Where the Atlantic Ocean and the Douro River meet, the Douro Valley begins…along with the postcard-perfect town of Porto, famed for its port wine. However, to explore the region’s infamous port wine, you will actually need to go to the small town directly opposite the river of Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia. It’s this little city that is actually home to all the port houses. The two cities tend to get wrapped into one, but essentially, when visiting Porto for port wine, you are, in fact, visiting the town of Vila Nova de Gaia.
The Douro Valley is the oldest wine-growing region in the world and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yes, the entire valley is a part of UNESCO, making exploring and understanding the wines a must when visiting Porto.
I personally suggest you stay on the Vila Nova de Gaia side and explore the port houses early in your visit. Not only are you closer to the port houses, but it’s quieter, and the winding, cobblestone lanes are fabulous to get lost in. You will need to walk over to Porto if you want to shop or explore more of that side. It’s totally walkable so you don’t need a car but you will want to invest in good walking shoes. Like the hilled terraces in the Douro Valley, Porto is one hill and set of stairs after another
Hotels in Vila Nova de Gaia: The Yeatman, The Rebello Hotel & Spa, Hilton Porto Gaia. If you stay on the Vila Nova de Gaia side and want to walk into Porto, cross the Dom Luís I Bridge (or take the river ferry) and take the tram up the hill to save time and steps. Vila Nova de Gaia faces north, so in the hot summer months, it is much cooler than southern-facing Porto. This can be a deciding factor when booking hotels and rentals in the summer given air-conditioning is somewhat limited.
Hotels in Porto: There are a number of hotels and vacation rentals in Porto. Keep in mind those along the riverfront in the Ribeira quarter will likely be louder, given the nightlife in the area but will be ideally located for all the sites. Suggested hotels include, The Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa, Rua da Fábrica 55, Ribeira Douro Hotel, Hotel NH Porto Jardim.
DAY ONE: Visit the Port Houses
You don’t really need to visit more than one port house if you’re short on time unless you’re a huge port lover. For most people, the point of visiting a port house is to better understand the wine region, how port is made and the uniqueness of the terrior. The latter is the most valuable if you’re venturing out into the Douro Valley for a river tour and/or wine tasting. (I recommend both!)
There are a dozen port houses you can easily visit. Sandman is probably the most popular and well-known but I personally recommend you start at Taylor’s so you can do the self-guided audio tour, which is offered in multiple languages. I don’t always like these types of tours given they tend to be boring but this one is highly informative as it is an excellent primer for getting to know the region. (This should be one of your first activities as it will help to set the stage for the rest of your visit.)
When you end the tour, plan to relax on the terrace and do a tasting. If you’re with a friend or two, try sharing a tasting so you can run through the variety of years they’re pouring. It’s fun to taste how the vintages change over time…
I do suggest you have the server write down the years for you and put them in order. When I visited, they just put the glasses on the table and started to leave. We had to stop them and ask what everything was and to put it in order for us. It was disappointing – but not surprising – that the server didn’t want to also be an educator…
The vintages I personally loved during the tasting that I recommend you try include – 1985, 2005 and 2009.
Things to Know When Visiting Port Houses…
– Most of the port houses are open 10am-7pm (some open closer to 11am).
– It is a hike to get to Taylor’s if you’re staying in Porto, so make sure you’re wearing walking shoes.
– Plan to explore World of Wine (WOW) when you’re up the hill at Taylor’s. There are a lot of fun little shops and tasting rooms as well.
If you do want to sip in more of the port houses I suggest you visit Ramos Pinto, Burmester, Calem (it has good small plates and a wine list, too!) as well as Kopke.
If I were to do it again… I would arrive in Vila Nova de Gaia mid-afternoon. Get checked into my hotel/rental and then head up to the World of Wine (WOW) area and make my way to Taylor’s for the tour and tasting around 4pm. Plan about an hour for the tour, head to the terrace for a tasting and apps. Then walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge into Porto – it connects Vila Nova de Gaia to Porto – for dinner at a restaurant along the riverfront in the Ribeira quarter. Or, stay in Vila Nova de Gaia and dine at a recommended restaurant there.
DAY TWO: Explore Porto
The most popular sites to see in Porto include the port houses, the bridges and the cathedral. However, Porto’s riverfront Ribeira quarter (riverbank district) just across the river from Vila Nova de Gaia is a must, as is shopping along Rua de Santa Catarina.
The Ribeira quarter can be somewhat chaotic with the crowds and tourists, but it is worth exploring. There are a slew of restaurants, boutiques, and vendors selling riverboat cruises along the promenade. Grab a spot on a patio outside, order a glass of Vinho Verde or Sangria, and sit back, relax, and enjoy the people-watching… Make sure to walk back into the winding, cobbled lanes to really soak in the Old-World atmosphere of Porto.
“Vinho Verde” (Green Wines) is a wine region in the north of Portugal. The green wine has a low abv, and bubbles, perfect for an afternoon of sipping. Vinho Verde Casa do Valle is an excellent location if you have time to explore a little outside of the main area in Porto. I highly suggest you sip more Porto wines…there’s a lot more than port.
The “Six Bridges Tour” is one of the most popular river tours in Porto and can easily be accessed from the Ribeira quarter. Porto is very into its bridges…so if you’re into architecture and bridges or need a break from walking, then this tour is great. Otherwise, I suggest saving your money. I found it long, boring and more annoying than anything given you’re crammed onto a boat with A LOT of other tourists who just want to sip the free port wine.
The architecture in Porto is world-renowned. With red-tiled rooftops and granite and azulejo-covered buildings (blue-tiled facades) everywhere, it’s a feast for your eyes. But, the food in Porto is another adventure for your taste buds. We didn’t have time to do a food tour or cooking class, but I wish we had. These are a few tours I had found when we visited that looked good to do…
There are so many unique foods in the region to try and learn about. One of the traditional sandwiches of the area is the francesinha, which is like a Portuguese French dip with a tomato-based sauce. You can find them throughout the city but one of the locals told us Braseo Cervejaria is the best sandwich spot, and it was amazing… And, you must feast on Pastéis de nata – Portuguese custard tarts – every time you have the chance. These little delicacies are classic puff pastries filled with a silky-smooth sweet custard. D.E.L.I.S.H.
Not far from Braseo you’ll find Rua de Santa Catarina, the main shopping drag in Porto, with Art Nouveau and Art Deco landmarks. Even if you’re not up for shopping, this promenade is a site worth seeing. If anything, grab a cappuccino at Majestic Cafe and sit on the patio to sip in the architecture, charm, and people-watching. (Staying at a hotel near Rua de Santa Catarina would be lovely and put you in the heart of downtown but requires you to walk or tram it to the other sites to see.)
Suggested Restaurants in Porto
- Tasco is amazing! Make sure to make a reservation.
- Brasão Coliseu
- Enoteca 17*56 Real Companhia Velha
- A Cozinha do Manel
- Brasão Foz Brewery (Brasão Foz)
DAY THREE: Get into the Douro Valley
While exploring Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia is amazing, I highly suggest you venture out into the Douro Valley for a riverboat tour and a few wine tastings. You can do both on the same day, especially if you hire a guide who sets and manages your schedule for the day.
Plan to start the day fairly early as you will need to drive at least an hour to get into the valley for a boat tour. We started ours out of the small town of Pinhao. I suggest you begin your day with the boat ride so you can see the terraced vineyards you learned all about during your tour at Taylor’s port house. Riding along Douro River, you’ll be in awe of the beautiful hand-crafted terrace walls and get another level of respect for the region and the people working the vineyards. It’s for sure a wine region I have the utmost respect for, yet one I would never want to physically work a harvest in.
If you begin in Pinhao, scheduling a tour and tasting at Quinta do Bomfim makes for an easy second (or first) stop. The winery is also home to a restaurant and picnic spots so you can enjoy the views and sip in a little more during your visit.
Porto Wine Tour Companies
A friend who lived in Lisbon recommended Mário Vidal at Surf Wine Tours for a wine tour in the Douro Valley. (You don’t really need a tour guide for the port houses in Porto.) I wish our dates had matched up to work with Mario but we ended up booking with E Fun Tours, based on another friend’s raving recommendation. I feel like the wine tour we did with E Fun Tours was good but not great. Each winery we visited was crowded with drunk tourists; we got paired up with other groups during the tours/tastings who were drunk and rude. That can ruin the day for anyone… If I were to do it again I would ask that we arrange more private tastings to avoid the other groups. It costs more but can be worth it.
Before hiring either of these groups and/or spending time researching a wine tour company, call the concierge at your hotel for a recommendation. They will likely have a few they can recommend. I have had some of the best experiences working with concierge-recommended tour guides. This is the way I will always hire guides for regions I haven’t visited in the future. (I was staying at a VRBO so I didn’t have the concierge services for Porto.
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Elaine Schoch (pronounced the German way – Shock) is the editor and founder of Carpe Travel as well as an award-winning travel writer, wine judge, certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 and certified American Wine Expert. She is married to The Husband and has two kids, Princess One and Two – who’s interest and knowledge in wine is quite extensive. Not to mention the stamps in their passports.