On the road between Setúbal and Évora, Vendas Novas is an understated Alentejano town embedded in farmland.
Most Portuguese people know Vendas Novas for its sandwiches, “bifanas”, which are a pork steak in a bun, flavoured with garlic and spices.
Drivers will even make a detour just to pick one up! The town was born as a stopover for people travelling between cities, and in this spirit a royal palace was constructed as a rest stop here in the 1700s.
This was turned into a military academy in the 19th century, but nearly all of the original palace remains intact.
The municipal pools are just what you need on a hot day, and for littler members of the clan there’s an ethical animal park a little way outside Vendas Novas.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Vendas Novas:
1. Palácio das Passagens
An Artillery Academy since 1861, this property was commissioned by King John V in 1728. The palace was really a bolthole, somewhere for the Royal family to stay on the way to the marriage of John’s daughter Barbara and the future Fernando VI of Spain.
The palace took less than a year to build, a record for the time, and there are still signs from the first years.
Some of the ceilings boast Rococo frescos, there’s a hunting lodge for the king, and a well in the courtyard.
If you’d like to take a look around, just consult the tourist office in Vendas Novas.
2. Capela Real do Palácio das Passagens
You’re free to poke around the palace’s Classical-style chapel, which was built in the same project.
As with the palace, it would most likely have been designed by Custódio Vieira, the court architect also in charge of the Águas Livres aqueduct in Lisbon.
The facade has a simple triangular pediment, fluted pilasters and an image of St Anthony.
Go in to admire the painted garlands in the barrel vault, the 17th-century image of “Our Lady of the Conception” in the altar, as well as the blue and white tile panels on the walls from the 1750s.
3. Chafariz Real
Another tantalising glimpse of the royal palace is hiding just behind Vendas Novas’ municipal market.
The Royal Fountain comprises two long masonry basins next to wall with a blue border and a gable flanked by scrolls.
The tanks are from 1728 and were first built for the workers and animals involved in the construction.
The fountain later suffered the indignity of becoming a public lavatory, before being restored to its 18th century appearance.
4. Museu da Escola Prática de Artilharia
On weekends the artillery academy allows visitors to peruse eight rooms full of artefacts from its past.
The exhibits date from the 1860s on, and special attention is paid to the First World War, during which Portugal fought with the Allied Powers.
There are uniforms, medals, shell casings and side-arms from this conflict.
The museum also documents some the academy’s most illustrious graduates, and tracks the evolution of artillery in the century and a half since the academy’s foundation.
5. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré
This church from the start of the 1500s is the oldest surviving building in the Vendas Novas municipality.
It is in Ladeira, roughly halfway to the city of Setúbal from Vendas Novas the town.
The church’s allure stems from its transitional architecture, with elements of both Gothic and Manueline design.
To the rear of the building there’s a Gothic octagonal font, while inside a lot of the interior decor dates to the 1700s.
From this time there’s an Indo-Portuguese ivory crucifix in the altar, and lining the walls are quintessentially Portuguese blue and white azulejos.
Among the older works are a Manueline holy water font from the 1500s and a 17th-century wooden statue of Our Lady of Nazareth.
6. Palácio do Vidigal
It might be charitable to describe this building as a “palace”, but for avid Portuguese historians it’s still a fascinating relic from the days of royalty.
The Palácio do Vidigal is down a track off the road from Vendas Novas and was a hunting lodge for King Carlos I in 1896. The lodge has typical Ribatejo architecture, and work continued until the king was assassinated in 1908. In the complex is a chapel and an open space where bullfights would have been held.
The palace is still owned by a foundation for the House of Braganza (the royal line), and you can enquire at the tourist office about a visit.
7. Complexo das Piscinas Municipais
The closest beaches to Vendas Novas are 45 minutes away in Setúbal, so if you’re searching for a more convenient place to bathe the town has an open-air pool complex.
When the sun is glaring it’s a veritable oasis in the middle of town, drawing thousands of swimmers from June to September.
The complex has an Olympic-size pool, a diving pool and a smaller pool especially for young children and toddlers.
These are all outside, while there’s also a small indoor pool for the remainder of the year.
Add a spacious green area and a bar/restaurant and you can while away a few comfortable hours.
8. Jardim Público de Vendas Novas
The park in Vendas Novas was laid out in 1993 on what used to be farmland.
The palms, almond and citrus orchards, cork oaks, holm oaks and irrigation networks you see are all traces from before.
And these sit among verdant lawns and a pond that has a cafe on its banks.
There’s also an ornamental water mirror, a skate park, children’s playground and an amphitheatre hosting events in summer.
Also sprinkled around the park are sculptures by the local artist Hélder Batista.
9. Antigo Moinho de Vento de Vendas Novas
Open Tuesday to Sunday, the old whitewashed windmill in the middle of Vendas Novas probably dates to the start of the 1800s.
A lot of the old mechanism is visible inside, including a wheel that lets you turn the blades in the direction of the wind.
You might also end up at this attraction as Vendas Novas has set up its tourist office inside.
So you can pick up leaflets and get advice about the sights and activities in the area, all inside a historic windmill.
10. Monte Selvagem
Anyone travelling in this region with little ones should plan an afternoon at ecologically-friendly animal reserve.
Monte Selvagem opened in 2004, and adheres to an animal-welfare code, providing enclosures that mimic natural habitats as closely as possible.
You’ll spot numerous primate species, wallabies, crocodiles, meerkats, boars, camels, emus, llamas and a wealth of exotic birds.
The park has a hands-on philosophy, and you can enter the vet surgery, while youngsters can meet and pet goat kids and lambs at the educational farm.
A short drive east, Vendas Novas belonged to Montemor-o-Novo until it formed its own municipality in the 1960s.
On the highest knoll in the region, the city’s decaying castle still packs a punch castle.
It was built in 1203 when King Sancho I was fighting to re-conquer Portugal from the Moors.
You’ll be rewarded with some awesome photos of its walls, towers, convent, and the hills dotted with cork oaks in the Alentejo countryside.
There’s another marvellous view waiting at the 16th-century Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Visitação, a hill-top chapel up a single, arrow-straight path from the city.
12. Food and Drink
Head for the municipal market or shop around the villages to stock up on some of the local goodies.
These might be cured sausages like chouriço and alheira, honey, pine nuts, oranges and Alentejano cheeses, which normally have a smooth flavour and semi-firm texture.
If you go out for a meal, Alentejo’s cuisine is rustic, with lots of soups and stews, full of ingredients grown and reared in the region.
Bread is the base for migas and açorda, two dishes made with lots of olive oil and garlic.
And, most famously, it’s used for bifanas, marinated pork loin sandwiches that are amazing with a cold glass of beer.
There are five bars in Vendas Novas that pride themselves on this treat.