15 Best things to do in Vila Franca de Xira (Portugal)

Vila Franca de Xira is located just 20 minutes north of Lisbon, on the Tagus River, where it stretches out to a vast estuary.

The largest and most ecologically diverse wetland area in the country lies on this shore.

It’s a bird watcher’s dream, and a new ultra-modern visitor center can provide you with information on the thousands of species that inhabit or stay in the swamps and mudflats.

There are also fertile farmland near the estuary, where the legendary Lusitano horses and black pit bulls are raised.

Let’s discover the best things to do in Vila Franca de Xira:

1. Reserva Natural do Estuário do Tejo

Reserva Natural do Estuário do Tejo

The largest wetland area in Portugal, and one of the ten largest wetlands in Europe, is located in the city of Vila Franca de Xira.

Covering over 14,000 hectares, the reserve is designed to provide a safe haven for thousands of birds that breed, overwinter or migrate between Africa and Western Europe.

You can visit at any time of the year and enjoy the spectacle of life and color, but the migratory periods of fall and spring are the most diverse for bird populations.

Winter is also special, when more than 120,000 waterfowl and waders descend on the estuary for milder weather.

2. EVOA – Espaço de Visitação e Observação de Aves

EVOA - Espaço de Visitação e Observação de Aves

The Visitor Center at the Tagus Estuary Nature Reserve is the place to learn about the park’s wildlife.

It is a modern complex built on wooden piles, cleverly designed with a viewing space with large windows facing the swamp.

Located in its own 70 hectares of freshwater marshland, the center is designed to protect the park’s birds and make it easier to observe without being invasive.

With well-designed trails and hideaways, EVOA conducts regular guided bird watching walks.

All the birds that inhabit the estuary are clearly summarized in the permanent exhibit, so it’s a useful base if you plan to watch or photograph this wildlife.

3. Museum of Neorealism

Museum of Neorealism

Scholars of Portugal’s 20th-century history should be fascinated by this museum of the Neorealist movement, which showcases both literature and visual arts.

The museum has existed since 1990, but was modernized in 2007 with short-term exhibition space, a 1,000-square-meter library and an auditorium.

Neorealism is a left-wing literary and artistic movement that began a few years before the dictatorial Salazar regime came to power.

Most of its followers were either removed from office, forced into exile, or, in the case of artist and communist leader José Dias Coelho, assassinated.

4. Igreja da Misericórdia de Vila Franca de Xira

Igreja da Misericórdia de Vila Franca de Xira

This church in Largo da Misericórdia was built around the 1560s and survived the devastating earthquake of 1755. At the time, the interior was damaged to the point of needing remodeling, at which point its ornate gilded altar and side altars were completed.

The beautiful glazed flowers on the walls are from 1760 and represent 14 works of Christian mercy.

This is no coincidence, as the church is connected to the Vila Franca de Xira hospital, which was formerly run by the clergy.

The varnishes from before 1755 are displayed in the sacristy and were made by the great tile maker of the 17th century, António de Oliveira Bernardes.

5. Casa-Museu Mário Coelho

Casa Museum Mario Coelho

To learn about the bullfighting tradition of Vila Franca de Xira, go to the birthplace of the most brilliant bullfighter, Mário Coelho.

His career has earned him a reputation in Portugal and the Spanish-speaking world, taking him to Spain, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.

Coelho is considered a master of the sport in bullfighting circles.

In 2001, the house where he was born in 1933 was turned into a museum filled with memorabilia from his long career, including photographs, costumes, a mullet (the famous red cloth) sword and trophies.

6. Parque Linear Ribeirinho Estuário do Tejo

Parque Linear Ribeirinho Estuário do Tejo

The right bank of the Tagus estuary was allowed to be abandoned after the industrial decline of the waterfront, but it is slowly being restored with the help of projects such as this park a few minutes from Vila Franca de Xira.

Long wetlands have been opened with the help of 5.6 kilometers of trails and boardwalks, and the park also features sports facilities such as bird watching, a children’s playground and volleyball courts.

The multi-million-euro project also restored some old fishing houses and piers along the coast.

7. Equestrian Tours

lusitano horse

The farmland at the estuary is called Lezíria and is a historical breeding ground for black bullfighting and Lusitano horses.

This is the breed that bullfighters used to ride, but is now an equestrian favorite and is ridden by the Portuguese Olympic dressage team.

If you want to know more, there are many stud farms in the area, some of which welcome tourists.

But the best way to get to know a Lusitano horse is to ride one, which may be done at one of the five equestrian centers around Vila Franca de Xira.

Usually, you’ll get short classes and you can do hacks or trail rides.

8. Fábrica das Palavras

Fabrica das Palablas

The new municipal library in Vila Franca de Xira is named Fábrica das Palavras (Word Factory). While libraries aren’t usually very appealing, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this one next to the Tagus River.

It is a stunning polygonal building with irregular white walls and glass, designed by architect Miguel Arruda and opened in 2014. In addition to the futuristic architecture, the gallery houses exhibitions of paintings and photography, as well as a café to contemplate the estuary with a hot drink.

9. Quinta Municipal da Piedade

Quinta Municipal da Piedade

The commune of Vila Franca de Xira has some historical heritage acquired from landlord families.

These are often closed and rented out for private events, but the 18th-century palace in Póvoa de Santa Iria hosts regular exhibitions.

There is also a delightful park here.

Walking through the grounds, you’ll see several beautiful old churches, but the youngest family members will make the most of the estate: there’s an educational farm with sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, pigs and poultry.

10. Barco Varino “Liberdade”

Barco Varino "Liberdade"

At Vila Franca de Xira’s marina, you can board a traditional boat and float down the Tagus estuary in the traditional way.

These tours are organised by the Municipal Museum and sail from May to October.

You can check with the tourist office for exact times, but there are several trips a month.

The boat is designed for transporting cargo in the shallow waters of the estuary, so the hull is flat and the bow is high.

During your voyage, you’ll gain a better understanding of the estuary’s uninhabited island and its waterfowl, so a pair of binoculars is a handy companion.

11. Wine tourism

Arruda dos Vinhos

The hills west of Vila Franca de Xira are full of vines.

Arruda dos Vinhos, located just 11 km from Vila Franca de Xira, is the main village of the Arruda DOC, known mainly for its red wines.

The area is full of wineries, some on gorgeous old-fashioned quintas, but more recent wine experiences can be found at Arruda dos Vinhos’ own co-op.

This is a large industrial unit, not a glamorous winery, processing grapes from around 200 growers.

It has huge stainless steel cylinders with automatic mixers and underground vats for fermenting the wine.

A representative will be happy to show you around and you can buy a bottle or two from a partner store.

12. Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal

If you want to spend the day in the Portuguese capital, it’s best to ditch the car and take the Lingha da Azambuja commuter train.

On weekdays, these trains run every 15 minutes or so and take half an hour to reach Santa Apolónia station.

You can also go to Moscavide, 20 minutes away, and change to the red line of the Lisbon Metro.

No matter what you do, there’s a lot to see in Lisbon.

If you want to explore Alfama and trendy Bairro Alto are quintessential vibrant neighborhoods, while for old-fashioned sightseeing, São Jorge Castle and Praça do Comércio are always popular.

The National Tile Museum is a window into the Portuguese glazing tradition, while the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum has a jaw-dropping collection of ancient fine art.

13. National Parks

National Park

You are only 20 minutes away from this urban development in the northeast of Lisbon, designed for the city’s Expo ’98.

Numerous projects coincide with the event, such as the European record-breaking Ponte Vasco da Gama bridge and the must-see Lisbon Aquarium.

The nerve center of Expo ’98 is Parque das Nações, with its exhibition halls, towers, public art and cable cars all vibrant and modern.

At night you have to come down for a meal or a drink and see the area in the lights, and if you plan on shopping, the Vasco da Gama shopping mall is one of the biggest in Lisbon.

14. Food

Akorda

What makes Vila Franca de Xira’s traditional cuisine delightful is that it is both local and seasonal.

In summer, for example, melons are grown in fertile farmland near the estuary, while in early spring there is a brief window to taste traditional dishes.

It’s herring season, when this herring relative is fried and served with açorda, a quintessential Portuguese delicacy, a paste made from bread, eggs, coriander, oil and vinegar.

The cooler months are the time to try a variety of meat, fish or vegetable-centric stews.

Take coelho da horta, a rabbit and vegetable stew with tomatoes, bell peppers, and peas.

Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal
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