Cod is almost a way of life in Portugal, and if ever there’s a place to go to understand this affection it’s at a base of the country’s “White Fleet”. Most of the trawler captains in that time were Ílhavo born and bred, and went on epic sorties to the North Sea and Atlantic.
Brine and fishing are still in the town’s veins: The modern maritime museum will give you all the background and there’s a whopping trawler moored on a canal for you to visit. Ílhavo is also on the Aveiro Lagoon, which has its own distinct identity and culture, while glorious Atlantic Beaches with bubbling surf are also in your grasp here.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ílhavo:
1. Museu Marítimo de Ílhavo
In an award-winning building from 2001, Ílhavo’s maritime museum has three main galleries: You can learn about the peculiar origins of the Aveiro Lagoon, and see the typical painted wooden boats adapted for these waters.
Then there’s a room all about the White Fleet and Portugal’s Atlantic and North Sea cod fisheries, which were the main employer in the 20th century.
And lastly there are recollections of everyday life Ílhavo over time and the town’s deep connection with the sea.
In 2013 an aquarium for cod was installed, allowing a closer look at the fish that has been the cornerstone of the Portuguese diet since time immemorial.
2. Praia da Costa Nova
This small coastal community between the Aveiro Lagoon and the Atlantic has a sweet beachfront promenade.
Tracing the walk is a row of pretty weatherboard houses (palheiros), painted with stripes in different colours.
These were once used as shelters and for storing equipment, and have since been turned into quaint holiday accommodation.
The beach has the cinematic beauty that people love about Portugal’s coast, with limitless sands and surging waves.
Try to be here in the evening for a meal as the sun goes down.
3. Navio Museu Santo André
Moored at Jardim Oudinot is a relic of Portugal’s 20th-century cod-fishing fleet.
This 71-metre Dutch-built trawler was launched in 1948 and made its last expedition to Norway in 1997 before being restored and opened to the public.
It’s the last fishing boat of its kind in Portugal, hauling its catch in from the side rather than the stern and able to hold 1,200 tons.
The Santo André is officially a branch of Ílhavo Maritime Museum, and along with the bridge, kitchen, mess and living quarters there’s a space in the old fish hold dedicated to maritime art and photography.
Running for 45 kilometres from Ovar in the north down to Mira is a lagoon.
The average depth of this vast body of water is only one metre, which is why the typical moliceiro boats, originally made for seaweed harvesting, have their characteristic design.
You can board one in Ílhavo for a tour, though you will have to register in advance.
It’s easier just to head to the city of Aveiro, little more than ten minutes around the shore.
There are regular trips through the canals and out into the lagoon, and you’ll be filled in about the singular ecology and human history of the lagoon.
Remarkably it’s only 1,000 years old wand was created by a build-up of sand at the confluence of the Vouga and Antuã Rivers.
5. Jardim Oudinot
In the 2000s Ílhavo began a project to beautify the northern tip of the Canal de Mira.
During this time a 11 hectares of the waterfront were endowed with sporting facilities, an esplanade, gardens, a recreational harbour and a small river beach complete with a bar.
A few years and around €3.5m later and the area was transformed.
It’s now Ílhavo’s main place for people to gather, exercise, relax and celebrate.
At the end of August the Festival do Bacalhau (Cod festival) unfolds here.
6. Praia da Barra
At the mouth of the lagoon, this beach is in two parts and has all the services of a resort to back it up.
The upper part is screened by breakwaters, granting it smooth, tranquil waters.
Families with littler bathers will be pleased with this beach, while the beach south of the breakwater has the rolling waves and white foam of a typical Atlantic beach.
There’s decent surfing when the wind is blowing the right way, while stand-up paddleboarders, bodyboarders and kitesurfers are a fixture in almost any season.
Walk south for a few minutes, and the resort disappears to be replaced by dunes you can traverse on a boardwalk.
7. Vista Alegre
This premium hand-painted porcelain brand has been in Ílhavo for more than 200 years.
Vista Alegre picked this place because every ingredient for high-quality ceramics is plentiful: Theres clay and minerals in the lagoon, and white sand from the coast.
The factory soon got its royal warrant in 1824 during the reign of King John IV. This prestigious legacy is laid bare at the museum, which covers the story of the mark and has many exquisite examples, but also studies Portugal’s affinity for ceramics, both as a practical material and for decoration.
You’ll get to see inside the ovens, and the hand-painting school where people are trained to Vista Alegre’s lofty standards.
8. Capela da Vista Alegre
In the 19th century a complete village grew around the Vista Alegre factory.
This was informed by the utopian concepts of the day and intended to improve workers’ welfare.
The amenities and the typically Portuguese housing constructed later during the Estado Novo dictatorship deserve a few minutes.
The neighbourhood is anchored by the Capela de Nossa Senhora da Penha de França, which was here before and dates to the end of the 1600s.
This is a must-see for the astounding Baroque mausoleum of Manuel de Moura Manuel, bishop of Miranda and rector at the University of Coimbra who died in 1699.
9. Farol da Barra
The tallest lighthouse in Portugal looms over the Praia da Barra and is just where the Aveiro Lagoon drains into the Atlantic.
This structure, painted red and white, was raised in 1893 and has a beacon 66 metres above sea level.
If you’re up to the climb you can scale the 288 calorie-burning steps to look out to the ocean or back at Ílhavo, Aveiro and its lagoon.
The building is run by the Portuguese military and allows visitors on Wednesday afternoons.
10. Museu de Aveiro
The show-stopping attraction in Aveiro is the city’s museum, which is in a Dominican convent from the 15th century.
The historical figure affiliated with the convent was Joanna, Princess of Portugal and daughter of Afonso V, who turned down suitors to live a devout life in 1475. Long after she died her remains were transferred to a polychrome marble tomb in the choir of the church, and it’s a masterpiece of 18th century Baroque workmanship.
The tiled refectory and Renaissance cloister are a couple of the many other architectural standouts.
In the museum collection is a wealth of furniture, painting, jewellery, sculpture and hand-painted tiles, mostly with a religious theme.
You can pick between the warm, shallow waters of the lagoon and the frothy breaking waves in the ocean for your water activities.
Starting with the Atlantic, there are three surf and bodyboard schools between Praia da Barra and Costa Nova.
Water temperatures are chilly even in summer, but you’ll forget about them in your wetsuit once you’re having fun.
Stand-up paddleboarding is a more forgiving pursuit, suitable for most ages.
And as you can cross the lagoon so quietly it’s a good way to see wildlife and get a light workout at the same time.
Kitesurfing is also on the agenda, taking advantage of the tame currents and reliable winds in the Canal de Mira.
12. Museu do Brincar
Close by in the Vagos parish an enchanting museum has been founded in the former town hall.
This attraction is all about toys, games and childhood.
But rather than just having dusty antiques and showcases, the museum encourages participation; children can play in a pretend castle, live in a life-sized dollhouse and learn how to use puppets.
Younger visitors will be thrilled with these interactive elements, and parents can browse an all-encompassing collection of 15,000 items related to childhood down the decades, from a reconstructed Estado Novo schoolroom to every kind of toy and game imaginable.
13. Mercado do Peixe Costa Nova
Try to come by Costa Nova in the morning so you can shop at the fish market.
It’s not just foodies who will be awestruck by the counters of fish and twitching shellfish that has only just left the water.
If you’re at self-catering accommodation you might be tempted to buy some crab or shrimp to cook at home, or go all out and cook a traditional Caldeirada stew.
But the market also stands out for stalls that prepare certain shellfish for you on the spot.
You can’t beat tucking into goose barnacles or cockles on a morning walk with the scent of the ocean in the air.
14. Celebrações em Honra de Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes
The Jardim Oudinot is also the place to be to watch an annual flotilla every third weekend of September.
This is for Our Lady of the Navigators, beginning in the old cod-fishing port and ending at the 17th-century Barra fortress.
It’s a tradition that has been observed for generations but was a procession transporting the shrine on land until the 70s when it moved to the waterways.
Hundreds of boats of all different sizes and types take part, from tugboats to pleasure yachts and heritage sailboats.
15. Local Food
No other town in Portugal could claim to have as deep an appreciation for bacalhau (salted cod) as Ílhavo.
In mid-August that cod festival takes over the traditional restaurants in the town and stalls are set up on Jardim Oudonot, with cooking demonstrations, tasting sessions and evening concerts.
In the past cod was salted and dried in enormous batches by the lagoon.
The local way of cooking cod is to bake it with potatoes and garnish it with onions and pepper.
Some other dishes to keep in mind are a typical seafood platter, stew with eels from the lagoon or a mixed seafood risotto.
In bakeries Folar de Vale de Ílhavo are crusty pastries made with lots of egg and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.