Ponte de Lima charmed me at first sight. When I revisited a couple of years later, Portugal’s oldest town nestled itself deep inside my heart and is never coming out. It’s got all the right ingredients for me: plenty of gardens, fancy mansions and other historical buildings, tons of restaurants and is surrounded by gorgeous Minho countryside. It’s also one of the places where I recommend taking a rest day if you’re following the Portuguese Camino de Santiago.
Here are some of the things to do in Ponte de Lima, a town a I never tire of.
Note: If you want to stay overnight, check out my Ponte de Lima accommodation picks at the end of this post.
Cross the River Lima
Many moons ago, when Roman troops were marching through Portugal, they reached the River Lima but refused to cross. The area was so enchanting that they concluded this had to be the legendary River Lethe, famous not only for its beauty but for its ability to wipe out the memories of anyone who crossed it.
The only way the captain could persuade his soldiers that they wouldn’t forget everything and everyone they knew was to cross the river alone and call them over by name. This legendary tale explains the wooden models of Roman soldiers in the riverside car park.
Once across, the Romans built a bridge which became the only safe place to cross the Lima for centuries and formed part of the Roman road from Braga, their seat of power in Portugal, and Asturias in Spain. The stone bridge was rebuilt in the 14th century and is still a major focal point of the town.
Visit beautiful gardens in Ponte de Lima
Ponte de Lima has been dubbed Portugal’s ‘most floral town’. It’s easy to see why; even the road leading to the historical centre is lined with flowers. The air is often full of the sweet scent of wisteria dangling from pergolas and arches while pots of petunias and pansies add splashes of colour to the historical centre.
The creative displays at the annual International Garden Festival, which is open from May to October every year, are also worth a visit – the individual gardens vary in appeal and you can vote for your favourite. The theme and the gardens change each year, although the winning garden from the previous year stays on for one more year.
Tip: To get to the International Garden Festival, cross the Roman bridge away from the town then turn left to walk alongside the river. Turn right to find the entrance beside the Nautical Centre. It’s about 500 metres each way so if you don’t want to walk very far, you may prefer to drive.
In the themed gardens of Jardims Temáticos do Arnado, on the other side or the Roman bridge, you can see examples of garden fashions through the ages such as the Roman Gardens, the Renaissance Gardens and the Baroque Gardens.
Go for a dip in the outdoor swimming pool
Next to the International Garden Festival site is a lovely open air swimming pool surrounded by lawns, trees and flowers. You can just about see the river through a gap in the greenery, too. There’s an onsite café, changing rooms and the usual facilities and you can buy a very reasonably priced daily pass or a weekly one.
Get your fix of art and architecture in Museu dos Terceiros
Museu dos Terceiros (Museum of the Third Order) hosts a collection of medieval and baroque religious art and gold. The complex of museum buildings stem from the 15th century and was built as a place for lay people to practice their religion without having to commit to the restrictions of a monastic lifestyle.
Nowadays, you’ll find paintings, statues and azulejos dating from that period through to the 19th century, including a Rococo church, Manueline chapel and a stone with the Devil’s hand print. There is information in English throughout.
Rua dos Terceiros, 209. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 12:30 and 2 to 6 pm. Closed for most public holidays. €2.50 full price but discounts apply.
Bring out your inner child at Ponte de Lima Toy Museum
For a more modern, quirky experience, the Toy Museum offers an intriguing insight into Portuguese playthings from the 20th century. You’ll find it in the red building just across the Roman bridge – I have yet to experience this so let me know how you get on.
Stroll along the riverside walking and cycle paths
Ponte de Lima has a wide avenue of plane trees to promenade under and a place to simply relax on a bench and enjoy the River Lima. The Avenida dos Plátanos joins up with an Ecovia, a walking and cycling path that connects Ponte de Lima with various places of interest such as the nature reserve at Lagoas.
See the Visit Ponte de Lima website for more details of these Ecopath trails.
You will undoubtedly spot some pilgrims when you visit Ponte de Lima. The Portuguese Camino de Santiago passes through the town so if you’re in the mood for a more serious walk in the Portuguese countryside, you can either follow the yellow arrows for a while and then turn back when you’re tired or follow the Way of St. James all the way to Spain.
This post explains what to expect from the Camino route north of Ponte de Lima.
Pose with a statue
If you’re the kind of person who likes having your photo taken while sitting on a bronze bull or next to a famous figure, Ponte de Lima will keep you entertained for a while.
When I was there, groups of tourists were taking turns to pose and smile in front of the statue of traditionally clothed villagers. Ladies in sunglasses snuggled up to a bronze man on a bench while their lovers snapped away without a hint of jealousy.
The little boy perched on the bull wasn’t so happy though. He was crying to be taken down but his family insisted on taking a photo first.
Learn about Portuguese history and local culture through azulejos
Take a wander around the historical centre and you’ll find various painted tiled panels depicting elements of the town’s long, rich history. Among my favourites are the colourful panels on the municipal market and the one outside A Tulha restaurant.
Visit cute chapels and the Gothic parish church
In the heart of the medieval centre is the remarkable Gothic parish church, notable for its interior and exterior architecture. One of the statues is of Blessed Francisco Pacheco who locals would love to see canonised. Read more about his story and that of medieval Ponte de Lima in this article.
In its heyday, Ponte de Lima had more than its fair share of wealthy residents, several of whom could afford to have their own church or chapel built. Take a wander around the back of the historical centre and you’ll find Capela das Pereiras among others. My favourite is the tiny Capela de São João near ExpoLima.
Grab a bargain at Ponte de Lima markets
As well as the municipal market which supplies residents with fresh produce every weekday morning, a fortnightly tented market takes over the sandy car park on the river bank. You can buy all manner of textiles, household goods, cheap clothes and shoes here.
Tip: When this Monday market is not on, you can park for free by the river. On market days, use the overflow car park near the InLima Hotel.
Of more appeal to me personally are the Arts and Crafts market (every 4th Sunday) and the Antique market (every 2nd Sunday) which line the path to the right of the medieval bridge and the plane tree avenue beyond the municipal market to the left.
Tuck into local delicacies in Ponte de Lima restaurants
On one of my visits, I arrived on a Sunday at lunchtime and the town was swarming with people, including a fair proportion of Spaniards, who’d come to Ponte de Lima for a leisurely lunch.
Who can blame them?
There are plenty of restaurants, several of which overlook the river. I can personally recommend the veal steak at A Tulha. I also had a very nice fish with onions at Sabores do Lima. A no-frills local restaurant serving good Portuguese food is O Celeiro but if you want a modern place near the river, Casa da Terra is a good option – try their smoked meats and go inside to see the sausage chandelier (I kid you not).
I wasn’t brave enough to try the local speciality, arroz de sarrabulho (rice with shredded pork and blood) but I thoroughly enjoyed my charuta (cigar-shaped cake which consists of a sweet, eggy filling wrapped in rice paper.
Feiras Novas in Ponte de Lima
The first weekend of September marks the town’s annual festival, Feiras Novas. Three days and nights of colour, music and all manner of activities await.
I once went to Ponte de Lima specifically for this festival but I couldn’t stand the crowds for long enough to watch any of the parades (I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable in big crowds so this is a personal perspective, not a comment on the event itself). You need to get there early to nab a spot by the side of the road well in advance if you want to see the floats and costumed people.
Tip: You may wish to do as the locals do and bring a stool. And a hat/sun protection.
Practicalities for visiting Ponte de Lima
Tours that go to Ponte de Lima:
You could spend an afternoon, or longer, in Ponte de Lima on this 3-day tour of the Minho’s Historical Charms.
If you only have a day to spare, consider a day trip from Porto.
How to get to Ponte de Lima without a tour:
If you’re driving, once you reach the town, just keep heading towards the river for the free parking, unless it’s a market day.
Be warned that signposting in this part of northern Portugal is, quite frankly, rubbish. If you’re hiring a car, bring your GPS gadget or rent one. If you think I’m exaggerating, one roundabout I encountered had four exits and not one signpost!
There are no trains to Ponte de Lima so your other options are to come by bus or organised tour (see above).
Where to stay in Ponte de Lima. Hotels and guesthouses
Within the town itself, you have Mercearia da Vila, inside a former traditional grocery story in a historical square. There are stairs and no elevator but the well-appointed rooms and helpful staff are worth the slight exertion. Choose a room to suit.
Located right in the old town is Casa da Travessa, a guesthouse with double rooms most of which have park views. Rooms are clean and spacious and the shared kitchen has all of the necessary facilities. The host, Cristina, is very welcoming. Check photos here.
If you have a car, you could venture a little further out of town to one of these gorgeous places:
For boutique luxury that you’ll never want to leave, try Carmo’s Boutique Hotel. It’s a little out of the town centre so better if you have a car but there is an onsite restaurant and beautiful grounds to enjoy. Check availability and prices.
Hotel Paço do Vitorino is a 4-star Ponte de Lima hotel a few kilometres from the town. This former palace has been tastefully restored 16th century palace has gorgeous grounds, an outdoor pool and highlights its wonderful historical architectural features. Comfort, style and luxury are evident throughout. Check availability and photos.
Quinta do Ameal is a wine estate with recently renovated luxury chalets and studios for rent. Surrounded by vineyards, this secluded accommodation offers the opportunity to appreciate vinho verde wines while relaxing in peaceful surroundings. There’s an outdoor pool, too. See photos and check current prices.
Or for a self-catering option on a former country farm estate, try Quinta da Aldeia.
Looking for a Portugal guide book?
Click on the links below to see my top picks via Amazon
My first choice would be a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Portugal, partly because I’ve contributed to them in the past and partly because I like the pictures, maps and layout.
The Frommer’s Portugal Guide is written by two well-respected journalists who live in the Lisbon area, one Portuguese and the other British. Having met them both, I would certainly trust their recommendations.
I also like Rough Guides’ approach to travel guides and their Portugal travel guide is no exception.
As for Portuguese phrasebooks, the best of the bunch is probably the Lonely Planet Portuguese Phrasebook & Dictionary, which has sections on eating and drinking as well as all the functional language you’d expect and help with pronunciation.
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Note: Some of these are affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you book through them, at not extra cost to you.