As northern Portugal has so many different landscapes and a wealth of culture, you will surely find the ideal tour suited to your taste. Cuisine, architecture, nature and religion can help you decide which way to go. You can also choose to visit the many castles in the region, especially close to the border area with Spain, or take the garden route from the Crystal Palace in Porto to the Casa de Mateus, in Vila Real.
Porto, Douro and Vinhos Verdes
The best known Portuguese wine in the world, Port, takes its name from the city of Porto. To walk along the urban wine trail, head to the waterfront, classified as World Heritage.
Before you reach the waterfront, visit the Port and Douro Wine Institute (http://www.ivdp.pt), between Mercado Ferreira Borges and Palácio da Bolsa. At the Porto shop, you can taste the wines and take a guided tour to the laboratories where the Port and Douro wines are monitored for quality. Right next to it, you can visit Palácio da Bolsa (The stock exchange building) and its room for tasting Portuguese wines. You’ll be surprised at the diversity of Portuguese wines, including those produced in the Vinho Verde region.
Walk down to the Douro River and take a good look at the boats in the water. They are called rabelos and were used to carry wine from the Douro region to the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, where the wines were left to age, protected from the high temperature fluctuations in the Douro region. Go for a cruise under the river bridges and enjoy the fine examples of iron structures in the city: D. Maria Pia Bridge, and the double-deck D. Luís Bridge.
Once you get to dry land, head to the waterfront area of Gaia, where you can find the wine-aging warehouses of several wine producing companies. You can visit the Port wine cellars and learn more about the history of the Douro region. At the end, you can try tasting Port and Douro wines, often combined with chocolate, cheese or dried fruits.
While a trip round Porto brings you closer to the wine tradition of the region, there is nothing better than to actually visit the farms in the Douro wine region, where the vineyards are planted on terraces, on the slopes down to the River Douro. The landscape is absolutely spectacular and is classified by UNESCO as World Heritage.
There are many tours to choose from: you can visit farms, including some with contemporary architecture; discover the rock art sites in Vila Nova de Foz Côa, or take a cruise in Peso da Régua and see the vineyards from the river.
The Vinho Verde route (http://rota.vinhoverde.pt) stretches across the entire Minho region, as this is the largest Portuguese wine demarcated region. The route also includes several historical cities such as Guimarães and Braga.
One of the most interesting characteristics of this region is that the vines are often used to divide the fields, or as a decorative element in porches and along the farm access roads.
The region is also known for growing vines in fields that once belonged to old manor houses. In Monção, in the northern end part of the region, visit Palácio da Brejoeira, where one of the noblest wines of the region is produced: Alvarinho wine.
Portuguese wines are best enjoyed when paired with the typical dishes of the region, so why don’t you try a Francesinha, a beef and sausage sandwich typical from Porto, seasoned pieces of pork loin cooked in the Minho fashion, caldo verde (kale soup), and the various meat dishes of the Trás-os-Montes region?
The Romanesque Route
What do monasteries, churches, stone bridges, castles and their keeps near the Tâmega, Sousa and part of the Douro rivers have in common? The Romanesque architectural heritage is so abundant in the region that three tours have been designed to include the 58 monuments in northern Portugal.
The Romanesque Route follows the river valleys and includes: the Vale do Sousa Route, with 21 monuments, the Vale do Tâmega Route, with 25 monuments, and the Vale do Douro Route, between Castelo de Paiva and Resende, with 14 monuments. Many of these monuments can be traced back to the beginning of Portuguese nationality, as the noble families that helped the first kings found what today is known as Portugal lived in this area.
The Monastery of Santa Maria de Pombeiro in Felgueiras (Vale do Sousa Route) is probably the most imposing building in the region. It was a very important Benedictine monastery in the north of the country and it was built at the intersection of two important medieval roads. Yet this didn’t mean that the surrounding landscape has changed. Today the monastery is still surrounded by fields and vines that have been grown here since the 11th century. Don’t just visit the monastery: take one of the walking trails marked as Caminhos Verdes (green paths) that will take you along part of a Roman road and along the access roads leading to the fields surrounded by granite walls.
If you take the Vale do Tâmega Route, be sure to visit the Monastery of Santa Maria de Vila Boa do Bispo, in Marco de Canavezes, and the Monastery of Salvador de Travanca, in Amarante, one of the main masculine monasteries in the region. If you take the Vale do Douro Route, don’t miss the Church of Santa Maria Maior de Tarouquela, in Cinfães, and the Monastery of Santa Maria de Cárquere, built on the slopes of Montemuro Mountain, in the town of Resende.
But the Romanesque Route is not just about visiting monuments. Northern Portugal is famous for good food, so be sure to try the cheese and wines produced by the local farms (in some of them you can visit the wine cellars and the vineyards, and maybe taste the wine). If you go to Felgueiras, you have to try the pão-de-ló (sponge cake) of Margaride; in Penafiel, taste the local bolinhos de amor (love cookies)
Along the Caminos de Santiago
Every year thousands of pilgrims of different nationalities walk along the Caminos de Santiago leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. There is a network of routes across many European countries, Portugal included.
The pilgrims, moved by their faith our simply by the challenge, can take several routes leading to the border city of Valença do Minho, where the various Caminos de Santiago meet before taking the pilgrims across Spain for another 130 kilometres.
You can start the Camino de Santiago in Porto, Barcelos or Braga. In recent years, the route most often used by pilgrims runs along the coastline, starting from Porto Cathedral, then heading to Rates (Póvoa de Varzim), Barcelos, Ponte de Lima and Valença.
If you choose to walk the trail, it takes about 12 days, but you can do it on an off-road bicycle (about 3 days) or by car, stopping over at some of the pilgrimage sites. When you come across a pilgrim, don’t forget to greet him/her. They’re easy to spot: they carry a scallop shell either hanging from their backpack or on a necklace.
Alternatively, you can head to Santiago de Compostela along an inner Camino, crossing Guimarães, Braga, Barcelos and Ponte de Lima. According to the legend, Saint James walked through Guimarães and left an image of the Virgin Mary in a temple that used to exist where the Santiago Square now stands.
The Geira route is probably the most beautiful Portuguese route converging on Santiago, as it crosses the Peneda-Gerês National Park. It starts in Terras do Bouro, next to the Caniçada reservoir, and follows an old Roman road. On this route toy can see walls, bridges and many milestones along about 30 kilometres.
How to get there
There are several direct connections to Porto. If you choose to fly low cost, you can fly from London (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseille, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Roma Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck , Munich Memmingen and Dusseldorf Weeze.
In the summer, low cost companies fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
Traditional airlines fly to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, and Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto, and Luanda. In the summer, you can also fly from Montreal, Brest and Brive.
At the Francisco Sá Carneiro International Airport take the Metro – ‘E’ line – this takes you to the city centre in just 30 minutes.