Are you wondering what to do in Chaves, Portugal? Look no further! I’ve visited this pretty town in the north of Portugal several times and explored its charms, of which there are many, so I’m excited to finally share them with you.
Technically a small city, Chaves is proud of its history and much of that is evident in its architecture and natural features. First the Romans fell in love with the quality of the spring water and made it one of the most important spa destinations in Europe. In later centuries, a castle was built as well as other defences to keep Spanish invaders at bay.
Chaves is an easy place to walk around and you’ll see wonderful examples of architecture dating from Roman times and the Middle Ages through to the present day coupled with the opportunity to get rid of any aches and pains in a famous hot spring spa.
It’s also the start/end point of the N2, Portugal’s longest road, which has become a cult road trip.
So, here are my recommendations for things to do in Chaves.
Walk across the Roman Bridge of Chaves
Ponte de Trajano or Trajan’s Bridge is a 140 metre long Roman bridge stretching over the Tâmega River. It was built in either the 1st or 2nd century and has a commemorative column known as the Padrão dos Povos (or People’s Standard) which celebrates the construction of the bridge.
The 12-arched bridge is a fine example of Roman architecture although it’s been much changed throughout the years. It is now pedestrianised to show off the Roman milestones that marked the distances to other Roman strongholds in Braga and Leon.
There’s also a second column mentioning that the bridge was built by local people and dedicated to Emperor Trajan.
Take in the importance of Praça de Camões
The main square of Chaves bursts with historical importance. As well as the City Hall, you have the old building of the Palace of the Duke of Bragança, Igreja Santa Maria Maior and the old Chaves hospital. Standing proudly in the middle of the square, in front of the city hall, is a statue of the 1st Duke of Bragança (Dom Afonso).
Learn the history of Chaves at Museu da Região Flaviense
Situated in Praça da Camões, the city museum gives a good insight into the city’s archaeological and cultural heritage, particularly from the Roman period. The building itself was once part of the palace of the Dukes of Bragança, and has periodically been used as a barracks and a military prison.
The exhibits on display are extensive, with excellent examples of Roman coins and ceramics but also going back to both the Stone and Bronze Ages.
Open Monday to Friday 9 am to 12:30 pm and 2 pm to 5:30 pm. Saturday and Sunday 2 pm to 5:30 pm. It’s closed on Public Holidays and weekends in winter.
Get history and views at Chaves Castle
Because of its close proximity to the Spanish border, Chaves has always been a crucial gateway into Portugal, hence the importance of any defensive capabilities.
The town’s castle stands on the hill displaying the strength once needed to repel invaders. Nowadays, only the tower and ramparts remain but you can still appreciate the fortifications.
Climb the tower for great views and you’ll also get to see a small military museum. There’s a lovely garden that surrounds the castle, great for views and a stroll.
Get your azulejo fix at Igreja da Misericórdia de Chaves
A 17th century church which is relatively unremarkable from the outside but inside there’s a feast of blue azulejo tiles depicting scenes from the bible and a painted wooden ceiling. The altar is decorated with gilded wood, a Baroque composition from the 18th century.
The church is open Monday to Saturday from 4 pm to 6 pm, Sunday from 8:45 am to 10 am.
Forte São Francisco and Fort São Neutel
Defending Chaves on the Galician border was crucial at the time of the Restoration War and both the Forte São Francisco and Fort São Neutel played their part.
To stop enemy forces gathering on the nearby hill, the existing convent was modified and became the São Francisco Fortress. The defence of the city was enhanced by building new walls that connected the fortress to the old medieval walls, including the old Roman bridge. It is now a 4-star hotel.
Fort São Neutel was built between 1664 and 1668 and later became a prison. Inside the walls is a chapel with barracks behind, once used for veteran soldiers.
The colour and beauty of Igreja Matriz de Santa Maria Maior
This beautiful old building is quite different from other churches I’ve visited. I was especially impressed with the stained glass windows and the way the azulejo panel fits around the vaulted Gothic ceiling. There are some pretty grotesque motifs to be spotted if you look closely enough.
The site of Igreja de Santa Maria Maior is steeped in history. Originally there was a Roman temple, then a Visigothic church before this church was built in the 13th century, later undergoing further renovations in the 16th century according to the Renaissance models of the time.
For times of Masses, check out this site.
Watch the world go by at Jardim Público de Chaves
Just across the Roman bridge lies Chaves Public Gardens, a pretty park to escape to when the heat gets overbearing. The trees give ample shade and the gardens are well tended. There’s a cute bandstand and in the summer it’s well used for fairs and suchlike.
Contrast the old and new at Nadir Afonso Contemporary Art Museum
On the right bank of the river is the stylish Nadir Afonso Museum of Contemporary Art, (MACNA), a building designed by the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, opened in 2016.
The main work displayed there is by the local artist Nadir Afonso,one of the most original Portuguese painters of the 20th century, but there’s also other works of contemporary art in temporary exhibitions.
Winter opening times are Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am to 1 pm and 2:30 pm to 6 pm. Summer times are Tuesday to Sunday 10 am to 1 pm and 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm. Admission €5.
Step carefully on the Poldras de Chaves
Not far along from the new pedestrian bridge you’ll find a very rudimentary way to get from one side of the river to the other, i.e. stepping stones. I had a go on the Poldras de Chaves but wasn’t brave enough to go beyond the first 4 or 5 stones. There are 90 of them in total so if you fancy trying them out, be careful!
Stroll along Alameda de Trajano riverside park
The riverside walkway from the Roman bridge towards and beyond the stepping stones is delightful. If you’d like to hire a bike to explore the area, you’ll be able to do so here. There’s also a pedestrian bridge to a larger grassy park on the other side of the river.
Taste a Pastel de Chaves
This is a veal mince-filled flaky pastry that I ate before remembering to take a photo! The layers of paper thin pastry look almost too good to eat. To be honest, I’m not a raving fan of pasteis de Chaves but I think you should decide for yourself whether they’re a hit with you or not.
First made in 1862, the recipe remained a secret until the 1940s when other bakeries worked out the ingredients. Pasteis de Chaves can only be called by this name if they’re made in the city and follow the same basic recipe, although you can find them in Porto.
D’Chaves is a great place to buy these and other wonderful pastries in Chaves historical centre.
Eat typical Portuguese food at Adega de Faustino
This is an amazing restaurant space which serves traditional Portuguese food. The building itself is a century old and inside you’ll find large wine vats behind the counter, long wooden tables and a cobblestone floor.
It also houses a small museum, displaying its history, artwork and with the occasional Fado night.
For a look at its menu and to book a table see here.
Treat yourself at the thermal springs
It was way back in the Roman era when emperor Vespasiano named the town Aquae Flaviae in appreciation of the quality of its natural spring waters. Since then, Chaves has been one of the most popular places to visit for those seeking natural treatments.
The spa is now in a large park (Parque Termal) and treatments range from massages to steam baths, tackling a range of complaints such as rheumatism and digestive ailments.
It boasts one of the hottest springs in Europe, (at its peak 73 degrees C but thankfully it levels out at about 37).
Note that when I visited a few years back, the experience was more clinical than pampering in nature. The staff are also more likely to speak Spanish than English, being so close to the border. That said, their website has since been revamped and it looks as though wellbeing treatments are being given greater focus than before.
You will probably still need to complete a medical questionnaire before having a treatment of any kind. My favourite is always the duche de jato, which involves standing at the far end of the room while the technician hoses you down with a high pressure hose.
Take a drink at Buvette de Chaves
You can actually drink the hot, mineral-rich waters at this fountain. People gather around, glass in hand hoping to remedy a range of problems from gastrointestinal diseases to rheumatism. Don’t forget to get your “passport” stamped if you’re following the Ruta Termal (see below).
Follow the thermal and water route
The cross-border Verín-Chaves-Vidago Thermal and Water Route, (Ruta Termal in Portuguese), includes 6 hotsprings spread around the north of Portugal and southeastern Galicia, each with unique characteristics.
For a bit of fun, you can ask for a special passport at a local tourist information center which contains the route, tips and the chance to enter a prize draw if you get your passport stamped as you go round.
For more information, check out this site.
Spoil yourself at Vidago Palace
If you do try the thermal route beyond Chaves to Vidago, you’ll find yourself at this gorgeous luxury historical hotel built for the Portuguese royal family to use when visiting to take in the waters. It’s a romantic experience you’ll probably never forget. You can read about our time there in this post.
Besides taking advantage of the spa, for anyone interested in a round of golf, Vidago has a renowned golf course. Read my Insider Guide To Golf Courses In Porto and the North of Portugal for more information.
Shop at traditional independent groceries and other stores.
Although there are big supermarkets and other national and international shops in the modern parts of the city, Chaves historical centre still has traditional local shops that offer a fascinating insight into Portuguese food and culture.
Begin (or end) your N2 journey
Portugal’s longest road, the N2, begins in Chaves and runs the length of the country all the way down to Faro, a total distance of 739 kilometres. Because of this, it’s often referred to as the Portuguese Route 66.
Definitely one for slow-travel, road trip enthusiasts eagerly take to the winding route and discover a Portugal not seen by many visitors as they pass through small villages as well as cork forests and verdant valleys.
Make your way to the painted milestone start at KM 0 in Chaves, adorned with various stickers of motor-bike clubs and imagine your journey. To help you plan this, take a look at my N2 Portugal: The Ultimate Road Trip From North To South article for what to see and where to go.
Where to stay in Chaves
Situated in an historic 17th century building, Forte de Sao Francisco Hotel Chaves boasts a huge garden, an outdoor pool and lovely views of both city and the mountains. Only a short walk from the Roman bridge, the rooms are clean and comfortable and the onsite restaurant is very good. See more photos.
Rural country house
Just 3 kms outside of town is Quinta da Mata- Turismo de Habitação. It’s an old Manor House with rustic rooms with an outdoor pool, a sauna plus a range of farm animals. The rural atmosphere lends itself to a nice relaxing stay. Book your room now.
Close to the Roman bridge,the chic Casa Guardiao has both one and two bedroom apartments that come with a fully equipped kitchen. There are garden and city views and the apartments are clean, bright and spacious. See the photos.
How to get to Chaves
The nearest airport to Chaves is Porto. A bus from Campanhã Bus terminal (Porto) takes 2 hrs 20 mins and costs €11 to €14 or you can drive the 150 kms in 1.5 hrs.