Cod is pretty much a way of life in Portugal, and if there’s one place to understand the sentiment, it’s the base of the country’s “white fleet”. Most of the trawler captains of the day were Ílhavo natives, and they carried out epic sorties in the North Sea and the Atlantic.
Saltwater and fishing are still in the town’s veins: the Modern Maritime Museum will give you all the context, and there’s a giant trawler moored on the canal for you to visit. Ílhavo is also on the Aveiro Lagoon, with its own unique identity and culture, while the magnificent Atlantic beaches with bubbling waves are also in your hands.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ilhavo:
1. Museu Marítimo de Ílhavo
In an award-winning building in 2001, the Maritime Museum in Ílhavo has three main exhibition halls: you can learn about the unique origins of the Aveiro Lagoon and visit the typical painted wooden boats suitable for these waters.
Then there is the room about the White Fleet and the Portuguese Atlantic and North Sea cod fisheries, which were the main employers of the 20th century.
Finally, over time, people recalled the daily life of Ilawo and the town’s deep connection to the sea.
A cod aquarium was installed in 2013, allowing you to get an up-close look at the fish that have been the cornerstone of the Portuguese diet since ancient times.
2. New Coast Coast
This small coastal community between the Aveiro Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean has a luscious seaside promenade.
Along the trail is a beautiful row of weatherboard houses (palheiros) painted with stripes of different colors.
These were once used as shelters and storage facilities and have since been turned into quaint holiday accommodation.
The beach has the much-loved cinematic beauty of the Portuguese coast, with endless sand and rough surf.
Try to have a meal here in the evening when the sun goes down.
3. Navio Museu Santo André
Moored at Jardim Oudinot are relics of Portugal’s 20th century cod fishing fleet.
Launched in 1948 and on its last expedition in Norway in 1997, the 71-meter Dutch trawler was restored and opened to the public.
It is the last fishing boat of its kind in Portugal, hauling in from the side rather than stern and capable of holding 1,200 tonnes.
Santo André is officially a branch of the Ílhavo Maritime Museum, in addition to the bridge, kitchen, canteen and living areas, the old fish cabin has a space dedicated to marine art and photography.
From Ovar in the north to Mira, the 45 km long is a lagoon.
The average depth of this expanse of water is only one meter, which is why the typical moliceiro boats originally used to harvest seaweed have their unique design.
You can board a tour at Ílhavo, but you must register in advance.
Getting to the city of Aveiro is even easier, just over ten minutes from the coast.
With regular tours through the canals and into the lagoon, you’ll learn about the lagoon’s unique ecology and human history.
It is worth noting that it is only 1000 years old and formed from the accumulation of sand at the confluence of the Vouga and Antuã rivers.
5. Jardim Oudinot
In the 2000s, Ílhavo started a project to beautify the northern end of the Mira Canal.
During this period, the 11-hectare waterfront area is equipped with sports facilities, a promenade, gardens, a leisure port and a small river beach with bars.
A few years later, around 3.5 million euros, the area has changed.
It is now the main place where the people of Illawar meet, exercise, relax and celebrate.
The festival do Bacalhau (Cod Festival) at the end of August unfolds here.
6. Playa da Barra
At the entrance of the lagoon, this beach is divided into two parts and has all the services of the resort to support it.
The upper part is separated by a breakwater, giving it smooth, tranquil waters.
Families with fewer bathers will be happy with this beach, while the beach south of the breakwater has the rolling waves and white foam of a typical Atlantic beach.
Surfing is great when the wind is in the right direction, and stand-up paddleboarders, surfboarders and kitesurfers are a fixture in almost any season.
A few minutes south, the resort disappears, replaced by sand dunes that you can traverse on the boardwalk.
7. Vista Alegre
This premium hand-painted porcelain brand has been in Ilawo for over 200 years.
Vista Alegre chose this place because every ingredient of high-quality ceramics is rich: clay and minerals in the lagoon, and white sand from the coast.
In 1824, during the reign of King John IV, the factory soon received a royal mandate. This prestigious heritage is on display in the museum, which covers Mark’s story and has many fine examples, while also examining Portugal’s affinity for ceramics, both as a utilitarian material and as a decoration.
You’ll see the inside of the oven, and the hand-painted school where people are trained to Vista Alegre’s lofty standards.
8. Capela da Vista Alegre
In the 19th century, an entire village was formed around the Vista Alegre factory.
This was inspired by the utopian concept of the time, aimed at improving the welfare of workers.
The amenities and typical Portuguese housing built during the Estado Novo dictatorship are worth a few minutes.
The community is anchored by Capela de Nossa Senhora da Penha de França, where the area was previously located, dating back to the late 1600s.
This is the stunning baroque mausoleum of Manuel de Moura Manuel, Bishop Miranda and Rector of the University of Coimbra, who died in 1699.
9. Farol da Barra
Portugal’s tallest lighthouse stands above Praia da Barra, where the Aveiro Lagoon flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
Built in 1893, the red and white building houses a lighthouse 66 meters above sea level.
If you’re up for the climb, you can climb 288 calorie-burning steps overlooking the sea or back to Ílhavo, Aveiro and its lagoon.
The building, which is run by the Portuguese military, was allowed to visit on Wednesday afternoon.
10. Aveiro Museum
Aveiro’s most striking attraction is the city’s museum, housed in a 15th-century Dominican monastery.
A historical figure associated with the monastery is Joanna, the Portuguese princess and daughter of Alfonso V, who in 1475 led a pious life by rejecting a suitor. Long after her death, her body was transferred to a polychrome marble tomb in the church choir, a masterpiece of 18th-century Baroque craftsmanship.
The tiled dining room and Renaissance cloister are among the many others.
The museum has a rich collection of furniture, paintings, jewelry, sculptures and hand-painted tiles, mostly on religious themes.
11. Water sports
You can choose between the warm shallow waters of the lagoon and the foam-breaking waves in the ocean for water activities.
Starting in the Atlantic, there are three surf and surf schools between Praia da Barra and Costa Nova.
The water temperature is cold even in summer, but once you’ve had a good time, you’ll forget about the water temperature in a wetsuit.
Stand-up paddle boarding is a more forgiving pursuit, suitable for most ages.
Since you can walk through the lagoon so peacefully, it’s a great way to see wildlife and get some light exercise at the same time.
Kitesurfing is also on the agenda, taking advantage of the gentle currents and reliable winds of the Mira Canal.
12. Blinka Museum
In the nearby parish of Vagos, a charming museum has been built in the former town hall.
This attraction is all about toys, games and childhood.
But the museum goes beyond dusty antiques and display cases to encourage participation; kids can play in a pretend castle, live in a life-size dollhouse, and learn how to use puppets.
Younger visitors will be excited about these interactive elements, and parents can browse an all-encompassing collection of 15,000 childhood objects related to past decades, from a recreated Estado Novo classroom to every kind of toys and games imaginable.
13. Mercado do Peixe Costa Nova
Try going to Costa Nova in the morning so you can shop at the fish market.
It’s not just foodies who will be in awe of fish and twitching shellfish that have just left the water.
If you’re staying in a self-catering accommodation, you might want to buy some crab or shrimp to cook at home, or go all out for a traditional Calderada stew.
But the market also stands out for its stalls that prepare certain shellfish for you on the spot.
The scent of the ocean fills the air on a morning walk, and you can’t beat goose barnacles or cockles.
14. Celebrações em Honra de Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes
Jardim Oudinot is also the place to watch the annual fleet on the third weekend of September every year.
This is for our navigator lady, starting with the old cod fishing port and ending with the 17th century Barra fort.
It’s a tradition that has been passed down for generations, but before moving to waterways in the 70s, it was a procession that transported shrines over land.
Hundreds of boats of different sizes and types take part, from tugboats to yachts and traditional sailboats.
15. Local Food
No other town in Portugal has such an appreciation for bacalhau (salted cod) as Ílhavo.
In mid-August, the Cod Festival replaces the town’s traditional restaurants with stalls at Jardim Oudonot offering cooking demonstrations, tasting sessions and evening concerts.
In the past, cod was salted and dried in large quantities in lagoons.
The local method of cooking cod is roasted with potatoes and garnished with onions and peppers.
Some other dishes to keep in mind are the typical seafood platter, lagoon eel stew or mixed seafood risotto.
In bakeries, Folar de Vale de Ílhavo is a crusty pastry made with plenty of eggs and dusted with powdered sugar.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Ilhavo, Portugal
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