This town in the east of the Alentejo was the first line of defence between two warring nations, and it certainly shows. Evora has the largest set of bulwarked fortifications in the world. These are so large and have so many layers of history that you’ll need a guide just to make sense of all the bastions, ravelins, curtains and moats.
You’ll have fun trying to find your way around the tangled streets within the walls, happening upon churches, charming squares and museums. There are also magnificent star fortresses erected outside the town as satellite defences, if your appetite for military architecture is still unsatisfied.
Lets explore the best things to do in Elvas:
1. Walls of Elvas
At more than five kilometres and comprising many different construction phases and individual fortifications it can be tricky to make sense of the scale and complexity of Elvas’ defences.
They were started in the 1200s under Sancho I, and improvements were still being made more than 700 years later.
There are three medieval walls, the monumental Vauban-style system from the 17th century and three , and outer satellite forts from the 17th to the 19th century! The good news is that guides are available, and will be able to show you to the ditches, bastions, gates and other crevices you might otherwise miss.
2. Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça
Outside the main defensive system, this star fort is on a rise known as the Monte da Graça is from the late 18th century.
The strategic advantage of the position had been proven a century before when the Spanish Army camped here during the Siege of Elvas in the Portuguese Restoration War.
It was soon put to the test at the start of the 19th century when it was bombarded during the Peninsular Wars.
But the fort held firm and was never taken.
If you’re curious about the techniques that made this fortress impenetrable you can spend as long as you like exploring.
The building reopened in 2015 after a multimillion Euro restoration.
3. Amoreira Aqueduct
In the1500s Elvas had another problem, as the water supply was running low.
The only well in the area had been sunk in Moorish times and was drying up, so the city decided to channel water from Amoreira, eight kilometres away with an ambitious aqueduct.
This was begun in 1529 and finished in 1622, and nowhere is it more impressive than at the southwestern gates of the city where it traverses the valley with four tiers of arches.
4. Castelo de Elvas
At the highest point in the north of the town is the earliest part of Elvas’ defences.
The medieval castle is anchored in the 700s when the Moors fortified this hill.
Later, from 1166 to 1230, the stronghold was taken and lost by Christian forces until the Moors finally abandoned the territory.
Come to poke around for an hour or two, taking the exciting stone passageway and staircase up to the battlements where the landscapes will leave you lost for words.
You’ll realise just how close to Spain we are here when you spot the town of Badajoz to the west.
5. Igreja das Domínicas
Not to be confused with the Igreja dos Domínicos (which follows later), this church is on Largo de Santa Clara.
It was founded in 1528 and used to be attached to a female convent for the Dominican Order.
A couple of things make it the must-see religious building in Elvas.
First it has an unusual octagonal layout, crowned by a central dome.
And when you step inside you’ll be astounded by the decor, as almost every surface is lined with patterned atapete tiles (carpet-style) from the 17th century.
6. Museu de Arte Contemporânea
Most of the attractions in Elvas are historic, but if you want to be thrown back to the 21st century the city’s contemporary art museum is just the ticket.
It was set up 10 years ago in the marvellous environs of the Renaissance Misericórdia Hospital.
The permanent exhibition is based on dealer António Cachola’s collection, which brings together some of the big names of modern and contemporary Portuguese art, like Pedro Calapez, Rui Sanches and José Pedro Croft.
In the auditorium check out the blue and white tiles that have been here since the 17th century.
There’s also a cafe on the roof, with a terrace where you can survey the city.
7. Praça da República
Your tour around the city’s bewildering jumble of cobblestone streets should begin at this central square.
The tourist office is set here, while the bulky facade of the cathedral sets the northern limit.
To the south is the old city hall, which has a charming loggia that you can appreciate from a seat at a cafe terrace around the square.
And as for the square’s eye-catching paving, this is calçada portuguesa (a traditional Portuguese pavement) with a modern twist.
Marble, sandstone and basalt tiles are laid in a geometric pattern with a 3D effect.
8. Elvas Cathedral
Francisco de Arruda was Portugal’s foremost at the start of the 16th century.
He worked on the Portuguese national treasure, the Torre de Belém and came to Elvas to help design the aqueduct and the Manueline rebuild of the city’s cathedral.
The Manueline decor survives on the lateral portal, which has a multifoil arch and vegetal carvings, and in the fastidiously sculpted pillars and vaults of the central nave.
There’s also decoration from the 18th century, when chancel’s altar, carved from Estremoz marble, and the Baroque gilded woodcarving on the organ case were installed.
9. Largo Santa Clara
The sweet triangular square hosting the Igreja das Domínicas could be the prettiest in the city.
It is enclosed by a section of the 10th-century walls and has whitewashed houses with green and yellow trimming.
Your eye will be drawn towards the pillory, which was once a symbol of authority.
Public punishments would be carried out here, and you can still see the iron hooks attached to the capital at the top.
This 16th-century monument is in the Manueline style, with a twisting column and pinnacle.
It was brought here from the town of Ouguela, 30 kilometres to the north after the original was destroyed.
10. Forte Santa Luzia
Raised in the 1640s, this stronghold is 150 years older than Nossa Senhora da Graça and lies a couple of kilometres to the southeast of the city.
It came under siege repeatedly during the Portuguese Restoration War, and famously withstood a Spanish attack in 1658, leading to the Battle of the Lines of Elvas in 1659, which Portugal won decisively.
There’s a museum inside that recounts the events of this battle, as well as the other border wars, and has weapons from medieval times to the 1800s.
You can navigate the tunnels in the bowels of the fort and step out onto the gun positions, which still have vintage cannons.
11. Museu Militar de Elvas
You might be curious to know that there was a military presence in Elvas until as recently as 2008 when the 8th Infantry Regiment finally left the town.
Their sizeable barracks have been converted into the city’s military museum.
And given the amount of warfare Elvas has lived through it’s an enlightening journey.
The barracks are also on a substantial section of the wall, with its complex fortified elements explained by information panels.
Also outside are some pieces of heavy artillery.
The exhibition focuses on the history of the cavalry, communications and military medicine, with an operating room, veterinary surgery and pharmacy.
12. Igreja dos Domínicos
Also known as Igreja de São Domingos, this convent church dates to 1274 and was founded on the orders of King Afonso III. You can learn quite a lot about the Portugal’s cultural history from this one building.
The church’s Gothic purity has been preserved in the apse and its five chapels.
But in the 1700s it was transformed with the Baroque style that was in fashion, when the facade was remodelled and the interior was enriched with gilded woodcarving and azulejos.
In the 20th century the Estado Novo regime ordered that Gothic churches should be stripped back to their original design.
And that was partly done here, where half the church is Baroque and the other half Gothic.
13. Ponte da Ajuda
A short trip to make in the car, this bridge used to cross the Guadiania River, which has long marked the Portuguese-Spanish border.
It dates to 1520, during the reign of Manuel I, and for the next 200 years was repeatedly damaged by flooding and war, and quickly rebuilt.
The death knell came during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1709, when it was blown up by Spanish artillery.
For the last 300 years the bridge has been slowly disintegrating, but it’s a thrill to see how many of the arches remain.
Both nations have declared the ruins a “Property of Public Interest”, and, in the middle of peaceful countryside you could sit and reflect for a couple of minutes.
14. Cemitério dos Ingleses
Did you know that the oldest military treaty in the world still in force is the 1373 Anglo-Portuguese Alliance? And this pact brought British soldiers to Elvas in the early 19th century for the Peninsular Wars.
High on the eastern wall of the city, beside the medieval castle there’s a British cemetery.
There are only five marked graves here.
But two are the only marked graves from the Battle of Albuera in 1811, and another is the only marked grave from the Sieges of Badajoz.
Thousands were killed in both conflicts, so it’s quite an important site if you’re into military history.
Beyond that it’s also a nice shaded spot to escape the sun under the chestnut trees for a couple of minutes.
15. Food and Drink
The municipal market is another of the city’s catalogue of historic buildings, and dates to the early 18th century.
The arches and vaults are an atmospheric backdrop for a few minutes of grocery shopping . A treat to keep in mind is the Elvas plum.
These are cooked, soaked in sugar and then sun dried to make a sweet delicacy that sells for astronomical prices in specialty retailers abroad, but can be bought quite cheaply here.
On the menu at typical restaurants will be lamb stew, pork ribs, and bacalhau dourado, cod baked with shredded potato.
On hot summer days a bowl of gazpacho, the room temperature vegetable soup, can really hit the spot.