Portugal’s endlessly undulating plains is home to some of the oldest vineyards in the world. A producer of wine since Roman times, it’s perhaps best known for its port wines which have been produced here since the 1700s. Ironically, it was the British who ‘invented’ port as a solution to preserve wines for the journey from the vineyards in Portugal to the consumers in the UK.
The terraces of the magnificent UNESCO-listed Douro Valley are one of the oldest demarcated regions in the world (dating from 1756).
Hugging the Douro River that runs through deep valleys from the Spanish border until Porto along the coast, this region of schist mountains is ideal for port wine vines. Tens of thousands of terraced vineyards line the steep-sided valleys, each vine planted by hand.
Port Wine Route
Plenty of quintas (wine estates) dot the Douro Valley, with most of the vineyards reserved for port. The biggest attraction happens during the grape harvest season (Sep-Oct), when many quintas offer visitors the chance to participate in the wine production – from harvesting to grape stomping to bottling. For their help, visitors are treated to a big feast and of course, plenty of wine.
Douro’s Port Wine Route (Rota do Vinho do Porto) encompasses around 50 quintas (40 open to public), with options for accommodation, dining, and wine tasting. Due to the size of the region, the port wine route is divided into 3 parts: the Lower Corgo covers 30 sites (including unique manor houses and taverns), the Upper Corgo is known for its handicrafts, while the Upper Douro offers stunning landscapes with ancient sites.
You can tour the Port Wine Route by car, train or boat. You can start with a boat from Gaia pier in Porto and follow the river to Régua. Here, you can catch the old steam train for a historic journey to Pinhão, a Douro village with a concentration of famous port brands, from where you can also explore the vineyards by car.
You can also opt for a cycle tour (self-guided) around the steep and winding back roads, with itineraries spanning both sides of the Douro River and including stops at paleolithic sites and castles.
Porto, built along the Douro River, is where wine barrels from the Douro Valley used to arrive on barcos rabelos (flat sailing vessels) – today they arrive by train – for aging at the various wine lodges in the neighbourhood of Gaia.
Gaia is home to the port wine lodges of big brand names like Graham’s, Croft, and Taylor’s. Here, you can take a tour through the cellars, learn about the port aging process, and of course, taste (and buy) a variety of ports, including Tawny, Ruby, Branco (white), and Rosé.
The UNESCO-listed city of Porto features some amazing architecture, including Porto Cathedral (the oldest surviving structure) and São Bento Railway Station with its blue azulejo (tile) panels. The unique bookstore Lello and Majestic Café are now also firmly on tourist maps, thanks to the city’s association with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.