To be perfectly honest, when Viking invited us to experience a Douro River cruise we had no idea what to expect. Our infatuation with Portugal had been ignited by visits to the vibrant city of Lisbon and the gorgeous coast of the Algarve but we knew very little of the area along the Douro River. So when we looked at the itinerary we were both surprised and excited for this new adventure.
If you are familiar with our other website, Discover the Pacific Northwest, you will know that we have a passion for wineries. We love the creativity and energy that pours from the winemakers, the romantic scenes set by the vineyards and of course the elixir of the Gods that flows from the beautiful oak barrels. Suffice it to say that when we saw that the Viking Douro River Cruise included visiting several wineries in Portugal we didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation. However, there was to be so much more than wine tasting to win us over.
Viking Douro River Cruise Itinerary
Unlike most Viking River Cruises our tour actually started on land with a two night stay at the first class Hotel Tivoli Lisboa. We were greeted, by smiling Viking staff, at the airport and driven to the hotel in central Lisbon. Hotel Tivoli has been providing guests with luxury and convenience since 1933 and their experience shows.
During the two days in Lisbon we were free to explore the city as we wished. However, Viking also offered both included and optional tours of some of the top sights. The hotel was in walking distance of most of the tourist spots as well as plenty of restaurants and shopping so we were able to cover a lot of ground during our time there.
We chose to join the optional “Taste of Lisbon” tour which was a lot of fun. Our guide did a great job of combining insight into the more local culture of Lisbon, pausing at some splendid views and street art and of course spoiling us with some delicious Portuguese food and drink. The highlight was definitely our last stop at an authentic wine bar where we were treated to a wine tasting and platters of traditional cheeses and smoked meats.
On the morning of the third day we were driven to Porto with a stop at Coimbra to visit one of Europe’s oldest Universities. Impressive to say the least. Once in Porto we boarded the Viking Torgil. This was our second Viking River Cruise, the first being on the Viking Egil for the Romantic Danube from Budapest to Nuremberg. We do have to say that our first impression of the Torgil was a tiny bit disappointing. This is because the Douro River is much smaller than the Danube and therefore is better suited to a smaller boat rather than the long boats that cruise the Danube. The feeling faded quickly, however, as the friendly staff, great food and lovely views soon melted away any disappointment.
Speaking of views, the Viking Egil was docked across the river from the city of Porto and we arrived during that magic hour just before sunset. The old city’s beautiful architecture was illuminated with a golden light that took our breath away and had us reaching for cameras.
We had fallen in love with Lisbon and did not expect that love to be challenged, but Porto won our hearts very quickly. As Portugal’s second largest city it is much more intimate and easier to navigate than it’s more famous big brother, lending it a charm that can’t be challenged. As if the picturesque neighborhoods with cobblestone streets, romantic architecture, photogenic bridges and lively atmosphere weren’t enough there is also the fact that the town of Porto is the mother of Port wine!
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We spent two glorious nights in Porto giving us time to explore this magical city, get to know our fellow cruisers and sample plenty of Port wine. Oh, and take a helicopter ride! Yes you heard right. One of the optional tours is “Porto from the Sky” which as the name suggests is a tour from the air. As we flew above the the historic city and Douro River with it’s many famous bridges we knew we were experiencing a top contender on our bucketlist. It’s a bit of a splurge but is so very worth it and is in fact very reasonable compared to other tours by air.
We cast off in the early morning for the quiet town of Regua. This was a day of oohs and aahs as we enjoyed the ever changing views of vineyards, hills and villages along the river bank. We also sailed through a couple of dams and locks, the first of many, which was a very interesting experience, especially if you’ve never done it before.
As with many of the towns along the Douro River, Peso da Regua, has a rich wine-making culture dating back centuries. Its main claim to fame is the elegant baroque Mateus Palace and a tour of this beautiful building and grounds is included with the cruise. If you’re old enough you will likely recognize the Mateus name as a popular rose wine back in the 80’s. The bottle itself was best known for its unique shape, perfect for holding a candle, as well as the image of the palace on the label. Bring back any memories?
Barca d’Alva, Portugal
Although the ship docks at Pinhao for the night there were no shore excursions to town at this time. This happens on the return journey. Instead, Viking Torgil casts off the following morning for Barca d’Alva, the last Portuguese town on the Douro River.
On the approach we were treated to gorgeous scenes of cherry, almond and olive groves as well as terraced vineyards creating a natural patchwork that blanketed the steep riverbanks and surrounding hills. We took one of our favorite shots of the trip here, a perfect picturesque reflection of the arched bridge spanning the Douro River.
That afternoon we joined the included tour to Castelo Rodrigo. The drive was a tour in itself as we climbed 2,200 feet above sea level through scenic pine forests and almond tree groves. Walking along the steep, narrow, cobblestone streets of the hilltop town of Castelo Rodrigo was like stepping back in time. This tiny medieval fortress town doesn’t take long to explore but it will leave a lasting impression with its 16th century houses, castle ruins, Sinagoga Street and stunning panoramic views. Oh and we were certain not to miss a visit to the little bar with an impressive selection of Portuguese craft beers.
Salamanca is the only destination on the tour outside of Portugal and of course it is reached by bus not boat and the full day tour is included in the price of the cruise which is a really good deal. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to one of Europe’s oldest universities (founded in 1134), a huge Romanesque cathedral, a beautiful and lively main square and numerous examples of Gothic-baroque architecture and gorgeous buildings of glowing sandstone.
After the guided tour there was plenty of free time to explore on our own. We spent our time walking the streets, snapping photos, visiting the 13th-century university, the Old and New cathedral and the House of Shells. Of course this worked up a thirst and appetite for some delicious Spanish wine, tapas and traditional meats.
At this point it was time to turn the boat around and head back to Pinhao. But not before a stop in the sleepy, but inspirational, village of Favaios for another included tour. The region enjoys a perfect climate for growing port grapes and the village of Favaios has a rich history of port wine and bread making. However, what we were most inspired by was the community spirit fostered by the co-operative business model.
Upon arrival in Favaios we were taken by a young man to a local bakery. Here we were greeted by a girl playing traditional music on an accordion and introduced to a smiling lady in a white bakers hat and apron. We ate freshly baked bread and watched as she kneaded one of 1,000 daily loafs of four-corners. From here we visited the local museum of bread and wine, hosted by another young lady full of passion and historic details of the little village.
Our final stop was the Quinta da Avessada, a century-old wine-growing estate with a very entertaining proprietor. We were welcomed energetically by a man affectionately called the “Portuguese Mr Bean” who regaled us with stories as wine was handed out in the picturesque gardens of the estate. To our surprise we again saw the young man and woman who had guided us through the bakery and museum earlier. Apparently, about half of the village, of about 1,000 residents, are involved in the co-op and play various roles in running of it.
Following an informative and hilarious tour we were ushered into a lovely dining hall with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the gardens and vineyards. For the next 2 hours we were entertained, wined, and dined until our stomachs ached from laughter and a little bit of over-indulgence. We left feeling not just satisfied but inspired and joyful at having witnessed such a great example of people, both young and old, coming together to preserve tradition and a way of life.
Our final stop before returning to Porto was the charming town of Lamego, best known for being the home of a sacred pilgrimage. The devout will climb the 686 steps (sometimes on their knees) of a beautiful double staircase to an 18th-century baroque chapel at the top. There are nine terraces along the way, each adorned with a scene made from blue and white azulejo tiles, and boasting a beautiful view both up and down.
There is also a Gothic cathedral and a wonderful museum containing a collection of Flemish tapestries to visit. However, we were short on time that day due to fog delays so all we had time for after the pilgrimage was a super sweet reward from one of the bakeries.
Highlights of the Viking Douro River Cruise
A Viking River cruise is not like the big floating city ocean cruises where on board amenities and entertainment are the big draw. Viking is a destination-focused cruise catering to travelers who are interested in learning about the culture, history and geography of the places they visit while traveling in comfort and elegance. However, that is not to say that the on board experience has been given a back seat. In our opinion Viking has obviously put a lot of thought into what their guests want on their vacation both on and off the boat. Here are just a few of the highlights that made our on-board time on our Douro River cruise so enjoyable.
Unlike most on-land hotel rooms, one of the best things about a river cruise are the views. While sailing between destinations the spectacular views are constantly changing and the Viking ships are built to take full advantage of this. We loved eating our meals in the dining room full of windows or sitting up on the top open air deck and watching the picturesque landscape, charming villages, vineyards and wineries and even riverfront cities go by. In fact sometimes it was difficult to focus on our lunch or the conversations we were having with new friends because the scenery was so distracting.
Three delicious meals and snacks are included daily on a Viking cruise and they are all fine dining quality. You will not find the run-of-the-mill buffet selections day in and day out. At breakfast, lunch and dinner we sat at a table of our choice and were presented with a menu to order from as well as a fine selection of temptations on the small, elegant buffet table. There were several options that were always available such as eggs Benedict at breakfast, fish and chips at lunch and ribeye steak at dinner (to name our favorites). But there were also daily specials that were often based on the local food of the area we were in. Oh and of course there was always good quality wine flowing at lunch and dinner!
After our first Viking cruise on the Danube we thought that we had been really lucky in getting an exceptionally great group of people taking care of us. But after a couple of days on our second Viking river cruise we realized that incredible service is the norm. It’s clear that staff are selected for their warm and open personalities as well as their ability to provide professional yet friendly service to everyone on board and off. In our experience, everybody from the captain to the entertainment director to the bar and dining staff to the guides and housekeeping staff were people that clearly took great pride in their work and were a joy to be around.
Every Viking cruise includes wine at lunch and dinner but on the Douro River Cruise, wine played an even bigger role. There were organized wine tastings at almost every destination including tours and tastings at some of the big players like Sandeman and Croft and even an optional excursion to Graham’s Port Dinner. Plus there were a couple of evenings of wine tastings on board. Let’s just say for a wine appreciator like myself it was heaven. I should add that there was also a good selection of beer and cocktails available at the bar if wine is somehow not your thing.
Viking River Cruises are not known for lavish shows and late night parties but there was some form of fun and entertainment every evening on board. Our personal favorites were the Spanish Folk Show and the Tuna Show. The Spanish Folk Show featured the Azabache Dance Group who performed some beautiful and emotional Flamenco dances in the lounge as we enjoyed our evening cocktail. The Tuna Show was something we’d never heard of but will never ever forget. The tradition of Tuna started in Spain and Portugal in the 13th century as a means of extra income for university students. Today the Tuna is less about making money and more about keeping tradition alive. Our Tuna Show consisted of about 20 university students serenading us with song and instruments such as guitar accordion and mandolin. They were all dressed in the traditional Portuguese university uniform of all black with long capes and floppy hats and they perfectly combined humor, passion and talent to give us an evening of incredible entertainment.
Another thing we like about Viking River Cruises is the intimate setting and smaller number of guests. Also there is no set seating at meals so you are free to share a table with different people every meal if you choose. All of these factors contribute to making new friends. Despite the fact that we were younger than the majority of the other guests we had a great time meeting new people, sharing both deep and frivolous conversations and enjoying the stories from people of all different backgrounds. We even left with an invitation to visit some new friends in Spain!
In case we haven’t made it clear, we thoroughly enjoyed Portugal’s River of Gold cruise on the Douro with Viking. It was vastly different than our Romantic Danube Cruise but we loved it equally for different reasons. If you’re not sure if a Viking Cruise is for you take a look at our article “Who Wouldn’t Love a Viking Cruise?”
Have you taken a Viking cruise yourself? Or maybe you’re considering it and have questions? We would love to hear from you about your experience and are always happy to give you advice based on our own experience.