Exploring Portugal with Viking River Cruises

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Wander through Lisbon and Porto on a 10-day Viking River cruise on Portugal’s Douro River with history, architecture, wine, and food.

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 to coordinate with your embarkation date. On this trip, I flew into Lisbon, and Viking had someone meet me outside 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.

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The Viking Helgrim docked on the Douro River. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Having completed several cruises, I 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 have a welcome reception in the hotel, and there are several pre-cruise tours to help you discover your embarkation location.

Exploring Lisbon

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 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.

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View from Sky Bar at Tivoli Avenida Liberadade Lisboa. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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 can experience that history in Lisbon.

We drove along the Tagus River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. We stopped by Belem Tower, one of the city’s original fortifications dating back to the 16th century.

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Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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.

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Jerónimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that began in 1501 in Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I 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.

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Maritime Museum in Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Viking offered several optional tours that afternoon, but we explored Lisbon instead. We decided to begin with a late lunch and try one of the classic Portuguese sandwiches—a Francesinha. This is a meat lover’s sandwich. I discovered that the Portuguese have amazing seafood and incredible meats, particularly ham and sausage.

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Exploring downtown Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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.

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Francesinha with egg is a traditional Portuguese dish. Photo by Argos42 via Wikimedia Commons

We walked out of the hotel. It was early afternoon, so it was 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 from our jet lag, 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 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, and 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.

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Time Out Lisbon is a bustling food hall in central Lisbon. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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, even though I’d had half of that sandwich about six hours earlier. Amazing flavor! I would go back to Lisbon just for that shrimp dish.

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Shrimp in garlic from Café de São Bento. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We walked back to the hotel—about 2 kilometers, which I needed after all 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. Musicians were playing on every corner, singers were at the dozens of little sidewalk cafés, children were 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

We followed our directions the next morning and had our luggage ready by 7 a.m. Viking detailed everything in our customized itinerary. We knew which bus to take and what time we were leaving, and they carried 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 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.

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We stopped to wander the streets of Coimbra in Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We visited the University of Coimbra, which opened in 1290 but was made famous recently because J.K. Rowling received her inspiration for Hogwarts from this historic school. The students wear 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 it’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 research in such a beautiful space.

After the library, we climbed the bell tower to look 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 quiet moments.

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S. Miguel Chapel at the University of Coimbra in Coimbra, Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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 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 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.

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Aquavit Terrace from the Viking Helgrim’s Lounge. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

There is also a sun deck 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.

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Enjoying a welcome Port wine spritzer on the Viking Helgrim’s Sun Deck. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Life Onboard the Viking Helgrim

We arrived late 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 went 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, free assorted hot teas and coffee are 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 and a choice of premium local wines, beers, cocktails, specialty coffee drinks, soft drinks, and juices throughout the day. There is also an open bar where you can enjoy cocktails or soft drinks during evening happy hour and entertainment.

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Dinner in the Viking Helgrim restaurant had an amazing view, which my husband enjoys in this photo. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Our meals onboard included a selection of classics that the chef made available each day, including steak, salmon, and chicken. However, each evening, the chef served 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 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, people, and 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.

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Sunset over Porto from the Viking Helgrim sun deck. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I always look forward to breakfast on a Viking ship. Coffee and pastries are available early, but I prefer breakfast in the dining room. I am a huge fan of breakfast, and Viking wows me. Some mornings I would order eggs Benedict, or on 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—fresh yogurt, 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, where all the port producers are located. Across the Douro from us was old town Porto.

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Looking out at the Douro River from the Viking Helgrim. Porto is to the left of the photo, and Gaia is to the right. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Porto began as a Roman settlement in the 4th century BC. Portugal was named for Porto; 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 years before he began working on the tower in Paris. The most remarkable is the Dom Luís Bridge, built by a student of Eiffel’s between 1881 and 1886. It connects Gaia to Porto and is a massive double-decker bridge. At its highest point, it is 146 feet tall. The bottom level has a pedestrian walkway where cars cross the Douro. The upper bridge has a pedestrian walk and is for the trains.

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Dom Luís I Bridge over the Douro River connects Gaia and Porto. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

My husband and I didn’t take the included tour because we wanted to explore independently. Knowing that the ship was docked all that day and didn’t leave until breakfast the next day allowed us to see things on our schedule.

Exploring Porto

We started out early by taking the gondola from right outside our ship to the second level of the magnificent Luís I Bridge. We purchased the gondola tickets (5€ per person or about $5.45 USD).

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Taking the gondola to the second level of Dom Luís I Bridge. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

The views of the city were spectacular. This is well worth the ride to see the sights.

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Approaching Dom Luís I Bridge from the gondola. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We hopped off, took some photos, and slowly crossed the bridge. It is one of the most spectacular vistas anywhere.

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Views of Gaia and Porto from the Dom Luís I Bridge with the Viking Helgrim docked at Gaia on the left side of the photo and Porto to the right. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

On the Porto side, we wandered. We took winding pathways that led past homes and tiny shops off the beaten path.

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We wandered the winding streets in Porto. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We marveled at the beautiful flowers growing everywhere. It was an interesting mix of homes, gardens, and abandoned buildings.

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I loved the flowers growing everywhere; the fog hanging over the river each morning added an air of mystery. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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. We stopped in a café for coffee, sat down, and watched the people go past. We returned across the bottom of the Luís Bridge, past the scenic Rabelo boats, and strolled through the street vendors.

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The Rabelo boats on the Douro in Porto, Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

One of the fascinating things I discovered about Portugal is that it is 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 tiles. After lunch and a brief rest 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 to try the bus to see how it worked and made our way into the city center. I laughed that the gondola was quicker, but it allowed us to chat with some of our fellow passengers.

We wandered into the train station in the historic area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fans of Harry Potter might think it looks a bit familiar. I about half expected to see Hogwarts Express pull up in the station.

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The train station in Porto inspired J.K. Rowling. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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.

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The tile walls inside Porto’s train station tell the area’s history. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We wandered through the shopping district and made our way to Livraria Lello. This charming bookstore opened in 1869 and would be amazing 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.

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Downtown Porto. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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 from inside. We stepped in just as someone was singing Ava Marie. I listened from the back for a few moments before continuing down the street.

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Igreja do Carmo sits adjacent to another church, Igreja dos Carmelitas, in Porto. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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, 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.

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Starting out on the Funicular in Porto. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

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 Fridays and Saturdays in winter or until 10 p.m. during the week and until midnight on weekends during the summer months.

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Preparing to Set Sail on the Douro

We had a long day, coming and going around Porto. Returning to the Viking Helgrim for the evening’s activities was great fun. We got back in time for happy hour in the lounge.

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A cheer to end our explorations in Porto and prepare for our journey on the Douro River. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We met our crew during the happy hour, including Captain Manuel Alves, whose father is also a captain on the Douro. 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 by Program Director Sam, whom we 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 from the cruise: black truffle risotto with refreshing lemon zest. The night’s dessert was my all-time favorite—a classic Orange Roll cake with Grand Marnier and sugar syrup. It’s 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.

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Sunset casts beautiful colors across Porto. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Then we ambled back up to the sun deck, where we settled in for an evening in the cool air and chatted with other passengers. We were ready to set out to explore the magnificent Douro River.

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The author Susan Lanier-Graham and her husband Bill on the sun deck of the Viking Helgrim in Porto.

The next morning, at 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 watching from the banks.

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Cruising on the scenic Douro River in Portugal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of my time in Portugal as we sailed toward Spain along the scenic Douro River. I long to return to explore the area and soak up more of this great country.

Wander through Lisbon and Portugal as part of the 10-day Viking River cruise on the Douro River in Portugal. Lisbon is a lively city with a great food scene. Porto is a magical town on the banks of the Douro River. #MyVikingStory #vikingcruise #VikingRiverCruise #RiverCruise #Cruise #Europe #Lisbon #Porto #Portugal

Exploring Lisbon and Porto with Viking River Cruises

Written by Susan Lanier-Graham

Founder and publisher Susan Lanier-Graham has traveled the world for the past twenty years, filling a passport or two along the way. She has wandered through the jungles of Thailand, explored the mysteries of the Great Pyramids, and shared the night with a leopard in Zambia. She sailed in the Mediterranean, sipped her way through Burgundy canals and Champagne caves. She followed Rembrandt’s footsteps through Amsterdam. Susan found her center on the red rocks of Sedona and soaked up an exquisite sunset over the Indian Ocean in Bali. Susan is always looking for wow moments around the world or across the street to share with adventure lovers everywhere. She has authored more than 75 books and hundreds of magazine articles. Susan is an award-winning travel writer and member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA). She is a Certified California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). Susan is also the managing editor of North Peoria Lifestyle, a print lifestyle publication in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. Susan's work regularly appears in print and online in a variety of publications. These include various AAA publications, Postcards for Travel Leaders, Alamo.com, Hotels.com, Fairmont.com, Sofitel.com, Paradise Valley City Lifestyle, Scottsdale City Lifestyle, So Scottsdale, Green Living AZ, Modern Luxury, Marriott.com, WHERE Arizona, WHERE Traveler Phoenix + Scottsdale, and more.