This little town in the eastern Alentejo is the first line of defense between the two warring nations, and it certainly shows. Evora has the largest fortress fortification in the world. They are so large and have so many layers of history that you need a guide to understand all the forts, ravelins, curtains and moats.
You’ll have fun trying to find your way through the intricate streets within the walls, taking place in churches, charming squares and museums. If your appetite for military architecture is still not enough, there are also magnificent star fortresses erected outside the town as satellite fortifications.
Let’s explore the best activities in Elvas:
1. The Wall of Elvas
At over 5km, including many different stages of construction and individual fortifications, understanding the scale and complexity of Elvas defenses can be tricky.
They started in the 1200s of Sancho I and are still being improved more than 700 years later.
There are 3 medieval walls, 17th century and 3 monumental Vauban-style systems, as well as 17th-19th century outer satellite fortresses! The good news is that there are guides available to take you to ditches, forts, gates and other crevices you might miss.
2. Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça
Outside of the main defense system, this star fort is on the rise, known as Monte da Graça built in the late 18th century.
The strategic advantage of this location was demonstrated a century ago when Spanish troops camped here during the siege of Elvas during the Portuguese Restoration War.
It was quickly put to the test when it was bombed during the Peninsular War in the early 19th century.
But the fortress stood strong and was never taken.
If you’re curious about the technology that made this fortress indestructible, you can explore.
After a multi-million euro restoration, the building reopened in 2015.
3. Amoreira Aqueduct
In the 1500s, Elvas encountered another problem because of insufficient water supply.
The only well in the area had sunk during the Moorish era and was drying up, so the city decided to build an ambitious aqueduct by diverting water from Amoreira, 8 kilometers away.
This started in 1529 and ended in 1622, and nothing is more impressive than the southwest gate of the city, which cuts through the valley with four levels of arches.
4. Castelo de Elvas
The highest point north of the town is the earliest part of the Elvas defense.
In the 700s, the Moors fortified the hill, and this medieval castle rests here.
Later, from 1166 to 1230, the fortress was occupied and lost by Christian troops, until the Moors finally gave up the territory.
Come and wander for an hour or two, following the exciting stone passages and stairs up to the battlements, where the scenery will leave you overwhelmed.
When you discover the town of Badajoz to the west, you realize how close we are to Spain.
5. Igreja das Domínicas
Not to be confused with Igreja dos Domínicos (coming later), this church is located in Santa Clara Lago.
Founded in 1528, it was once attached to a convent of the Dominican Order.
Several things make it a must-see religious building in Elvas.
First, it has an unusual octagonal layout topped by a central dome.
When you walk in, you’ll be blown away by the decor, as almost every surface is lined with 17th century patterned atapete tiles (carpet style).
6. Museum of Contemporary Art
Most of Elvas’ attractions are historic, but if you want to go back to the 21st century, the city’s contemporary art museum is the ticket.
It was founded 10 years ago in the wonderful setting of the Renaissance Misericórdia Hospital.
Based on the collection of dealer António Cachola, the permanent exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary Portuguese art, such as Pedro Calapez, Rui Sanches and José Pedro Croft.
In the auditorium you can see blue and white tiles that have been around since the 17th century.
There is also a café on the roof with a terrace where you can overlook the city.
7. Republic Square
You should start your tour of the city’s dazzling cobblestone streets from this central square.
The tourist office is located here, while the bulky façade of the cathedral is located on the northern boundary.
To the south is the old town hall, which has a charming loggia that you can admire from the seats on the terraces of the cafés around the square.
As for the square’s striking paving, it’s the calçada portuguesa (traditional Portuguese paving) with a modern twist.
Marble, sandstone and basalt tiles are laid in geometric patterns with a 3D effect.
8. Elvas Cathedral
Francisco de Arruda was the most important man in Portugal at the beginning of the 16th century.
He worked for the Torre de Belém, Portugal’s national treasure, and came to Elvas to help design the aqueduct and the Manueline reconstruction of the city’s cathedral.
The Manueline decoration is preserved on the transverse portal, which features multi-foil arches and vegetal carvings, as well as the elaborately carved columns and vaults of the central nave.
There is also an 18th-century decoration, when a chancel altar carved from Estremoz marble and baroque gilded wood on the organ box were installed.
9. Largo Santa Clara
The sweet, triangular square of Igreja das Domínicas is probably the prettiest place in the city.
It is surrounded by a section of 10th-century walls and has whitewashed houses with green and yellow trim.
Your eyes will be drawn to the yoke, once a symbol of authority.
The public punishment will be carried out here, and the iron hook attached to the capital is still visible at the top.
This 16th-century monument is in the Manueline style with twisted columns and spires.
After the original was destroyed, it was brought here from the town of Ouguela, 30 km north.
10. Forte Saint Lucia
Built in the 1640s, 150 years before Nossa Senhora da Graça, the fort is located a few kilometers southeast of the city.
It was besieged several times during the Portuguese Restoration War and withstood a Spanish attack in 1658, leading to the Battle of Elvas Line in 1659, which Portugal won decisively.
Inside is a museum that recounts the events of this battle and other frontier wars, and has weapons from the Middle Ages to the 1800s.
You can walk through the tunnels inside the fort and walk to the emplacement where the old cannons are still there.
11. Museu Militar de Elvas
You might be wondering, Elvas had no military presence until 2008, when the 8th Infantry Regiment finally left the town.
Their sizable barracks have been converted into the city’s military museum.
Considering the amount of war Elvas went through, it was an enlightening journey.
The barracks are also located on a large part of the wall, and its complex fortified elements are explained by information panels.
There are also some heavy artillery pieces outside.
Exhibits focus on the history of cavalry, communications, and military medicine, and feature operating theatres, veterinary surgery, and a pharmacy.
12. Igreja dos Domínicos
Also known as Igreja de São Domingos, this convent church was built in 1274 on the orders of King Alfonso III. You can learn a lot about Portuguese cultural history from this building.
The Gothic purity of the church is preserved in the apse and its five chapels.
But in the 1700s it was transformed into the popular Baroque style, when the façade was remodeled and the interior was decorated with gilded wood carvings and glazing.
In the 20th century, the Estado Novo regime ordered the Gothic church to be demolished back to its original design.
This part is done here, half of the church is baroque and the other half is gothic.
13. Ponte da Ajuda
A short trip by car, the bridge once crossed the Guadiña River, which has long marked the border between Portugal and Spain.
It dates back to 1520, during the reign of Manuel I, and was damaged by floods and wars several times over the next 200 years, and was quickly rebuilt.
The death knell was sounded during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1709, when it was blown up by Spanish cannons.
The bridge has been slowly disintegrating for the past 300 years, but it’s exciting to see how many arches still remain.
Both countries have declared the site a “property of public interest”, and in the peaceful countryside you can sit and think for a few minutes.
14. Cemitério dos Ingleses
Did you know that the oldest military treaty still in force in the world is the Anglo-Portuguese alliance of 1373? The agreement brought British soldiers to Elvas to fight in the Peninsular War in the early 19th century.
High on the east wall of the city, there is an English cemetery next to the medieval castle.
There are only five marked graves here.
But two are the only marked graves from the Battle of Albuera in 1811, and the other is the only marked grave from the Siege of Badajoz.
Thousands of people were killed in both conflicts, so if you are interested in military history this is a very important location.
Beyond that, it’s also a great shade to hide from the sun for a few minutes under a chestnut tree.
15. Food and drink
The Municipal Market is another catalogue of historic buildings in the city, dating back to the early 18th century.
Arches and vaults are an atmospheric backdrop for a few minutes of grocery shopping. One treat to keep in mind is Elvas plums.
These are boiled, soaked in sugar, and dried to make a sweet treat that sells for astronomical prices at specialist retailers abroad, but is available here for cheap.
Typical restaurant menus include lamb stew, spare ribs and bacalhau dourado, cod grilled with shredded potatoes.
In the hot summer, a bowl of gazpacho, vegetable soup at room temperature, can really hit the spot.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Elvas, Portugal
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