Many visitors to Portugal whizz through the UNESCO World Heritage city of Évora on a day trip from Lisbon, quickly ticking off the Roman Temple, Praça Giraldo and the eerie chapel of bones before moving on. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find plenty of reasons to stay at least a night or two, especially if you want to use Évora as a base for exploring the Alentejo region.
Read on to discover the best things to do in Évora, from must see sights to lesser-known treasures.
Chapel of Bones in Évora, Portugal
Among the best things to see in Évora is the haunting chapel of bones next to Igreja de São Francisco. This gruesome construction is one of the city’s most popular sights so expect it to be busy but it’s well worth seeing.
The Franciscan monks who conceived this grisly project certainly knew how to drive a message home. With the aim of provoking visitors into contemplating the transitory nature of human life, they gathered up the skeletons of over 5,000 dead from the town graves and used them to build this chapel. Five centuries later, the eerie atmosphere provides modern visitors with a grim reminder that despite medical and technological advances, there’s just no escaping death, no matter how rich or important you may be.
“We bones that are here are waiting for yours,” warns the inscription carved into the stone lintel above the entrance. Once inside the chapel, you will be surrounded by evidence of human mortality.
Every wall and column is crammed with the knobbly ends of femurs interspersed with rows of skulls and lengths of arm bones, all painstakingly arranged into artistic patterns. Even the vaulted ceilings are studded with rows of craniums and the traditional pictures of podgy cherubs have largely been replaced by paintings of gaunt skulls.
Practicalities: Praça 1º de Maio. Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm November to March and until 6:30 pm from April to October. The €4 entrance includes access to whatever temporary exhibition is on (it’s nativity scenes until October 2018 – some of them are strange, to say the least) and a religious art exhibition.
Explore Evora’s public gardens, peacocks and King Manuel’s Palace
To the left of the renovated 15th century church of St. Francis are the attractive public gardens. Amid the bushes, paths and ponds, you’ll find a ruined building which a pride of peacocks have claimed as their territory, making for some potential Instagram moments.
The rather splendid building just inside the park is what remains of the 16th century Royal Palace, once integrated into the Franciscan complex.
What to do in Évora – visit the Cathedral
We arrived just as people were gathering for mass so we spent very little time in the main church and headed straight for the cloisters. As the only visitors at that time, we were able to admire the vaulted ceilings, arches and stone roses in peace, apart from the clanging bells. The founder’s chapel in the far corner contains a beautifully carved marble tomb of Dom Pedro and a depressed lion.
There’s little information about the building so we almost missed the spiral staircase to the roof of the cloisters (it’s opposite the toilets). It’s worth the climb for the city views, the close up of the gigantic rose window and the 14th century relief carving of Gerald the Fearless, aka the Giraldo of Praça do Giraldo. This local hero was instrumental in turfing the Moors out of Évora in 1167 during the reconquest that resulted in the creation of Portugal as a country.
Practicalities: Largo do Marquês de Marialva. Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm). Tickets range from €2.50 to €4.50 depending on how much you want to see. We paid €3.50 as we didn’t bother with the sacred art museum (you can see plenty of this in the Evora Museum).
Pop into the Carriage Museum
Walk around the back of the cathedral and you’ll find one of Evora’s hidden gems. Part of the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation, this small museum displays the family’s fine collection of carriages and associated items. Watch the short video for context and an insight into the lives of this high profile family.
Practicalities: Páteo de S. Miguel, Largo Dr. Mário Chicó. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and from 13:30 pm to 18:00 pm. €1.
Visit Évora Museum
In front of the cathedral you have the city museum. Having spent the previous morning on a tour of the nearby megalithic monuments, Jules and I were keen to see the first room of the Archaeology section. It contains the engraved slate plates, ceramic dishes, beads and other treasures that were placed with the dead inside the Neolithic Zambujeiro dolmen.
The exhibition progresses through the Bronze and Iron Ages to the Roman era. As you might imagine for a city that was important enough to have a Roman temple, there is no shortage of Roman sculptures.
The upper floor of the museum is replete with religious art including the altarpiece from Evora Cathedral and paintings by Grão Vasco.
Practicalities: Largo do Conde de Vila Flor. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm November to March and 10 am to 6 pm April to October. €3.
Casas Pintadas, contemporary art gallery and the Inquisitor’s Room
Both Jules and I are fresco fans so we were keen to see the Casas Pintadas (Painted Houses). These paintings of mythical creatures and other animals represent moral characteristics, virtues and vices and adorn a 15th century nobleman’s house.
While this artwork is around 500 years old, the exhibitions inside the Centro de Arte e Cultura are utterly modern, providing an interesting contrast. Make sure you go to the top floor to see the Inquisitor’s Room. It’s so dark that you can barely see the painted ceiling – instead, the details are projected onto a lumpy light display on the floor.
Practicalities: Largo do Conde de Vila Flor. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm (7 pm May to September). €1 including entrance to the contemporary art exhibitions and the Inquisitor’s Room.
Pose beside the Roman temple, aka Templo de Diana
A surprisingly small but reasonably well-preserved Roman temple dating back to the 1st century AD dominates the square in front of the museum.
It was a hub for the city’s activity for a couple of hundred years until Germanic invaders destroyed it. You can’t go inside but if the weather’s nice and you want to simply contemplate its history, there’s an outdoor café in the small gardens beside the temple.
See the azulejos inside Cadaval Palace and Loios church
One side of the Roman temple is flanked by the Archbishop’s palace and the other by the Cadaval Ducal Palace. This latter palace adjoins the Church of Loios, which in turn is connected to the former convent, now luxury hotel.
The church is a wonderful example of how specially commissioned azulejo panels were used for floor-to-ceiling decoration and illustrations of saintly lives in the early 18th century. However, unless you pay €4 to step behind the thick red velvet curtain, you won’t get to see this as it’s still private property.
Practicalities: Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. €4.
University of Evora
While not as impressive (in my eyes) as the University of Coimbra, as one of Portugal’s longest running universities, Evora’s seat of learning is still worth a visit. The stunning cloistered courtyard is lined with lecture rooms that ooze history via their blue and white tile panels and the Grand Hall has some intriguing designs.
Practicalities: Largo dos Colegiais, 2. Open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 8 pm except holidays. €3.
Walk alongside the Agua da Prata / Silver Water aqueduct
Jules and I were staying very near to the 15th century aqueduct so we followed a tiny section of its 18 km length into and out of the heart of the walled city several times. This gave us ample opportunity to marvel at the impossibly narrow houses that have been built into the arches of this medieval waterway. You can even stay in one of them!
Go wine tasting in Évora
We had intended to visit a nearby winery but ran out of time. Instead, we went to the Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo tasting room, shop and information centre. For €3, you can taste 6 or 7 wines that are being featured that week. If you like any of them enough, you can buy some, or any of the other bottles they have in stock.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to taste some vinho da talha – wine made in giant terracotta urns like the one in this photo.
Practicalities: Praça Joaquim António de Aguiar 20. Open Monday to Friday from 11 am to 7 pm and Saturdays from 10 am to 1 pm.
Where to stay in Evora – Best hotels and guesthouses
Well worth an overnight stay, Évora has accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets.
You’ll find my top picks from the various categories in this dedicated article about Evora hotels.
Where to eat and drink in Évora
Probably my favourite restaurant in Evora is Taberna Típica Quarta Feira. 3 generations of the same family work tirelessly to produce delicious Portuguese food served with a smile. You don’t get to choose what to eat – it’s whatever the chef decides is the dish of the day. I’m a bit squeamish about fatty meat but we had braised pork neck which was slow cooked, tender and tasty and not too fatty at all. This was after a myriad of starters and followed by an array of desserts. At €30 a head including house wine, it was excellent value.
Reservations are essential. Cash only. Rua do Inverno 16-18. Open for lunch Tuesday to Saturday and for dinner from Monday to Saturday.
Another rustic traditional restaurant with red and white checked tablecloths and a simple menu chalked on the wall is Adega do Alentejano, where the house wine is still drawn from large wooden barrels. After hearing that this is THE best place for my favourite tomato and bread soup, we booked a table. At this restaurant, not only do you get a poached egg in the soup, it comes with a side dish of fried Portuguese sausages. We also had the bacalhau dourada (golden cod), which was home made and tasty.
Rua Gabriel Victor do Monte Pereira 21A. Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday. Cash only.
We found a lovely ‘secret’ café down the side of the Carriage Museum, just through a gate on the left. We weren’t even sure it was open to begin with as we were the only ones there. The interior is lovely but the main feature is the outdoor terrace. Pateo de São Miguel. Open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm.
If you like pasteis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts to die for, or just pies in general, try the Fabrica dos Pasteis (Pie Factory). Tucked away on a side street near Praça Giraldo, you can eat in or take away but either way, you’ll be getting freshly baked sweet or savoury pies to make your mouth water. Alcárcova de Cima 10. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 9 pm.
How to get to Évora
The train from Lisbon to Evora (approx. 1.5 hours) runs several times a day from Entrecampos station.
If you are short on time and don’t have a car, there are several full day tours from Lisbon that include time in Évora.
For example, this comprehensive small group tour includes a visit to the megalithic standing stones at Almendres, a visit to the bone chapel, free time in Évora and an olive oil tasting. Click to check availability and prices and book online.
If your focus is more on the wine than the history, you may prefer this full day tour to Evora and two nearby wineries.
Évora is also the base for my 3-Day Taste Of The Alentejo itinerary
Alternatively, check out these Evora tours from Lisbon – just click on an image for more details:
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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