The Best Ways to Explore Historic, Seaside Portugal

In Porto, a mild climate complements a history-rich heart and a sparkling café scene making this—Portugal’s second city—one of my new favourite destinations.

I was there along Portugal’s northern coast this past spring and was wowed by the mellow weather and the city’s beautiful historic centre, rich with grand, domed, granite structures. Porto’s restaurant and café scene is one of Europe’s most vibrant and the inexpensive food and wine (including port wine, the hometown industry) were both tasty and easy on the pocket. Its seaside location, right at the mouth of the Douro River, proved the icing on the cake.

You’ll find plenty to do in Porto, whether you live here full-time or are just visiting. But if you want to explore the area, consider heading north to Viana do Castelo or south to Aveiro for a day or weekend trip. On the Atlantic coast and only 60 to 90 minutes from Porto, these small resort cities give you a glimpse of everyday Portuguese life, as well as of its long maritime history.

For a taste of old-time, seaside Portugal, head to Viana do Castelo for the weekend. Small Viana (population about 40,000) was once a major port and commercial centre. Those days are long gone, but you can see the remains of its glory in the city’s historic centre: Its monumental churches and buildings largely date from the 16th century onwards. Stroll the flagstone-paved main square at night (it’s pedestrianised), with the glow of street lamps lighting the cream-colored stone and you can imagine that you’ve stepped back centuries.

Amble down to the waterfront (just a five-minute walk from the old city) and you’ll find rows of neoclassical buildings facing green parks and the sea. Viana has a working marina and walking paths along the waterside park. You can savour a seafood lunch or a cool drink at the many outdoor restaurants and cafes, enjoying the view while you eat.

For spectacular ocean views, take the little elevator train ($4.40 round-trip) up to the Basilica of Santa Luzia, far above Viana. The basilica—a knock-off of Paris’s Sacré Coeur—offers 260-degree views of the coast, which here is a series of half-moon bays of azure water and white surf. Once you’ve caught your breath from the view, explore the verdant, well-groomed gardens behind the basilica. This region’s climate, which is mild and rainy, turns everything green and blooming.

End your day with dinner at Maria Perre, on the Rua de Viana in the old city. This cosy local restaurant serves well-made, traditional Portuguese fare at modest prices. If you’ve ever wanted to try Portugal’s trademark bacalhau, or salt cod, this is a good place to do it. Dinner for a couple, with separate starters, sharing a generous main course, a bottle of local wine and coffee, will run about $44.

Aveiro, south of Porto, makes an easy day trip. Historically an industrial and port city, Aveiro has become known as “the Venice of Portugal” for the narrow canals that run through the city to the sea. Though once used for industry, the canals today are largely a tourist attraction, plied by colourfully painted, long, gondola-style boats. Called moliceiros, these boats were once used to harvest seaweed. Today they harvest tourists, snagging them off the canal-side walking paths with enticing offers of canal tours.

Aveiro has a small, traditional city centre down near the canals. Enter it by its main street and you’ll see shaded pavement cafes, seafood restaurants and tourist shops. Enter by a side street and you’re in a gritty, somewhat down-at-heels seaport area of narrow streets and spottily painted houses. These streets lack tourist gloss, but they smack of real, Portuguese life.

If you’re hungry, ignore the tourist restaurants and head directly to the fish market, located in a modern metal-and-glass building at the heart of the old city. The upstairs restaurant—imaginatively named Mercado do Peixe, or Fish Market—is patronised by Aveiro’s business class and upscale locals. It’s a haven of tranquillity and understated elegance. Its daily lunch menu—which includes first and second courses, bread, dessert, coffee and a drink (which can be a decent local wine)—costs just under $14.

Old Aveiro has a number of lovely squares and historic churches that are worth a look. The rest of Aveiro is mostly modern, including the large university south of the canal area.

If you have a sweet tooth, you may want to try Aveiro’s specialty, ovos moles. These are sweets made primarily of egg yolk and sugar. I’m not personally a fan, but many Portuguese wax lyrical over ovos moles and consider them the single best reason to visit Aveiro. They’re often prettily moulded in the form of eggs or shells and cost $1.50 or so.

This stretch of Portugal’s coast has lots of sandy beach. Aveiro itself, however, sits on a lagoon system, which is separated from the Atlantic by a long spit of land that is the São Jacinto nature preserve. To explore the Atlantic coast here, you’ll want to rent a car.

Aveiro is on Porto’s suburban train line. Trains leave frequently from downtown Porto’s beautiful, tile-covered São Bento train station. Round-trip fare runs $10.50. Viana do Castelo is on the northern line. Trains to Viana leave from Campanhã station; catch one of the frequent trains from São Bento to Campanhã (one stop) to connect. The trip takes 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the train, and the fare is $11.44 each way.

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