In northern Portugal, Villa Real is a small town set in a hilly landscape, just off a headland above the Corgo River. The Corgo River, a tributary of the Douro River, winds its way through a stunning landscape of terraced vineyards to the main stream.
Around the town, you can visit the palace of the noble family, which was decorated in Baroque style by the Italian master Nicolau Nasoni in the 1700s. He also worked on the finest church in Villarreal, one of a series of outstanding granite buildings in the old center. The countryside is mountains, with OECD-listed pottery villages and eerie ruins of Roman altars.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Villarreal:
1. Mateus Palace
Nicolau Nasoni, a lasting influence on Portuguese Baroque architecture, helped design this aristocratic estate in Vila Real.
Considered one of the finest Baroque civil buildings, the palace was built in a luxurious style for the third Morgado of Mateus in the first half of the 18th century.
The property is still owned by his descendants and the only way to see this gorgeously furnished property is to visit.
Some of the best places inside are the library with its small iron lanterns and the dining room with its carved wood ceiling.
The site features a chapel, water garden, a filigree-patterned box hedge garden and a “Túnel de Cedro” natural tunnel made of interconnected cedar branches.
2. UTAD Botanical Gardens
The University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro planted this garden on its campus in 1987. It has one of the richest and most botanically significant plant communities in Portugal, covering more than 80 hectares.
The garden’s main job is to protect the rare Portuguese native plants, which make up a large percentage of the 1,000 plants grown in the park, all carefully marked.
Established at the same time as the Garden, the Herbarium houses more than 15,000 specimens in the archives, as well as an Interpretation Centre that presents the garden’s rich species background.
3. Capella Nova
You won’t miss this chapel in the heart of the city, as its façade is spectacular, with plenty of carved granite, including four towering Tuscan columns supporting a pediment topped by a statue of St. Peter, two On the side are two angels.
The chapel was built in the 17th century, but the magnificent stonework on the facade came later, completed by Nicolau Nasoni.
Some of the details inside are tiled panels related to the lives of St. Paul and St. Peter, and of course the main altar and side chapels with gleaming gilded wood carvings.
4. Igreja de São Domingos
You won’t see a better example of Gothic architecture in the Trás-os-Montes area than this church built in 1424 with a Dominican monastery. Unlike the extravagant decoration of High Gothic churches elsewhere in Europe, churches in northern Portugal have a discreet, pared-back design, both inside and out.
Along these routes, the Igreja de São Domingos has modest buttressed walls and small rosettes that provide the only source of light inside.
During the Estado Novo, the nave and chapel were stripped of their recent Baroque decoration, but there were several medieval tombs in the wall niches (arcosolia).
5. Santuário de Panóias
Not far from Villarreal is a fascinating Roman religious shrine, where sacrifices took place 2,000 years ago.
It was cut directly from granite in the first and second centuries, with easily recognizable written inscriptions, as well as a staircase and purification pool and a circular cavity that may have been a fire pit.
In Roman pagan tradition, animals were slaughtered, slaughtered and then cooked.
There is an interpretive center explaining the meaning of the inscriptions and the role of each element of the sanctuary.
You can take the tour with an audio guide, and there is a short film that includes a 3D reconstruction of the site in use.
6. Museu de Arqueologia e Numismática de Vila Real
The Sanctuary is one of many Roman and pre-Roman sites around Villarreal, and the best artifacts they have produced have been brought to this 18th-century mansion.
Permanent archaeological exhibits are arranged in chronological order, from the Stone Age to the Bronze and Iron Ages to the Roman Empire.
There are polished stone axes, steles and altars with inscriptions dedicated to the god Reve Marandicui.
The Coin Wing has 35,000 coins, mostly from the region.
These come from several different treasures and many personal finds, dating from the 5th century BC to the 8th century AD.
7. San Pedro Church
Villarreal’s outstanding Baroque religious monument is the Church of St. Peter.
This started in 1528 and was redesigned in the popular Baroque style in the 18th century.
It was then that the façade was meticulously built, with two imposing towers, and the nave was renovated and enlarged to accommodate the growing congregation.
It’s absolutely glorious inside.
50 coloured tile panels with gilded wood frame directly above the nave.
The walls of the main church are also tiled, while the ceiling is completely lined with finely patterned gilded woodwork.
8. Casa de Diogo Cão
Built in the 1400s, this house is a sight to behold from the outside when you visit the city and is said to be the birthplace of Diogo Cão.
He was a 15th-century explorer, the first European to discover the Congo rivers and mountains.
Whether Diogo Cão was actually in the house, or even in Vila Real, is debatable, as records are kept only on royals from this period.
In any case, the house is lovely, with a redesigned facade in the 1500s, and the outdoor stairs are shaded by grooves.
9. Alwang Natural Park
On the northwest boundary of the city is a protected granite and schist peak covering over 70 square kilometers.
The highest peak is over 1000 meters and the higher ground is surrounded by fresh deciduous forests of oak, hazel and chestnut.
If you’re up for some hiking, you’re in for a treat; waterfalls to explore, mountains to conquer, and pretty villages with houses made of granite slate and straw.
On the trails you might spot wolves (within a safe distance!) or peregrine falcons, while goats, wild boar and roe deer are the main attractions.
10. Serra do Marão
To the west is the seventh highest peak in mainland Portugal, at 1415 meters above sea level.
While it’s not very high, the breadth of this granite mountain sets it apart.
Serra do Marão is so large that it even delays the development of the area to the east because it is so impenetrable.
This problem was only recently solved by Túnel do Marão, which opened in 2016 after 7 years of mountain drilling.
Hikers can easily reach the summit as it is fairly rounded. At the top, you’ll find a triangulation monument, an observatory, and bonus views of the rest of the mountain.
The village is basically part of Villarreal and is located on a hill five kilometers to the west.
If you’re looking for a real souvenir or gift to take home, you must check it out.
Here, they make very unusual pottery, named after the village, made of smoky blackened clay.
In November 2016, the craft was declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage for its uniqueness and near extinction.
Only a handful of potters have been trained in this art, but when you see some of the vases, jars and plates made in the village, all with an obsidian sheen, you’ll know why it’s worth supporting.
If you find yourself in Villarreal in June, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter one of the three traditional festivals that take place this month.
First up is San Antonio on the 13th, with a bull market and national cattle competition, as well as cultural events such as live music in the evening.
São João on the night of the 23rd brings the usual madness of northern Portugal’s cities, the best of which is the large sardines, grilled in the city’s streets.
For San Pedro, on the 28th and 29th there is a craft fair in Rua Central, where you can peruse local crafts such as Bisalhães pottery.
13. Port Wine
The Villarreal area is rooted in the wine trade, and the wine lodge closest to the town is on the left bank of the Corgo River.
This is a tributary of the Douro River, the legendary waterway where the wine will be transported to Porto by schooner La Bello.
You can drive to Peso da Régua on the Douro River in less than half an hour, a wonderful journey following the route of Corgo through steep hills planted with vines.
This is the Baixo Corgo branch of the Porto Wine Route, winding through ancient quintas, wine caves and cooperatives.
14. Royal Villa Theatre
Like many Portuguese towns, Villarreal built a brand new theatre and cultural centre over the last century.
Like the best of the “Rede Nacional de Teatros”, it is a landmark worthy of your list, designed by the famous Filipe Oliveira Dias.
It has a fluid organic design down to the smallest details, such as the harp-shaped chairs in the auditorium, also modeled by the architect.
There’s also a lot of expertise in acoustics, and if you want to hear them perform, there’s a busy program of dance, theatre and live folk, jazz and rock.
15. Local Food
In Vila Real there is a series of traditional taverns where you can enjoy typical local cuisine.
In this part of Portugal, tripas aus molhos, “sauce belly,” is more delicious than it sounds, veal tripe stuffed with cured ham in a spicy white wine and piripíri sauce.
Other classics include roasted baby goat with rice, roasted veal, and the many different ways we make cod in Portugal.
Vila Real is also known for its sweets, and most of the recipes originate from monasteries and use eggs as donated eggs by people when they are about to get married.
Toucinho do Céu is a decadent cake made with almonds and egg yolks, while Pitos de Santa Luzia are small pastry packets filled with candied gila (similar to pumpkin rind).
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Villarreal, Portugal
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