Viana do Castelo has definitely grown on me over the years and is one of the most interesting and attractive coastal cities in northern Portugal. With a fascinating history that dates back to pre-Roman times, remarkable costumes, unique jewellery and a restored hospital ship, not to mention the beaches, views, architecture and food, it has broad appeal. It also makes a good base for exploring the Minho region so I’ve included some hotel suggestions.
Of the many things to do in Viana do Castelo, these are among my favourites.
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1. Costume Museum and Viana jewellery
If you’ve ever seen pictures of Portuguese women wearing an excess of gold necklaces and earrings and sporting brightly coloured and embroidered skirts and headscarves, the chances are that they are from in or around Viana.
These days, you are only likely to see local women dressed this way during the annual celebrations in honour of Our Lady of Agony in August. However, the Museu do Traje (Costume Museum) has a wide range of these traditional outfits on display.
The À Vianesa style became popular in and around Viana from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. Local girls would make their own clothes, often using wool spun from the sheep they themselves had helped to rear. The use of colour, patterns and embroidery varies from village to village and even between families.
As you might expect, there are workaday costumes and more elaborate ones for Sundays and special occasions when the gold jewellery would also come out. Such social gatherings afforded opportunities to demonstrate the family’s wealth and the young woman’s skills as a potential homemaker and wife.
The Costume Museum is housed within a former bank so the downstairs strongroom is the ideal location to host an impressive collection of gold jewellery. Much of the collection was donated by local jeweller, Manuel Freitas Rodrigues from his jewellery shop, Ourivesaria Freitas.
I was a little disappointed not to see many examples of the traditional Viana hearts but that’s because there’s more to local jewellery than these delightful pieces. If you want to see more filigree, pop into a jewellery shop instead.
Practicalities: Praça da República. Open Tues-Fri 10 am-6 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 10 am-1 pm and 3-6 pm. A €2 combined ticket gives you access to the Decorative Arts Museum (below) but it’s free at weekends.
2. Admire azulejos at the Decorative Arts Museum of Viana do Castelo
I’d passed the grand facade of Casa dos Barbosa Maciel, home to the Museu dos Artes Decorativos, many times and on a recent visit I finally ventured inside. I was rewarded with a stunning collection of 18th century azulejos (the blue and white tile panels that Portugal is famous for).
Covering the walls of 3 rooms on the upper floor, they portray typical hunting scenes, garden gatherings and, in my favourite room, a fascinating allegory to the four known continents.
Sadly, photography is not permitted so you will have to visit the museum yourself to see them in their full glory. While there, take time to appreciate the ceramics produced in Viana do Castelo and further afield and see examples of the local red and blue embroidery.
Practicalities: Largo de São Domingos. Open Tues-Fri 10 am-6 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 10 am-1 pm and 3-6 pm. A €2 combined ticket gives you access to the Costume Museum (above) but it’s free at weekends.
3. Climb aboard the restored Gil Eannes Hospital Ship
Built in Viana do Castelo’s shipyards in 1955, the Gil Eannes Hospital ship was a state of the art replacement for an existing hospital ship of the same name.
She served many purposes, including support for the Portuguese cod fishing fleet in Newfoundland. Outside fishing seasons, the ship was used as a tugboat, icebreaker and supply ship and in the early 1960s, it also began to carry passengers.
After her last voyage in 1973, she was left to rot in Lisbon and destined for the scrapyard. Saved at the last minute by a public campaign and community fundraising project, the Gil Eannes ship was brought back to Viana. She has since been restored to her former glory and her story is embellished with artefacts donated by locals and others associated with her glory days.
Open to the public as a museum (€4 entry, open from 9:30 am-6 or 7 pm), exploring the insides of a hospital ship makes a fascinating change from churches and more traditional museums. You’ll find it in dock beside the river, near the cultural centre.
You can see the quarters, kitchens, control rooms and, of course, the on board hospital. The operating theatre is in the belly of the ship where stability is as good as it can be. For obvious reasons it was still only used in emergency situations while the ship was at sea.
4. Step back in time at the Celtic settlement of Santa Luzia
Citânia de Santa Luzia is the first of the citânias, or Pre-Roman settlements, I visited in northern Portugal so it came as a surprise to see the diagonally stacked building blocks forming circular structures. These days, most of the buildings are reduced to low walls.
Occupied between 1 BC and 1 AD, this privileged hilltop location allowed the community to monitor traffic on the River Lima as well as the coast and surrounding inland areas. The views are unrivalled.
Follow the boardwalk and use the explanatory leaflet available from the interpretation centre to see the highlights and understand the significance of key structures. Or book a guided tour (firstname.lastname@example.org). Open Tuesday – Sunday 10 am-1 pm and 2-6 pm except certain public holidays.
You’ll find it behind the luxurious accommodation at Pousada de Viana do Castelo – you can see the pool with a view from the ruins.
5. Brave the staircase for stunning views at Santa Luzia Basilica
Also known as the Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the basilica at Santa Luzia is modelled after the Sacre Coeur in Paris but was only completed in 1959, hence the incongruously modern interior.
To get there, you can either take the funicular up the hill (check timetables here) or walk up the hill, allowing the numerous crosses to show you the way.
Once there, take a look around the grounds and you’ll discover some interesting sculptures. Inside the church museum, there are more saintly figurines.
If you don’t suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia, it’s worth climbing to the dome at the very top of the basilica to get the best possible views. Don’t worry, you don’t have to climb all the way up – there’s an elevator to take you part of the way but be warned, the final spiral staircase is steep and narrow and not for the fainthearted.
Open 8 am-5 pm in winter and until 7 pm in summer.
6. Hang out in historical Praça da República, Viana do Castelo
The hub of Viana do Castelo, Praça da República is its most attractive square, lined with buildings representing various architectural periods, cafés, restaurants, and shops.
Within the square, you’ll find some of the city’s most important medieval monuments including the 16th century fountain, the original council chambers and the Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy) as well as the Costume Museum.
I’ve already described the stunning artwork inside the Church of Mercy and its history in a different post about medieval Viana but it is worthy of an additional mention. If you like the blue and white azulejos that Portugal is famous for, you’ll love the interior, which has been fully restored.
Bonus attraction: Viana do Castelo beaches and eco trails
The two closest beaches to the city centre are Praia do Norte which, as the name implies, is to the north of the city, and Praia Cabedelo.
There is a newly-built leisure complex next to a relatively small urban beach at Praia do Norte. If you continue north along the coastline, you’ll soon encounter a cycle and walking path that will lead you along the unspoilt coast and past a fortress, a range of smaller beaches and some windmills.
Note: If a leisurely multi-day walking holiday along Northern Portugal’s Costa Verde sounds like fun to you, check out this article.
If it’s sand and surf you’re after, you’d be better off taking the ferry (or driving over the Eiffel bridge) across the River Lima to Cabedelo. The ferry leaves from outside the cultural centre. It takes around 5 minutes and its another 5-10 minute walk to the beach. Follow the boardwalk across the dunes to the wide expanse of sand.
Hotels in Viana do Castelo
For stunning views, the luxury historical hotel of Pousada de Santa Luzia can’t be beaten. There’s an onsite restaurant so the distance from the city centre does not need to interfere with your enjoyment of local cuisine. Look deeper into this enviable accommodation option.
Right in the heart of the historical centre, the 16th century Casa Melo Alvim offers beautiful, traditionally decorated accommodation and a piano bar. See how lovely it is and check prices.
If you’d prefer something more modern yet unique, try the quirky Hotel Fabrica do Chocolate. Housed in a former chocolate factory, the rooms are decorated in chocolate themes and the restaurant menu is similarly influenced. Choose a room to match your passion for chocolate.
Another central, modern, reasonably priced option is the boutique Hotel Laranjeira, which offers minimalist furnishings in a traditional Minho townhouse and has extremely helpful staff to help make your stay as pleasant as possible. Grab a room while you can.
If contemporary architecture appeals to you, one of the city’s acclaimed structures is the Axis Design Hotel with luxury spa, indoor and outdoor pools and onsite restaurant. Check photos and availability.
A good, reasonably priced option within easy walking distance of the historical centre is the 3-star Hotel Rali Viana. I wasn’t keen on the bathroom setup in the twin rooms (a bit too intimate for ‘just friends’) but I loved the pool, especially after a day on the Coastal Camino, and the restaurant is pretty good if you don’t feel like venturing into the centre. Check availability and prices.
Restaurants and cafés in Viana do Castelo
The nautical themed O Pescador (The Fisherman) Restaurant in Largo de São Domingos is a great option for fresh fish and seafood in a typical Portuguese restaurant, full of local diners.
I had an excellent steak (naco do lombo) at Os Castrejos (Rua Grande 73). It’s a small restaurant with simple, modern decor and a pleasant atmosphere. Ask the waiter’s advice when ordering and you won’t be disappointed.
Maria da Perre (Rua da Viana 118) is a long-established traditional Portuguese restaurant with stone walls decorated with ceramic plates, shawls and photos. In terms of food, the bacalhau (cod) and cabrito (roast kid) are house specialities. Service can be temperamental at times.
Of the many cafés in Viana, my favourite is Confeitaria Natário (Rua Manuel Espregueira 37), famous for its custard doughnuts (Bolas de Berlim), which are so good that people queue up twice a day to get them fresh from the oven. The café is small and cosy, with patterned parquet floors. When I was there mid morning, I was surprised to see many locals drinking white wine from tall glasses but this is apparently an everyday occurrence. If you’re not driving, why not partake?
Another one for the sweet-toothed is Leitaria do Carmo (Rua da Bandeira 327), which claims to make the best Jesuitas in the world. These are triangular folds of pastry topped with thin icing with a soft filling.
Getting to Viana do Castelo
Tours that include Viana do Castelo
This 3-day tour of the Minho’s Historical Charms includes half a day in Viana but could easily be customised to give you more time to fully explore the sights.
If you don’t have time for an overnight stay, a day trip from Porto is possible. This Minho Medieval Heritage Day Trip From Porto Including Lunch incorporates some of the Minho‘s other great spots, such as Ponte de Lima and Barcelos.
This full day tour calls in at Barcelos and Viana do Castelo, with lunch in Viana.
Walking to Viana do Castelo
Viana do Castelo is also on the Coastal Portuguese Way of Saint James so you could walk here. It’s one of the places I would recommend taking a rest day in if you are doing this pilgrim route.
A more leisurely walking holiday along the coast of northern Portugal would be this one.
Public transport to Viana
If you’re happier with public transport, there are several buses a day from Porto to Viana that take between 50 and 90 minutes and trains with journey times ranging from 1.5 hours to almost 3.5 so check the timetables carefully.
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