Northern Portugal Travel Guide: Porto and the Douro Valley

Maybe you haven’t heard of it yet? The port is booming. Future Market Insights reports that the global port wine market is poised for a giant compound annual growth rate of 8.1% over the next decade. For travelers to Europe’s new (but old) hottest destination, this means that the famous eponymous fortified wine region of Port and the Douro Valley in northern Portugal will welcome even more international visitors heading to the city ​​stacked in terracotta for, among other things, a tasty taste of the best ports in the world directly from the source.

According to Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, known for its port brands including Taylor’s, Fonseca, Croft and Krohn, this change has accelerated during the pandemic. “More entertainment at home meant more dinners and fortified wines for dessert,” says Bridge. “As things came back, the home market continued.” Bridge attributes the symbol of port as an ambitious drink and the lifestyle it represents to the growing interest in good wine. This has further opened the doors to its native destination, attracting those same curious customers to explore the port in depth, from its terroir to its complex history and culture. But even though a trip to Porto includes a visit to the port, there’s plenty more to see and do between sips.

Start in Porto: About 280 km north of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, this port city is the second largest city in the country and one of the oldest cities in Europe. The Douro River that runs through it – descending from the upper Douro Valley, which carried the barrels from the port to the urban warehouses – is the centerpiece that separates Porto’s populated Right Bank from the opposite Vila Nova De Gaia, which historically housed the majority of port cellars. Today, the Left Bank is brimming with contemporary flair that is worth exploring, and even staying.

Porto on the Douro River

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The transformation of Vila Nova De Gaia – and arguably Porto’s mark on the map – was recognized by the opening of the Yeatman Hotel in 2011. The wine-growing hotel puts a focus on the destination by positioning all of its 82 rooms towards the river, equipping them with balconies and terraces to overlook the UNESCO World Heritage city across the way (Oporto). Each room is sponsored by a local winery, decorated with branded trinkets, vintage bottles and informative coffee table books to begin absorbing the rich history here from the first moment you check in.

The latest addition to the Left Bank is the World of Wine, or WOW, a 500,000 square foot cultural district featuring seven interactive museums, 12 restaurants, numerous shops and even a wine education center. Although it opened in the midst of the pandemic, the gradual opening has so far proved successful in enticing visitors to linger a little longer in town. Bridge explained that this was a key factor in creating WOW.

“It’s always been about the destination, a catalyst for city-wide change and regeneration,” says Bridge, the mastermind behind WOW and The Yeatman Hotel. “It’s about people learning to love wine, not just Port, as well as tapping into Porto’s history and why mankind came to live in Porto.”

Table with a view of a magnificent view of the river in Porto, Portugal
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You could spend a whole day at WOW, browse the 2,000 artifacts in the Bridge Collection of drinking vessels, with the oldest vessel dating back 9,000 years, or learn more about cork in the dedicated exhibit. Fifty percent of the world’s cork is grown in Portugal and 70 percent is processed across the country. So plan time in your itinerary accordingly. Another day, or several days, in Porto could be spent wandering the medieval streets, visiting the 12th-century Porto Cathedral, sipping vinho verde (a regional-style sparkling white wine that literally translates to green wine) on the banks of the Douro, and indulging in freshly caught seafood (endless for octopus, cod and sea bass).

There is also pintxosPorto’s version of Basque small plates, including smoked ham and sausages, clams, cod cakes, gizzards and octopus salad – and pintxo bars are the place to eat them. Try: Sagardi Porto or The Wine Box and keep an eye out for unassuming bars placing blackboards advertising pintxos outside their doors before dinner. For heartier meals, order bacalhau (codfish) at T&C Restaurant (pro tip: ask to sit in a repurposed port cask), sizzling meats at Brasão (they also do a raised version of Francesinha, a stack of meat and cheese originating from a hangover cure) or splurge on a tasting menu at Tábua Rasa, which specializes in 100% Portuguese cuisine, from their charcuterie boards to land and sea tastings that offer platters of canned fish.

Vineyards in the Douro Valley, Portugal, portuguese port

Douro Valley Vineyards

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Once you’ve established your bearings here, you’re ready to head out into the countryside. Driving through the beloved Douro Valley is like entering a vast jigsaw puzzle of hills marked with vineyards and olive groves. A truly difficult landscape to capture, it’s better to take a video to remember it than to put the technology aside and surrender to the vastness of your natural surroundings.

This is where the tastings take over. Although tour operators advertise afternoon excursions, the oldest demarcated region in the world is worth a stay of several days. Check into The Vintage House, a former 19th-century winery transformed into 47 rooms along the banks of the Douro River, and strap on your trainers to walk (or bike) to a handful of star wineries surrounding this part of the valley, Pinhao. There’s Croft’s Quinta da Roêda, where you can stroll among century-old vines and take part in the traditional treading of grapes during harvest. Quinta de Bomfim is the vineyard of the Symington family, which produces grapes for DOW’s, one of their four famous port brands. Quinta do Portal also serves as a lunch and dinner venue where you can also try their table wines with rotating seasonal dishes.

Outdoor table with selection of three different Port wines in glasses.
barmalini / Shutterstock

Further afield, requiring a car or a scenic train ride, is Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal, one of the first tasting rooms to open to the public (be a pro and ask for a siroco on the rocks, their white port with a touch of orange). Quinta das Carvalhas is a wonderful stop to observe their vineyards located at different altitudes (in the morning, misty clouds hover above the highest planted vines). And, Quinta Nova Nossa Senhora do Carmo is both a quick stop for port and table wine tasting, as well as an overnight destination, with their Relais & Châteaux hotel on site.

No matter where you are staying in the Douro, one thing is certain. Nothing is rushed here. You will need to take your time to discover all that this region has to offer. Starting in Porto gives you that platform to understand the port on a deeper level. As you journey through the valley, be sure to look up after dark. Placed at the center of Portugal’s Dark Sky route, the shimmering projection reminds you to slow down and reflect on your time here. If you’re lucky enough to catch a shooting star, wish it someday you’ll come back.

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