On the Alentejo coast, Vila Nova de Santo André is a new town developed for the vast container port in Sines. What Vila Nova de Santo André lacks in big-hitting sights, it makes up for with Blue Flag beaches that are undiscovered by tourists and a marvellous nature reserve with dunes and an unbelievable diversity of birdlife.
In a few minutes flat you can be in Vasco da Gama’s hometown, adventuring through Roman ruins or standing on the walls of a sky-scraping medieval castle that rules the coastal plain for miles.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Vila Nova de Santo André:
1. Praia da Fonte do Cortiço
The closest beach to Santo André is at the end of a track flanked by farms and maritime pine forest, until the coastal dunes hove into view.
When you catch sight of this Blue Flag beach you’ll know why you made the drive.
It is hands-down one of the most beautiful in Alentejo: There’s a spacious stretch of flaxen sand buffeted by a roaring surf that will set watersport fanatics’ pulses racing, but might be too rough for everyday bathing.
But that doesn’t matter so much when there’s natural beauty all around, and you can lie back on the sand or take long walks in the wash.
2. Badoca Safari Park
On the eastern edge of town is an animal attraction that promises an enjoyable afternoon if you’re travelling with youngsters.
The park combines large spaces in which animals graze in semi-freedom, as well as smaller zoo-like habitats.
You’ll journey through the big areas on a bus, getting to see savannah species like zebras, giraffes and springboks as if they were in the wild, sharing the same space with ostriches.
After that you can sit down to watch raptor demonstrations, bring little ones to meet tame animals like donkeys, goats and llamas in the mini-farm.
There’s also an island for monkeys and an enclosure for tigers.
3. Praia da Costa de Santo André
Between the ocean and the Santo André lagoon is a beach that almost defies description: There’s a long ribbon of pale sand with the boisterous Atlantic surf on one side, while on the other, just metres away, are the shallow, placid waters of the lagoon.
If you’re here for watersports it means you can switch between the lagoon and ocean at will, but for everyone else it’s a dreamy place to relax or ramble along the shore.
4. Igreja Paroquial de Santo André
Going by the Manueline masonry on the portal, Santo André’s parish church was probably built in the first decades of the 1500s.
The problem is that nobody is too sure, as the building was destroyed by the great earthquake in 1755, and suffered in another earthquake in 1858. You can easily make out the Manueline coat of arms of the Order of Santiago and the Cross of St Andrew.
The altarpiece has the extravagant style of the Baroque and Rococo, with dainty wood-carvings painted with gold.
5. Reserva Natural das Lagoas de Santo André e da Sancha
There’s unfettered nature in your backyard in Santo André, at the 500-hectare expanse of the Santo André lagoon.
It doesn’t matter what time of year you come; this is a dreamy environment for walks.
The Santo André lagoon is a massive body of water walled from the ocean by sand dunes that melt away to that ribbon of beach at the Costa de Santo André.
There are marshes, willow trees, heaths, wetlands, mudflats, rushes and reed beds, all a haven for more than 240 bird species at different times of the year.
The year-round presence of freshwater in the reserve attracts the Eurasian reed warbler and the red-crested coot, while large numbers of red herons make their nests on the smaller Lagoa da Sancha in the south of the reserve.
6. Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Graça
On the slope a few steps from this hermitage is the reason why the building exists: Now buried is a spring, which had therapeutic qualities that made it sacred hundreds of years ago.
The hermitage is also on the road to Santiago de Compostela and became a break in the journey for pilgrims walking the Way of St James.
There has a surely been some sort of chapel here for 100s of years, but this building dates to the start of the 1700s.
If the doors are open, stick you head inside to see the trompe l’oeil tiles on the walls.
7. Santiago do Cacém
Santo André falls within the Santiago do Cacém municipality, and the centre of this town is five minutes by car.
The tallest hill is claimed by the town’s medieval castle, as you head up the slope from the centre of you’ll pass through the older part of town.
This has tapered cobblestone streets with sharp gradients, all hemmed by dignified old houses in elegant states of decay.
When you finally make it the castle, feast your eyes on the formidable outer walls, which have ten towers and still bear hints of Moorish architecture.
The space inside these ramparts is now the town’s cemetery.
Wander across to the Igreja Matriz on the hill, which has a relief of the mythical patron saint Santiago Matamoros fighting the moors.
A whole Roman city is ready to be discovered a little way inland, on the other side of Santiago do Cacém.
Miróbriga would have been an Iron Age settlement going back 3,000 years, until it was taken over by the Romans 2,100 years ago.
The extent of the site may surprise you, and there’s a hippodrome, forum, paved streets and houses stretching out for more than two kilometres.
You won’t need much imagination to conceive the dimensions of some of the buildings, like the Temple of Venus, which has the bulk of its walls and columns, and the baths, believed to be the most intact in Portugal.
9. Moinho de Vento da Quintinha
A kilometre from Miróbriga is one of many old whitewashed windmills in the countryside near Santo André.
The difference is that this one has just been restored to full working order by the municipality, and has opened its doors to visitors to demonstrate time-honoured cereal-grinding techniques.
The mill was first restored in the 1980s but broke down permanently in 2011 until the town invested in another restoration in 2017. The mill’s setting is another reason to pay a visit, on high ground looking out over Santiago do Cacém and out to the ocean.
Santo André grew in the 1990s as a residential community the burgeoning container port in Sines.
This processes more traffic than any other port in the country, and if you’re interested in the logistics and technology of a modern port you can book a tour.
Although the port is what puts Sines on the map today, the town had a hand in the Age of Discovery when Portugal was at the forefront of maritime trade and colonisation.
Vasco da Gama, who famously made a voyage to India, was born in Sines sometime in the 1460s.
You can even go inside his childhood home as his father was the warden of the castle here.
This older quarter is situated quite a distance from the new industrial enclave around the port, so neither interferes with the other.
11. Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park
Carry on past Sines and its industrial zone and you’ll break free into a natural park that continues down to Portugal’s southwestern trip 100 kilometres away.
South of Sines the typical broad beaches and dunes are swapped for little rocky coves with high bluffs forming clear pools that are safe for young ones.
At 20 minutes from Santo André, Porto Covo is a fishing village of single-storey houses given over to low-key tourism, with a assortment of seafood restaurants and easy access to secluded beaches.
Based in Santo André, Santiago do Cacém and Sines are a few operators advertising different pursuits on the water.
This coastline is exceptionally versatile, with the tube-like beach breaks that surfers and bodyboarders dream of, but also the lagoon’s flat waters that suit people who want to take advantage of the steady winds.
Praia da Costa de Santo André has the best of both worlds, and on any given day there will be surfers on the ocean side or people exploring the lagoon on canoes.