This summer, my husband and I took a 10-day cruise on the Douro River in Portugal – Portugal’s River of Gold. It was my third cruise with Viking River Cruises and a little different because it was one of their cruise tours, which means it combined cruising with touring Portugal via luxury motorcoach.
Introduction to Viking River Cruises
Viking is a family-owned company based in Switzerland. Their signature is creating cultural experiences for you as you travel. Viking will arrange your air travel so that it coordinates with your embarkation date. On this particular trip, I flew into Lisbon and Viking had someone meet me right outside of customs. The driver gathered our bags, got us situated on a very comfortable bus, and took us to our hotel in the heart of Lisbon. Our Program Director Sam Corbin met us at the hotel, along with a team behind the Viking desk in the hotel lobby.
Having completed several cruises, I do know this is a unique experience that really helps get the cruise off on the right foot. You have the Program Director who gets to know you and is with you throughout the cruise, along with Viking-dedicated staff who can help you with any questions. They do a welcome reception in the hotel and there are several pre-cruise tours to help you discover your embarkation location.
After a long day of traveling, I was content to settle into my comfortable room at Tivoli Avenida Liberadade Lisboa. We had rooftop drinks at Sky Bar, where the views over Lisbon were breathtaking. Then, we went down to the hotel’s main restaurant, Cervejaria Liberdade. The restaurant opens onto Lisbon’s main street, which runs in front of the hotel – Avenida Liberadade. The food was a perfect introduction to Portugal—we had a rice seafood dish that was possibly the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. They served everything in copper saucepans, and I regretted I couldn’t take it all away with me.
The next morning, we joined Viking on an included tour of Lisbon. Today, Portugal is a tiny country with a still-developing economy in the 21st century. However, it was the leader in maritime exploration in the 16th-century, and you have a chance to experience that history in Lisbon.
We drove along the Tagus River where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. We stopped by Belem Tower, which is one of the original fortifications for the city dating back to the 16th century.
We stopped at the massive and beautiful Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that began in 1501. I didn’t go inside the church because it was a Sunday morning, but we did go into the West Wing, which houses the Maritime Museum.
I really enjoyed exploring the museum and seeing the history we’ve grown up within the “New World” from an “Old World” perspective. There is also a lovely little café adjoining the museum, so it was a great spot for a mid-morning coffee.
Viking offered several optional tours that afternoon, but we opted to explore Lisbon instead. We decided to begin with a late lunch and try one of the classic Portuguese sandwiches – a Francesinha. This is a meat lovers’ sandwich. I discovered that the Portuguese have amazing seafood, but they also have incredible meats, particularly ham and sausage.
The Francesinha—which means little Frenchie in Portuguese—is a relative of the amazing Croque monsieur in France. But this is even more over the top. It’s two slices of bread, stuffed with ham, beef, and two or three types of sausage. They top it with slices of melted cheese and top it off with a fried egg and a hefty portion of sauce. Of course, it’s always served with a side of French Fries.
We walked out of the hotel and it was early afternoon, so not traditional lunchtime. We wandered down a few streets and discovered a local crowd at Dote. That’s always a welcome sign. We both ordered the traditional Francesinha Top, although I ordered a “mini,” which is a half sandwich. I was able to eat about half of the half. It was very good, but rich.
We spent more time recovering a bit from our jet lag and wandering the wide avenue, listening to music and watching people go past on the warm summer Sunday. For dinner, we headed to Time Out Market Lisbon. I had heard such amazing things about this market and was so excited to check it out. This is a bustling food hall, the kind of which we’re only just seeing arrive in the U.S. Time Out Market, created by the journalists who write Time Out Portugal, features 24 restaurants, eight bars, about a dozen shops, along with market stalls for vendors selling meat, fish, fruit, and flowers. It is also a popular concert venue. We were there on a Sunday evening, so the vendors were closed, but the market was packed. At first, it was a little overwhelming, with all the restaurants around the sides and bustling tables in the center.
We realized that if you took the smaller hallway around the outsides, you could sit in quieter alcoves or even outside in the beautiful evening air, but still enjoy the varied tastes of the market. We opted for Café de São Bento. This place has been a fixture in Lisbon for 30 years. They’re known for their beef and great local seafood, served with Portuguese wines. I had an amazing shrimp and garlic dish. I ate every last drop of it, despite the fact that I’d had half of that sandwich about six hours earlier. Amazing flavor! I would go back to Lisbon just for that shrimp dish.
We walked back to the hotel—a distance of about 2 kilometers, which I needed after all of that food. It was a beautiful evening. Time Out Market is right across from the riverfront and we walked up the hill through the pedestrian zone to the hotel. There were musicians playing on every corner, singers at the dozens of little sidewalk cafés, children walking past with ice-cream cones, and the beautiful moon cast its shadows as we walked slowly past the sights and sounds of Lisbon.
Visiting the University Town of Coimbra
The next morning, we followed our directions and had our luggage ready to go by 7 a.m. Viking detailed everything in our customized itinerary. We knew which bus to get on, what time we were leaving, and they handled carrying our luggage for us. We started our day—which you can see is a pattern—with a huge breakfast at the hotel. The massive buffet breakfast is included in the stay. It featured beautiful fruits, yogurts, pastries, omelets, eggs, an impressive selection of juices, and more.
After breakfast, your bags were already on the bus, so we climbed aboard our luxury motorcoach and started our journey toward the Douro River, where we would board our Viking ship. However, we made a stop along the way in the small town of Coimbra. Coimbra is about two hours north of Lisbon and still about an hour south of Porto, so it was a good stopover about halfway to our ship. I enjoyed exploring the small streets of this little town. It feels a bit magical.
We were able to visit the University of Coimbra, opened in 1290 but made famous in recent years because J.K. Rowling received her inspiration for Hogwarts from this historic school. The students wear their long black capes as they walk through the beautiful campus. Our stop was at the university’s beautiful baroque library, Biblioteca Joanina.
Biblioteca Joanina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there’s no wonder when you explore it. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, but it was beautiful. There is a gorgeous brick ceiling and old volumes line the walls. We were told that students still use the books in the library. What an honor it would be to do research in such a beautiful space.
After the library, we climbed up the bell tower to look out over the city. We ended our tour in Saint Miguel Chapel. This beautiful little chapel dates to the 12th century. The classic tile throughout the chapel is breathtaking. It’s a quiet sanctuary that makes you feel peaceful and offers a few moments of quiet.
Arriving in Magical Porto
We finished our afternoon in Coimbra and made the rest of the journey to our Viking ship, the Viking Helgrim. It was docked in Porto and we actually spent two nights there. I believe Porto is one of my favorite stops in all of Europe. It has a unique charm that is different from most of Western Europe. I could definitely see why J.K. Rowling found this a captivating and motivating city for weaving magical tales.
The Viking Helgrim is one of four ships custom-built for cruising the Douro River. They have the same Scandinavian feel of all Viking ships, but they are quite a bit smaller and offer a more intimate feel. The ship has only 53 staterooms, accommodating 106 guests at the most. The Viking Helgrim main deck has standard staterooms. The middle deck contains both Veranda staterooms and Veranda suites. The restaurant is also on the middle deck. The upper deck contains Veranda staterooms and suites, the reception desk, the lounge, and Aquavit Terrace.
There is also a sun deck on top with lounge chairs, tables, covered seating, and a pool. Every room has a nice bathroom, a 40″ TV, and there is free WiFi. The Viking Helgrim also included a small library with public computers, an onboard shop, and an elevator.
Life Onboard the Viking Helgrim
We arrived late in the afternoon and settled into our Veranda Stateroom on the third floor. One of my favorite things about river cruises is that you can unpack on the first day and not have to live out of a suitcase for the entire trip. We unpacked and then made our way to the lounge for the evening happy hour. This was a great chance to chat with the bar staff, get to know other passengers, and settle in for our cruise.
All meals are included with a Viking Cruise. We sometimes get meals while we’re out and about, but I do like to take advantage of being able to eat on the ship. We did opt for the Silver Spirits package. If you do NOT get the package, there are free assorted hot teas and coffee available anytime. You can enjoy house wines, beers, and soft drinks during lunches and dinners. We found that the Silver Spirits beverage package is well worth the cost. You get a bottle of sparkling wine in your cabin, a choice of premium local wines, beers, cocktails, specialty coffee drinks, soft drinks, and juices throughout the day. There is also an open bar, so you can enjoy cocktails—or even soft drinks—during evening happy hour and the evening entertainment.
Our meals onboard offered up a selection of classics that the chef makes available each day. Those include steak, salmon, and chicken. But each evening, the chef served up meals from the region. The Maître d’ always remembered my favorite wines for the meals and suggested a few stellar wines that I have added to my permanent list.
That first night, we had some great options. There is always a vegetarian option and usually a tasting menu. You are free to pick and choose, or even order multiple options. I started my journey with the local grilled octopus served with a Mediterranean vegetable salad. For my entrée, I opted for the poached Norwegian salmon.
We thought about walking into town after dinner but decided to relax instead. We simply sat on our ship’s upper deck and soaked up the music and people and the river around us. With champagne in hand, we toasted the end of the day in Porto and the beginning of the river portion of our journey. We couldn’t wait to begin exploring the next morning.
I always look forward to breakfast on a Viking ship. There are coffee and pastries available early, but I prefer breakfast in the dining room. I am a huge fan of breakfast and Viking really wows me. Some mornings I would order eggs Benedict, or others I would have the chef make me an omelet or over-easy egg. The buffet is available in addition to the chef’s station. It is filled with amazing flavors—from fresh yogurt to fruit, vegetables, pastries, bread, and more. After a fresh veggie omelet that morning, we were ready to explore.
History of Porto
We were docked on the Gaia side of the river, which is where all the port producers are located. Across the Douro from us was old town Porto.
Porto began as a Roman settlement in the 4th century BC. Portugal was named for Porto and today it is the second-largest city with about 240,000 people. It is often known as the “City of Bridges” because of the six bridges that link the two shores. Two of the six were designed by Gustave Eiffel in the years before he began working on the tower in Paris. The most remarkable is the Dom Luís Bridge, which was actually built by a student of Eiffel’s between 1881 and 1886. It connects Gaia to Porto and is a massive double-decker bridge. At the highest point, it is 146 feet tall. The bottom level has a pedestrian walkway and is where cars cross the Douro. The upper bridge has a pedestrian walk and is for the trains.
My husband and I didn’t take the included tour, because we wanted to explore on our own. Knowing that the ship was docked all that day and didn’t leave until breakfast the next day gave us the freedom to see things on our own schedule.
We started out early by taking the gondola from right outside our ship up to the second level of the magnificent Luís I Bridge. We purchased the tickets for the gondola (5€ per person or about $5.45 USD).
The views of the city were spectacular. This is well worth the ride just to see the sights.
We hopped off, took some photos, and slowly made our way across the bridge. It is one of the most spectacular vistas anywhere.
On the Porto side, we wandered. We took winding pathways that led past homes and tiny shops off the beaten path.
We marveled at the beautiful flowers growing everywhere. It was an interesting mix of homes, gardens, and abandoned buildings.
We stopped by parks and looked at beautiful tiles adorning the walls. Eventually, we made our way back down to the banks of the Douro. There, we stopped in a café for coffee and to sit and watch the people go past. We made our way back across the bottom of the Luís Bridge, past the scenic rabelo boats, and strolled through the street vendors.
One of the fascinating things I discovered about Portugal is that they are a leading producer of cork, so there are plenty of vendors selling cork products. The entire country is also filled with colorful tiles, so you can pick up items made from tile. After lunch and a brief rest back on our ship, we decided to head back into historic Porto.
Exploring Historic Old Town Porto
Viking ran two shuttle buses into the center of town. We decided we would try the bus to see how that worked and made our way into the city center. I laughed that the gondola was quicker, but it gave us a chance to chat with some of our fellow passengers.
Back in the historic area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we wandered into the train station. Fans of Harry Potter might think it looks a bit familiar. I about half expected to see Hogwarts Express pull up in the station.
It is a lovely, open station with beautiful tiles. And, a travel tip, it has very clean restrooms, so it is a great place to visit while exploring.
We wandered through the shopping district and made our way to Livraria Lello. This charming bookstore opened in 1869 and would be amazing in itself but is even more popular because J.K. Rowling frequented the store. There is always a long line to get inside the store, and a charge that is refunded if you purchase something, so we peeped in the windows but didn’t go inside.
The Porto skyline is dominated by the bell tower of the Clérigos Church, but I didn’t go inside that one. Instead, I was drawn to a set of two smaller churches. The Igreja dos Carmelitas and Igreja dos Carmelitas stand at the corner of Rua do Carmo and Praça de Carlos Alberto. Igreja do Carmo sits on the outside corner. It has beautiful blue and white tiled walls extended all along the outside and we could hear music coming from inside. We stepped in just as someone was singing Ava Marie. I listened from the back for a few moments before continuing on down the street.
We made our way through the historic district, absorbing the culture and the atmosphere. I would love to return and have more time to explore. We decided that we had taken a gondola, a bus, and stairs, so we needed to descend using the Funicular dos Guindais. The funicular, which was built in 1891, sat unused for almost a century. It is now a great way to and from the top of the hill on the Porto side down to the Douro Riverfront and the lowest level of the Luís I Bridge. It takes about two minutes and costs 2.50€ (about $2.72 USD) per adult.
The views going down were spectacular. It runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the week and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays in winter or until 10 p.m. during the week and until midnight weekends during the summer months.
Preparing to Set Sail on the Douro
We had a long day, coming and going around Porto. It was great fun to return to the Viking Helgrim for the evening’s activities. We got back in time for happy hour in the lounge.
We met our crew during the happy hour, including Captain Manuel Alves whose father is also a captain on the Douro. In fact, we passed his ship later in the cruise. We met Executive Chef Peter Benko and the Maître d’ Manuel Gomez, a native of Spain who kept things running smoothly. We had an entertaining presentation from Program Director Sam whom we had met in Lisbon. His lilting British accent and positive attitude were a comfort throughout our trip. He explained everything that would happen the next morning when we set sail at 7 a.m. to explore the Douro.
Once again, we headed to the restaurant where my husband enjoyed the local specialty—grilled sardine toasts on rye bread—while I opted for the seared scallops. That night I also ordered a delicious white bean soup and one of my favorite dishes of the cruise, black truffle risotto with refreshing lemon zest. The dessert that night was my all-time favorite—a classic Orange Roll cake with Grand Marnier and sugar syrup. It’s definitely a good thing I walk so much during the days when I take a Viking cruise!
After our dinner, we walked along the banks of the Douro River, soaking up the music that wafted through the night air.
Then we ambled back up to the sun deck where we settled in for an evening in the cool air and chatting with other passengers. We were ready to set out exploring the magnificent Douro River.
The next morning, about 7 a.m., we headed upstream into the beautiful wine country. In the Alto Douro Wine Region, wine estates lined the river, small remote villages welcomed us, and wildlife watched from the banks.
In my next article, you can follow along with me as we wander through Portugal, toward Spain, along the scenic Douro River. I long to return to explore the area and soak up more of this great country.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals, tours and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.