On the shore of a lagoon, Aveiro is a maritime city with water in its soul. The cityscape is crisscrossed by canals that you can navigate on painted gondola-style boats known as moliceiros. And on the quaysides in the older part of the city are charming Art Nouveau houses in pastel shades.
The big attraction is the Mosteiro de Jesus, a monastery with a royal connection and replete with religious art in its museum. But the Atlantic is also on your doorstep and you’re minutes from ocean-swept sandy beaches and the adorable little resort of Costa Nova.
Lets explore the best things to do in Aveiro:
1. Mosteiro de Jesus
Aveiro’s prized monument is this convent built between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Its fame comes from one of its residents, Joanna Princess of Portugal, and daughter of Afonso V. Because she was in the royal line she was never able to take her solemn vows, and instead lived out a modest life at the convent and bequeathed her estates to it when she died in 1490. She was beatified in the 17th century, and her stunning tomb in the lower chancel blends marble and ceramics.
Also fantastic is the nave and apse of the church, with amazing floor tiles and every surface covered with gilded woodcarving.
2. Museu de Aveiro
Since 2011 the monastery buildings have been a museum, both to show off their architectural majesty and to exhibit an awesome array of religious art on the newer upper floors.
This has been collected from the many monasteries that used to surround Aveiro.
There’s primitive and Renaissance painting, Coimbra school sculpture, carved stonework, azulejos (glazed tiles), jewellery, furniture and historic vestments.
Below, the refectory is a delight for its tiled walls.
And the cloister, built in the 15th and 16th centuries, has geometric tiles and two tiers of galleries around a central fountain.
3. Aveiro’s Canals
The canals, fed by Aveiro’s lagoon, are what give Aveiro its character and deserve a couple of hours of your time.
There are several branches to stroll by, through both historic and newer city quarters.
Along the quays in the Rossio area there’s some wonderful Art Nouveau architecture, which we’ll come to later.
The Jardim do Rossio is a canal-front park with lawns and palm trees, and a very pretty spot to bring a book.
The pastel-coloured houses are the icing on the cake, and there’s no lack of tuk-tuks to carry you off on a quick tour.
4. Moliceiro Tour
These colourfully painted boats are a constant in Aveiro, and you can board one for a 45-minute tour of the city by water.
The moliceiros were originally made to harvest seaweed in the lagoon.
This was used as a fertiliser in the local sandy soils.
The trade died out when modern fertilisers were introduced but the old boat building techniques were revived to craft a fleet of tourist vessels.
The paintings on the bow and stern depict traditional scenes around Aveiro, and on the journey you’ll get a good summary of the city along its canals and by the salt farms that border the lagoon.
5. Rossio Area
At the start of the 20th century emigrants who had made their fortunes in Brazil returned to Aveiro and built themselves stylish houses in the Art Nouveau style.
Some elegant properties to look out for are the Casa do Major Pessoa, now the Art Nouveau Museum and with lovely wrought iron gates and balconies.
See also the Casa dos Ovos Moles by the water on Rua João Mendonça 24 and 25, with its little ornamental balconies and a gable with a curved window at the top.
On the same street the Cooperativa Agrícola building at 5, 6 and 7 has fabulous tile work with foloral patterns.
6. Church of São João Evangelista
Also known as the Carmelite Church, this opulent building was part of a major convent that was almost completely destroyed when Aveiro’s urban plan was reworked at the start of the 20th century.
The church dates to the start of the 1700s and was heavily embellished in the decades that followed.
This was a period of extreme wealth, when many churches around Portugal were decorated with dazzling gilded woodwork.
And once you pass the stern facade, this church is no different, with gilding framing paintings on the walls and ceiling.
The lower half of the walls in the nave is decorated with glorious blue and white azulejos.
7. Forum Aveiro
No ordinary mall, this shopping centre is right by the canal and has a classical design, with two-storey galleries and bridges over a long central walkway.
It’s all very tasteful with rooftop cafes and grassy spaces where you can bring a picnic in summer.
As for shops, it has all of the big brands you’d expect like Zara and Mango, as well as other everyday stores you’ll find in every Iberian city like Bershka, Oysho and Pull & Bear.
The food court has a good choice of eateries, from fast food to Portuguese traditional cuisine (Serra da Estrela) and there’s also a cinema.
8. Old Train Station
If you’re coming to Aveiro by train you’ll be wowed by a slice of the city’s early-20th-century history as soon as you arrive.
The old train station terminal stands in sharp relief to the sleek new terminal and was completed in 1916. The special thing about it is the tiling; these blue azulejos were made at the Fábrica da Fonte Nova and depict traditional scenes from around Aveiro and the region.
There are moliceiros, salt farms, men and women in regional dress and images of Aveiro’s canals.
It’s now a sort of time capsule for the city, created more than a century ago.
9. Costa Nova
This oceanfront village is very charming, on a long peninsula with the lagoon on one side and the Atlantic on the other.
Before the tourists arrived in Costa Nova this was a fishing village, and there’s a reminder of this time in its cute weatherboard cottages, painted with vertical stripes.
If you’re fond of fish and seafood, the fishing market is a must; here whelks, crabs, goose barnacles and shrimp straight from the lagoon are prepared for you on the Cais dos Pescadores while you wait.
It’s one of those rare chances to taste seafood that is literally straight from the water.
10. Praia da Barra
Anyone in need of some beach-time can head straight to Praia da Barra, under 10 kilometres from Aveiro.
There are two main beaches here; the upper one (Praia Velha) is just where the Aveiro Lagoon reaches the ocean.
The long breakwaters on either side keep the ocean waves at bay and give you calm waters to bathe in.
South of that is a long, open beach, traced by sand dunes and with a long elevated wooden walkway to help you get around.
This is a hit with surfers for its rolling waves and there’s a school directly on the beach if you’d like to try.
11. Praia da Barra Lighthouse
The tallest lighthouse in Portugal’s stands behind the Praia Velha and rises to 62 metres.
This dates to 1893 and was necessary because the ocean off Aveiro is dangerously shallow for ships, and the presence of the lagoon would make land seem further away than it actually was.
It would be another century before the lighthouse was automated in 1990. If you’re around on Wednesday afternoons you can scale the 271 steps to the platform for an aerial perspective of the lagoon, Praia da Barra, Costa Nova, Aveiro and the communities of São Jacinto and Gafanhas.
12. Museu Marítimo de Ílhavo
During the dictatorship Aveiro was one of Portugal’s primary ports for cod fishing.
So if ever there’s an attraction to cut to the core of the country’s love affair with this fish it’s the maritime museum a few minutes away in Ílhavo.
Presented here is a replica of the trawlers that would sail as far as Newfoundland for their catches, and you can find out about the tools of the trade, life aboard one of these boats and the culture around this industry.
There are also displays focussing on the Aveiro lagoon and its salt harvesting industry and characteristic moliceiro vessels.
13. Museu Histórico da Vista Alegre
The Vista Alegre porcelain factory has been crafting fine ceramics for more than 200 years.
It’s a gigantic complex that includes the factory, a 17th-century palace, a chapel and an entire residential quarter built for workers with its own theatre.
The museum is in former factory buildings and has just been given a makeover.
You’ll be given an overview of the Vista Alegre company, as well as the history of porcelain and the role it has played in Portuguese society.
There are more than 30,000 pieces on display, and you can see the old kilns and modern facilities that still employ 700 people.
It takes a strong will to make it past the gift shop without buying something!
14. Bike Rides
Aveiro’s flat landscape and paved canal quays could have been made for bicycles, and they have been a preferred mode of transport since the start of the 20th century.
Recently the city has made it even easier to get around by introducing its BUGA, bike-sharing system.
There are 20 BUGA depots in Aveiro where you’ll get a bike with a special lock.
So you’ll be able to stop and lock the bike up before entering one of Aveiro’s attractions.
The system runs between 10:00 and 19:00. Cycling is also the easiest way to experience the Aveiro Lagoon, where you’ll coast beside salt farms, maize fields on the BioRia trails, spotting white herons and flamingos as you go.
15. Ovos Moles
As well as all that tasty seafood fresh from the water there’s a sweet that is as characteristic of Aveiro as the canals and moliceiros.
These are ovos moles (literally soft eggs), made with nothing more complicated than egg yolks and sugar.
They were originally made by nuns in Aveiro’s old convents (traditionally nuns were gifted eggs by people about to get married), and the recipes were passed to the townsfolk when the religious institutions were shut down.
Inspired by the proximity to the ocean and the abundance of shellfish in the Aveiro Lagoon, the ovos moles are hand-shaped to resemble clam and whelk shells.