A trip to the Douro valley is a must for wine lovers, whether you're a fan of Port in particular or Portuguese wines in general. More than 2,000 years of winemaking have shaped this UNESCO World Heritage Site into a unique, vine-terraced destination dotted with wineries that welcome visitors with attractive tasting rooms, dining and accommodation options.
However, driving a car along the narrow, winding roads that make their way up the dizzyingly steep slopes is not for everyone. So why not let the train take the strain? A direct line runs up the valley, starting from Porto's São Bento station in the city centre and ending near the Spanish border at Pocinho. The towns of Régua and Pinhão making good stopping off points along the way.
Before you board the train, take time to explore the city of Porto (Oporto to locals). This is where Port wine took its name back in the 17th century, but today you can see more recent versions of the flat-bottomed boats known as rabelos that used to make the river journey down the Douro, bringing barrels of wine to be aged before shipping.
There are many Port visitor centres on the south bank at Vila Nova de Gaia, and taking a tour is a great way to get a grounding in Port production before heading upstream. One of the best is Taylor's, a fully renovated, 300-year-old lodge which reopened in 2016. Not only a working cellar (1,500 casks of Port rest here) but also a modern museum, it offers an interactive, self-guided audio tour and guided Port tasting. Learn about soils, grapes and winemaking, as well as how to decant and enjoy Port (€12).
Afterwards, head upstairs to the five-star Yeatman Hotel (owned by the same company) and enjoy a dry Chip White Port and tonic on the veranda (the shelving structure is reminiscent of the Douro's terraced vineyards and it offers excellent views of Porto's terracotta roof tops), or splurge on a meal at Barão Fladgate restaurant, which has a spectacular location in the grounds of Taylor’s Port cellars.
To discover the north side of the river, catch the rabelo ferry service from the old Croft bottling plant: three minutes and €3.00 will get you to the very heart of the city. Visit one of the wine bars which are beginning to spring up in the city, serving petiscos (tapas) and wine by the glass (Wine Quay Bar is a good example) before heading, suitably restored, for historic São Bento station and the start of your Douro valley train journey.
No need to make reservations, trains leave regularly and tickets are reasonably priced (the trip from Porto to the end of the line at Pocinho costs less than €14 one way). Sit on the right hand side of the train to make the most of the river views.
A couple of hours down the line is Régua: jump off here to visit Quinta do Vallado. The vibe at this leading Douro valley wine hotel is casual chic. Tucked up on a hillside a short taxi ride out of town, it boasts a new cellar (built in 2009) and a recently-added, stylish contemporary wing with 13 super-comfortable rooms. The white leather bath pillows, bright orange pool towels and complementary glass of white Port on arrival are nice touches.
The hotel and its grounds provide plenty of cool, airy spaces, and a spacious, designer-furnished lounge offers free coffee, grapes and small snacks as well as an excellent selection of wine books and magazines to browse. Wine lovers will not want to miss the guided winery visit and tasting (free for hotel guests) which includes Vallado's Riserva Field Blend, a wine made from 40 grape varieties.
Alternatively, borrow a bicycle and ride down to the town, take a picnic basket and stroll through the surrounding vineyards, or simply relax by the pool that looks onto the terraced vines across the river.
Hotel guests and outside visitors alike can dine here too (advance booking for the €40 set dinner with wines is required but there's also short, accessibly-priced menu of tasty bar snacks).
In the town of Régua itself is the Museo do Douro, which provides a helpful grounding on the Douro valley and its wine industry (a useful starting point for Port newbies). The €6 entry fee includes a glass of Port which can be sipped while admiring the river views from the museum's terrace.
After this, head for Castas & Pratos, an upmarket restaurant handily located in a renovated siding next to the railway station. Savour the carefully-prepared cuisine, extensive wine selection and air con before boarding the train and heading on to Pinhão.
Alternatively, if you're visiting between June and October, take a trip back in time by riding the Douro valley steam train. The route follows the river banks between Régua and Tua, stopping at Pinhão, and although it's not cheap, this is a great way to see unique vineyard landscapes from the comfort of a historic carriage hauled by a 1925 steam engine, no less.
Half an hour and 120 kilometres up the valley from Régua, Pinhão is surrounded by Port vineyards and makes a good base for wine enthusiasts. Step outside the train station (admire its blue and yellow tiles depicting harvest scenes) and straight across the platform into the Vintage House Hotel.
Reopened in 2016 after an extensive makeover, this handsome, five-star hotel has an ideal location on the waterfront, 43 rooms and suites with river views, and international, well-heeled clients (it's owned by Taylor's, who have plans afoot to transform Pinhão and put it on the wine tourism map). Rooms start from around €130.
Less than a mile up the hill out of town, Quinta de la Rosa is a slightly more affordable option (rooms start from around €100) and a unique opportunity to stay at a working vineyard and winery on the banks of the Douro river. However, if you're just passing through, you can simply call in at the modern tasting room to sample the award-winning wines (in a recent vertical tasting, the Reserve red scored 90+ from Wine Advocate across 10 vintages) and drink in the views.
Down in centre of Pinhão there are yet more tasting options. At Quinta da Roêda, wine fans visiting at harvest time can stomp grapes by foot in traditional Douro style, with a guided vineyard tour and tasting of three Croft Ports for €22.00 (book in advance), or for savvy service and well-priced tastings paired with plates of cheese, ham, almonds and chocolate, head over to Quinta do Bomfim (a five-minute walk from the train station).
A Douro valley “must-do” is a river trip on a traditional wooden rabelo. Magnifico Douro offers two hour journeys for €20 including a chance to swim in the Douro, while Pipadouro runs excursions on a restored 1950s vessel with drinks served on board from €35.
From Pinhão, the train runs another 35 kilometres further up the river into the Douro Superior area, and on to the end of the line at Pocinho, a small, rather quiet town with little to recommend it. However, the views along the Pinhão–Pocinho stretch are special, so it's worth making the 90-minute journey if you have the time.