Fafe is a rural town in the northwest of Portugal, in touching distance of the city of Guimarães. This is a land of tall granite hills, deep forest and vineyards for vinho verde wine. The town’s recent history has been coloured by emigration, especially in the 1800s when locals left to make their fortunes in Brazil.
Many of these émigrés returned and showed off their new-found riches building lavish homes and monuments, seen all through the town. Come for a photo of the storybook Casa do Penedo, which is making waves online and built from granite boulders, while there’s a lake, golf course, waterpark, winery and Iron Age archaeological site on the agenda.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Fafe:
1. Casa do Penedo
On a high and desolate hillside above Fafe, exposed to the wind, is a house from the realm of fantasy.
The Casa do Penedo has four enormous granite boulders supporting it at each corner, and it’s tricky to work out where the solid rock end and the walls of the house begin.
The setting is exposed and windswept, and the house has electric wind turbines as its only neighbours.
This strange building was the work of a Guimarães designer in the 1970s, intended as a holiday home.
After hosting a museum for a time it’s now closed to the public, but merits the walk for a photo and romantic scenery.
2. Brazilian Architecture
The 19th century was a time of change in Fafe, when many of its citizens departed for Brazil.
The ones who struck it rich in the New World often returned to build sumptuous houses and amenities in the town.
This architecture is now one of Fafe’s most striking features, and over time a few of the buildings have become public properties.
They’re usually ostentatious, and you could add the best sights to a little circuit of the town.
Make time for the Hospital de São José de Fafe, the Municipal Archive, the Casa do Santo Novo , the Jardim do Calvário and the Teatro Cinema, which we’ll visit later in the list.
3. Igreja de São Romão de Arões
This church is the only building around Fafe to be accorded the prestigious “National Monument” status.
It’s small but arresting, in the Romanesque style and dates from the 1200s.
As was the style at that time, the granite walls are bare and have only the smallest openings, which are more like arrow loops than windows.
A few extensions and changes have been made during the church’s lifetime, with an adjoining campanile and some Baroque gilt-wood in the sanctuary.
But there’s also some medieval decoration to see, like the Agnus Dei carved in the tympanum and the friezes and capitals in the choir.
4. Sights in Fafe
Fafe and its surroundings have plenty of curiosities to keep in mind: Casa do Santo Velho is a genteel mansion from the 1600s, still emblazoned with its family’s coat of arms.
The Igreja Matriz has been Fafe’s centrepiece since medieval times, although it was enlarged in the 1700s when it was given its two towers and an opulent Rococo interior.
The Igreja de São Gens is in a fantasy setting, and seems to grow out of its granite boulders.
There are sarcophagi cut from the bare stone outside and at the back of this former monastic church you can survey the lush valleys at the foot of the Serra da Lameira.
And last up, in the Golães parish there’s a small bridge, the Ponte do Barroco, in gorgeous rural scenery, and with the date it was built (792) inscribed in its stone.
5. Museu da Imprensa
One of a clutch of museums to delve into Fafe’s past, this attraction is all about the local newspapers that were founded in the town at the turn of the 20th century.
O Desforço (1892) and Almanaque Ilustrado de Fafe (1909) are both long extinct, but the equipment used for composition, printing and finishing have been restored and presented at this museum.
You can inspect the steam-powered, cast iron presses from the 1800s together with their wooden printing blocks.
Moving on there’s more sophisticated linotype machines that replaced them.
6. Museu das Migrações e das Comunidades
Fafe has been affected more than most Portuguese towns by emigration, and this museum looks at the effects of migration on communities and culture.
It is mainly dedicated to the 1800s and early 1900s when large numbers departed for Brazil.
This was part of a cycle as many of them returned, often bringing back money, new styles of music, architecture and ways of thinking.
The museum explores that sense of cross-pollination, and looks into economic, social and cultural impacts of the large-scale departures in the post-war years and today.
7. Teatro Cinema
One of Fafe’s “Brasileiro” monuments is this performing arts venue that opened in 1923. The original facade is beautiful, with quoins on the corners and filigree patterns and winged cupids stencilled in gold.
It was intended as a theatre for plays before becoming a cinema, which it remained until it became dilapidated in the 1980s.
Then in the 2000s the venue was renovated, with a modern glass extension and the majestic Beaux-Arts-style hall restored to its former glory.
Check if there’s a movie or concert you’d like to see, because the architecture is more than worth the admission.
8. Barragem da Queimadela
A peaceful hang-out when the sun gets too much in summer, this is a dam and reservoir wrapped in forest.
You can go for a swim at the small beach, navigate the woodland trails around the shore or take it easy on the grassy banks.
There are lifeguards keeping watch, and in summer you can rent a kayak or rowboat for a couple of hours.
You also have a cafe for refreshments, as well as a picnic area with barbecues fitted.
Not far from the shore there’s also a small but very picturesque waterfall.
9. Complexo Turístico de Rilhadas
Another way to get in touch with Fafe’s nature is to come to this outdoor tourism complex in the municipality.
It is marketed as Portugal’s first country resort and is alone in five hectares of upland countryside coursed by a river.
The main attraction is a nine-hole golf course, but there are also facilities for tennis, swimming, canoeing, cycling, football and even a go-karting track.
Kids can attack the woodland adventure circuit with obstacles to climb over, rope nets and rope bridges.
10. Wine Tourism
In Fafe you’re on the east side of the Vinho Verde region, which takes up the northwestern corner of Portugal.
Here “verde” doesn’t refer to the colour of the grape of these wines, but rather their young age, as vinho verde is intended to be drunk soon after it is bottled.
This makes the whites fresh and crisp, and the reds and rosés light and fruity.
If you’d like to see this wine made first-hand and get fascinating titbits of info, your best choice is Quinta de Santa Cristina a few minutes from Fafe.
You’ll go on a guided hike through the vineyard, see the inner-workings of the winery and get to taste and buy the vinho verde that suits your palate.
There are harvest days in autumn and wine-making workshops all year.
11. Parque Aquático de Fafe
Kids aren’t left out in Fafe either, as there’s a good waterpark in the town with family passes priced at just €25.00 for a full day.
The park has a nine slides, including a multi-lane racer and a number of slower swirling half-pipes.
There are three pools, one for grown-ups and bigger kids to bathe in and two shallow pools especially for the littlest members of the family.
Also there to keep kids diverted are costumed characters that roam the park and interact.
For a day of culture and history you can’t do better than this UNESCO World Heritage City, hardly ten minutes west of Fafe.
Guimarães is often called Cidade Berço (Cradle City), as it is believed that Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, was born here in the 12th century.
Later it was the seat of the Dukes of Braganza, a line that would produce many Portuguese kings, and you can potter around their Gothic palace.
Guimarães’ old town is gorgeous, and has a tangle of cobblestone streets conveying you to historic squares like the haunting Largo da Oliveira.
Like something out of Game of Thrones there’s ancient olive tree and Gothic war memorial that as stood here since the 14th century.
13. Santuário da Penha
On the way to Guimarães from Fafe you’ll pass below a ill (Monte da Penha) crowned with a religious sanctuary.
The entire summit of the Monte da Penha is maintained as a natural reserve, with a campsite in a backdrop of woodland and huge granite boulders.
If you’re heading from Guimarães you can use a cable-car to reach the hilltop where there are also a number of scenic lookouts, walking trails, picnic areas and a mini-golf course.
The sanctuary church deserves a peek, and is from the 1930s, designed in the Art Deco style using local granite.
14. Castro de Santo Ovídio (mention Citânia de Briteiros)
The most compelling archaeological site in the Fafe area is what’s left of Castro de Santo Ovídio, an Iron Age settlement (more than 2,500 years old) on a climb overlooking the basin of the River Vizela.
The walls of several buildings have been excavated, and even if the site is modest compared to other “Castros” in the region it’s still exciting to know that people were living and meeting in these structures well before the Romans arrived in the 2nd Century BC. For something larger, the Citânia de Briteiros is a an easy drive from Fafe and spreads over 24 hectares, with properly paved streets and some astounding Celtic carvings in the stone.
It’s almost a Portuguese cliché, but the perfect accompaniment to the local vinho verde are the old favourites, grilled sardines or roast salted cod.
But there are also lots of filling meat-based dishes that are in line with Fafe’s rural character.
One is rojões, which is pork belly sizzled and served with potatoes, roasted young goat and roast veal.
Meanwhile Guimarães keeps the Portuguese tradition of convent sweets, special confectionery first made by nuns in the middle ages.
This goes for Toucinho do céu, a sponge cake sold at local bakeries and composed of egg yolks and almonds.