Douro River cruises offer travelers the perfect opportunity to segue from buzzy Porto on the Atlantic coast to Portugal’s pastoral wine region. Cruises on the Douro River may not have quite the same pull as other European rivers, but its beautiful scenery of sloping wine terraces give it the edge.
Cruises on this Portuguese and Spanish waterway stretch from Porto on the Atlantic Ocean, all the way east into Spain's Vega de Terron (essentially a docking station where passengers head to the gorgeous golden city of Salamanca).
If you’re curious about Douro River cruises, here’s everything you need to know.
Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, has some 2,000 years of history behind it. While it's best known for the production of port wine (wine that's fortified with the addition of brandy), it's also a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis. Being so close to the ocean gives Porto a bit of a San Francisco feel; it's every bit as hilly, there are plenty of trams, street life is colorful, and occasionally a dense fog rolls in off the Atlantic.
Once you leave Porto, everything changes. For the rest of the trip, you'll be stopping at places like Bitetos, Regua, Pinhao, Barca d'Alva and Vega de Terron -- small rural villages that you've likely never heard of. Some of the places in which you'll dock are actually nothing much but piers with access to a place to board the motorcoaches.
What's most heartening about a cruise on the Douro is the small surprises. The tiny town of Pinhao, lying at the heart of Douro's wine country, reminds you of a cross between California's Napa Valley and Italy's Tuscany (only far less touristy). It's simply gorgeous country, whether in the lush vineyard regions closer to Porto or in the wild, craggy landscapes to the east, near the border with Spain.
The only motor coaches you may see on the twisting winding roads are those from your own ship, though the river is getting busier as more river lines add ships. Visits to a range of quintas, the Portuguese term for wineries, mostly focus on the region's famed port wines, but the winemakers in the Douro region also produce beautiful reds and whites.
All in all, a Douro River cruise comprises so many small discoveries, small pleasures and such a generous amount of time sailing on a riverboat that you'll be lulled into a relaxing rhythm that's far away from frantic sightseeing and over-scheduled days.
The Douro has a long cruise season, typically beginning in late March and running into November, though Viking has sailings into December.
The premier times to visit the Douro are in springtime, May and June, and then again during harvest season -- in fall months of September and October.
For the best value pricing, shoulder season months, like March to early May and then again in November, offer the cheapest fares, but weather can be cool and rainy. Mid-July through August is another good time for snagging deals; the region can be very hot then.
In the last decade, Douro River cruises have become increasingly popular. Lines sailing this Portuguese-Spanish waterway include AmaWaterways, APT, A-ROSA, CroisiEurope, Scenic, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises and Emerald Waterways.
In some cases, ships are operated by DouroAzul, a Portugal-based company that owns much of the region's cruising infrastructure, from docking facilities to a fleet of river ships. Each company does have input into their own operations, whether it's menus, tours or onboard ambience. And they have input to a degree into their own ships; AmaWaterways, for instance, has incorporated its popular balcony/picture window suite design.
CroisiEurope, Scenic, Viking, Uniworld and Emerald fully own and operate their ships.
Itineraries vary very little between cruise lines. Typically, seven or 10-night trips begin with land tours in Lisbon before passengers are transported by motor coach to their ships. The seven-night cruise itself travels between the delightful UNESCO World Heritage city of Porto (where you'll likely spend a couple of nights) and either the last little village in Portugal, Barca de Alva; or, just over the Spanish border, another tiny village called Vega de Terron; both are the jumping-off point for the two-hour bus ride to.
You will find most of the itinerary highlights on all the lines. Bookended by two genuinely intriguing cities -- Spain's Salamanca and Portugal's Porto -- a fair portion of the weeklong itinerary is actually pastoral and laid-back. While there's plenty to do, one oddity of the Douro experience is that there's no night navigation, so ships must cruise from sunrise to sunset. The good news? For those who love being "at sea" on the river, there's plenty of time spent cruising.
A Douro River sailing is rich in destinations to appease almost any traveler's desires. Some of the most popular include Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia, Pinhão and Salamanca.
The ancient city of Porto is one of the most historic in Europe, dating back to the Roman Empire, and its old town is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. Vila Nova de Gaia lies across the Douro from Porto, and is best known for the port houses that stud its mountainside.
Pinhao is usually a segue to excursions in places like Quinta do Seixo where guests taste port and learn how it was made. Salamanca is an absolute highlight of a Douro cruise, as it's one of the most gorgeous cities in Spain and is historical, dating back to the Roman Empire much like Porto.
Consider Tagging Extra Days onto Your Vacation to Explore Porto, Madrid or Lisbon: While most cruise lines offer a handful of tours showcasing the attractions of Porto and, just across the river, the city of Vila de Gaia, it's a fascinating place to visit. The cruise-ship tours, while good overviews of the making of port and the history of the area, are by no means satisfying enough. While most of the cruise lines do offer pre- and post-cruise trips to better-known cities like Lisbon and Madrid, consider spending a few extra days there.
Be Prepared for a Ride to Reach Off-ship Douro River Attractions: One of the benefits of a mostly rural itinerary is that you're not cruising through industrial regions. One of the downfalls? Most of the attractions are well off the river, requiring motor coach transportation that averaged about 45 minutes per place. (Salamanca was the farthest away, some two hours drive.)
The good news is the scenery is just gorgeous and varies throughout the region, so there's a lot to look at. The motor coaches are new, clean and comfortable (with bathrooms onboard, if necessary). Still, be prepared, as the most interesting places to visit are not accessed by simply walking off the gangway.
Get to Known Basic Spanish and/or Portuguese or Pack a Phrase Book: In Porto and in Salamanca, where the primary languages are Portuguese and Spanish, respectively, English-speakers can get around well enough. In the more rural stops, however, English isn't necessarily understood away from your group and guide; a phrasebook comes in handy.
Research the Douro River’s Weather & Dress for the Occasion: Climate varies. Porto can be cool, due to its location right off the Atlantic, but the further inland you travel, the warmer it gets. So pack in layers, and don't forget your bathing suit. Most of the ships that ply the Douro have small swimming pools on their sun decks.