Cruising the Douro River

By: Stephen Addison
This item appears on page 17 of the November 2017 issue.

Quinta do Seixo vineyards and the town of Pinhão (and our docked ship, Queen Isabel, at back right). Photo by Stephen Addison

Having traveled on several river cruises with both Viking and Uniworld, my wife and I were pleasantly surprised to discover that cruising the Iberian Peninsula’s Douro River was a nice change of pace.

If you’re considering a cruise on the Douro, here are some of the more unique aspects to expect. (This letter is based on pre-trip research, the experiences of friends who took Viking’s Douro River cruise in 2015, and our experiences on an August 2017 river cruise with Uniworld (Los Angeles, CA; 800/257-2407, www.uniworld.com) that began with a 3-night stay in Lisbon, Portugal.)

Douro River cruises travel round trip from Porto, in northwestern Portugal, east to the border of Spain, less than 150 miles away. This makes for a more relaxed and slower-paced experience than most river cruises.

The ships used are smaller than those on other European rivers due to lock size. While ships from several cruise lines (including Uniworld, Viking, Scenic, CroisiEurope and AmaWaterways) sail the Douro, moorings are not nearly as crowded as on the Rhine or the Danube. Little or no cruising is done after dark. If you enjoy daytime cruising, this is the river for you.

You’ll likely have a couple of days in Porto, which is a good thing, since that city may be the highlight of your trip. Expect to do plenty of walking in Porto but not as much walking elsewhere in the Douro Valley.

In this area, your ship will probably dock in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto. (This area is very noisy with revelers on Saturday nights, so don’t expect much sleep if your cabin is on the shore side of your ship.)

You can walk to Porto’s Cais da Ribeira neighborhood by crossing the lower deck of the Ponte Dom Luís I. To get to Porto’s center, take the pricey chairlift to this bridge’s upper deck and walk across. 

Taking a vehicle (especially a bus) up to high ground from Gaia’s docks can take several minutes, due to the route’s narrow passages and tight turns. Vehicle traffic on the bridges can back up during busy times.

Excursions in the Douro Valley will typically involve a bus ride. Most are 15 to 30 minutes long, but the trip to Salamanca, Spain, is a good two hours each way. Typically, roads will be two lanes wide and smooth but very hilly and curvy. If you’re subject to carsickness, sit at the front of the bus. 

The day trip to Salamanca might be all of Salamanca that you’ll need.

Most of the small towns along the river, while pleasant, don’t offer a lot for visitors. One exception is Régua. Be sure to visit its Douro Museum (Rua Marquês de Pombal, 5050-282 Peso da Régua, Portugal) if your itinerary allows. Souvenir and food prices in the assorted towns along the river are reasonable. 

The ship’s Internet connection will be poor or nonexistent in the more remote stretches of the Douro Valley. Uniworld thoughtfully supplied an accurate map of Internet connection quality along the cruise route.

If your cruise-tour includes time in Lisbon, south of Porto, you’ll be taking a 3-hour bus ride on an excellent multilane highway between Lisbon and Porto. Typically, there is a worthwhile stop in Coimbra to visit its historic university.

If you’ve visited many European cities, a busy day and a half may be all the sightseeing you’ll need in Lisbon. Expect lots of cobblestones and steep hills in Lisbon, so take appropriate footwear. If you have the opportunity while in Lisbon, take a day trip to Sintra.

As much as I prefer to travel independently, I’m very glad we took a guided tour. Traveling between attractions in the Sintra area could be challenging due to limited and crowded public transit and very steep walking routes. 

Portugal is a popular tourist destination. In 2016, the total number of visitors to Portugal was almost six times Portugal’s population. Expect crowds if you visit during the summer, especially in August. Like the French, most Portuguese vacation in August. Consequently, tourist areas will be very crowded then, and many restaurants (at least in Lisbon) will be closed because their proprietors are on holiday.

STEPHEN ADDISON

Charlotte, NC