What to do in Northern Portugal

Portugal Douro Valley

Northern Portugal is a perfect region for travelers interested in adventure activities, winemaking, hot springs, and history. Northerners are proud of their culinary and historical heritage,  reminding visitors that Portugal’s first king was born in this region and that some whisper the food in Porto far surpasses that of Lisbon (but don’t tell the Lisboetas!).

In this article, I’m focusing on the incredible lands just outside of Portugal’s plucky “northern capital,” Porto. Spend a few days in Porto to shake off your jetlag – but to truly appreciate this region, continue north or east to experience some of the most stunning scenery and enchanting vistas in all the country.   

It’s almost easy to believe in magic as you explore mist-shrouded rock formations, stumble upon wild ponies next to hidden waterfalls, and visit ancient wolf-traps built by the Romans, still preserved today. Shepherds still disappear up into the mountains for weeks at a time, bringing their flocks down to greener pastures with the help of the distinctive Serra da Estrela dogs bred to protect against predators.  Or head to the sparkling, wide rushing waters of the Douro River,  “the river of gold” that has given birth to the oldest demarcated wine region in the world burst with vitality in the spring and summer. 

If you’ve previously ended your first trip to Portugal with an overnight in Porto after flying into Lisbon and working your way up through central Portugal (a common itinerary), here are additional reasons to return and discover the North in depth!

Geres National Park in Northern Portugal

Peneda-Geres National Park will wow you with its wilderness and beautiful vistas.  In the summer, jeep tours are available with kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and swimming in wild waterfalls. 

In the fall and winter, the park becomes somehow mystical with mist-filled mountain views and the hope of glimpsing the Iberian wolves or wild ponies that still live here.  Canyoning, rock-climbing, and abseiling are also available with local tour companies; horse-back riding can also be arranged.  

Roman roads and mile markers are still visible, reminding us the area is thousands of years old.   (Neolithic tombs are also present here.)  A quirky site is the village of Vilarinho das Furnas, a sunken town beneath a lake whose ruins are visible at low tide. 

Villages in this area will make you feel like time has stood still, with many still living in rock houses built by hand.  Due to some of the remote parts, I recommend English-speakers travel with a guide and/or take a tour to get the most out of their experience! You’ll get so much more out of the experience instead of trying to drive yourself.  (You can read my own trip report here.)

Geres National Park is only about 90 minutes’ drive from Porto, and even closer from some of the other locations located in this article such as Braga, so it’s easy to work it into a Northern Portugal itinerary no matter where you are staying. 

Wine tasting in Northern Portugal

Spend some days in the Douro Valley at the many wine estates that line this steep valley’s riverbanks.  If you don’t have a car, consider staying in Pinhao, which is on the train line and offers enough activities for a weekend stay as there are vineyards within both walking- and taxi-distance.  If you have a car or a private driver, or are open to private transportation through the hotel, your options greatly expand and there are some beautiful luxury properties available.  

You don’t need to be a wine lover to appreciate the beauty of this region.  Stay at the extravagant Six Senses Douro Valley Spa Resort set in the hills overlooking the river, with biking and picnics provided along the estate grounds, cooking workshops, and spa facilities that will rejuvenate you after a day spent on the road.  

In good weather, kayak on the Douro river or hike in the valley, or simply visit some of the historical villages if you’d like a break from wine-tasting. Some highlights of a day’s touring are: 

  • Amarante, the “city of love” (in the Minho region but very close to the Douro);
  • Lamego with its impressive theatrical 700-step outdoor stairway; and
  • Mateus Manor House, an 18th century Baroque masterpiece with fantastic gardens.

Note: Viano do Castelo is due north of Porto and located in the Minho province, well known for its vinho verde (young wine) – visit the Minho area if you’re particularly interested in this type of wine, as it isn’t produced in the Douro Valley. 

Wellness travel experiences in Northern Portugal

For those seeking to refresh both their bodies and souls, there are several hot springs sources in the north, and spa hotels have popped up accordingly.  Look for the Portuguese word “termas” (thermal) or “caldas” (hot) to alert you to public hot springs. 

Some of the best ones are the Termas de Vidago and you can stay at the lovely Vidago Palace Resort hotel to partake.

The Geres Thermal Spa has been used since the 17th century and could be worth a stop after a day’s activities in the national park. 

Historical towns in Northern Portugal

Away from the Douro Valley and slightly northeast of Porto, history lovers will delight in visiting both Guimaraes and Braga – often visited on the same day due to their proximity. Guimaraes, in particular, is worth an overnight stay if you enjoy a slower pace of travel, especially due to its beautiful convent-turned-hotel overlooking the city.  

While Braga is more traditionally both Baroque and Gothic,  Guimaraes has preserved its medieval center, so its architecture is quite different from many other towns in Portugal. It’s more reminiscent of German or Swiss villages.  It’s a pleasant town to explore both the tiny castle and the Ducal Palace. Afterward, partake in some traditional northern food in the outdoor dining in the town square. Guimaraes is known as “the birthplace of Portugal” as the first King of Portugal was born here. 

When to go?

Insider tip:  Out of all the Portuguese regions, this area receives the most rain and wind in the winter and can be ten degrees colder than the other southern regions.  Although Portuguese weather can be enjoyable even in winter, if you don’t like rolling the dice on rainstorms, it’s best to visit before the end of October or after the end of March unless you plan on many indoor activities. 

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Portugal Travel Advising

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the fascinating geography, rich history, proud gastronomy, and authentic culture that’s available in Northern Portugal.  You could truly design an entire itinerary around this region. Not sure how to start? I’ve lived in Portugal and personally experienced how wonderful your Portugal trip can be. Learn more about my travel consulting here or contact me here.