I have had a great opportunity over the years to do some river cruises mainly in Europe along rivers in Hungary, Austria and France to name a few. With these experiences, I thought I knew what to expect before taking a cruise along Portugal’s Douro River with Viking River Cruises. I did not. No, due to the peculiarities of the river and the very special destination Portugal, a river cruise on the Douro is a unique event, very different from its cousins on the entire continent. While every day was honestly great fun, these ports and stops were my favorite cruises.
Several river cruise companies operate on the Portuguese River Douro, but few have time in Lisbon beforehand. Sure, they have the option to pay for a pre-cruise experience, but on the cruise I took with Viking this was part of the entire trip and therefore no extra charge. For me, this time in the capital was indispensable and a highlight of the trip. It was my first time in Lisbon and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore the city. What I discovered quickly became a new favorite destination, from the incredible architecture to the food to the remarkably friendly people. Viking also made my time there easy for me with transfers, lots of on-site staff to help and answer questions, and a pre-cruise 5 star hotel on one of the city’s main thoroughfares. No matter how you ultimately decide to experience the Douro, spending that time in Lisbon I think is important.
Cruises start and end in Porto, making this popular tourist destination an important part of the cruise experience. I didn’t know much about the city before I arrived, but I had read dozens of reports from fellow writers, all of whom praised the ancient city, many even calling it the best in Europe. As a natural skeptic, I went into my time with an initial distance, but I also fell in love with the charm of Porto. Porto is one of the oldest cities in Europe, founded by the Romans in the 300s. Porto finally gave the country Portugal its name. While walking through the hilly city on a guided Viking hike, I found it impossible not to be enchanted by the colors and sights of the historic center while trying to catch a glimpse of the important Douro River whenever possible. I also had a lot of time alone in the city and used this time to delve even deeper into the districts and history of Porto while also eating a whole bunch of local delicacies. Yes, Porto was another highlight for me on my Douro River Cruise, but I know that I am not unique in this feeling.
While the Douro cruises naturally focus on Portugal, Viking also includes a day trip to one of Spain’s nearby jewels, Salamanca. As one of the oldest cities in Europe, it is also one of the most beautiful on the continent – a kind of beauty that not even a gloomy day could hide. Salamanca is best known for its university, originally founded in 1218 and recognized almost immediately as one of the most important learning centers in Europe. Salamanca experienced another golden era when this place, the Plaza Mayor, was built. Originally built with a view of the bullfight, it is now lined with restaurants, shops and cafes and is one of the city’s most famous meeting places. Visiting Salamanca was just as special as I hoped it would be and I definitely understand why it is one of the highlights for anyone cruising the Portuguese Douro River.
Yes, Lisbon and Porto are amazing, but Portugal has a lot more to offer than its biggest cities. The opportunity to visit small towns and villages is not only a perk of sailing the Douro River, but also a reason I love river cruises in general. We often went to places I would never have discovered on my own, and my trip became all the better as I experienced it. A good example of my sailing was the morning in Favaios. As a very small community, it has long been known for its moscatel wines, which Viking passengers started their day with. When we visited a local winery, we learned all about the winemaking process before, of course, sampling some of their best vintages. From there we went to a local bakery to learn about and taste the town’s equally famous square bread, and ended our visit with a stroll through the village and a stop at the local wine and bread museum (yes, really). After that, the Viking passengers were taken to another local winery for a long and leisurely lunch, which was just as fun as it had been for a long time. All in all, this day in a very small village was something special, certainly unique and nothing that I would have discovered on my own.
The entire Douro River Valley
A big reason many people choose to take a river cruise on the Douro is for the wine, and Porto gives a clue as to why. Although wine has been made in Portugal for more than 2,000 years, port wine did not emerge until the 17th century. I am not going to go into a long story about the relationship between England and Portugal, but suffice it to say that their diplomatic friendship is the oldest in the world and port has played an important role in that relationship for centuries. I want to say that fortified port was created in a romantic way, but the truth is that the Portuguese invented it to better suit the tastes of English consumers. Eventually, this wine, which was shipped from Porto (hence port), had brandy added to the juice during fermentation, creating a stronger and sweeter wine that was perfect for the palates of wealthy English customers. This history of port wine is celebrated not only in the city of Porto but throughout the Douro Valley. Of course, Viking offers many ways to experience this unique wine in both included experiences and optional excursions. Not only will food and wine be relegated to Porto, passengers will learn more about the other wines made in Portugal as the week progresses, as well as the delicious food traditions that together create a memorable dining experience.
European river cruises have grown in popularity over the past few years for a variety of reasons and in my experience it is well deserved attention. However, the cruises on the Douro River are completely different from others that I have experienced, in the best possible way. So, if you are considering a river cruise but are also looking for something different, I highly recommend learning more about the itineraries and programs that Viking has put together on the Douro.