Consider the Douro.
When you think about a wine-lover’s dream vacation, several obvious destinations spring to mind—Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa and Sonoma, Tuscany, and Rioja. These regions are all rightly famous for their beautiful landscapes, luxe accommodations, fine dining, and, of course, delicious wines. The downside is that most of them are difficult to reach and are accompanied by hefty price tags, not to mention crowds of fellow imbibers. Oenophiles looking to escape the hustle and get the most out of their budgets without sacrificing luxurious hotels and Michelin-starred tasting menus need look no further than Portugal’s fertile and picturesque Douro Valley.
Top Picks for You
Get Your Bearings
Porto, at the head of the Douro River, is the first stop and the ideal place to get a primer on the country’s most famous export: port wine. This charming small city is a maze of narrow, winding streets lined by tile-clad buildings, ornate cathedrals, and riverside cafes. The centrally-located Infante Sagres is a perfect base for exploring the city. This grande-dame lodging, which received a top-to-bottom renovation in 2018, puts you within walking distance of nearly all of Porto’s attractions.
Porto may be famous for its namesake wine, but its cuisine is also outstanding. Nearly every restaurant delights diners with fresh seafood and hearty stews. Try Fish Fixe for a tapas-style spread of meat and fish dishes, or venture just outside of town to Os Lusísadas. Here you can select your dinner from the bountiful fish counter at the front of the restaurant and have it prepared tableside.
Visit the Cellars
Start your port wine education at the venerated Ferreira cellars, in a historic riverside building. English-speaking guides will explain the history of the industry as well as the methods of producing ruby, tawny, and white vintages and conclude the tour with a tasting of all three.
Armed with your new knowledge of the world’s favorite dessert wine, it’s time to visit the source. Deep in the heart of the port wine country, Pinhão’s Hotel Vintage House, with its riverside location and sweeping views of the surrounding vine-draped hillsides, makes you feel like you’re the master of your very own quinta (vineyard).
Tour a Quinta
A short drive (or leisurely hike) away from the hotel is the postcard-perfect Quinta da Roêda, home to the Croft winery, one of the last large-scale operations to crush their grapes the old fashioned way: by stomping on them in large vats. Sip on samples of fine vintage ports at the elegant visitor center in the renovated stables and wander up and down the wildflower-fringed rows of grapevines as you take in the peaceful scenery.
Get on a Boat
Barrels of port wine may not be transported downriver on barges anymore, but you can still capture a sense of those bygone days by taking a leisurely midday cruise along the Douro. This region of peaceful, terraced hillsides was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011.
Experience Local Gastronomy
A gem in Portugal’s culinary crown is the riverside restaurant DOC, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Rui Paula. Its dock has the capacity for up to 15 boats, making it a popular stop for river cruises. Enjoy the fresh breeze on the long wooden deck as you work your way through a stunning tasting menu of regional delicacies like grilled octopus and veal tenderloin, complemented by expert wine pairings.
Heading back toward Porto, the charming medieval town of Amarante on the banks of the Tâmega River, the longest tributary of the Douro, is a worthy overnight stop. The city shelters numerous cafes and boutiques in the shadows of imposing Romanesque churches and cathedrals, as well as an expansive museum of contemporary Portuguese art, the Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso Museum.
A Room with a View
Amarante has an impressive selection of cozy boutique hotels, but they pale in comparison to the luxe (yet surprisingly affordable) Casa da Calçada, whose spacious rooms—most of which have balconies—afford matchless views of the river, cathedral, and mountains beyond the town.
Dinner Fit for a King
The best dining option in Amarante is the Michelin-starred Largo do Paço, located onsite at Casa da Calçada. There, chef Tiago Bonito takes diners on a journey through a meticulously-crafted tasting menu celebrating Portugal’s land and sea bounty. And, as is true of nearly all restaurants in this part of the country, the expansive wine cellar provides perfect pairings for the chef’s creations.
When to Visit
Portugal, much like its neighbor Spain, enjoys a Mediterranean climate. Summers can be very hot, so spring and fall are the best times to visit.
Tourists have often overlooked Northern Portugal as a destination, instead selecting Lisbon and the southern beaches as their getaway of choice. Now that more direct flights to Porto are available from the U.S., that’s set to change. Travelers from the East Coast can get to the Douro Valley in about the same time it would take to reach Napa Valley.