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Travel Inspiration | AAA Traveler Worldwise
Exploring Portugal’s Douro Valley on a Uniworld Boutique River Cruise


Dom Luis I Bridge in Porto. Photo courtesy of Porto City Council  

It was a chilly, gray morning in May when I landed in Porto, Portugal, for my Douro River cruise. The first thing I picked up on, though, was the city’s warm and vibrant vibe.  

As my airport transfer pulled up to the dock where I would board Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ SS São Gabriel, I was awed by the sweeping views of the terracotta-roofed, colorfully tiled buildings and striking street art that line the hillsides of the historic city center.
Murals made from blue-and-white tiles known as azujelos decorate many buildings in Portugal. Photo by Kerrick JamesMurals made from blue-and-white tiles known as azujelos decorate many buildings in Portugal. Photo by Kerrick James

I decided to wander the riverwalk to shake off my jet lag, and I was struck by how friendly the people were. It seemed everyone I passed made eye contact and offered a smile or hello.
And that was just the beginning of what would be a week of pleasant surprises and unique and varied attractions along one of Europe’s most scenic and unspoiled rivers. Beach towns, river ports, history-rich cities, famous wineries—Porto and the Douro Valley have it all. And what more relaxing way to explore the region than from the luxury of what is essentially a floating Five Diamond hotel.

A traditional Portuguese boat (rabelo) plies the Douro River in Porto. Photo by Kerrick JamesA traditional Portuguese boat (rabelo) plies the Douro River in Porto. Photo by Kerrick James

After settling into my stateroom in the late afternoon, I considered wandering back out for dinner. But I was too tired to think about navigating the streets on my own. And there was no reason to, not when all-inclusive Uniworld serves up exceptional local and international cuisine and wine selections.

Plus, since the cruise would start and return to Porto, with overnights in the city on each end, I would have plenty of time to explore. The ship’s docking spot on the Gaia side of the river provided an amazing view of the city center, the famed Dom Luis I Bridge and the rabelos, flat-bottomed wooden boats that were once used to transport wine barrels but now mostly ferry visitors back and forth to the mouth of the river at the Atlantic Ocean. At night, lighted signs glowed above the city’s port wine houses.
Vineyards abound along the Douro River Photo by Jeri ClausingVineyards abound along the Douro River. Photo by Jeri Clausing  

The next morning, Uniworld offered two excursions: one by bus and one on foot. I always opt for the more active tour, and it turned out to be a great mix of sightseeing and exercise as our tour group made its way along the hilly medieval streets and alleys that included ruins, colorful street art, and rows and rows of townhouses, many in various states of disrepair. 

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Because much of city center is under UNESCO World Heritage Site protection, any renovations must conform to preservation standards, which can be pricey. But the juxtaposition of sometimes-dilapidated buildings with immaculately restored 14th-century architecture adds a nice edge to the otherwise cosmopolitan chic—and safe—atmosphere.
Our tour group walked to Sé Cathedral, one of the city’s oldest Romanesque monuments, before making our way to the São Bento train station, famous for its murals of blue-and-white tiles, or azulejos, that tell stories of the city’s history. At Bolhão Market, an open-air farmers’ market, we tasted canned sardines and bacalao (salted, dried cod).    


Staircase of Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. Photo by Kerrick JamesStaircase of Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. Photo by Kerrick James    

That afternoon, the ship set off for five days of sailing through the scenic Douro Valley. UNESCO protection status has kept the valley free of commercial and industrial development, and the river does not have the kind of traffic that you often encounter on Europe’s busier rivers.    

Douro ships are also prohibited from sailing at night, meaning that most days we sailed for half a day and went sightseeing the other. I loved the opportunity to relax on the sun deck and take in the seemingly endless vineyard views. But for those who prefer to keep busy, the crew also offered onboard wine discussions, cooking classes and Portuguese lessons while we sailed.    

The cruise was highly focused on Portuguese wines, and there were several vineyard stops. My favorite was Quinta da Pacheca, a wine estate and hotel near Lamego, where we had dinner in the large, dimly lit but beautifully decorated wine cellar. We also visited the Douro Museum in Peso da Régua, where we enjoyed a port tasting and short lecture on the region’s famed wine-making history.    Besides wine, there were plenty of religious and architectural landmarks, including one of northern Portugal’s most iconic: the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. Built on a hilltop that towers above the town of Lamego, the sanctuary has a 686-step garden-lined outdoor staircase with several landings that have large blue-and-white tiled murals.    

The final stop before returning to Porto was the small fishing village of Barca d’Alva, on the border with Spain. There, we boarded a luxury coach for an hour-and-a half ride to Salamanca, home to Spain’s oldest university as well as Romanesque, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque buildings. A highlight is the 12th-century Romanesque Cathedral of Santa Maria, commonly referred to as the Old Cathedral.    

I skipped the guided tour of Salamanca to take in its architectural wonders on my own, browse the shops along the Rua Mayor and enjoy an outdoor lunch in the Baroque building-lined Plaza Mayor.

The chapel of Senhor da Pedra. Photo by Jeri ClausingThe chapel of Senhor da Pedra. Photo by Jeri Clausing    

On our return to Porto, I joined one final excursion: a visit to the beach on an e-bike tour. We rode through a fishing village where locals were cooking and eating at tables on the narrow cobblestone streets. We then continued through the port and onto a bike path that meanders for some 12 miles along the sandy beaches and dunes of the Atlantic coast to Praia do Senhor da Pedra beach, which is dominated by its namesake chapel, built in the 1600s on boulders that jut out into the sea.    

After spending time on the beach, we returned to the ship to cap off a perfect trip with post-dinner cocktails on the sundeck as we watched a sunset that lit the sky with hues of warm orange, pink and blue.

A riverside scene in Porto. Photo by Kerrick JamesA riverside scene in Porto. Photo by Kerrick James

Portugal is just one of the many fascinating destinations that you can explore on a Uniworld Boutique River Cruise. The cruise line also plies the rivers in France, Italy, Spain and throughout Central Europe as well as in Peru, Egypt, India, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The SS São Gabriel is one of Uniworld’s newer ships. Although it’s also one of its smallest with just 50 cabins, there are still several choices in stateroom sizes, including 16 suites that come with 24-hour butler service that includes anything from shining your shoes to unpacking and repacking your suitcase.    

All food and beverages, including premium spirits, are included. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, while dinners are full-service fine-dining experiences.  All meals include a variety of international and Portuguese dishes.    

My favorite spot on the ship was the sprawling sun deck, which has a swimming pool and a mix of uncovered and shaded lounge chairs, couches and tables. There’s also a small spa and well-equipped fitness center.