A timeless city in Alentejo, Évora is a UNESCO Site steeped in Roman and medieval heritage.
The city’s golden age came in the 1400s when Portugal’s kings chose it for their home, and Évora’s streets still recall that influx of nobility 500 years ago.
The Romans were the first to settle the town, building its defensive enclosure and leaving behind the ruins of a temple.
Évora also has the second oldest university in the country, a venerable cathedral, a roll-call of churches and a chapel embellished entirely with human bones.
Finally, the Neolithic monuments at Almendres and Zambujeiro show that there has been some form of civilisation in these parts since way before the Romans.
Lets explore the best things to do in Évora:
1. Évora Roman Temple
At the highest point of the city where Évora’s ancient forum once stood is what could be Portugal’s greatest Roman monument.
This Corinthian temple was built in the 1st century and would likely have been devoted to Diana.
Up close you’ll notice the difference in materials; the fluted columns are made from granite while the bases and capitals are marble that was brought here from Estremoz, 40 or so kilometres to the northeast.
This monument has survived so well because its walls were filled in during medieval times when it was turned into a small fortress, before being restored in the 1870s.
2. Évora Cathedral
Also at the top of the town is Évora’s commanding pink granite cathedral, unmistakable for its sturdy towers with conical spires.
This building was completed in phases from the beginning of the 13th century, so has a jumble of architecture, with a cavernous Gothic nave, Manueline choir with dainty vaulting and Baroque chapels.
The monument has been completely opened up to visitors, so you go out onto the rooftop terrace to look down on Évora or enter the Gothic cloisters, which have orange trees in their garden.
There’s also a small museum for the treasury with a glimmering set of liturgical gold and silverwork.
3. Museu de Évora
The city’s museum is set up in the old episcopal palace, which dates to the 1500s and has gathered some 20,000 items relating to Évora’s history.
On show there’s painting, sculpture, jewellery, furniture, textiles, goldwork and ceramics.
If there’s an obligatory exhibit it has to be the polyptych of 19 panels that used to be in the cathedral’s altar.
This was painted in Bruges at the turn of the 16th century and portrays scenes from the life of Mary and the Passion.
There’s much more painting to savour, particularly the Renaissance works by Francisco Henriques, a Flemish artist who made his name in Portugal, and Gregório Lopes who was the court painter of King Manuel I.
4. Évora University
Portugal’s second-oldest university is in Évora, and was founded in the 1500s by both Pope Paul IV and the future King Henry I, who was a cardinal at the time.
For its first 200 years it was a Jesuit college, before this order was expelled from Portugal in the 1750s.
There’s a lot to get through here, but you have to survey the elegant arcades and galleries in the main courtyard.
And don’t miss the chance to see some of the classrooms, as these are decorated with azulejos that vary according to the fields taught.
You might notice Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great or Plato instructing his followers.
5. Historic Centre
Évora’s World Heritage Site contains the entirety of the old town within the city walls, sloping up to the Cathedral and Roman Temple.
If your idea of the perfect afternoon is aimless exploration and finding perfect photo opportunities at random, old Évora will be up your street.
The houses on maze-like streets and elongated squares are whitewashed, with wrought iron balconies and cute azulejos.
Most are from the 1400-1700 and take you back to when Évora was favoured by royalty.
Around this time Portugal was extending its influence to the New World, and this city had a strong influence on Brazilian architecture.
6. Noble Houses
Along with Portuguese kings, the court moved to Évora in the 1400s and 1500s, endowing the city with lots of distinguished houses to spot as you potter around.
See the Paço dos Duques de Cadaval, which has towers that are part of the city walls and interiors that you can enter, decorated with period furniture and paintings.
The Paço dos Condes de Basto is attached to the Roman walls and stands out for its loggia and Moorish-style horseshoe window arches.
Casa Garcia de Resende is indentified by its Manueline (early-16th-century) stonework above its main window, while Casa Soure has an arcaded gallery crested by a white conical spire.
7. Praça do Giraldo
Évora’s main square was laid out in the 16th century, and at this time it was the scene of the Spanish Inquisition court, which handed out thousands of brutal sentences here.
On a lighter note it also boasts the marble Fonte Henrique, at the same location as an earlier, 16th-century fountain built to commemorate the Agua Prata aqueduct.
There are eight spouts in the fountain, each for one of the streets branching off the square.
The north side is taken up by the striking facade of the Church of Santo Antão, while all down the east side there’s a continuous arcade, hiding cafes and specialty shops.
8. Capela dos Ossos
This chapel attached to the Church of São Francisco isn’t one for the squeamish.
It’s an ossuary, with walls, arches and supporting pillars lined with bones and skulls in cheerful arrangements.
These are the remains of several thousand monks, recovered from several crypts and cemeteries in the 16th century.
The idea behind this Franciscan chapel, built when counter-Reformation spirit was running high, was to remind worshippers of the transitory nature of life.
In case there’s any doubt about this message, there’s an inscription at the entrance in Latin, reading ” We bones, that are here, for yours await”.
9. Church of São Francisco
The church that hosts the Capela dos Ossos also needs to be seen, not least as it was a place of worship for royalty.
This is made clear at the portal, which is was sculpted in the Manueline style in the first decades of the 1500s.
Amid the decoration is an armillary sphere, which was the emblem of King Manuel I, and a pelican, signifying King John II. The nave has monumental dimensions (it is the largest church interior of this kind in Portugal), and you should raise your eyes to the groin vaults in the ceiling.
A peculiar thing about the choir is that the opposing stalls were made in different times; the ones on the right are 16th-century Renaissance, while those on the left are 17th-century Baroque.
10. Agua de Prata Aqueduct
One of the most striking sights around Évora is this 16th-century aqueduct, channelling water to the city for almost 20 kilometres.
The theory goes that this Renaissance structure follows the same course as the original Roman aqueduct and incorporates some of its stonework.
In Évora’s residential areas, houses have been built wedged into the arches.
When it was finished in 1537 there was a grand ceremony held in Praça do Giraldo, attended by King John III and his court.
For a day out you won’t soon forget you could catch a taxi to the source and walk back along the route, through cork oak forest with sensational vistas of the city.
11. Évora’s Walls
As soon as you arrive in Évora, stop by the tourist office, which will give you a handy map of the best spots to take in the city’s fortifications.
As they appear now, these walls, towers and gates are from the reign of King Afonso IV in the 1300s, but their origins and course go back to 3rd century, and you can also spot Moorish traces from the early middle ages.
The area contained is more than 10 hectares and the walls are about two kilometres in length, so there’s plenty to see.
A good starting point is the Jardim Público a few paces from the Capela dos Ossos, where a length of the ramparts creates a picturesque barrier in the park.
12. Convento dos Lóios
This convent is from the 1400s and was built over the ruins of a medieval castle.
A few of the monastic buildings, including the refectory and monks’ cells have been turned into a pousada (heritage hotel). You can go in to explore the church, which is far richer than its facade makes it seem.
That is because the exterior had to be remodelled after the devastating 1755 earthquake.
The ceiling of the nave has masterful Gothic rubbed vaults, and walls festooned with blue and white azulejos.
The church also has the tombs of the Counts of Olivença, most notably Rodrigo Afonso de Melo who was chief guard to King Afonso V.
13. Almendres Cromlech
A short way west of Évora is this jaw-dropping Neolithic site, going back 8,000 years and in use for three millennia.
It’s the largest arrangement of menhirs in Iberia, and among the largest on the entire continent.
There are 95 standing stones in all, forming two huge circles, and it’s unbelievable to think that this site lay hidden for thousands of years until it was excavated in the 1960s.
Some of the mystique of this amazing monument comes from the carvings on many of the stones, with circles, spirals, crescents, dimples and inverted shepherd’s crooks.
14. Anta Grande do Zambujeiro
Closer than Almendres is another mysterious megalithic monument from more than 5,000 years ago.
Rather than a stone circle it’s a funerary chamber at the end of a corridor of granite stones.
It was uncovered at the same time as Almendres, and the artefacts unearthed at the site are on show at the Évora Museum.
The site is so complete that you’ll come away with a firm idea of the technical skills possessed by Neolithic builders in this region.
You can peer right inside the chamber and see how the immense stones were carefully positioned to form a regular building.
15. Regional Dishes
You can dine like an Évoran and sample some traditional Alentejo fare, which is rustic, satisfying and intended to nourish generations of rural workers.
Açorda is a kind of paste made with garlic, olive oil and vinegar and served with poached egg over slices of bread.
Migas com carne de porco is leftover bread, soaked in water, garlic and spices and combined with braised pork.
Alentejo is also known for its desserts, like sericaia, a kind of egg pudding flavoured with orange zest and cinnamon, or pão de rala, literally bread pudding traditionally made at convents, with lemon zest, spices, ground almonds and eggs.