Descriptions of picturesque balconies overhanging a river were enough to lure Mike and I to the pretty riverside town of Amarante on our way home from Porto. This first visit revealed enough things to do in Amarante to warrant a return trip, including glimpses of local lifestyles and traditions and a dose of contemporary art.
Given its location between the Vinho Verde wine region and the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal, Amarante is a great place to break a journey or even use as a base for a night or two (see accommodation options).
Read on to discover what to see and do in Amarante.
Visit São Gonçalo in his church
Saint Gonçalo was a noble-born priest from the 13th century and is credited with several miracles. One of them was splitting his own head open to produce wine for the thirsty workers who were building a bridge over the Tâmega River when their own supplies ran out!
For reasons still unclear to me, he has also been associated with love and fertility, hence the phallic cakes that are baked in huge quantities for the Festas de São Gonçalo celebrations on the first Saturday of June.
The magnificent church that bears his name contains an effigy of him on his tomb which, despite its creepiness, is frequently visited by hopeful women.
The sacristy ceiling is beautifully painted so even if saints are not your thing, the interior decoration and the architecture are worthy of admiration.
Stroll across São Gonçalo bridge
As bridges go, Amarante’s is sturdy and mighty and was the site of a battle against the French invaders in 1809. The original medieval São Gonçalo bridge was destroyed in the floods of 1763 and this Baroque stone version is a worthy replacement.
As a bonus, the views are picturesque from either side of the River Tâmega.
On one bank you’ve got balconied buildings to the left and a yellow mansion-turned-hotel on the right.
Across the river, the many-windowed buildings of the old town spread out beyond the imposing stonework of the 16th century São Gonçalo church.
Note: Just be careful if you’re walking across, and especially if you stop to take photographs – it’s easy to forget that cars still use this bridge.
Walk beside the Tâmega River
Take the steps leading down from the municipal market car park to a riverside path that passes underneath São Gonçalo bridge.
When Mike and I visited, the riverbank was dotted with local fishermen, patiently waiting for a catch just a few metres downstream. They weren’t not the only ones enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun – I also spotted an otter basking lazily in the calm waters.
Catch a glimpse of local village life
The river soon widens and the path ends at a small curved iron bridge. Mike and I followed a cloth-capped man as he hauled his wheelbarrow heaped with long stems of grass across it.
All of a sudden, we were in a working village, surrounded by naked grape vines strapped to rusted iron poles and fields of cabbages. The man with a wheelbarrow stopped to chat to another old man who was walking his goats.
If not for the blocks of flats circling the edge of these tiny fields with their makeshift sheds and crumbling barns, I could easily have believed we were in the middle of the countryside.
Browse the traditional shops in Amarante
The colourful historical buildings in the medieval heart of Amarante crowd together to block out the sun from the main shopping streets. Here, you can buy anything from budgies (which were in a horribly overcrowded cage) to slippers to wax intestines.
Visit the Amadeo de Souza Cardoso Museum
This contemporary art museum is dedicated to one of my favourite Portuguese artists, even though his works are relegated to a side room. The rest of the space is crammed with eclectic works from a range of artists – too much to really take in on one visit but there are some lovely pieces among them.
The museum shares space with the neighbouring São Gonçalo convent, giving you a glimpse of the ancient architectural structure.
Other things to do near Amarante
Discover the stunning structures and intricate carvings of Romanesque architecture. While I haven’t seen the monuments near Amarante itself, I did take myself on a Romanesque tour of the Sousa Valley.
If these churches and monasteries are anything to go by, Amarante will have some gems, too. See a map of the monuments here.
About 30 minutes drive gets you to the beautiful gardens at Quinta da Aveleda near Penafiel, so you could do a guided tour and vinho verde wine tasting before or after checking out some architectural highlights.
Where to stay in and around Amarante
The best place in town is Hotel Casa da Calçada Relais & Chateaux, the 5-star converted manor house overlooking the river, with its award-winning onsite restaurant, outdoor pool and free parking facilities. Check availability and room options
If you prefer luxury with a more modern style and are happy to be surrounded by vineyards instead of inside the old town, the 4-star Monverde Wine Experience Hotel might suit you better. See photos of the gorgeous facilities
For the more modest budget, book a private room at Des Arts Hostel and Suites.Search other Amarante accommodation options
How to get to Amarante
There’s no train station but 4 bus companies serve Amarante, including Rodonorte and Transdev.
If you are driving, it’s just a short detour from the A4 motorway – drive all the way down to the river and try to park by the market if possible, unless staying overnight somewhere that has parking facilities.
Some organised tours of the Vinho Verde and Douro wine regions stop in Amarante:
This small group full day tour from Porto takes you to two vinho verde wineries as well as Amarante. Click for more details and online booking
This full-day tour focuses on the town of Amarante and the historic Monastery of Saint Gonçalo. Includes lunch and port tasting.
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Hi Julie, thanks for the post. We’re thinking about a short visit to Amarante next month and want to stay at the fancy place but it’s about 400€ for 3 nights. Unfortunately, way too expensive by any standard, but especially for Portugal. Will have to find another hotel alternative but the choices are very limited.
Hi Terri, I know what you mean, both about the cost of the posh hotel and the limited choice. I have had lunch at Casa da Calçada since writing this post but couldn’t afford to stay there! You’ve probably already done this but this is what a quick search on Booking.com turned up for Amarante: http://www.booking.com/searchresults.en-gb.html?src=index&nflt=&ss_raw=&error_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.booking.com%2Findex.en-gb.html%3Faid%3D360419%3Bsid%3D9dc83df7fb37cc4d89739ed3bd3aa744%3Bdcid%3D1%3B&aid=360419&dcid=1&sid=9dc83df7fb37cc4d89739ed3bd3aa744&si=ai%2Cco%2Cci%2Cre%2Cdi&ss=Amarante&checkin_monthday=14&checkin_year_month=2015-3&checkout_monthday=15&checkout_year_month=2015-3&no_rooms=1&group_adults=2&group_children=0&dest_type=city&dest_id=-2158154
Despite the unpleasant name, Casa de Infesta might be worth looking into: http://www.amguedes.com/infesta/
Hi Julie, thanks for the info!
Casa de Infesta looks to be out of town and we won’t have a car. Will be taking a bus from Porto so need to stay somewhere in walking distance of the bus station. There are some small ‘residencials’ attached to restaurants near there, recommended by Lonely Planet, but they are too small to be on Booking.com and don’t even have a website. I found a few pictures of the rooms on one of their Facebook pages.
Perhaps we will go to Barcelos instead on the train from Porto? I saw your post on that city and the hotel where you stayed. It was OK? We also plan to visit Aveiro and Ovar on the urban train network from Porto.
Terri, I live near Amarante, and there are two hotels that might suit you. One is called the Hotel Amaranto and the other is called the Hotel Navarras and neither are far to walk from the bus station. There are also taxis around too !
The Amaranto is quoting about €45 for a double, €60 for a triple and €75 per night for a suite. I believe the Navarras is similar.
I do hope you have a great time here… it is rather pretty!! We are moivng (fingers crossed and all that !) in mid March into another ‘new’ house in Chapa, Amarante.
BTW .. unless you are a modern art afficionado ..we visited a few years ago, and the museum is tiny and we weren’t too impressed !!
Thanks for the tips, Susan! And good luck with your house move 🙂
Yes, the hotel in Barcelos was fine. Nothing to get excited about but very central and clean and comfortable. I think Amarante is slightly prettier than Barcelos but they both have their appeal.
I visited here in 1990, now able to speak Portuguese well enough to chat to the locals. Saw the church and the “Devils”. It’s a lovely location. I looked on Google Maps and the railway sadly has gone. I used it to get there from Espinho and changed at Livração. It used to run up to Arco de Baúlhe but sadly it’s all gone despite the efforts to protect it by an Englishman whose name escapes me.
Hello Bob, What a shame the railway has gone. Sadly, that seems to have happened all over the country. In my area, the railway connecting Lousã with Coimbra was torn up a few years ago to be replaced with a shiny new metro system. That never happened and the disgruntled population of Lousã and other places on the route are having to go by bus instead.
I live just outside the boundary of Amarante but it’s where my heart is! I lived outside of Edinburgh with my husband and sang in a local choir there for over 23 years – the choir was invited to sing with the Orquestra do Norte [which is pretty famous and is based in Amarante] so in 2004 found us singing two concerts in the cloisters of São Gonçalo, and once in Penafiel too! My husband [as a hanger-on/groupie] was with us too – and both of us fell in love with the place! We vowed to retire here – and in 2009 we did just that! 8th June is S. Gonçalo’s Day btw and there is a big festa here – with all the usual stalls, candyfloss and churros – and fireworks at night set off from the new bridge!
BTW – by then the plastic coverings on the balcony of the Estoril will be removed and it will be a real pleasure to sit there in the warm evening and setting sun !
If you visit Amarante again, please tell us and we’d love to meet up with you sometime – if you have the time that is!
Hi Susan. Wow, I’m sure it’an incredible experience to sing in those places. So much history and atmosphere. I’m glad you told me about the plastic canopy, by the way. I’m sure it’s a great place to sit in the summer. I’ll let you know when I’m next in the area.
Julie, I spent a winters morning up in Amarante for the first time a few weeks ago while my wife was teaching there! An absolutely wonderful place!
You also may be interested in this article on my blog: http://goo.gl/vmiZj
Glad it’s not just me, then! Thanks for the article, by the way 🙂
Lovely post, Julie. I had Amarante earmarked as a possible on our Douro trip but there just wasn’t time. I’ll be back!
Thanks, Jo. I think it’s definitely worth a day of your time – hope you agree when you get there!