The Douro River in Portugal is one of Europe's most magical cruises, with destinations up and down its shores that are perfect for lovers of charming towns, bustling cities, history and -- of course -- wine. Portugal's so-called River of Gold was first discovered by the Romans and now modern-day cruisers are falling in love with cool ports lining the Douro.
Winding 125 miles through dramatic vineyard-clad valleys from the Atlantic city of Porto to the Spanish border at Vega de Terron (where you'll depart for Salamanca, Spain), the Douro offers a unique river cruise experience both packed with cool destinations and great for first-time river cruisers. This once-turbulent waterway was tamed by local civilizations over the centuries, and you'll find postcard-worthy scenery all around. That also means that you'll likely take buses up the steep valley slopes to places of interest along the way.
Read on for our guide to the best destinations along the Douro River in Portugal and get inspired to plan your next river cruise. For more Douro River insider info and expert advice, check out our Douro River cruise tips.
Portugal's second city, Porto, is generally your first and last destination on a Douro River cruise. It's easily one of the most exciting destinations on the river. The city is steeped in maritime history, and it was from here that Prince Henry the Navigator set out in 1415 bound for Africa, marking the start of Portugal's dominance of the world's oceans for two centuries.
Ribeira, Porto's most famous riverside neighborhood, is lined with cafes, shops and all manner of ready-to-explore spots. A maze of steep streets leads to the UNESCO-listed old town that's home to the 12th century Se Cathedral and Sao Francisco Church, with its fabulous golden interior. Don't miss the grand Sao Bento Station, lined with huge murals made from traditional glazed blue and white Portuguese tiles, or azulejos. A fun way to reach the high district is on The Elevador da Ribeira is a fun way to reach the higher-altitude districts and the huge open lift leads to the Barredo district next to the old town.
Harry Potter fans should head to the Lello bookstore in the Clerigos quarter. The wooden staircase provided J.K. Rowling with the inspiration for the stairs at Hogwarts when she was an English teacher in Porto. Due to its popularity, the store now charges an entry fee, refundable against the purchase of a book. You can skip the lines by buying an online ticket in advance.
The landmark Dom Luis Bridge spans the Douro River. Designed by a pupil of Gustave Eiffel, it was the world’s longest iron arch bridge when it opened in 1886. It can be crossed by car, train or foot and links Ribeira with Vila Nova de Gaia, or simply Gaia (your go-to neighborhood for exploring the famous Port wine cellars for which Porto is rightfully famous).
All Douro River cruises offer a shore tour exploring Porto. It's also easy for independent travelers to explore by themselves and the Porto Card provides free travel on public transport and discounted entry to attractions. Other novel experiences include a motorcycle and sidecar tour that will take you out-of-the-way places or a cruise in a replica of the wooden rabelo boats once used to transport port from the vineyards to Porto.
Note: Porto is generally a very safe city, but the sidewalk on the Dom Luis Bridge is notorious for pickpockets, so exercise caution and look after your valuables.
The majority of Douro river ships dock in the heart of Gaia, on the south side of the Douro River, across from Porto proper. Scenic and sister company Emerald Cruises have exclusive docking spots on the northern bank, in Ribeira. Some vessels dock slightly farther out of town, so check before booking if you want to be right in the center.
Gaia's waterfront and steep surrounding streets are a Douro River destination unto themselves. The whole area is home to big-name port houses such as Graham's, Taylor's, Ferreira, Sandeman and Calem. Most Douro River cruise itineraries feature a tour and tasting at one of the wineries plus a trip to the scenic viewing point at the top of the Dom Luis Bridge.
It's also fun to simply wander around Vila Nova de Gaia's narrow streets and take the cable car from the top of the bridge back down to the river. A new attraction is the WOW (World of Wine) cultural district, which is housed in the neighborhood's old warehouses. It includes wine museums -- like the Pink Palace, dedicated to rosé and featuring a pool of pink bubbles -- a chocolate museum and shops
An absolute highlight of a Douro River cruise is Salamanca, Spain's oldest university town. Though the destination isn't exactly on the Douro, it's reached on a full day excursion from the port at Vega de Terron on the Portuguese border with Spain.
Salamanca's magnificent 18th century square leads to a main thoroughfare lined by impressive buildings such as the Casa de las Conchas, covered by more than 300 seashells. The city's Old and New Cathedrals (Renaissance and Gothic, respectively), sit side by side. At the latter, you can look for the intriguing sight of a spaceman and monkey in the doorway.
That's not the only quirk spotting you'll want to keep your eyes peeled for in Salamanca. At the old university building you can try and spot a frog -- said to bring students good luck -- hidden in the ornate facade. Salamanca shore excursions include lunch, usually with a flamenco show, and free time.
First settled in Roman times, Regua, Portugal, was once an important trading post where boats transported port wine to Porto. Today it's a destination for Douro River cruise excursions to Vila Real, a small town nestled among vineyards nearby. There, you'll find Casa de Mateus (Mateus Palace), which is depicted on the labels of Mateus Rosé wine. Interiors are renowned for a collection of religious artifacts and carved wooden ceilings and outside there are beautiful gardens. Some river cruise lines include a tour of the manor.
From Regua, there are also tours to Lamego. Perched high on a hill above town is the sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios dating back to 1750 and one of Portugal's most important Baroque pilgrimage churches. A decorative stone staircase with fountains, statues and tile murals leads to the shrine. Douro River cruise lines transport passengers to the top, with the option to walk back down the 700 stairs and meet the bus.
This destination on the Douro River is situated at the halfway point of cruises. Some cruise lines run their shore excursions to Casa de Mateus from Pinhao, and most offer trips to wineries such as Sandeman to learn how port is made and enjoy a tasting. On the way back there might be the chance to stop off at Pinhao's gorgeous railroad station. The lobby is covered with azulejo tiles depicting historic scenes relating to port production. There is also a small museum and wine shop. Some cruises overnight in Pinhao, giving time to explore the waterfront or walk up to the station.
Along with the mooring point at Vega de Terron, this is the gateway to the stunning medieval hilltop village of Castelo Rodrigo. Topped by the ruins of a medieval castle, the steep and narrow streets in town lead to the 13th-century church that's a stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. The quaint fortified village is a good place to buy authentic cork products, including hats, purses, belts, shoes and jewelry.