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River Cruising

Douro River: How to cruise Portugal’s famous waterway

Douro river cruise holidays promise terraced vineyards, ancient cities and endless views of Portugal’s beautiful valley.

Words & images by Nick Dalton

Where is the Douro?

The Douro – known as Portugal’s river – is found in northern Portugal, yet of its 900km length, only 210km is in Portugal.

Where do Douro River cruises start?

The voyage starts just in from the Atlantic at Porto [below, left], a fabulous city where the river runs between steep hillsides – and it ends at the Spanish border. That’s thanks to a lock-less Spanish dam near the border, but no problem as Douro cruises head all the way back to Porto and everything looks different going the other way.

Amazingly, this is a journey that has only been possible since the 1990s when the fifth in a series of mighty dams and locks created a stable water level for Douro cruise ships.

When is the best time to cruise the Douro?

The best time to cruise the Douro River in Portugal is generally during the spring (April to June) and autumn (September to October) seasons. These periods offer mild and pleasant weather, with temperatures ranging from 15°C to 25°C, creating an ideal atmosphere for enjoying the scenic beauty of the Douro Valley.

Spring showcases lush green landscapes and blooming vineyards, while autumn brings a similar charm with the added bonus of grape harvest activities, making it an excellent time for wine enthusiasts.


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What makes a Douro River cruise different?

This is a river for relaxing on, not for non-stop riverside sightseeing. One reason is that nighttime sailing isn’t permitted due to the difficult navigation, so full-day excursions on River Douro cruises are limited.

The other thing about the Douro is that the waters largely meet the edge of rocky slopes, the forests of the first section and the terraced vineyards on the second.

Even near Porto, where there’s more civilisation – contemporary cubist holiday homes, the odd resort town, even little beaches – there are few stretches where there’s a road anywhere near the river.

Even where there is, you wouldn’t as a pedestrian want to take on the somewhat wild-eyed traffic, and footpaths are almost non-existent.

Everyone knows the Douro wine country, a never-ending world of terraced vineyards, but that only starts halfway, basically the other side of the busy yet uninspiring cruise port town of Régua.

Vineyard buildings and huge signs for Sandeman’s [below, right] , Graham’s and other less familiar names dot the hillsides but there’s little to do when ships dock other than get on a coach to somewhere else.

As the river heads towards Spain there are gorge stretches too narrow to allow ships to pass and few settlements nearby.

It’s that remoteness that makes it special, very unlike that other sun-drenched gem, the Rhone, where a foot and bicycle path follows it from Lyon to coast and where almost every stop – Vienne, Avignon, Arles – is a destination town in itself.

So take it easy on Douro cruises… sit on deck in the sun and enjoy the panorama that changes around every bend, of which there are many.


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What to do and see on a Douro river cruise

Porto is the gem, a city immortalised by the Dom Luis 1 bridge, the arching, iron structure that connects the upper hillsides by foot and tram, the river bank by road on the lower level.

Douro Valley river cruises leave from Vila Nova de Gaia, a district of ancient port warehouse wharves close to the bridge on the side opposite the main town, now alive with bars, restaurants and market stalls. On most River Douro cruises you get an afternoon/evening here before departure, and a full day with tour on return.

At the other end is Vega de Terron, just under an arched road bridge and a few hundred meters inside Spain… a border post, river-view café and coach park.

Buses visit Salamanca [below, left], a gorgeous, medieval Spanish city with extravagant twin cathedrals and university buildings dating back 800 years – it’s one of the oldest universities in the world! A fantastic day out, despite the two-hour drive each way.

Ships jockey for position and when you return you’re likely to find your vessel, pointing the other way, at Barca d’Alva, a tiny Portuguese village under the bridge.

Between the two extremes, the biggest Douro cruise ship call is Régua (full name Peso da Régua), striking if only for its trio of bridges – historic iron and stone rail-turned-footbridge, arched stone road crossing and soaring, beautiful and award-winning motorway).

It is one of only a few spots with a waterfront path but is busy as a starting point for Douro cruise excursions including to Italianate, 18th-century Mateus Palace [below, centre], the ornate home many remember from those squat Mateus Rose wine bottles. Lovely with its box hedge parterres, lofty trees but not a place that stirs the interest for more than an hour.

The other sizeable community with some ship calls is Pinhão with its seaside resort flavour at the mouth of the river Pinhão, surrounded by wine estates.

Other Douro Valley cruise calls include Pochino, not far from Spain, often with outings to the lofty Vale do Côa Archaeological Park, a vast open-air collection of Ice Age carvings, a World Heritage Site, and the contemporary, box-like museum detailing the finds from work (later abandoned) on a dam on the Côa, a Douro tributary.

What you can also expect in the wine region – and in Porto – are endless port estates for talks and port wine tastings – although the latter seem to mostly involve a couple of varieties rather than any sip-and-spit marathon.


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What to know about Douro River cruise ships

Because of the shallow waters as well as the snaking nature of the valley, regular river ships can’t operate here – each vessel is shallower and smaller, carrying about 130 guests against up to 200.

That makes Douro cruise experiences cosier and friendlier because of the more compact bar/lounge and dining room. There’s usually a small spa and gym. The sun deck still generally manages to fit in a pool along with the sun loungers.

Which is the best Douro River cruise?

Cruises from a number of leading companies vary, but only by degree given the limited number of options along the river.

Riviera Travel’s eight-day Douro, Porto & Salamanca itinerary is a good example, starting with an evening in Porto. Next day there’s a morning’s cruising before docking in Régua, a visit to Mateus Palace Gardens, and then a sophisticated dinner at the hilltop Quinta da Pacheca winery.

Heading towards Spain the following morning there’s a stop in Pochino for a trip to Castelo Rodrigo, a 13th-century walled, car-free mountaintop village. Next is a full-day outing to Salamanca from Vega de Terron, including a tapas lunch and flamenco show in the Renaissance splendour of city centre Casino de Salamanca.

The next day our Riviera Douro cruise heads back towards the sea with another call at Régua with an afternoon trip to a port estate – ours was Croft port’s Quinta da Roêda, which involved a scenic drive along the sometimes dizzying river road back to Pinhão.

The following morning before leaving Régua there was a short drive to the town of Lamego and its grandiose 18th-century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Remedy church [above, right] with even more grandiose 691-step stone staircase down from its hilly parkland setting to a grand avenue below.

No one on a Douro Valley cruise gets away without the local fado folk music and dinner back on board featured a lively three-guitar band. The voyage finale is back in Porto for a fascinating riverside port warehouse tour (and tasting) before a tour of the city. And next morning we still had time for the 6km return riverside walk to the beach at Afurada, close to the Atlantic. (April-October, from £1,699 including flights).

Viking River Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, AmaWaterways, Scenic River Cruises, CroisiEurope, Emerald Waterways, Avalon Waterways, Nicko Cruises, Saga, A-Rosa all also offer Douro river cruises from Porto. TUI River Cruises will join the throng with its first new-built ship in 2025


Beautiful and strangely different to most mainstream river cruises because of the lack of towns along the way. Get out those shades and shorts and simply enjoy the view…


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Published 17.01.24