Catch a glimpse of some of the stunning landscapes and fascinating sights you’ll see along the Douro.
In 2019, per diems on the Douro range from $397 per person (CroisiEurope & Viking) to $641 per person (Uniworld). River Cruise Advisor’s “true per diems” for the Douro are published in our Douro River Cruise Handbook, which you’ll find information about at the bottom of this post.
Shoulder season rates are significantly less than peak season rates, with shoulder season per diems ranging from $346 per person to $564 per person. When is shoulder season? There are no set rules, but for the purposes of comparison, think April and May at the front end, and September, October and November on the back end. I cruised the Douro on Emerald Waterways in November of 2018 and had magnificent weather for the duration of the cruise.
The Douro is one of my favorite cruising regions. Its translation is “river of gold,” and I agree that it’s precious. Read on to learn more about Douro river cruising and why a cruise along Portugal’s beautiful river of gold should be on your bucket list.
The Douro River is one of Europe’s most exciting waterways, yet it is often overlooked by those considering river cruising in Europe. Flowing in the shadow of its more famous counterparts, the Danube, Main and Rhine, Portugal’s Douro River is a hidden gem filled with stunning scenery, warm and friendly people, and charming towns bordered by vineyards, and of course, barrels of fine Portuguese wine.
Tastings of Portugal’s famous fortified wines, in fact, make up a large part of any Douro river cruise experience. But teetotalers too will find much to enjoy, as the history of the Douro River Valley is so richly storied that UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 2001.
Sailing through the epicenter of port wine production are river cruisers operated by more than half a dozen companies. Because of relatively short distances, however, most scenic cruising is limited to stretches of only a few hours for ships to get from one town to the next. Plus, navigation along many stretches of the Douro is permitted only during the daylight hours, which is a plus for those who want to spend time ashore during the evenings along the way.
All cruise companies operating on the Douro offer up somewhat similar shore excursions, some of which are day-long affairs. In addition to visits to wineries where you’ll learn about the history of port wine production — often along with an included lunch and wine tasting — you’ll also be able to make a full-day trek to Salamanca, Spain, perhaps most famous for its well-preserved architecture and centuries-old Universidad de Salamanca.
The downside to these otherwise wonderful tours is that, compared with the Danube and the Rhine, you’ll spend more time on a motorcoach getting from the pier to your destination, and vice-versa.
Despite that, the Douro River is one of the fastest-growing and most popular river cruise destinations within Europe. Nearly all of the major North American-based river cruise companies offer itineraries on the Douro, and many river cruises through the region begin with a pre-cruise stay in Lisbon. Embarkation takes place three hours by motorcoach from Lisbon, in picturesque Porto – one of Europe’s oldest cities.
A little more than 63,000 guests traveled on river cruises to the Douro in 2016; a marked increase from 2012, when river ships carried just 28,000 passengers on weeklong voyages. In 2018, more than two dozen river cruisers will ply the Douro on sailings between Porto and Barca d’Alva/Vega de Terron. The river’s popularity suggests that the best time to cruise the Douro may be right now, while the river is still relatively quiet and undiscovered by throngs of tourists.
The Douro Unveiled
The third longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, the Douro wells up in Spain’s Sierra de Urbión, crosses the country’s Numantian Plateau, and heads westward across northern Portugal before releasing into the great Atlantic Ocean.
Functioning as a conduit between the ocean and the inner reaches of Portugal, the Douro was a transportation system that enabled the region’s famous port wine production to flourish. In fact, Alto Douro, or the Upper Douro, is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. Aptly deriving its name from the city of Porto, Port wine is produced exclusively in the Douro River Valley — named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Flat-bottom boats called rabelos used to deliver casks to the cellars directly across the river from Porto to a town called Gaia, which serves as the official point of embarkation for several river cruise lines today.
The pastoral countrysides, rural villages, and pocket-sized towns lining the Douro provide a unique river cruise panorama. Steeply terraced, verdant vineyards surrounding Porto give way to rock faces carved by nature and etched by ancient men; traces of some our ancestors’ earliest illustrations are harbored within this region. As you wend your way closer to Spain, the arid landscape points to its constant companion, the sun, which also makes the Douro glimmer in the 18-karat hue so fitting of its moniker. However, the float down history’s memory lane will stop shortly after reaching Spain, with river traffic from Spain’s upper regions halted by dams built along the river in the 50s and 60s.
While its distinctive beauty and rich history make the Douro a destination unto itself, it’s the Portuguese people that make me want to return again and again. They are among Europe’s friendliest.
You also get a mix of ports in Portugal and Spain on Douro River Cruises. That means good Port wines from Portugal and paella from Spain, along with Flamenco dancers and Portuguese pingo (similar to espresso).
Several companies offer weeklong cruises on the Douro roundtrip from Porto, typically heading south to Spain’s Vega de Terron and back. Many include pre- or post-hotel stays in Lisbon.
In Porto, stroll Rua Diogo Leite where popular wine cellars, like the famed Sandeman’s, wait for you to duck inside. You’ll likely feel torn, because outdoors the colorful buildings on the hillside of the opposite bank and small local bands singing with spirited bravado beacon, suspending you beautifully in Porto’s present.
From the halfway point of your journey, Vega de Terron, your cruise may have you heading out on a day trip to Spain’s Roman city of Salamanca, dating back to medieval times. Here, even those oblivious to architecture can’t help but notice the amazing blend of Renaissance and Gothic, old and new. The same can be said of the itineraries being offered here, with time-honored routes being plied by several new vessels—many constructed specifically to content with the unique size requirements of the five locks you’ll transit.
Late May and June as well as the autumn harvest season proves to be the most idyllic time to visit the Douro. If you can take the heat, August is still a great time to visit and can be a little cheaper. The same goes for November on the opposite end of the spectrum, with chillier temperatures and rain requiring a few extra layers, although, as previously noted, I had beautiful weather on the Douro in November in 2017. Viking River Cruises even offers departures in December, but don’t expect to find Christmas Markets here.
Companies Operating On The Douro River
AmaWaterways offers two options on the Douro, land and cruise or cruise only. The cruise only spans 8 days, and the cruise and land packages last 11 to 14 days. Travel begins in either Lisbon, Portugal, or Madrid, Spain. The cruise itself begins in either Porto or Vega de Terron, depending where the itinerary begins. In 2014, I cruised on the AmaVida and produced a series of videos that you’ll find here.
AmaWaterways will launch a sister ship to AmaVida in 2019, the 102-passenger AmaDouro, with balconies in the majority of its staterooms, and suites that range up to 323 square feet.
CroisiEurope is one of the only companies that offers six-day cruises as well as eight-day cruises on the Douro. In all, the company operates nine itineraries on five ships on the Douro: the MS Gil Eanes, which carries up to 132 passengers; the MS Infante don Henrique and the MS Fernao de Magalhaes, which can accommodate up to 142 passengers; the MS Miguel Torga and MS Vasco de Gama. Coming in 2019, CroisiEurope will have a sixth ship on the Douro, the Amalia Rodrigues.
CroisiEurope visits a few destinations that other river cruise companies do not visit, including Ferradosa, Folgosa, and Leverinho.
Scenic offers river cruises and cruisetours on the Douro ranging from 10-day journeys from Porto to a massive 31-day experience that whisks guests from France to Portugal.
At the start of the 2017 sailings on the Douro, Scenic opened a new dock for exclusive use of Scenic and its sister company, Emerald Waterways. Unlike other river ship docks that tie up across the Douro in Gaia, Emerald and Scenic dock in Cais de Miragaia, a historic area of the World Heritage city of Porto and only a five-minute walk to the Ribiera, one of Porto’s most popular riverfront promenades known for its distinctive small alleyways and pastel-hued buildings.
Scenic launched the custom-built luxury Scenic Azure in April 2016 as one of the only owner-operated river cruise ships on the Douro with sailings that both begin and end in Porto.
Emerald Waterways launched river cruises on the Douro River in 2017, aboard the purpose-built Emerald Radiance. The popular mid-level offshoot of luxury tour operator Scenic, Emerald Waterways offers six different river cruise packages on Portugal’s Douro River, with variations in the length of overland journeys wrapped around a week aboard the Emerald Radiance. Emerald Waterways’ eight-day “Secrets of the Douro” voyage sails round trip from Porto.
Yet another newcomer to the Douro is U.K.-based Riviera River Cruises, which offers river cruises and cruisetours on the Douro ranging from 8-day journeys from Porto to an 11-day experience that includes an extended stay in Lisbon. Carrying 126 guests each, the MS Douro Elegance and the MS Douro Splendour were launched in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Riviera’s eight-day sailings travel roundtrip Porto, with visits to the medieval village of Castelo Rodrigo, Lamego, home of Portugal’s sparkling Raposeira wine, a visit to Mateus Palace, and a dinner at Quinta da Pacheca, a 18th-century manor house and home to the first wine in Portugal to carry the owner’s name. The 11-day option extends your exploration of Portugal heading south by land, visiting the Roman aqueducts in ancient Coimbra, the olive groves of Fatima and the bustling capital of Lisbon, where your journey ends.
Uniworld’s Douro packages on the Queen Isabel range between eight days and 13 days and may also include a visit to Lisbon, Madrid or to both cities. The 13-day Jewels of Spain and Portugal travels between Lisbon and Madrid. The other, Portugal, Spain and the Douro River Valley, is available as an 11-day journey from Lisbon to Porto, or as an eight-day cruise-only option departing roundtrip Porto.
The Queen Isabel was launched in 2013 replacing the Douro Spirit. It is actually fully chartered from Douro Azul along with many other river cruise vessels that operate on the Douro River. Carrying up to 118 guests and 33 crew members, the Queen Isabel is similar in size to other vessels that cruise this waterway in Portugal and Spain. It is 260 feet long and 37 feet wide and features 39 standard and deluxe staterooms and 20 suite staterooms. Uniworld has plans for a new Douro River ship set to launch in 2020.
Viking River Cruises operates one itinerary, the 10-night Portugal’s Rivers of Gold. The itinerary has proven to be so popular, however, that the line has three ships plying Portugal’s most famous waterway: Viking Hemming, Viking Torgil, and Viking Osfrid. A fourth ship, Viking Helgrim, sets sail in 2019.