Exploring the Douro Valley - All you need to know!
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The Rio Douro, also known as the “River of Gold,” dominates the region and winds for over 200km from the Spanish border to the sea. The port wine lodges and tiny villages that dot the intricately terraced hillsides are a sight to behold. Once a wild and unpredictable river, the engineering works that followed the demarcation of the port-producing area in the 18th century tamed the rapids and opened up the Douro for trade. The railway reached the Spanish border by the end of the 19th century, and the building of hydroelectric dams and locks in the 1970s and 1980s turned the Douro into a series of navigable ribbon lakes. It is now possible to cruise all the way from Porto to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border.
Wine Regions of Porto & Douro River Explained
The Douro Valley and Porto both lie on the Douro River. The Porto Wine Region is famous for its production of Port, while the Douro Valley, which is situated 3 hours away from the city is renowned for its fine unfortified red and white wines.
Douro Valley’s three sub regions
The Douro Valley’s unique microclimate, with hot summers and cold winters, combined with the fertile soil and careful cultivation techniques, result in some of the most outstanding wines in the world. In fact, the Douro Valley was the first officially demarcated wine region in the world, established in 1756.
Douro Wine Region is divided into three distinctive territories, from west to east that has different styles of wines and port wines:
The Baixo Corgo or Below Corgo is located around the town of Peso da Régua. It has the mildest climate and most precipitation of the three regions. It is though to give wines of lesser quality than the other two subregions.
Cima Corgo or above Corgo is the largest subregion with 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres) of vineyards, centered on the village of Pinhão, and where the majority of the famous Quintas are located.
Douro Superior or upper Douro is the hottest and driest of the subregions, and stretches all the way to the Spanish border. It has 8,700 hectares (21,000 acres) of vineyards and is the source of many wines of very good quality. As it is the least accessible of the three subregions, it is the most recently planted, and it is still expanding.
Exploring the Douro Valley by Tour
If you are visiting Porto it is quite easy to join a tour to takes you up the Douro Valley. They are usually divided into two types a tour:
You have the option to explore the region with a Group Tour that encompasses Wine Tasting, a boat Cruise, and Lunch, all for the attractive price of about €90 per person. This represents an extremely cost-effective option for budget-conscious travelers seeking an introduction to the region, and it also provides an excellent opportunity to connect with fellow like-minded explorers.
Alternatively, for a more exclusive experience featuring premium boutique wineries and the region’s finest restaurants, our Private Wine Tour in Douro Valley is the ideal choice. This option caters to those who desire a top-tier, private experience guided by a wine specialist, offering a premium level of service.
Exploring the Douro Valley by Car
If you want to explore the more remote areas of the Douro at your own pace, driving a car offers the most flexibility. The region has decent roads, which become deserted once you venture off the busy N222. However, driving within the region can be slow as the roads wind through river valleys or ascend steep hills.
Porto to Peso da Régua: There are excellent roads connecting Porto to Peso da Régua, the main city in the Alto Douro region. From Porto, take the A4 toll expressway and then head south on the A24 to Peso da Régua. This journey takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes and allows for a day trip from Porto to visit the best parts of the Douro. Stop off here to see the Museu do Douro.
Peso da Régua to Pinhão: From Peso da Régua take the N222 to Pinhão, this is a great drive along the southern side of the river. This is a good stop off for a two hour river cruise on a traditional Rabelo boat.
Pinhão to Tua: From Pinhão, drive along the N322 which heads north through hills lined with the terraced vineyards past the village of Vale de Mendiz. This is one of the most scenic sections of the route, but unfortunately, there are not many places to stop before you reach Miradouro Vale de Mendiz viewpoint. Continue onto Alijó then head south west along the N212 towards Foz do Tua.
As you pass the village of São Mamede de Riba you enter the Parque Natural Do Vale do Tua. The parque holds the Albufeira de Foz Tua, the largest lake of the Alto Douro. The lake is actually a reservoir and was created in 2016 with the completion of the Tua dam.
Tua to Linhares: From Tua you follow N214, the road winds up towards the stunning viewpoint of Miradouro de Parambos offering breath-taking views on the way. Shortly after the viewpoint take the M633 to Linhares. This section becomes a little more rugged and wild.
Linhares to Peso da Régua: After Linhares the road drops down to cross over the Valeira dam and then enters the Douro Superior region. You rejoin the e-joins the N222 and heads westwards back to Peso da Régua along another scenic road that meanders around hills lined with the terraced vineyards. Stop at the Miradouro da Abelheira.
Exploring the Douro Valley by Train
The Linha do Douro is a significant railway route that offers 11 daily departures to Peso da Régua, with an additional five daily services continuing up to Pocinho. The initial part of the journey is inland, but at Pala, approximately 65 minutes into the trip, the railway follows the northern banks of the Douro, providing stunning views.
To ensure the best views during your journey, it’s advisable to sit on the right side of the carriage when departing from Porto. Although the railway switches to the southern side of the river at Ferradosa, the train is usually empty by then.
The Linha do Douro train provides various options for your day trip, and the four best include heading to Pinhão, Pocinho, Peso da Régua, or Tua.
For those interested in experiencing the entire route, it’s possible to ride the train to Pocinho, which takes approximately five hours for a round trip. However, as Pocinho is only a minor town, it doesn’t have much to offer.
A much better option is to take the train to Pinhão, which takes approximately two hours and twenty minutes. Pinhão is a charming town where you can explore and join a short boat cruise that departs from the harbor, or visit the Miradouro de Casal de Loivos viewpoint.
Alternatively, there are many more daily departures to Peso da Régua, and the journey is shorter, taking about one hour and forty minutes. Peso da Régua features a lovely riverfront, and the informative Museu do Douro is situated there. Boat tours are also available from the harbour, and another option is to catch a bus from Peso da Régua to Lamego, which takes about 20 minutes.
Tua is another alternative to Pinhão, and while in the village, you can walk to the dam. However, Tua may be slightly disappointing compared to Pinhão, as the sprawling village lacks a center, and there are no boat tours.
All of these train services depart from the Campanhã train station in Porto, while a few also leave from São Bento station, which is closer to the primary tourist area. These train services are operated by Comboios de Portugal (CP), and you can find the latest timetable on their website: www.cp.pt/StaticFiles/timetables/oporto-regua-douro-regional-trains.pdf
During the summer months, a heritage train that includes a classical steam train and elegant carriages runs along the Linha do Douro, providing an additional option for tourists. Details of this can be seen on the CP website: www.cp.pt.
How to Explore the Douro Valley by boat
As one of the top tourist attractions, there is an abundance of boat tours and options to choose from. These range from half-day tours departing from Porto to Peso da Régua (with a return on a bus) to luxurious weeklong voyages on boats that resemble floating palaces.
The most stunning stretch of the river is the Alto Corgo (from Peso da Régua to Tua), which is flanked by terraced vineyards and steep hills. The Baixo Corgo is also beautiful, surrounded by forests and countryside that become more hilly further to the west. Heading upstream (eastwards) is the best way to take in the Douro’s beauty, as the scenery continually improves. Upstream tours from Porto may cost a little bit more, but they are worth it.
When it comes to boat tours, most tourists opt for a tour that departs from Porto and goes to Peso da Régua or Pinhão, including breakfast and lunch, and a visit to a wine-producing Quinta, with a return to Porto via a bus or the train. However, it’s important to consider how long you want to spend sitting on the boat. While the scenery is breathtaking, sitting in the same seat for over 8 hours can become tiring, especially for children.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the quality of your experience is directly related to the cost. A cruise may seem like great value, but some boats can hold over 600 passengers. When booking a Douro boat tour, be sure to confirm the boat’s size and the quality of the meals.
Nomad Tip: If you plan on visiting the Douro Valley independently, we recommend taking the train to Peso da Régua and catching a boat tour from there to Pinhão, returning via train or boat. A 1-2 hour boat cruise is sufficient for most people, and smaller boats are often used for shorter trips.
Porto Wine Region
The finest sections of the river are to the east of Porto, and the main route out of the city follows the N15 or the much faster A4 motorway to the vinho verde-producing towns of Penafiel and Amarante.
Amarante, set on the lazy tributary of the Rio Tâmega, is perhaps the most attractive town in the region, with the first of the Douro’s splendid branch train lines running up the valley here from the main-line station at Livração, about 60km from Porto.Read in our Porto Travel Guide
The halfway point along the river is marked by the commercial port wine town and cruise centre of Peso da Régua, the capital of Alto Douro (“Upper Douro”) province. It is surrounded by terraced hills covered in vines, resembling the backbone of a dragon. Although the town itself is not as charming as its setting, it grew into a major port-wine entrepôt in the 18th century.
The Museu do Douro is worth visiting, housed in a beautifully converted riverside warehouse, takes you through the entire wine spectrum. At the pier, you can catch frequent 50-minute boat trips to Pinhão.
Just to the south of Régua, a slight detour can take in the delightful Baroque pilgrimage town of Lamego, home of Portugal’s champagne-like wine, Raposeira, and the fascinating churches, such as the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, and historic buildings of its little-explored surroundings.
Other sites include Lamego Castle and Lamego Cathedral.
Peso da Régua is also the starting point of the Corgo branch train line to Vila Real in Trás-os-Montes.
The best viewpoints close to Peso da Régua are the São Leonardo at Galafura and Santo António do Loureiro.Read in our Peso da Régua Travel Guide
Located 25 km upstream from Peso da Régua, Pinhão is probably the prettiest town of Douro Valley, sitting on the banks of the river and surrounded by terraced vineyards. Pinhão is the best location to take a short (1-2 hour) boat cruise.
One of the main attractions of Pinhão is the historic railway station, which is adorned with traditional blue and white azulejo tiles depicting scenes from the region’s history and culture. The station is also the departure point for a scenic train journey along the Douro River, offering stunning views of the vineyards and terraced hillsides.
In addition to wine-related activities, Pinhão offers a range of outdoor pursuits such as hiking, cycling and kayaking, as well as opportunities to sample the region’s traditional cuisine, which includes dishes such as cozido, a hearty stew of meat and vegetables, and bacalhau, a salted cod dish.
Tua is a charming small village known for its peaceful and serene atmosphere, especially once you venture away from the train station complex. It is a popular destination for hiking, with a picturesque riverside footpath leading to the Tua damRead in our Pinhão (Alijó) Travel Guide
Douro Superior starts its dramatic mountainous landscape at the Valeira dam, its these mountains that block half the rain that comes from the Atlantic leaving the region considerably drier than the other regions leading to the name Terra Quente or hot lands.
Vila Nova de Foz Côa
This once-remote, whitewashed town has been on the map since the 1990s, when researchers, during a proposed project for a dam, stumbled across an astounding stash of Paleolithic art. It is now the Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa where you can admire rock art from 30,000 years ago at this open-air museum and archaeological park.
Miranda do Douro
Miranda do Douro is a fortified town situated on the edge of the Río Douro canyon, and has a long history as a stronghold in Portugal’s “wild east”. The town’s castle and 16th-century cathedral, though showing signs of wear, still exude an air of medieval grandeur. In contrast to its past, modern-day Miranda now welcomes weekend Spanish tourists instead of fending off Castilian invasions.
To gain an understanding of the region’s unique border culture, which includes traditional practices such as the “stick dancing” of the pauliteiros, one can visit the Museu da Terra de Miranda. This museum offers an insight into the customs and traditions of Miranda do Douro and its surrounding area.Read in our Vila Nova de Foz Côa Travel Guide
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