What are the rabelo boats?

One of the most popular symbols of Porto is the rabelo boat. On this article, I will tell you the…

Sara Riobom
5 de October de 2023

One of the most popular symbols of Porto is the rabelo boat. On this article, I will tell you the history of the rabelo boats and let you know how to do a Douro river cruise in Porto (also known as the 6 Bridges cruise) inside a rabelo boat. Let’s go!

No time for a long article? Here’s a summary:

The 6 bridges cruise in Porto is a 50 minutes river cruise on a picturesque rabelo boat, which was traditionally used to carry Port wine barrels from the Douro valley to Porto.

The history of the rabelo boats

real rabelo boat porto
@ Carlos Monteiro

The rabelo boars (the flat boats nowadays laying quietly by the riverside) used to be the nautical horses that carried barrels of Porto wine from the Douro valley vineyards to the Port Wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

For centuries, when there were no suitable roads or a single railway alongside the vineyards, Rabelo boats were the most efficient and reliable mode of transportation, if not only for their exclusivity.
As boats navigating a particularly turbulent river (at the time no dams existed in Douro, so the river was very treacherous), they were hard to maneuver and thus required experienced sailors – about a dozen of them!, to ensure that the precious wine reached port safely. A long oar over the stern called espadela was used to manoeuvre the boat, by sailors standing up on a wooden structure called apégadas.  From there, it was easier to control the boat as well as to check the water currents and unexpected obstacles.
ancient photo rabelo boat port wine
And… what about going all the way up the river, back to the vineyards, with empty barrels? That was another story: the boats were pulled by beasts of burden or human pullers using towpaths, caminhos de sirga, located on the river banks. And in order to prevent the boats from hitting the rocks, sailors would use long wood and iron cane shaped tools called bicheiros.
Nowadays Rabelo boats do not challenge the Douro river anymore; instead, they await anxiously in Vila Nova de Gaia for the only day in the year when they can happily navigate the waters yet once again: St John’s festivity, the most admired saint of Porto – even though he is not officially the patron saint, as I already explained 🙂

How to do a Douro river cruise in a rabelo boat

The first thing I should tell you is that you can take a river cruise in a rabelo boat both in Porto as well as in Douro Valley. Both are fantastic experiences; on the Porto one you get to admire the city seen from the waters (it’s stunning, truly) and in Douro Valley you get to see the magnificent wine terraces and wineries of the region.

Local tip: whether you do a river cruise in Porto or in Douro Valley, make sure to show up at least 15 minutes in advance – the first people entering the boat get the best seats!

How to do a Douro river cruise in a rabelo boat in PORTO

6 bridges cruise porto

There are several ways to take a Douro river cruise in Porto, on a rabelo boat, also known as the 6 Bridges Cruise:

Whatever your choice is, I recommend you to book it in advance as it is one of the most popular activities in the city.

Make sure to check my article about the best river cruises in Porto, as it is very detailed, with information on prices, schedules, best tour operators, etc.

How to do a Douro river cruise in a rabelo boat in DOURO VALLEY

best-douro-river-cruises

You can also take a Douro river cruise in Douro Valley, a magic region where Port wine (and some of the best Portuguese wines) are produced. There, and unlike in Porto, most river cruises do take place on traditional rabelo boats, which is awesome.

If you want to spend a few days in the region or even if you are just planning to stay overnight in Douro Valley, I highly recommend you to book the online ticket for the 2h Douro river cruise or the online ticket for the 1h Douro river cruise, as both take place on traditional rabelo boats.

The ticket for the 1h Douro river cruise costs 12,50€ and the ticket for the 2h Douro river cruise costs 25€. Tickets are the same price whether you buy online or on site, but if you don’t buy online and just try to buy on site you risk running out of places on the boats, as it is one of the most popular activities in the douro valley.

Save this article for later:

history rabelo boats porto
douro river cruises porto

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