Opposite Porto on the River Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia is a city that occupies the south bank and also continues down the coast. For a lot of its lifetime, Vila Nova de Gaia has been renowned for its port cellars. The fortified wine would arrive here by water from the east and would be stored in warehouses, many of which are still in place and open to visitors.
If you want to taste port in Portugal this is the only place to go, and the choice of cellars is almost bewildering. High above the Douro there are also some fabulous viewpoints taking in Gaia’s riverside and the old districts of Porto. And for beach-time you’ll have no fewer than 15 Blue Flag beaches in easy reach.
Lets explore the best things to do in Vila Nova de Gaia:
Next to the river in Vila Nova de Gaia you’ll be standing where barrels of wine and port have were loaded and unloaded for hundreds of years.
This took place until the 1950s when the wine started arriving by truck.
It all comes from the upper Douro Valley far to the east, and is brought here to mature in oak barrels.
Port is fortified by adding brandy during fermentation.
This is what can make it sweet as it halts the fermentation process, but in the 18th century the main reason it was done to make the wine last longer for voyages.
2. Port Lodges
So now the hardest part is working out which port lodge you want to visit.
There are more than 60 caves in Vilanova de Gaia, at least 20 of which are open for visitors.
Typically you’ll get to know about the different types of port (tawny, white, crusted, vintage), and the slow development of the port inside their porous oak barrels.
These are stored in cool, damp cellars, and you might be surprised by just how old some of the barrels are.
Many of the lodges have English names, going back to when Britain turned to port after sanctions were placed on French wine in the 1700s.
A few to consider are Sandeman, Cálem, Graham’s and Quinta do Noval, and you’ll get to taste each variety to learn the difference.
3. Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar
On a terrace looking down on the Dom Luís I Bridge and the Douro is this 16th-century monastery that is included in Porto’s World Heritage Site.
This is Gaia’s most important landmark and is an energising place to be, day or night.
There’s an uplifting perspective of the Douro from here, and you can see a great deal of Porto and both banks of the river, as far as the modern Arrábida Bridge to the west.
The monastery itself dates to the 16th century, with a church decorated with 18th-century gilded altarpieces and polychrome sculptures of the saints Augustine, Apollonia and Eulalia.
4. Teleférico de Gaia
This cable car was opened in 2011 and rides just over half a kilometre up and down the high south bank of the Douro.
The upper terminal is the Serra do Pilar monastery, and this is the station that people crossing from Porto will use.
From here you’ll be flown, 50 metres above the port lodges and warehouses, down to the water’s edge at Avenida Ramos Pinto.
The journey takes five minutes, which is plenty of time to get some snaps of the river, the Dom Luís I Bridge and Gaia’s timeless cityscape.
5. Casa-Museu Teixeira Lopes
You don’t have to be steeped in Portuguese art to appreciate this museum to the sculptor António Teixeira Lopes (1866-1942). He was native to Vila Nova de Gaia and his work is dotted all around the Porto area, and in 1895 his brother designed a palatial atelier for him to work in.
This now houses the museum, which as well as holding many of Teixeira Lopes’ works also gives you an introduction to Portuguese art of the past 200 years.
You can see sculpture by António Soares dos Reis and José Sousa Caldas, along with painting by the rococo court painter Vieira Lusitano or the 19th-century naturalist José Malhoa.
6. Douro River Trip
At jetties all along the riverside at Vila Nova de Gaia are boats ready to take you off on a quick cruise along the Douro.
It’s a minor thrill to know that this is where barrels of wine were rolled off the old rabelo boats.
On your hour-long voyage you’ll be given a commentary of the Vila Nova de Gaia and Porto landmarks, including the six bridges that traverse the river.
The Douro is a spectacular river so you might be in the mood for something longer.
Before you come you could book a three-day cruise up to the terraced vineyards Pinhão, or go even further, into Spain on a week-long trip.
7. Dom Luís I Bridge
Your link with Porto, this metallic bridge is one of the city’s international identifiers and broke records when it was completed in 1886. The designer was Théophile Seyrig, who had cofounded the Eiffel Company in 1868. One of many innovative features at the time was the inclusion of two levels: Today the upper level is for Porto’s light railway system and pedestrians, while the lower section is for road traffic, with a footpath provided here as well.
8. Capela do Senhor da Pedra
Winter or summer, you can take some powerful photos at this unique site at Praia de Miramar in Gulpilhares.
The Senhor da Pedra is a 17th century Baroque chapel embedded into a rocky outcrop directly in front of the ocean.
In summer you can have the slightly surreal experience of sunbathing next to a chapel.
On Trinity Sunday, around May or June, there’s a pilgrimage to the chapel along the beach, but for the remainder of the year it’s a beautiful curiosity stranded on the beach.
9. Praia da Granja
The southernmost beach in Vila Nova de Gaia is definitely one of the loveliest.
As with many on this length of coast it has Blue Flag status every year, but giving it some character are the old holiday cottages and mansions beside it.
These are from the 19th century when Praia da Granja was the choice of aristocrats, industrialists, artists and famous writers of the period like Ramalho Ortigão and Eça de Queirós.
A little later, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, the famous poet would spend summers here as a child, and the setting inspired some of her work.
10. Jardim do Morro
Next door to the monastery and cable car station is this park that takes benefits from that romantic panorama of Porto.
It was landscaped in 1927, with tree-shaded paths weaving up the slope and affording lots of places to stop and admire the scenery.
The breeze wafts in from the Atlantic, and there are a few stalls selling souvenirs.
After the chaos of the riverfront it’s also a good spot just to take a breather and contemplate Porto and the Douro in your own time.
After sunset you can pick out landmarks like the Clérigos Church tower and the cathedral illuminated.
11. Zoo Santo Inácio
If you have young family there’s a good alternative to Vila Nova de Gaia’s port warehouses upriver next to the Douro.
it’s a little way outside the city but you can catch the bus or a taxi and be there in under ten minutes.
The zoo has 1,000 inhabitants from 300 species, with a tropical greenhouse, retile house, insect house and educational farm.
Among the many exotic animals are giraffes cheetahs, capybaras, macaques, a Siberian tiger and a Burmese python.
There are demonstrations throughout the day, which are all given by the same person! There are birds of prey flights, you’ll get up close to harmless snakes and watch the penguins feeding.
12. Estação Litoral da Aguda
There’s another animal attraction down in Aguda, which has a combined aquarium and maritime museum.
There are 15 tanks here, presenting in vivid detail the animals and underwater plant life in the Atlantic off Portugal’s close.
You’ll be able to inspect more than 700 animals from 60 species, among which are octopuses, spider crabs and turtles.
The museum area is a crazy miscellany of objects relating to navigation, hunting, fishing and natural science, and counts antique harpoons, model boats, minerals, skeletons and nets.
13. Parque Biológico de Gaia
Also worthwhile if you have little ones in tow is this outdoor attraction in Avintes, presenting the natural history, wildlife and domesticated animals of the region.
Kids will be very keen on the animal enclosures where there are goats, pigs, deer and turtles.
The park has an ecological purpose, because of the encroachment of the Porto conurbation, and has created a space where more than 40 different bird species make their nests.
Many more also visit during migrations depending on the season.
There are also life-sized models of prehistoric beasts, including an enormous brachiosaurus.
14. More Beaches
It needs to be said that there are many more beaches to discover on Vila Nova de Gaia.
This municipality has a higher concentration of Blue Flag beaches than any other part of Portugal.
There’s 17 kilometres of sand, and in a given year at least 15 beaches are awarded the Blue Flag in recognition of their cleanliness and facilities.
Some options to mark on your map are Madalena, Valadares, Aguda and in Miramar the Praia do Senhor da Bedra, which boasts that sensational little chapel on the ocean.
As there’s just a river’s width away from Vila Nova de Gaia and Portugal’s second city, Porto is somewhere you can dip in and out of if you’re staying on the south bank.
You barely need to cross the river to find dynamic areas and a things to do in this UNESCO city.
The Ribeira quarter is crammed onto the waterfront, where there’s a lively piazza full of visitors and locals on cafe terraces.
You can catch a funicular up to the walls, and head into the newer part of town to see churches decorated with majestic gilded woodwork, or the Palácio da Bolsa, with its eclectic and lavish interiors.