Why should you visit Viseu in central Portugal? Well, perhaps because it’s such a lovely place that it’s been voted ‘Best city in Portugal to live in’. Twice. I won’t be moving up there any time soon but I am pleased to have got to know it a little better.
Here are my top things to do in Viseu whether visiting on a day trip or using it as a base for exploring the area.
1. Admire the architectural styles of Viseu Cathedral
On my first visit to Viseu, I only just had time to nip into the cathedral on Sunday morning after mass. If you’re interested in architecture, stone sculpture and azulejos (hand-painted tiles), it’s definitely worth going inside.
Building started on Viseu Cathedral in the 12th century and various bits and pieces were added over the years resulting in a combination of styles including Romanesque, Manueline, Renaissance and Gothic. The cloisters are small but contain treats such as the Romanesque-Gothic doorway and cheeky paintings of the life of St Theotonius which make me wonder what he got up to.
2. See the paintings of a Portuguese master at the Grão Vasco Museum
Next to Viseu Cathedral, you’ll find the famous altarpieces and other works of Vasco Fernandes, Portugal’s finest Renaissance painter, a.k.a. Grão Vasco.
The museum in his name also houses a fine collection of carved, painted Baroque figurines and other religious objects. While religious art is not normally my cup of tea, there weresome surprisingly interesting pieces and a temporary exhibition of modern art. Sadly, photos were not allowed.
3. Go shopping in Viseu
Towards the top end of Rua Dr Luíz Ferreira you’ll find a gourmet shop where you can sample some excellent Dão wines and gourmet preserves, teas and salts as well as top quality cheese and sausages.
I’m more of a window shopper and I found some fascinatingly old-fashioned shops on Rua Direita where you can buy hair restorer and cassettes, if you really want to!
This traditional shopping street became rather neglected since the fancy pants Viseu Shopping mall opened and several window displays haven’t changed in donkey’s years. A recent project has brought new life into the Rua Direita to help it shake off the apathetic, forgotten air I encountered on my first visit.
4. Visit the small museum at Igreja da Misericórdia
I was given free tickets to the museum that’s next to the Igreja da Misericória (Church of Mercy). Without them, I probably would have contented myself with a peek inside the church to see its wedding cake altarpiece.
I’m glad I went, especially for the view of the church from the upper corridor that connects the museum rooms.
The rooms either side of the church contain rich oil paintings and religious artefacts. Some depict religious scenes or personalities, others are portraits of the church’s many benefactors. The museum focuses on the various charitable works carried out by the church over the centuries, both physical acts and spiritual support. It’s only a euro without the free ticket.
5. Hang out in one of Viseu’s parks or squares
At the heart of Viseu’s historical centre, the bronze statue of King Duarte presides over a square lined with cafés and restuarants and backed by the cathedral walls. It’s a great place for people watching and admiring the beautiful old buildings that surround the square.
Praça da República is leafy and flower-filled, with a fountain and merry-go-round. It’s also bordered on one side by an azulejo mural. During festivals and events, there are usually activities in this square but even without extra thrills, the café in the centre is a popular spot with locals.
One of the reasons why Viseu ranks so highly as a place to live is its abundance of green spaces and pretty public squares. Parque Aquilino Ribeiro is a great place for a picnic with plenty of shade, grassy areas, trees and a pond.
It also hosts cultural events such as the book fair and outdoor theatre.
6. Check out the cultural events in Viseu
For such a small city, Viseu has plenty of cultural activities going on, including free street theatre, wine festivals, music and public art installations. Check Visit Viseu’s events page to find out what’s going on in the area.
And keep your eyes peeled for street art when wandering around the city centre.
One of the city’s major annual events is the Feira de São Mateus, which runs through August and the first part of September. If you like funfairs, this is the place to come but there is also a programme of open air concerts that might draw you in.
Things to do near Viseu
7. Explore the historical gardens at Santar Vila Jardim
The small, traditional village of Santar is home to some surprising gardens. Thanks to the interventions of the Vasconcellos e Sousa family, it is now possible to see not only their family’s stately home and gardens but also the gardens of surrounding properties.
These walled gardens have been transformed under the care and designs of renowned landscape architect, Fernando Caruncho, to produce a year-round bend of sensory attractions, based on geometry, light and water.
Guided tours take place most days but need to be booked in advance. They range from 1.5 hour visits to longer experiences with wine and gourmet local produce. More details on the Santar Vila Garden website.
8. See contemporary art or take a walk around Quinta da Cruz
This former manor house is just a couple of kilometres outside of Viseu (there’s a bus stop opposite if you don’t have your own transport). We were welcomed into the main reception building , given a brief overview of what exhibitions we would find in the various other buildings then left to wander at will.
I doubt, unfortunately, that the wonderful temporary exhibition we enjoyed, exploring food from different countries, will still be on but if that’s the standard, it would be worth the visit.
Even if the art doesn’t appeal, there are sculptures in the grounds and a hiking trail that we didn’t have time to follow.
Open Tuesdays from 2 pm to 6 pm | Wed-Sun 10 am to 1 pm and 2 pm to 6 pm.
9. Taste wine from the Dão region of Portugal
Dão wines, or at least the reds, tend to be full bodied and delicious, rivalling the more famous Douro and Alentejo wines in quality. There are many wine estates near Viseu that you can visit and a Dão wine centre on the outskirts of Viseu, although it was closed when Mike and I tried to visit – more info on this website.
One Dão winery I have visited is Paço dos Cunhas de Santar, which has been transformed from neglected 17th century manor house to a modern wine tasting facility with a lovely restaurant. You can arrange various wine tasting sessions and workshops as well as tours of the vineyards. If you’d rather pair your wine with gourmet food, stay for lunch or dinner. It’s best to call or email in advance to make arrangements and check times.
Although it wasn’t one of the wines I tasted, I couldn’t resist snapping the Pedro and Inês wine, named after Portugal’s star-crossed lovers.
10. Visit a stately home near Viseu
There are plenty of manor houses around Viseu, some of them still occupied, some in ruins, others converted for wine tourism. One of them, Casa da Ínsua in Penalva do Castelo, offers something for everyone.
As well as being a 5-star hotel, it also offers guided tours of the historical mansion with its unique furnishings and decorative features. The gardens are rather spectacular, too, especially when in full bloom.
I had a go at making Serra da Estrela cheese at Casa da Insua but you can try other activities like jam-making or visit the museum. It was closed when I visited (Monday) so I contented myself with the intriguing collection of traditional toys on display.
That should keep you busy for a while but there are plenty of other things to do in the region, including thermal spas, golf, bird watching and bio parks.
How to get to Viseu
If you come by car, park in the big free car park near Cava de Viriato and take the free elevator up to the historical centre. Trains don’t run to Viseu but the intercity coach company Rede Expressos connects it with other major destinations, as does Citi Express.
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