Where the Limia River reaches the Atlantic Ocean, Viana do Castelo is a lovely historic city.
In the old town, especially in Praça da República, there are 16th-century Manuel and Renaissance buildings to win your heart.
The Santa Luisa Mountain looms behind the city, accessible by the longest funicular in Portugal.
At the top is the majestic cathedral, as well as the Iron Age “Castro” and the coveted panorama.
Beachgoers can have everything they could hope for in Praia de Cabedelo, a huge, unspoiled bay with golden sand, tracked by dunes and washed by rolling waves.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Viana do Castelo:
1. Republic Square
This long square in the heart of the old town is where you’ll come back, whether on a sightseeing tour or just to lose some weight for a few minutes with a cup of coffee or a cold beer.
It is completely pedestrian street with many century-old buildings.
You’ll be drawn to the old town hall, built in the 16th century: the granite building has an arcade on the lower level, Mellon at the top, and the coat of arms of Viana do Castelo right above the central window.
A few steps from the Old Town Hall is the wonderful Renaissance fountain in the square, also made of granite in the 1550s.
2. Santa Casa Da Misericordia
João Lopes, the same Renaissance craftsman who carved the fountain, also worked on the façade of the church and the hospital building in front of it.
From the steps of the fountain, there are views of the Venetian arcade and the two-story loggia.
The sheer number of sculptures will enchant you for a few minutes, be it the sundial, the caryatids on the loggia or the extravagant portal on the right side of the arcade.
The church inside is 1714 Baroque and equally stunning, thanks to its fantastic 18th century azulejos conveying biblical scenes, right down to the walls and vaults.
3. Gil Eannes Ship
Launched in 1955 as the flagship of the “White Fleet”, this vessel at the Viana do Castelo commercial terminal is a striking memorial to the Estado Novo regime.
Gil Eannes is a hospital ship that will set sail for the oceans off Newfoundland and Greenland and support trawler fishing for cod in these waters.
Much of the ship’s original medical equipment, such as the X-ray machine and operating room, is located close to the hull to minimize rocking.
Gil Eannes has also been used for breaking ice, transporting mail and as a tugboat during its 20 years of service.
4. St. Lucia Basilica
Located on the north side of the old town, Mount Santa Lucia, at the turn of the 20th century, was inspired by the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris and became a sanctuary.
It took decades to complete and was designed in an eclectic style, mixing Neo-Gothic and Byzantine styles.
The building’s rose window is the largest on the Iberian Peninsula, and first-rate craftsmen are invited to create frescoes, sculptures and altars carved from Vila Viçosa marble.
The view from the dome (and the platform below) will overwhelm you, presenting views of Viana do Castelo’s old town, the Atlantic Ocean, the Limia River and the pine tree tops from three directions.
5. St. Lucia Cable Car
The most pleasant way to get to the holy sites and viewpoints of St. Lucia is to take the “elevator”. Existing since 1923, at 650 meters it is the longest in Portugal and more than double that of its nearest competitor, Nazaré.
At 160 meters, the climb is also bigger than anywhere else in the country, which is no mean feat considering Lisbon’s array of funiculars, for example.
The journey to the top of the mountain takes seven minutes, and the last journey in summer is at 20:00.
6. Sitania de Santa Lucia
Take a quick stroll from the sanctuary atop Monte de Santa Luzia to the fortified Iron Age settlements that lived from the 7th century BC to Roman times.
From this sublime habitat, it can control the mouth of the Limian River and have a privileged vantage point for miles around.
The lost town was known for hundreds of years before excavations began in the late 19th century.
Today, only a third of this massive site has been discovered.
Via the boardwalk, you will pass through this ancient castle and marvel at the technical skills of building dry stone walls for perfectly circular houses.
7. The Architecture of Viana do Castelo
The heart of Viana do Castelo is a treasure trove of fine architecture.
Praça da República has Manueline, Renaissance and Baroque façades, running on parallel streets all the way to the river.
These will have whitewashed walls, portals and windows carved in granite, while some will be covered in geometric tiles.
Outside the old town, there are many noteworthy 20th century buildings: Avenida dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra has Art Deco houses and facilities from the 1920s and 1930s.
For avant-garde architecture, check out Plaza Liberty, designed by Fernando Távora, and the Municipal Library, designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira.
8. Cabedello Beach
During the summer months, there are ferries across the Limian estuary to this paradise beach.
Praia do Cabedelo is absolutely massive, huddled in the distance and showing no sign of development save for a few cabins.
Even if the river is as wide as the width of the city, you will feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.
The beach is on the edge of a nature reserve, and the dunes and pine bushes are in a delicate ecosystem, visible from the boardwalk, but blocked off to protect the flora.
The beach shelf is gentle, so even with rolling waves, there is a large shallow area where the kids can play safely.
9. Museu do Traje
In stylish modern galleries, the museum tells the story of the traditional dress of this part of the northern region.
Some projects span hundreds of years, but the era of interest is the 19th century.
At this time, the dresses of young women are colorful and full of gold threads, and the museum will help you decipher the code (age, marital status, etc.) conveyed by each dress. There are also clothing worn by farmers, fishermen and workers who used to grow seaweed on the beaches of Viana do Castelo.
Get close to the showcase to see the precision of the embroidery.
The cathedral of Viana do Castelo has a military appearance and is both Gothic and Romanesque.
The façade was built in the 15th century when the two square towers were crowned with a zig-zag.
Also from this time, the carvings you can see on the archives have images of the crucifix and the apostles next to the doorway.
This shows the influence of Galician architecture, as this doorway is almost identical to that of Tui Cathedral across the border.
The chapel inside is decorated in Manuel and Renaissance styles and is worth seeing.
11. Municipal Museum
The Municipal Museum of Viana do Castelo is located in two connected buildings.
The older part, facing Santo Largo, is the 18th century palace of the powerful Teixeira Barbosa Maciel family.
You can see their coat of arms on the façade, and the glazing on the walls decorates the interior.
These galleries will give you an idea of Viana do Castelo’s historic faience industry and contain the largest ceramic collection in Portugal.
Most of them are made in workshops in the city or factories in Meadela.
The Santa Lucia Castle has furniture, paintings and Iron Age artifacts.
12. Santiago da Barra Fort
The Commercial Pier in Viana do Castelo is a 16th-century fortress that guards the anchorage at the mouth of the Limia River and what was once one of Portugal’s main seaports.
The building replaced the earlier fort and was equipped with all the elements for countering artillery in the last decades of the 1500s.
The walls have trapezoidal profiles on a pentagonal plane and bartizans at the angles of the fort.
The fort isn’t much of an interest, but it’s a sight to remember: to enter you have to cross the dry moat and go through an arched tunnel, from which you can see the mouth of the Limia River or the Santa Lucia Hills.
13. Nossa Senhora da Agonia
In a lovely baroque chapel near the port, there is a shrine to Our Lady of Sorrows, built in 1674, for fishermen to pray for good luck in their sailing.
The patron saint’s holiday is August 20, the day the parade is launched.
Over the centuries, this celebration evolved into the no-holds-barred celebration that takes place today.
The festival runs from the 17th to the 20th and includes a parade of giant ceremonial puppets (gigantones and cabeçudos), thousands of participants and dozens of floats.
There are also masquerade parties, fireworks and folk music recitals.
14. Water sports
Hidden behind Praia do Cabedelo are several companies that can help you make the most of the beach’s rolling surf and steady winds, choosing from regular surfing, bodyboarding, windsurfing and kitesurfing.
The beach is so exposed that the last two can be done almost any time of the year.
Even if you come for a walk in winter, there will be kites dancing in the air on the beach.
In summer, Praia do Cabedelo is spacious enough that surfers and swimmers don’t have to fight for space.
15. Local Food
Each port town on the Northland coast has its own method of preparing fish and seafood.
At Viana do Castelo there is pescada à Vianense, which is cod, cod or other whitefish seasoned with lemon juice and garlic, then baked with potato chips and garnished with sautéed garlic and onions.
The province of Minho in the northwest of the country is the birthplace of Portugal’s famous kale and potato vegetable soup, caldo verde.
This is a great vegetarian option, but can also be paired with cured meats such as chouriço, linguiça or paio.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Viana do Castelo, Portugal
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