There’s no better vacation than touring the countryside, ogling magnificent medieval architecture, and sipping wine.
At the northwestern tip of Portugal, a long way from the packed beaches and sports bars of the Algarve or the trendy capital Lisbon, the Minho region is home to some of the country’s most gorgeous topography—green hills, fruit and olive groves, rushing rivers, rugged mountains, and cascading waterfalls. Happily for wine lovers, it’s also perfect terrain for grape cultivation, and its abundant vineyards produce one of Portugal’s best-loved wines, vinho verde. Light in taste and alcohol content (it hovers around 9-10 percent ABV), it’s perfect for daytime sipping.
INSIDER TIPThe name translates as “green wine,” a reference to the young, fresh taste, rather than the color of the wine itself. Many people are unaware that it comes in red and rosé varieties as well as the more famous white.
The Minho region made it onto the Fodor’s Go List 2017, and there’s no better way to explore the breathtakingly beautiful part of the country than by following the established Vinho Verde route, which takes in some of the most ancient towns and cities in Portugal, as well as some of the most dazzling scenery, delicious local dishes, extremely hospitable people and, of course, deliciously drinkable wines. Whether you choose to set your own itinerary or take an organized tour, following the Vinho Verde route is a rewarding way to explore this under-the-radar part of Portugal. Cheers!
Valença do Minho
The perfect starting point for your viticultural adventures, this beautiful border town is nestled among stunning green hills, and visitors to its hilltop fort can admire the views as well as the great iron cannons aimed at the Spanish town of Tui across the river. Today, the former sworn enemies are firm friends, to the extent that they now form a customs-free “EuroCidade” (Euro City) with a green tourist train ferrying visitors between the Portuguese town and its equally-picturesque Spanish neighbor.
Alternatively, walkers can join the steady stream of pilgrims following the Caminho de Santiago down to Santiago de Compostela, and cross the river by footbridge, admiring the views and waving at the kayakers below. Red and green footprints mark the point where you have one foot in Spain and the other in Portugal, making a near-obligatory photo opportunity.
INSIDER TIPVisitors can make a pit stop at a little cafe bar in front of the bridge, which is the last Portuguese watering hole before entering Spain. Here you can accompany your glass of vinho verde with a hearty slice of Spanish tortilla (a rare find in Portugal).
Viana do Castelo
Architecture buffs, prepare to be seriously impressed. Viana do Castelo is widely cited as the most beautiful town in Portugal, thanks in no small part to its beautiful old manor houses and fine examples of Manueline, Renaissance, Art Deco, and Baroque architecture. The natural landscape where sea meets mountains is pretty astonishing too, and the whole scene can be admired from the Santa Luzia Hill, whose views are matched only by the grand Basilica perched on its top. There are several wineries to visit here, but sitting at a tavern to enjoy a glass and a bite to eat is an equally enjoyable way to spend your time here.
Monção & Melgaço
This region is a high point for viticulture in the Minho, renowned for the Alvarinho grape variety. Amid the rolling green hills, the Quinta de Soalheira is one of the best wineries in the region (if not the country), and visitors can tour the vineyards, visit the cellars, and enjoy tastings.
Vieira do Minho
Dense forest, high rocky mountains, and tiny villages unchanged for centuries make the Vieira do Minho municipality a worthy stop on your wine-swilling odyssey. Pick up a bottle from one of the many local producers, and pack a picnic to enjoy by the stunning freshwater lake at Caniçada, flanked by mountains, filled with fluttering birds and butterflies, and right on the doorstep of Portugal’s ruggedly beautiful national park.
Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês
No visitor should come to Northwestern Portugal without experiencing the untamed beauty that is Peneda-Gerês. The only national park in the country, it’s a dramatic destination famed for its ancient stone villages, curious monolithic structures, river beaches, and abundant flora and fauna. Wolves prowl here, but you’re more likely to see free-roaming ponies and long-horned cattle plod through the village streets.
INSIDER TIPIf time is of the essence, go with a guide who will be able to direct you to the best views as well as the best taverns for lunch and a glass or two of vinho verde.
Another of the Minho region’s fortified border towns, Caminha sits pretty among glorious green countryside on both the Spanish and Portuguese sides of the River Minho and is packed with more than its fair share of architectural gems, from Baroque churches to a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. Oh, and it’s by the sea, so there are lovely beaches, too!
Ponte de Lima
This flower-filled town is the oldest in Portugal and is famous for the Roman bridge that crosses the River Minho. A town of folklore and festivals, the town impresses with its old-world architecture and grand manor homes as well as the many vineyards in the vicinity. Be sure to make a stop at Quinta do Ameal, where visitors can enjoy boutique overnight stays as well as tours of the vineyards and samples the famously good wines.
The wine-fueled history lesson continues at Guimarães, the ancient city known as the “Birthplace of Portugal” and whose entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the grand old churches, chapels, and cultural centers (the town was European Capital of Culture in 2012), there’s a bustling bar scene, allowing visitors to soak up the atmosphere as they raise a glass to their own Portuguese voyage of discovery.
INSIDER TIPThe town squares at At Largo da Oliveira and Praça de Santiago are lined with small bars that struggle to contain the number of customers, making for a lively street party vibe as revelers spill onto the streets.
Another of Northern Portugal’s lovely historic towns, famed for its Gothic cathedral and 11th Century castle, Braga is just a short hop from Guimarães, and its lively cultural calendar includes an annual Vinho Verde Fest, held in early summer and attracting large numbers of wine fans from across the country for three days of food, music, and wine.
INSIDER TIPHungry? Order polvinho assado (roasted octupus), bacalhau cozido (cod), or cozido à portuguesa (rich, aromatic stew).
Vila Nova de Cerveira
This beautiful little village on the banks of the Minho River is another perfect spot for lunch, a picnic, or an overnight stay. It’s packed with colorful street art and dramatic sculptures (keep your eyes peeled for the giant Cervo stag that keeps watch over the town) and its beautiful river beaches entice the locals into the waters for a dip on hot summer days. There are plenty of simple places to stop for a bite and a glass and several inns for those who want to overnight here.
Few visitors to Portugal fail to notice the ceramic cockerels that are found in abundance in every tourist shop, and the roots of this national symbol trace back to the quaint riverside market town of Barcelos. A 13th-century legend tells the story of an innocent pilgrim making his way along the caminho when he was accused of theft, and then saved from hanging by a rooster, prepared and ready for the plate but miraculously got up and crowed–just as the pilgrim had promised it would do if he were innocent.
Along with any number of opportunities to purchase painted cockerels, the town has gorgeous whitewashed buildings, 18th-century chapels and churches, and an enormous weekly market–a great place to buy wine and foodie treats as well as handicrafts.
Ponte de Barca
Within the demarcated Vinho Verde region and spilling into the National Park, picture-perfect Ponte de Barca has a historic center filled with beautiful old manor homes, some of which now offer dinner, drinks, and overnight stays. Two other notable attractions are the Romanesque church in Bravães, and the 13th-century castle at Lindoso. The Ponte de Barca Winery is one of the largest in the country, run by a cooperative of local wine producers.
Arcos de Valdevez
This truly ancient town in the River Vez valley has been inhabited since pre-historic times (the Mezio Megalithic Center in the town displays archeological evidence) and continues to dazzle with its verdant Alto Minho landscapes in every imaginable shade of green. The clear river, whitewashed churches, and stone bridges are about as picturesque as it gets, but this lovely old town remains under-the-radar.
Heading closer to the Douro River and to Porto, this handsome historic town is notable both for its impressive architecture and its jaw-dropping natural landscape. The pretty town is framed by the Serra do Marão, whose mountains are among the highest in Portugal and regularly capped by snow in the winter. The river running through the city is the Tâmega, the longest of the Douro’s tributaries flowing down from Galicia in Spain. The town squares are lined with cafes and bars selling the famous vinho verde at astonishingly affordable prices.
INSIDER TIPAmarante is as famous for its sweet treats as it is for its wines. Be sure to try some of the local specialties: Papos de Anjo, Brisas do Tâmega, and Bolos de São Gonçalo.
Travanca de Serra
A short drive along the road to Peso da Régua, this absurdly pretty mountain village has panoramic views over the region, taking in the mountains of Marão, Gerês and Cabreira. In the village itself, the Casa de Levada is an attention-grabbing manor house that once housed Portuguese aristocrats, and today hosts wine tourists and others passing through the region. Look out for the curious espigueiros (stone granaries on stilts, unique to this part of Portugal).