Photography by Jill Schneider
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Tchim-tchim! There’s More Than Wine to Toast in Portugal’s Douro Valley

Whether or not you’ve got wine on the mind, the cup here overflows for travelers.

Check out five great reasons to explore in and around the Douro Valley—none of which have anything to do with grapes.

Everything’s golden: It is believed the Douro River derived its name from the Portuguese word dourado, or golden, for the way the sun’s rays shimmer on the surface of its water. That’s one reason that CNN has said the Douro Valley “may be the world’s most beautiful wine region.” The spectacular scenery along the winding N-222 highway, which traces the river and winds past wine terraces from Peso da Régua to Pinhão, earned it the highly subjective title of World’s Best Driving Road, according to at least one recent contest—beating out legendary routes such as California’s Big Sur and Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Blue’s clues: Italy has its frescoes; Portugal has its tiles. The stunning and often blue azulejo tiles of Porto—the region’s gateway—do more than set an Instagram-ready backdrop for selfies. Appearing everywhere from churches and monasteries to park seats and train stations, these iconic wall coverings can tell stories. Seafaring tales, Bible stories, and historical events play out across the tiles and give an artful depiction of the country’s past and personality.

Rock the cradle city: For a primer in national identity, head straight to the source at Guimarães—Portugal’s first capital in the 12th-century and often considered the country’s birthplace. The historic city rewards visitors with imposing castle ruins and the Gothic, tapestry-filled Palace of the Dukes of Bragança. Not your average Portuguese palace, this 15th-century residence was commissioned by the illegitimate son of King João I and designed to mimic a typical French manor house.

Like a prayer: If you think the natural beauty here is enough to inspire a religious experience, you wouldn’t be the first. In the 12th century, a group of so-called White Monks established Portugal’s first Cistercian monastery here, called the Mosteiro de São João de Tarouca. The ruins offer a fascinating glimpse into history in a meditative setting. Meanwhile, the elegant town of Lamego is home to a veritable stairway to heaven—more than 600 zigzagging stone steps, adorned with hand-painted tiles, that lead up a hillside to a baroque sanctuary.

Graffiti for the ages: Part of a World Heritage site since 1998, the Côa Valley is the site of what some consider humankind’s oldest outdoor art. Here on the banks of the Côa River—a tributary of the Douro—is the site of thousands of engravings on rock panels, dating back some 25,000 years and representing an astonishing array of horses, oxen, goats, armed hunters, and more. Travelers can explore this important place on foot, by 4x4 vehicle, and at the interpretive Côa Museum.

National Geographic Expeditions offers several Douro Valley tours, including an 11-day cruise along the Douro River.