15 things to do in São João da Madeira (Portugal)

The town of São João da Madeira in the Aveiro district is often voted as one of the best places to live in Portugal. There’s not a lot of history here, and there are no attractions in this working town. But São João da Madeira has a large industrial heritage as a source of Portuguese hats, footwear and pencils.

The factories that make these products have opened their doors for the past five years, giving a rare peek at a facility normally only seen on television. It all comes from an industrial tourism program that changed São João’s image overnight.

Let’s explore the best things to do in São João da Madeira:

1.Viarco factory tour


After working behind the scenes at the last pencil factory on the Iberian Peninsula, you’ll have a renewed appreciation for this humble pencil.

Viarco is a prestigious brand that produces tools for professional draftsmen and women, artists and anyone who needs precision drafting tools.

You’ll be impressed by how much of this work is still done by hand, as you’ll discover how cedar wood, ceramic, graphite and many man hours are used in each Viarco pencil.

After seeing how they are made, it will be impossible to resist buying a set.

2. Torre da Oliva

Torre da Oliva Building

The former headquarters of OLIVA Metallurgical Company is a spectacular monument to Portuguese industry.

This is a huge modernist complex built in the 1930s, marked by its concrete towers.

The behemoth was vacant after the brand collapsed, but was quickly acquired by the city government and is slowly being transformed into an industrial tourism and cultural venue.

São João’s welcome center and exhibitions for the defunct OLIVA brand are here, while Núcleo de Arte is a contemporary art gallery converted from an old warehouse.

There’s also a brand new shoe museum, which we’ll cover next.

3. Museu do Calçado

Museu Do Calçado

São João da Madeira’s newest industrial museum opened in November 2016 in Torre da Oliva.

This attraction is entirely dedicated to footwear and uses local shoemaking techniques to explain how the industry transformed the town in the 20th century.

Millions of euros have been invested in the collection, with around 8,600 objects made in São João and around the world.

Whether it’s shoes, boots, sneakers or sandals, this museum has a dedicated space.

You’ll track the evolution of footwear, from prehistoric times, through the years, and wonder what the future of footwear holds.

4. Fabrica de Calçado, Mount Everest

EverestFabrica De Calçado

The shoe factory offers multilingual 45-minute tours Monday through Thursday.

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Evereste has been in the business since 1942, and its factories make shoes for the brand and other Portuguese brands such as PERKS, Cohibas and Miguel Vieira.

It’s an illuminating “how they do it” experience, watching raw materials and fabrics slowly, fussily transform into premium shoes and boots.

The factory combines high-tech equipment with three generations of old-fashioned shoemaking and needlework techniques.



Another brand that has long been part of the São João da Madeira landscape is FEPSA, which has been producing high-quality felt for hats since 1969. You can have the privilege of seeing how world leaders in the field work in a 40-minute live visit.

Unlike other factories in town, FEPSA does require you to book in advance.

With 200 employees, around 600.000 hats are produced annually and sold on five continents.

First, you’ll learn how to process natural fibers like wool into felt, and then shape this fabric into a classic and stylish headwear with no small skill.

6. The Chapel Museum

Chapel Museum

If FEPSA has made you curious about local hat-making, you can’t miss this superb museum.

It is located in Empresa Industrial de Chapelaria, a giant hat factory founded in 1914 that was the heart of the Portuguese millinery industry until 1995. Ten years after the factory closed, it reopened as a museum, making good use of the machinery that was left behind.

Every machine and tool used in production is here, and there are first-hand accounts of the workers.

Photos and footage of the factory in its glory days, when no one would leave home without a hat.

End the tour at a shop or restaurant and check out the factory worker monument in the courtyard.

7. Sunlight fabrics

sun fabric

The last factory experience on our list is this high-tech textile brand that has been operating in São João for over 50 years.

More than 100 people work at the factory, but compared to other factories on the list, most of the pressure is on robots.

If you’ve ever wondered where the elastic, transfer glue, and labels on your clothes come from, this is the facility.

During your travels, you will see how many international household names rely on Heliotextil for these materials.

The tour is in English, French, Spanish or Portuguese and lasts 45 minutes.

8. Mercado Municipal

Mercado Municipal

With three floors of fresh ingredients, clothing and household goods in a spacious hall, São João’s municipal market is more than just a local amenity.

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If you’re just wandering, be sure to check out the low-level live animals, where farm stalls, butchers and fishmongers are stocked with grotesque produce (eels are a local specialty). Above are fruit and vegetable stalls, a small supermarket, snack bar and bakery, and on the top floor are clothing and fabric stalls.

9. Santa Maria da Feira Castle

Castle of Santa Maria da Feira

10 minutes west of the neighbouring municipality is a classic medieval castle and one of Portugal’s most precious military monuments.

This magnificent building was built in 868 by Alfonso III of Asturias during the Moorish occupation.

It was sacked twice by the Moors in the 11th century before becoming a base of advanced power that was reconquered in the 12th century.

It was in use until the 1500s when cannons made these high walls obsolete.

You can patrol its outer railings, and on a tour inside, there is a spiral staircase leading to the roof with panoramic views of Santa Maria da Feira.

10. Castro de Romariz

Castro de Romariz

Many of the hilltops in northern Portugal have fascinating ruins of fortified towns that were formed long before the Romans arrived in the area.

About 15 minutes from São João, this Iron Age settlement is inhabited by the Turduli tribe and is 2,600 years old.

The site is a mysterious complex of dry stone walls with square and circular plans.

These are the non-perishable remains of cottages with thatched roofs.

They were first excavated in the mid-19th century, along with a large number of coins, and are known as the Roman Leeds treasure.

11. The Virgin Mary Museum

Virgin Mary Museum

Opened in the 1950s, the museum owes its existence to private collector Henrique Alves de Amorim.

He is first and foremost an art lover, but has many side jobs, accumulating various bits and pieces.

There are exhibits on the natural sciences, ethnology, tiles, tapestries, medals, banknotes, and a treasure trove of religious art.

Henrique Alves de Amorim made his fortune in the cork business, and the cork trade around Santa Maria de Lamas has a long history.

You’ll peruse artifacts such as machining tools from the early 1700s, but exhibits are bizarre cork sculptures of the Age of Navigation or the sailing ships of the Tower of Belém in Lisbon.

12. Lorosa Zoo

Delorosa Zoo

Portugal’s only bird park is located in the town of Lourosa, north of São João.

The zoo focuses solely on birds and houses its inhabitants in 80 personalized and specially designed aviaries and open spaces.

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There are 500 bird species here, from 150 species, representing five continents.

In a nutshell, you can see raptors such as owls and bald eagles, rainforest species such as macaws, parrots and cacti, and abundant waterfowl such as geese, ducks and swans.

You can participate in the daily feeding of the park’s flamingos and gain insight into their behavior and social structure.

13. Viagem Medieval em Terra de Santa Maria

Viagem Medieval Em Terra De Santa Maria

For 12 days in August, Santa Maria da Feira hosts the largest medieval market in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe.

The first edition was in 1996, and it has snowballed into an army of volunteers that everyone can throw in.

There are mock battles with amazing production value, siege machines, drama, dancing, lively medieval fairs in tents, equestrian and falconry demonstrations, archery lessons, just to name a few of the shows.

The stage is the castle of Santa Maria, the focus period is the Reconquista, so the replay is between the Portuguese knights and the Moors.

14. Fuladoro Beach

Praia do Fuladoro

The Atlantic Ocean is no more than 10 minutes from the road, and there is an uninterrupted beach along the coast.

Most of them are lovely in their own way, but none are as beautiful as Praia do Furadoiuro near the Oval resort.

It’s surrounded by sand dunes that you can cross via the boardwalk, and has fine white sand that’s almost too bright on a sunny day.

Rolling Atlantic waves wash the beach, sending surfers’ hearts racing.

It can be a bit cold for swimmers, although you can paddle in the shallows comfortably.

The resort offers you cheap meals and drinks, not much you can hope for.

15. Regional Food

Espetadas De Mexilhão

The Aveiro district on the coast has many fish and seafood recipes that are unique in this part of Portugal.

One is eel stew (caldeirada de enguinas), made with potatoes and stale bread.

Equally unusual are the mussel kebabs (espetadas de mexilhão), deep fried and nothing more complicated than lemon juice and seasonings.

Also, you wouldn’t be in Portugal without hundreds of ways to prepare cod.

The typical way is to roast it and put it on “crushed” potatoes sprinkled with garlic and olive oil.

Finally, away from the sea, there are succulent dishes like crock pot roast lamb (carneiro à Lampantana) and roast veal (vitela asada).

Where to Stay: The Best Hotels in São João da Madeira, Portugal
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