This article focuses on Guimarães and Douro Valley, each of which can be easily reached on day trips from Porto and can just as easily support longer visits. A few other destinations in Northern Portugal are also mentioned herein.
Guimarães ♥♥ is a pretty UNESCO World Heritage site, with a compact historic center full of fetching squares, picturesque corners, and eye-catching houses highlighted by elaborate balconies.
Ducal Palace ♥♥ is the top attraction in town, well furnished and well explained on the visitor cards in every room. It retains a solid medieval feel, even if most spaces have been refurbished recently. In the chapel, there is the most brilliant stained glass. Upside-down wooden-boat ceilings in two large twin halls are among other design highlights.
The nearby castle ♥ is only mildly curious but offers in its main keep a very detailed exposition on the history of the town – and the relevant bits of the history of the country. The highlight is the animated video biopic of Afonso Henriques, the founding king, presented on the top floor; it is hilarious. Access to the roof of the keep may be curtailed; there are no more than ok views from the ramparts.
The church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira boasts an impressive rich altar, but it is too dark to be properly admired. During siesta, churches are closed, so the best time to view them is before lunchtime; the ones that especially warrant a visit are São Francisco and Nossa Senhora da Consolação e Santos Passos.
City Hall, once a monastery, allows free access to its cloisters. If you walk by Convento do Carmo, stick your head into the doorway to admire the pretty entryway courtyard.
One other top-rated attraction in Guimarães is Teleférico – the cable car line to the park of Morro da Penha high above town – best experienced in good weather.
One place deserving of a dining recommendation is Dona Maria (on R. João Lopes de Faria, around the corner from the main town square but virtually miles away from tourist routes), with a menu full of Northern Portuguese specialties.
The heart of the famous winemaking region in the north of Portugal is well worth at least a full day of exploration. It is a UNESCO World Heritage sight full of gorgeous landscapes.
The western boundary of the region, Peso da Régua, is not exceptional in and of itself, but its Museo do Douro ♥♥ is underrated and deserves a look. Well laid out and offering tons of information about the region and the local winemaking traditions, it has many nice exhibits with text in English and Portuguese. Port wine tasting (one glass) is included in the ticket price.
Driving along the river on N222 ♥♥♥ is the best way to enjoy the region. The distance is less than 30 kilometers long in total, with plenty of lookouts and wineries to visit along the way. Most of the wineries offer guided tours at preset times – reserve in advance if you fancy that, or walk in for a tasting only. Make sure you pace yourself: the tasting portions are usually very generous.
Quinta do Tedo ♥♥ offers pretty grounds, with a nice tasting room where you can choose from several tasting options. What puts this one above others is the bistro where you can have tapas on a terrace overlooking one of those gorgeous landscapes. While walking in for a tasting is never a problem, advanced reservations are recommended for the bistro.
Quinta do Panascal (Fonseca brand) ♥♥ sits a bit off the main road and gets much less traffic; we had it to ourselves in mid-April. Self-guided, audio-enabled tour through the vineyard is the differentiation factor – you can take it at your own pace. The walk should last about 30 minutes covering a total distance of less than a couple of kilometers. The recorded delivery is a bit dry and slightly tinted by the brand advertising, but it offers plenty of interesting information. A tasting of three wines is included in the price of the tour.
Quinta do Seixo (Sandeman brand) ♥♥♥ offers possibly the best panoramic views. Although the entrance is right on N222, the winery sits so high above the main road that it will take good 5 minutes to drive up to it. In the modern, sleek tasting room there are tons of different options on the menu. The views win the day.
Quinta das Carvalhas ♥♥♥ is located across the bridge from the Pinhao town center. The Old World feel of its tasting lounge is quite enticing. There is a movie running on a screen showing different aspects of the wine industry in Douro. Several tasting options on the menu are slightly more expensive than elsewhere, but it is a very relaxing experience (we were there all by ourselves in mid-April).
Taking a boat ride on the river is one attraction available in Pinhao, best enjoyed in good weather.
A few kilometers from Régua, river locks make for a curious diversion if a river cruise ship happens by at that point.
Other points of interest in Northern Portugal
This pretty village of Amarante ♥ is centered on an old bridge ♥ that runs practically into the eponymous main church of São Gonçalo. Coming at the end of the day may mean being too late to see the church’s interior. The village has several other picturesque corners, well worth a short stop.
The sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte ♥♥♥ is an important pilgrimage site, in addition to being a superb specimen of religious architecture. It has recently been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. The interior of the colorful church is highlighted by an unusual diorama-like altar. There was a lot of renovation going on during our visit, with half of the interior covered in scaffolding, but we could still appreciate the church’s beauty.
The knockout feature of the complex, though, is the magnificent staircase leading up to the church. From the lower parking area, there are 582 total steps to the church floor. Statues and fountains adorn every landing, further enhancing the meticulous symmetry of the design. A funicular runs parallel to the stairway, so those less determined or able can make the way up without exertion, but keep in mind that the service is limited. With proper GPS assistance, you can also find a way to the parking lot that is close to the church on top but then don’t skip walking down the stairs at least a bit.
The sanctuary is located on the outskirts of Braga, a relatively large town with a number of points of interest in its core that should be worth consideration to visit.
Aveiro ♥ is a picturesque town on canals an hour south of Porto. The main tourist attraction in town is the gondola boat rides; there are also a couple of potentially curious museums on the waterfront, the Museum of Art Nouveau and the Museum of Aveiro.
Other frequently-mentioned destinations within reach of Porto are Casa de Mateus in Vila Real, or Viana do Castelo.