By the coast in the northwest of the Centro region, Ovar stars for the natural beauty inside its boundaries. The Atlantic is a stone’s throw and you’ll come to the small resort of Furadouro, an inexpensive alternative to big getaways and cities, with wild Atlantic beaches drawing surfers to their rolling waves.
The Aveiro Lagoon is also close, and is both a precious natural reserve and somewhere to go sailing, stand-up paddle-boarding or kayaking. As for the town of Ovar, it’s a place where the traditional Portuguese tile has pride of place, coating the walls of churches, chapels and homes, and even the pavement of the central square.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ovar:
1. Igreja Paroquial de Válega
In the quiet village of Válega is an 18th-century church that might be one of the prettiest in the country.
This is all down to the multicoloured tiles that cover the facade and interior.
These may not be antique, as they were painted in the 20th century, but they are beautiful all the same.
If you can remember your bible passages you’ll know the scenes that represented on panels several metres high and wide.
When the evening sun catches the facade these panels radiate light.
The tile panels continue inside where there’s also a sumptuous coffered ceiling from same period, and stained glass windows crafted in Madrid.
2. Praia do Furadouro
West of Ovar is the small resort of Furadouro, which has an expansive white sandy beach.
This is backed by a dune system that you have to cross by a boardwalk and carries on for kilometres up the coast.
If you want services and convenience you can stay by the south side of the beach where the bulk of the resort is found, but if you’d prefer privacy the crowds thin out the further up you go.
This being the Atlantic Furadouro is more about relaxing on the sands and dipping your toes in the wash rather than swimming.
The water can be on the chilly side and the waves are pretty strong.
3. Igreja Matriz de Ovar
Begun in the last quarter of the 17th century, Ovar’s main church has come through a lot of changes since then, but still has loads of interesting elements.
One is a limestone carving of the church’s patron saint, São Cristóvão in a niche on the facade.
This predates the church, dating to the 1400s.
Like Válega’s church, the facade was tiled in the 20th century, but here they have a simple but pretty blue and white geometric design.
There are three barrel-vaulted naves inside, divided by Tuscan columns.
You can savour the 17th-century altarpieces in the two side chapels (more on these later), and the chancel with an 18th-century gilt-wood altar and a rococo wooden ceiling.
4. Atelier de Conservação e Restauro do Azulejo
Glazed tiles or “azulejos” will always be associated with Portugal, and in Ovar there’s a special affinity for these ceramics.
Tiles adorn many houses in the old part of the town, having a decorative function but also helping to insulate the buildings in winter and reflect the sun in summer.
The ground on Ovar’s Praça da República has now even been paved with non-slip azulejos in a blue and white pattern as a nod to the town’s tile heritage.
You can cut to the core of this tradition at the tile conservation studio, and even though this isn’t an official tourist attraction you can arrange a visit with the tourist office.
5. Praia da Maceda
Continue north from the Praia do Furadouro and it merges with Praia da Maceda.
At this beach there’s almost no trace of human civilisation: Aside from a single bar and lifeguard station there’s just rolling surf, a wide belt of sand and a wall of sandy bluffs topped with high maritime pines.
You may be interested to know that there’s a NATO airbase hidden in the woods, but you’d never guess it at the beach.
Like Furadouro it’s a hit with surfers, but also ensures a few hours of sunny solitude for normal beachgoers.
6. Ovar’s Museums
The town has an array of minor museums that might hold your attention on a morning browse.
The Museu de Ovar handles the town’s ethnography and art with traditional tools and mannequins dressed in 19th-century clothing worn by the wealthy bourgeoisie or everyday citizens.
The Museu Júlio Dinis preserves the house that this feted 19th-century author lived in during the 1860s, complete with period furniture and decoration.
Finally the Casa Museu de Arte Sacra has gathered the sacred art of the Franciscan Secular Order, with highly valuable pieces dating from the 1400s to the 1900s.
7. Capelas dos Passos de Ovar
The two ornate side chapels in Ovar’s main church are the first stops on a sacred tour that takes in seven 18th-century Rococo chapels.
If you do it properly you’ll visit five other chapels around the old part of Ovar one by one, finishing at the Capela do Calvário.
Those five outside the main church were all built between 1747 and 1751, replacing portable wooden shrines.
There’s a significance to the order in which you’re supposed to visit them, as it’s a walk done by the faithful on Laetare Sunday a couple of weeks before Easter.
There’s even meaning in the number of chapels, as seven symbolises the Seven Last Words of Christ.
8. Ria de Aveiro
The northernmost channels of the Aveiro Lagoon are within walking distance of Ovar.
The lagoon is more than 45 kilometres long and experts call it one of Europe’s last untouched wetland regions.
The large spaces left undeveloped offer a vital haven for otters, blue turtle, eels and foxes, but also a diversity of birdlife like little egrets, red herons, kingfishers and African fish eagles.
Near Ovar the lagoon is more tourist-friendly, with a couple of sandy beaches on the shore as well as a marina where you can hire a kayak, wander along the esplanade or have a meal on the terrace by the water.
9. Parque do Buçaquinho
In 2005 a sewage treatment plant a few kilometres north of the centre Ovar was deactivated, and over the next few years it was transformed into an award-winning sustainable park.
You wouldn’t have a clue what was here before but it’s worth knowing just to appreciate the transformation.
It’s been replaced by a green space with six ponds, spacious lawns and pine forest.
Aromatic herbs like marjoram, lavender, rosemary, thyme and tobacco flower have been planted around the park, while all power for the lights and amenities around the park is generated by wind turbines and photovoltaic cells.
10. Centro de Arte de Ovar
In 2009 Ovar unveiled a multi-disciplinary arts venue as part of a national incentive to develop Portugal’s culture on a local level.
There were similar projects across the country in the 2000s, and Ovar’s was conceived by the architect João Paulo Rapagão.
It’s a striking white cube with simple lines, and even if you’re not here to see a performer you can still pay a visit to appreciate the building and see what’s on at the art gallery.
As for the auditorium it seats almost 400 spectators and books dance, pop music acts, theatre and classical soloists and ensembles.
11. Praia da Torreira
At Furadouro begins a 25-kilometre length of unbroken beach running down to the dunes of São Jacinto where the Aveiro Lagoon joins the Atlantic.
These beaches are on a narrow finger of land with the roaring Atlantic on one side and the gentle lagoon on the other.
Torreira is just this kind of place, with an epic beach and surfable waves to the west and a top-notch environment for windsurfing and sailing a couple of minutes on foot to the east.
This tiny settlement is still a working fishing village and its brightly-painted wooden boats are launched into the surf from the beachfront in spectacular fashion.
At the sand and rocks on the seabed form a consistent rolling beach break, which surfers ride all year round.
These waves are well-formed but rarely above waist-height in summer so are never too threatening for first-timers.
The RedAnimal Surf Shop in Furadouro is also a school, with a menu of beginner and refresher courses.
if you’d like to try something different and easier to pick up, the shop also arranges stand-up paddleboarding trips in the Aveiro Lagoon by day or under the moonlight.
13. Castelo de Santa Maria da Feira
Under ten kilometres to the northeast as the crow flies is a medieval castle almost without equal in Portugal.
So much of the building is intact that it’s a perfect record of military technology between the 11th and 16th centuries.
It played a role in the Reconquista when Portugal was retaken from the Moors in the 12th century, but before that helped to suppress a revolt against the future King Afonso Henrique by his mother, Queen Teresa supported by the Galicians to the north.
Throughout the month of July the castle is the backdrop for the Viagem Medieval a Santa Maria da Feira, a medieval fair with a market and large-scale re-enactments .
14. São João da Madeira
For a total change of scenery the industrial town of São João da Madeira is also in reach.
And while this might not seem like fun, the town has started marketing itself as an industrial tourism destination, and several local manufacturers have got on board and welcomed visitors on tours.
It’s for people inspired by high-tech manufacturing, generational savoir-faire, or just anyone who gets a kick out of shows like “How Do They Do It?”. The obligatory factory is Viarco, which makes drawing instruments for artists, architects and other professional draughtsmen.
15. Food and Drink
de Ovar is a luxurious sponge cake that has been baked in Ovar since at least the 1700s.
Nobody is certain how this cake came to be a town speciality, other than it would have been introduced by the convents.
It has a light and fluffy texture with a soft brown crust covering a layer of oozing unbaked dough.
Bakeries in Ovar sell it wrapped in characteristic white linen paper.
For main courses, the Aveiro Lagoon has always been a source of eels are pickled, deep-fried, baked or slow-cooked in stews.