A River Cruise In The Douro Valley – The Perfect Day Trip From Porto

Rabelo boat on the Douro River near Pinhao

If you’re spending more than a couple days in Porto, one of the absolute must-dos is to take a day trip 1.5hrs east to the Douro Valley. The region is teeming with beauty as you pass by terraced hills looking over the winding Douro River. If you have a car, you can stop as you see fit, with plenty of options. We wanted to delve into the winemaking history of this UNESCO-protected region, so we opted for a guided tour that picked us up in downtown Porto one morning.

We met our guide, Nuno, in front of a theater at 8:20am and boarded a passenger van with two other couples. The van seemed newer and had a comfortable ride, even over the cobblestone streets of downtown Porto.

Nuno has great energy from when we first meet him and can talk about any subject. At the beginning of the ride, he gave a solid overview of what to expect for the day and invited any questions about the experience, Porto, or the drive. I was in the back, back seat (apparently everyone else in the tour had some form of motion sickness except me…) so I nodded off to the rumble of the engine and having no coffee in my system yet.

The Douro River from Pinhão
Pinhão was our first stop.

When I woke up, I realized I had been transported to a beautiful land of rolling hills of green and tan, marbled by the emerging autumn tones of the changing grape vines. The hills weren’t tall, but they were grand. Terraced and purposeful, the land seemed to be used very efficiently.

Our first stop was Pinhão, a parish of 600 people that is really the jumping point to the Douro Valley. While the town is small, we stopped for a bathroom break and grabbed some espresso to get the wheels turning. This was also our first chance to experience a breathtaking view while not in motion.

We were led around the corner and to the docks where we boarded a revamped boat decorated with wood from old port barrels. We started our cruise down the Douro River as our boat guide, Antonio, walked us through the quintas that we passed and the history of making wine in the region. It was super fascinating how this area really shouldn’t produce grapes, but through a collection of two really important rocks and the ingenuity of the local people in terms of grafting and plant sectioning turned it into one of the most famous regions in the world.

Back in the van and across an incredibly narrow two-way bridge (seriously, we were brushing cheeks with the oncoming truck drivers,) our next stop was Quinta de S. Luiz, the oldest wine estate in the region, and home of the Kopke brand, established in 1638. Since the Douro Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, everything must remain the same year after year. You can’t change names; you can’t even grow different plants in a section without permission. Our host here walked us around the property and talked about when and how the grapes were harvested. Despite being a big name company with a lot of brands under them, they only had 25 people (8 of whom were permanent employees) to harvest their grapes in a year. Because of the way the hills are terraced, most of the labor is still done by hand with minimal tractor help.

We were led back inside the building to see these enormous vats of wine that were being aged for upwards of three decades and then into a room above the bottle shop where we got our first tasting of the day (second if you include the drink on the boat.) Our host led us through four different ports and how they were different and how vintage years were especially important (these are years when everything turned out just right from humidity to rainfall to sunlight to seasonal changes.)

I am incredibly surprised how affordable port is with how much goes into making it.

We loaded into the van and drove towards our next stop, a small family run wine estate, Quinta dos Mattos, to show the difference between a big company like Kopke and a smaller localized operation. We were treated to a nice lunch – Rachel and I both had Chilean seabass, but most others in the group had wild boar and risotto. Our table was given a couple bottles of wine and once I realized we were fully expected to finish the bottles, my glass magically emptied itself over and over just to be refilled again.

The final course was a chocolate cake paired with a 10-year old tawny port. The combination was amazing!

After our indulging was finished, we were led to the wine cellar where we were given a demonstration on how to properly taste port (from the bottom of your mouth, to the top, then to the back) and how to spot a port that’s been mixed with another bottle.

During our drive back to Porto, everyone was warm and happy and Nuno continued to give us advice about his city, which we would use later in deciding on a place for dinner. The daytrip was incredible and probably our favorite single thing we did in Portugal. I can’t recommend it enough and really hope you get the chance to experience it yourself in the future.

What To Pack For Portugal

During our recent trip to Portugal, I decided to document what I packed before hand and what I would change for a future trip.

You’ll find that I like to travel in what I consider “shoulder season” where it’s not as busy as high-season meaning costs come down and it’s not as slow as low-season meaning there are still some things to do. This can often mean Spring and Fall are my preferred times, leaving the busier Summer and colder Winters for planning time, but it all depends on the location (like our trip to Sedona in the middle of the dog days of summer.)

Average temp by month.

Portugal isn’t a very big nation (about the size of Indiana,) and its climate is predominately affected by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean which keeps its coastal areas cooler than the further inland regions; however, the Gulf Stream moves to warm it back up giving it warm, dry summers and mild winters. Despite this, we found that the different regions we spent time in felt different. So what did I pack?

Not a lot of rain during the summer.
What I Packed
My packed backpack.

I used my Osprey Porter 46 for this trip. Portugal is known for being very hilly and full of cobblestone streets (especially two of the cities we were visiting – Lisbon and Porto) so I didn’t want to use a rolling pack and I wanted to be able to carry the weight on my back instead of tiring myself out lugging it around up those steep inclines. We also purposefully chose an Airbnb halfway through our trip that had a washer to allow us to clean our clothes and brought a Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 soap for washing any immediate needs in the sink.

What’s inside?

  • 3 short sleeved shirts.
  • 2 long sleeved shirts that I could button over the short sleeved ones.
  • 2 pairs of pants.
  • 1 pair of shorts.
  • 5 pairs of boxers.
  • 5 pairs of socks.
  • 1 pair of boots.
  • 1 pair of sneakers.
  • 1 hat for sunny days and bad hair days.
  • Pack of KN95 masks with just a pair of reusable ones.
  • Toiletries

What would I do differently?

Not much. Traveling through Porto and the Douro Valley first, I thought I had mispacked the bag and the trip would be colder than I expected but once we got down to the Algarves and Lisbon, the temperature was much warmer and I was able to break out the warm-weather clothes. I probably could have used one more long sleeve option, although bringing clothes with a classic, neutral look helped keep my wardrobe fresh and presentable. In the picture, I was going to take my quick-dry travel towel but took it out last second. I would have left it in as the Algarve region was almost warm enough to go swimming which I didn’t have the option to without a towel or swim trunks. I also would have opted for two pairs of sneakers as walking around Porto and Sintra with leather boots wasn’t the best decision. There was plenty of room left in my backpack to bring home some bottles of Port and decorative ceramic souvenirs.

Is Portugal on your to-go list? If it is, what would you do differently?

Thanks for reading!