Explore Portugal's Douro Valley, a World Heritage Site in northern Portugal; it can be enjoyed by road or train, but best of all on a cruise. Get the inside story from specialist tour operator Jules Verne
One of the great European journeys, the Douro Valley follows the River Douro, the third largest river in the Iberian Peninsula, flowing for 550 miles from northern Spain through Portugal to its second largest city, Porto.
A Douro valley cruise allows you to sit back and enjoy a riverside view of its wild and beautiful landscapes, with hillside vineyards, olive and almond groves, granite bluffs, waterfalls, picture-perfect villages, historic churches, monasteries and castles. The Douro was once fast-flowing but the construction of eight dams has transformed it into a calm, peaceful flowing river, reflecting the gentle pace of life here. The region is famous for its port, which has been produced here for two thousand years, and it’s also known for its red and white wines.
What to see and do in the Douro Valley
Most cruises start in Porto, a laid-back city of cobbled streets, pretty squares, Baroque churches, beaux-art buildings, terracotta roofs and plenty of shady spots for a long lunch. The city slopes down to the banks of the Douro, then across the bridge there's Vila Nova de Gaia, a UNESCO World Heritage site where you'll find most of the port wine cellars. Take a stroll around the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal, with its resident peacocks and beautiful views of the city, the river, and Vila Nova de Gaia.
Also worth a look is Porto's 14th century São Francisco church and the Lello & Irmão Bookstore, one of the world's oldest and most beautiful libraries. Once on the river, the Douro Museum in Peso da Régua will give you a good insight into the region through films, leather-bound books, wine-making equipment, bottle labels, art exhibits and a port tasting. Nearby is the 8th-century Mateus Manor House, a small but beautiful palace with elegant gardens.
On the Spanish side, it's definitely worth taking the road trip to Salamanca in the Castilla y León region, where you can stroll around the medieval old city, admiring the 15th century House of Shells, the fine cathedrals and one of Europe's oldest universities.
Don't miss the Nossa Senhora dos Remédios
Climb the 700 zig-zagging steps, decorated with friezes of blue and white tiles, to the stunning church and shrine of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Shrine of our Lady of the Remedies), in Lamego. At the opposite end of the city, directly in line with the staircase, stands a beautiful 18th century palace.
Cuisine in the Douro Valley
Many people come here for the ports - tawnies, rubies, roses, and whites - but the region is also gaining a reputation for its food. Traditional dishes are meat focused, from smoked hams and spicy sausages to hearty stews made with beans, cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoes with wild boar, pork or beef.
In Porto, you'll also find seafood dishes on the menu, from rustic grilled sardines and bacalhau (codfish) cooked in a multitude of ways. And no visit would be complete without trying Portugal's delicious bite-sized custard tarts, pastéis de nata.
Top tips for a visit to the Douro Valley
Some of the best Douro Valley attractions require a drive away from the river, and some of the roads are windy, but treat these as part of the holiday experience as the views are simply gorgeous. And although you'll see the highlights of Porto and Vila de Gaia, there's much more to see, so consider extending your stay for an extra few days after your cruise.
Sail on Jules Verne's MS Douro Prince and you'll be taken beyond the popular northern coastal cities to explore deep into the heart of the Portuguese countryside with plenty of time to sample the famous local wines.
The Vila Nova de Gaia World Heritage site is the mooring point for Jules Verne's MS Douro Prince for the first few days of its Douro tour.