15 things to do in Vila Real de Santo António (Portugal)

Vila Real de Santo António, a one-off town built after the infamous earthquake of 1755, is a marvel of 18th-century urban planning.

It was established by royal decree, in a “rational” style, centred on a noble square, with a precise matrix of streets.

The reason this location requires a town is the Guadiana River, which has separated southeastern Portugal from Spain since the 13th century.

The two countries didn’t always get along well, and the forts and castles scattered around Villarreal are reminiscent of tense times.

Let’s discover the best things to do in Vila Real de Santo António:

1. Núcleo Pombalino

Nuclear Pomballino

The story of Vila Real de Santo António begins with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

A nearby settlement, across the river from Ayamonte, was swept away by the tsunami following the Cataclysm.

So, in the 1770s, a decree was issued to build a new town from scratch using the earthquake-resistant neoclassical style inspired by the Enlightenment.

In Portugal, this is called the Pombaline, named after the prime minister who oversaw Portugal’s reconstruction.

Built from scratch, Vila Real de Santo António is built on a strict grid system and consists of 18th-century townhouses with skylights, smaller single-storey dwellings and municipal buildings such as the Customs House (Alfândega).

2. Marquis de Pombal Square

Marquis de Pombal Square

Every Pombalin town must have a majestic central plaza, and the Royal City of San Antonio is no exception.

Praça Marquês de Pombal is the venue for concerts and parades during the city festival in June, as well as the celebration of the patron saint of Nossa Senhora da Encarnação at the end of August.

The chief architect of the Royal Court, Reynaldo Manuel dos Santos, was in charge and designed a perfect square.

On either side are beautiful whitewashed houses of equal height, with terracotta roofs and underfoot a pattern of “calçada portuguesa” lines radiating from the central obelisk.

The monument balances the rational architecture of the square; it is 50 palms high and unites the house (30 palms) with the church (80 palms).

3. Praia de Monte Gordo

playa de monte gordo

Once a small fishing farm, Monte Gordo has grown into a resort, with new high-rise towers rising every year.

But it remains one of the few places in the Algarve where Portuguese tourists may outnumber overseas tourists.

The resort’s main beach has stunning white sand and crystal clear sea in summer.

Due to Mediterranean influences, the water is noticeably warmer than the rest of Portugal.

When the tide goes out, you’ll often see fishermen dragging their nets along the water, catching clams that make their way into a delicious seafood stew, cataplana.

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4. Farol de Vila Real de Santo António

Farol de Vila Real de Santo António

To the south of Vila Real de Santo António, the last building before the dunes and sea pines is the lighthouse that has been in place since 1923. The sandy ground posed some problems, which were overcome by laying the building on a reinforced concrete foundation, which was innovative at the time.

The lighthouse continues to function today, directing traffic up and down the river and along the coast, with signals that can be seen within 26 nautical miles.

You can experience it up close on a Wednesday afternoon, climbing the stairs or taking the elevator.

At a height of 40 meters, with a delightful view of the ocean, you will see the Castle of Castelomarim, the inland mountains and a small piece of Andalusia.

5. Igreja Matriz

Iglia Matriz

The exhibits on Praça Marquês de Pombal, the town’s only church, began in 1774 and took just two years to complete.

Reinaldo Manuel dos Santos also drafted the design for the building, which has simple neoclassical lines and is located about a metre in front of the other facades on the north side of the square.

Take a moment to browse the side chapels and rococo retables.

See also the altar and the stained-glass windows of the baptistery made by the painter Joaquim Rebocho in the 1940s.

6. Casela Viha

casela vija

Just a few minutes from the center of Vila Real de Santo António, Cacela Velha is a precious little village on a low cliff at the easternmost point of the Ria Formosa lagoon.

It is a collection of whitewashed houses that have been inhabited since the Phoenicians and were retaken from the Moors by the Knights of St. James in 1249. The square houses a tavern, a 16th-century church and a small fortress from around the same period still standing on top of the cliff.

The scent of citrus and almond trees fills the air, and you can gaze at the sparkling waters of the lagoon and the beaches on the barrier islands.

7. Playa Verde

Playa Verde

Monte Gordo’s next beach is a few kilometers from the N125 coast, similar to its neighbors.

A place where people are happy to trade resort facilities for nature, this Blue Flag beach is not by chance called “Praia Verde”: among the dunes, junipers and pine trees, there are only a few villas and a few restaurants on the beach .

The towers of Monte Gordo are visible on the eastern horizon, that’s all.

As a Blue Flag beach, Praia Verde has lifeguards in summer, and you can also rent sun loungers and parasols.

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8. Castelo de Castro Marim

Castelo de Castro Marim

Every culture that has passed through the region has taken root on this hillock above the swamp.

The castle we see now was rebuilt after the expulsion of the Moors in the 13th century.

After Portugal lost the Ayamonte across the Guadiana River, Kings Alfonso III and Denis I ordered its reconstruction in the 1270s, with two separate inscriptions commemorating the works at this time.

Make time to visit the Renaissance chapel, a small museum that houses ancient artefacts and, best of all, the sweeping views from the battlements on the walls.

9. Centro Cultural António Aleixo

Cultural Center Antonio Aleso

The old hall was the cultural center of Villarreal and played a number of roles at the time.

It was built as a military barracks before being converted into the town’s market.

But recently, the building has been transformed into an exhibition space with two main galleries.

The larger room is used for short-term painting, sculpture and photography exhibitions, while the smaller room is named after local 20th century artist Manuel Cabanas.

He uses woodcut prints, and his prints are varied.

The entire venue is named after the world-famous poet António Aleixo, who was active in the first half of the 20th century.

10. Ayamonte

Ayamonte

You can cross over Spain and the town of Ayamonte on the left bank of the river.

There’s been a magnificent suspension bridge since 1991, but until then, the only easy way to cross the border was by ferry.

The service, which still runs 24 times a day in summer, is a more interesting approach.

Remember to set your watch forward an hour while on the go.

Stroll along the old, narrow streets of Ayamonte, hang out at one of the square’s bars and enjoy some snacks such as boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) or chipirones (deep-fried calamari). Also watch the fishing boats passing in and out of the marina, and visit the Renaissance Nuestra Señora de las Angustias church, which houses a mythical statue of the town’s patron saint in the 17th century.

11. River Cruise

cruise ship

You can’t deny the opportunity to sail for a few hours in Guadiana, floating in the valleys of pine, olive and almond groves.

There are some operators who arrange cruises from Vila Real Marina, so you can decide which package is best for you.

Some offer drinks and have a party atmosphere, while others are more family-friendly, mooring and swimming at the river beach.

It’s pretty surreal knowing you’re traveling along the borders of two countries and time zones, with regular stops in sleepy whitewashed villages.

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12. Canela Island

canela i.

On the Spanish side, there is also a beach resort on Tidal Island, a short drive downstream from Ayamonte.

Isla Canela is a small paradise with dunes, golf courses, beach bars and 5.5 km of sandy beaches.

When the tide goes out, these are huge, leaving huge pools for youngsters to play in.

The beach juts far into the sea, and the brisk winds and lively waves are just what water sports fanatics are after.

Kitesurfing is popular on Isla Canela, but if you’ve ever wanted to learn the ropes, there’s a marina with a sailing school.

13. Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo António

Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo António

As you approach this town, you feel it is surrounded by the ocean and the Guadiana River.

But north of Villarreal also has an environment of canals, swamps and salt pans that require careful observation.

Fish, shellfish and crustaceans that live in pools and mud are central to the local diet, attracting wading birds such as flamingos and black-winged stilts.

The park has an interpretive center that goes into more detail about the wildlife and the livelihoods supported by this landscape.

There is also a network of pedestrian bridges around the Yantian that have been used for centuries.

14. Outdoor recreation

Quinta Daria Resort

Vila Real de Santo António is located in such a flat country that you might forget to drive and just cycle around.

There are rental companies in town, open skies, pine forests, almond orchards, dunes, wetlands, beaches and villages.

If golfing is your thing, there are courses on both sides of the boundary.

In Portugal, the Quinta da Ria resort has two 18-hole courses and is regularly ranked in the top ten in the country.

As we mentioned, Isla Canela also has a golf club with tees, fairways and greens neatly woven into the salt marshes.

15. Food

Dom Rodrigo

Vila Real de Santo António’s massive salt reserves put cured fish like salt cod and tuna on the menu, which are irresistible baked or stewed dishes.

The shellfish and other seafood caught in the local lagoon are generally stewed with rice, the most typical of which are jellyfish rice and octopus rice.

For sweet treats, Dom Rodrigo is a confection first made by the nuns of the convent, mixing egg yolks, sugar and locally harvested almonds.

Where to Stay: The best hotels in Vila Real de Santo Antonio, Portugal
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