Taking the Train Along the Douro River in Portugal
During my stay in the delightful city of Porto, it was highly important to me that I get to go to the Douro River Valley, the world’s first demarcated wine region, and literally called the River of Gold both for its stunning aesthetics and for the incredible wealth it has produced in wines. But with a limited amount of time and with a desire to see the prettiest scenery possible, our options were a bit limited in late October. If you do a cursory search, our trusty friend, the Internet, won’t be very encouraging. It’s often assumed that the only option tourists would be interested in is a day river cruise. But, many short river cruises don’t seem to run during the later fall months, and they only go about halfway to Pocinho. Even if they do have scheduled departures, the real scenery arguably starts after Pinhua.
If you’d like to see as much of the Douro as possible, and want to take a beautiful scenic train ride along one of the most stunning vistas in Europe, here’s how you do it!
We looked online to see the train schedules. It was important to us that we get a train direct to Pocinho to avoid any switching or waiting at stations. Because the trip is around 3 hours one way, we chose an early morning departure, to give us enough to get there and back and have evening time to spare for dinner in Porto. We decided upon the 9:15am departure, which arrives in Pocinho around 12:40 pm; and the next return departure leaves at 1.26pm and gets back to Porto at 4:35pm.
There are two main train stations in Porto, and luckily the Pocinho train left from the one closest to our hotel – the station called Campanha (not the central station, Sao Bento). It was barely a five minute taxi ride. (Note: the train does stop at Sao Bento, so if you’re staying in the central historic area of Porto, you’ll be able to take this ride as well.)
We didn’t purchase our tickets ahead of time, but simply purchased them at the train station. I believe they were 13 euros…. A fantastic option if you don’t want to spend over 100 euros on a river excursion and you get to go even further!
There was a little café at the Campanha station and we each had a galao coffee drink and a pasteis de nata. Being raised in Portugal, we consume these items pretty much every few hours when we return to Portugal. We have to stock up before we head back to the USA and are deprived!
The train arrived and we grabbed window seats. I never really understand “left” and “right” on a train – doesn’t it depend what way you’re facing?? But if this helps, we sat at the right side of the train, if you are facing forward. The river will be on that side for about half of the trip; about halfway through (after Regua and then Pinhão, where most people got off anyway), you can switch to the left side as the river bends and you will have great views on the other side as well.
The train was full of regular Portuguese people making their way to families’ homes for the weekend or returning from a business appointment; it also had several British and European tourists on it dutifully armed with maps; I thought at first they had the same idea we did, but most of them ended up getting off at Pinhão, most likely to have lunch and do some possibly wine tasting. They got back on the train when we returned, so if you’d like to do this, it is possible to go to these towns for lunch and some pretty views. But, the scenery really is the most stunning after Pinhão; so I do encourage you to try to do the whole trip! The reason is because eventually there is no road by the river, only train tracks – you wouldn’t get these views if you were renting a car and driving, although you’d probably have some wonderful opportunities to climb in and out of valleys. (If I was staying in the Douro Valley proper, I’d love to rent a car and explore.)
It was also the end of October, so we had our coats and scarves with us. I’m sure that also impacted the lack of crowdedness on the train. The sky was a bit bleak and grey, so I can only imagine how much more stunning the vistas must be in the summer or spring!
In full disclosure, I’ll say it again: yes, it is a three hour train ride, one way. So six hours roundtrip. But we knew this and we were so tired from the previous day’s activities that we made the conscious decision that we wanted to just sit and hang out on a train all day. In fact my traveling companion took a nap at one point. I read a book for the first hour, but once the scenery started to change the time seemed to pass very quickly as we watched out the window and took photos.
The train stops at Peso da Regua, Pinhao, and other fairly popular stops on bus tours and boat tours. You’re able to reach wineries and vineyards from here, although my impression is your opportunities are limited in town and if you’re a serious Douro Valley explorer, you’ll arrange transportation from these towns to the big vineyards just outside. I can definitely see the appeal of stopping to have lunch here, though. We resisted the temptation and soldiered on!
After Pinhao, the roads and cars disappear and the train is rushing through stunning valley gorges. At one point, one side’s windows showed us a sheer cliff-face, and the other side was the gorgeous, lanquid Douro. I took photos at every turn, trying to avoid the window glare. On the sides of the valley’s vineyards were emblazoned the names of Portugal’s best known vineyards and wine cellars. It’s said that the train ride is 160km and goes through 20 tunnels, under 30 bridges, and passes 34 stations. It’s truly an adventure!
Keep an eye out for the Pinhão station, which is postcard famous for its azulejos tiles.
Around three hours after we left Porto, we pulled into Pocinho. I’m not sure about the village itself, but the train station isn’t much. It didn’t even have a ticket office open (we ended up just buying the return tickets on the train from the conductor, because we hadn’t want to buy a roundtrip in Porto in case our plans changed). The point of the trip was the train ride, not the station, so just bear this in mind.
The train will rest here for about 40 minutes and then turn around and start back along the same route. If you miss it, it will be several hours before another comes back, so don’t miss it! We found a very small café just up the hill from the station (when we came out of the station we turned left) and asked the delightful lady if she had any food. She made us the best ham and cheese sandwich ever! We had another coffee, and walked back to the station to give ourselves a few minutes’ cushion as we did not want to be stuck there!
We boarded the train and sat on the opposite side this time, and enjoyed the fabulous scenery all the way back. Again, once we got closer to the more well known towns, more people got on the train and it got a little more crowded.
We got back to Porto around 4pm, in time to go back to our hotel, start packing, and enjoy a last dinner.
Our train ride was one of my highlights of Porto, and was a great way to get a taste for the Douro River as we didn’t have time to spend more than one day out there. Of course, if you have more time, I would recommend staying at a quinta for one or two nights (I’m already planning my next trip!); but if you want to say you’ve ridden on this beautiful little train ride, take advantage of the easy and inexpensive opportunity!
Have you taken this train ride? What did you think?