solange, J Balvin and Erykah Badu.
15. Driving the ‘world’s best drive’
The N-222 road linking Regua and Pinhao is scientifically the world’s best drive.
It beat the likes of California’s Highway 1 and Australia’s Great Ocean Road in tests in 2015 by a quantum physicist, race-track designer and roller-coaster expert tasked by rental company Avis to evaluate the thrill factor of scenic routes around the world.
Winding through the wine terraces along the Douro’s north bank the N-222 is just one of the region’s stunning roadways. Just don’t do any wine-tasting first.
16. Grabbing some history
The Rota do Romanico route connects dozens of churches, castles and bridges dating back to the 12th century when King Afonso I founded the Portuguese kingdom around here. Even older is the Citania do Monte Mozinho, a Celtic hill fort that gives an insight into life before the Romans.
There are networks of historic villages linking places like Provesende with its 15 quintas; stone-built Quintandona; or Favaios which produces unique sweet wines. Many contain excellent places to eat, sleep or drink wine.
17. Uncorking a lighter wine
Portugal’s light, bright and mostly white Vinho Verde wines are generally associated with the green Minho region further north, but the growing region extends down to Douro. Estates in this verdant area are also a pleasure to visit. Most organize tours and tastings, but may require booking in advance.
Among the most tempting: Quinta de Covela whose sophisticated wines are produced within sight of the Douro; or Quinta da Aveleda, featuring an ivy-covered mansion, lush, tropical gardens, superlative brandy, and a wine ranked third in Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 global best-buy list.
Quinta de Covela, São Tomé de Covelas, Portugal; +351 912 831 152
Quinta da Aveleda, Penafiel, Portugal; +351 255 718 200
18. Biking, hiking, rafting
There are endless options for energetic activities.
Kayak through the canyons in the “international” Douro between Portugal and Spain. Biking or hiking tours can be taken from boutique hotel to wine lodge. Mountain trails can be ridden in four-wheel drives. There’s also white-water rafting down fast-flowing rivers running into the Douro.
19. Ethnic fashion
Miranda may not rival Paris or Milan, but seamstress Maria Suzana de Castro and her daughters make high fashion from local wool and traditional designs.
The de Castros adapt motifs from shepherds’ cloaks to create startlingly stylish jackets, capes and purses sold in their stores in Miranda’s old town and nearby Sendim village. Other time-honored Douro designs cutting a fashionable dash include Claus Porto luxury soaps or the old-school goodies sold at Porto’s A Vida Portuguesa store (Rua de Cândido dos Reis 36, 4050-151 Porto; +351 222 022 105).
20. Porto’s ‘little French girls’
The world’s greatest sandwich? Porto’s favorite snack comprises doorsteps of bread filled with ham, sausages and steak, wrapped in cheese, drenched in a spicy sauce. Created in the 1950s by a returning emigrant who named it the francesinha – or “little French girl.”
According to legend, that’s because the sauce was as piquante as his memories of Parisian mademoiselles. Devotees recommend Cafe Santiago (Rua de Passos Manuel 226, Porto 4000-382, Portugal; +351 22 205 5797).
This article was originally published in August 2016.
Freelance journalist Paul Ames has been hooked on Portugal since visiting as a kid in the 1970s. He lives in Lisbon but remains a frequent visitor to his wife’s home village in the heart of the Centro region.