Among the hills, valleys and rivers of Portugal’s Norte Region, Penafiel is a mid-sized town with a surprising amount of things to do. This is a landscape that you have to explore on two feet or two wheels, and there’s big helping of history and culture to boot.
You can walk the streets of a pre-Roman city or pick up a Romanesque trail that has churches built before the birth of Portugal as a nation. And the scenery is intoxicating, with shades of green from the lush banks of the Douro and Sousa Rivers to the bucolic vineyards and pine forest draped across every hillside.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Penafiel:
1. Santuário do Sameiro
Rising east of the centre of town is a hill that has been turned a park and is capped with a 19th-century sanctuary.
The church has a fairytale quality, and its large white dome might remind you of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris.
But the best thing about this location is the park, with coniferous woodland on its slopes, ushering you to charming formal gardens at the stairway below the church.
On the upper platform admire the sight of Penafiel and its outlying villages against the tall, softwood hills.
2. Castro de Monte Mozinho
In the north of Portugal, “castros” are hilltop villages from the Bronze or Iron Age.
A lot of these were excavated in the 20th century, when entre systems of homes and defences were unearthed.
Many, were also inhabited well into the Roman period, and this goes for Monte Mozinho, posted more than 400 metres above sea level.
With 22 hectares of walls, this castro is noted for its range of building styles, from primitive circular configurations to the more sophisticated rectangular houses the Romans used.
The open space at the top of the hill is also compelling, as a large plaza for markets, public gatherings and games.
3. Museu Municipal de Penafiel
The town’s museum is in a 17th-century mansion, given a modern annexe and innovative interior in the 2000s.
This was all designed by the treasured architect Fernando Távora and was his final work before he passed away.
The galleries handle Penafiel’s history, cultural identity and archaeology.
Many of the artefacts discovered at Monte Mozinho have been brought here, including a pair of statues of Galician warriors.
You’ll get acquainted with Penafiel’s natural history and the area’s traditional savoir-faire, dress and customs.
Peek inside the reconstructed homes from different periods and inspect the wooden vessels that once sailed on the Sousa and Douro Rivers.
4. Mosteiro de Paço de Sousa
The history of this Benedictine monastery can be followed back to the 900s.
It was was in decline during the Reconquista before being resuscitated in the 1200s.
The consequence of those two phases is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
The facade is a marvel, with a portal below five archivolts that have intricately sculpted capitals.
Above this is a striking rose window with simple circular tracery.
The big story though is inside at the tomb of Egas Moniz.
He was the preceptor (religious teacher/mentor) for Portugal’s first king Afonso Henriques.
On the sides of the tomb are high reliefs showing Moniz’s journey to the court Alfonso VII of León.
5. Quinta da Aveleda
A cut above most wine estates, the Quinta da Aveleda is worthwhile even if you’re not keen on vinho verde.
But if you are a fan, a tour of this beautiful property will be that much more rewarding as it ends with a tasting.
The Quinta da Aveleda has been in the Guedes family since the 1870s, though the estate goes back to the 17th century.
The gardens were plotted in the English style in the late-1800s and are littered with quirky follies, one of which is a stone tower for the estate’s goats to play on.
There are other curios, like a mullioned window arch taken from the house in which Henry the Navigator was born in the 14th century.
As for the wine, this estate produces one of the most famous exported vinho verde brands, Casal Garcia.
6. Preserved Villages
Penafiel is also on the tourist map for its adorable old villages that are like living time capsules.
Quintandona (Lagares) and Cabroelo (Capela) are two superb examples, and both merit a wander.
Cabroelo is a cute little settlement in a cauldron of pine-clad hills, built from granite and with pretty wooden granaries, water mills and windmills still in place.
With just 60 inhabitants, Quintandona is equally charming.
This village has a very different appearance as its buildings are made from dark slate and shale.
There’s a 200-year-old chapel, a washhouse, more wooden granaries and a couple of vantage points where you can take in the upland scenery.
7. Museu da Broa
In picturesque Cabroelo you can delve into Penafiel’s bread-making heritage at six old mills, all in a dreamy setting beside a cascade.
These small granite constructions have been restored to working order, and you’ll be transported back to a time when cornbread was vital for the village’s survival.
They would grind flour 24 hours a day and there are now footbridges over the Tranqueuira River between each mill.
As you go there are panels explaining each step of the process of turning maize into cornbread, from sowing to threshing, grinding and baking.
8. Jardim do Calvário de Penafiel
This garden is also known as Jardim Egas Moniz, after Afonso Henriques’ preceptor.
There’s a bust of him here with a rope around his neck, relating to a legend about Moniz walking to Toledo in Spain with a rope carrying a boulder as a show of loyalty to Alfonso VII of León.
If the park has a genteel atmosphere it’s because the park where Penafiel’s higher social classes would come to relax at the turn of the 20th century.
The wrought-iron gazebo and tall century-old trees are echoes from this time.
There are also camellia beds, palms and a noble avenue, while in front of the town hall is the main gathering space for festivals, concerts and fireworks displays.
9. Museu de Arte Sacra da Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Penafiel
Just across from the town hall is a sacred art museum attached to a church.
As with most churches for Portugal’s Misericórdia brotherhood, this imposing 17th-century building has a few annexes, which in 2004 were converted into museum galleries.
The museum starts in the sacristy and takes in the meeting hall, sacristan residence, the interior of the church and its high choir.
And divided between these spaces is a remarkable cache of painting, ceramics, sculpture, furniture, vestments and liturgical items from medieval times to the 20th century.
Kids up to the age of 10 will get the most out of this small theme park on the outskirts of Penafiel.
The park has a splash ride, a couple of rollercoasters, bumper cars and carousels of varying sizes an speeds.
Magikland is arranged over six zones: Far West, Pirate’s Refuge, Medieval Village, World of Confusion, Africa and the Souk.
Each area has rides and playgrounds, and few hands-on activities.
For instance, at the souk kids can learn how to make artisan soap, while on the hottest days the park’s large pool is always a hit.
11. Termas de São Vicente
In the parish of the same name, these springs issue some of the most mineral-rich water in Europe.
They were discovered by the Luso-Romans in the 4th century, and just to the side of the present spa you can find the vestiges of this ancient bathing complex.
The spring is highly alkaline, and is rich with sodium, sulphur compounds and fluoride.
The claim is that this makes the waters more effective at treating musculoskeletal and breathing problems.
If you only have a few hours to spare, you can soak for a short time in the thermal pool and spa’s jacuzzi and whirlpools.
12. Romanesque Route
The Sousa Valley has a profusion of Romanesque churches and monasteries, which have recently been turned into a tourist trail.
This runs straight through Penafiel, so if you’re fond of medieval religious architecture you could pass days jumping from one wonder to the next.
There are 21 in all on the route, counting six in Penafiel . After the Paço de Sousa monastery the other essential church is Igreja de São Gens in Boelhe.
This one is a National Monument from the 12th century, and it shines for its Romanesque baptismal font and the figures etched into the capitals and corbels on the facade.
13. Outdoor Recreation
Penafiel’s landscapes are supremely idyllic, especially in the south where the River Tâmega joins the Douro at Entre-os-Rios.
Between the high green banks there’s a new marina receiving Douro cruise boats.
In a region of steep valleys and forest it’s no shock that mountain biking is big in Penafiel, and there are dozens of trails and five clubs to get in touch with if you need tips.
You could also saddle up for a lesson with two equestrian centres, Casa de Gatão Morada and Centro Hípico de Penafiel, or strike out on foot via a network of signposted paths.
14. Endoenças de Entre-os-Rios
Penafiel has a packed calendar of religious and secular events.
But if we have to pick just one, nothing can beat the atmosphere of this candlelit procession in Entre-os-Rios every Easter.
On Holy Thursday some 50,000 candles blaze beside the Tâmega and Douro Rivers in a solemn ceremony that has been observed for at least 300 years.
There are little orbs of light almost everywhere you look, even illuminating the boats on the river.
15. Local Food and Drink
Vineyards growing grapes for vinho verde are all over Penafiel.
This type wine isn’t named for its colour, but rather its age.
Vinho verde is harvested early and doesn’t mature for long.
This gives it an acidic bite, and it even the reds are best consumed cold.
Penafiel’s rivers are a source for lamprey, which is cooked with rice, while in the hills the damp winters are warmed with stews and roasted lamb and kid goat.
For dessert sopa seca (dry soup) is the most typical dish, a kind of bread pudding with cinnamon, lemon zest and a splash of port wine.