This coastal city at the mouth of the River Ave is a beach destination with a riveting history. From the Age of Discovery until the 20th century, Vila do Conde was a shipbuilding town, assembling vessels that spread Portuguese influence to Asia, Africa and South America.
A replica of one these craft is moored on the Ave, and the old Customs House is now a museum recording Vila do Conde’s old maritime history. The resort is a calmer alternative to Póvoa de Varzim a few minutes to the north, and has a few kilometres of sandy beaches separated from the city by coastal parkland.
Lets explore the best things to do in Villa do Conde:
1. Alfândega Régia – Museu de Construção Naval
In the 15th-century Royal Customs House on the quayside is a museum charting the shipbuilding trade that claimed the entire Ave Riverside through the Early Modern Age and up to the 20th century.
With model boats, tools and tableaux the museum handles three different fields.
First you’ll delve into the Portuguese Age of Discovery, when the likes of Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama were blazing a trail.
You’ll also learn more about the building’s role as a Custom House, and then there’s extra depth on Vila do Conde’s historic shipbuilding industry, and the kinds of vessels built at these docks.
2. Nau Quinhentista
Moored at the Cais da Alfandega on the River Ave is a replica of a 16th-century carrack, exactly the kind of ship that would have been built at Vila do Conde’s dockyards at the time.
This vessel was launched in 2007 using ancestral carpentry and rope-making skills . One of the many interesting things about this vessel is that it epitomises a phase of Portugal’s Empire when technical expertise allowed it to build ships with larger load capacities.
These could remain at sea longer for their expeditions to India.
Containers, an apothecary, maps and navigation instruments are all on board to make things realistic.
3. Igreja Matriz
This marvellous church went up in a short amount of time, from 1496 to 1518. At this time Portuguese churches and monasteries were embellished with rich sculpture in the Manueline style, fusing Late Gothic with Spanish Plateresque.
This church is a shining example, as you’ll tell from the main portal, which is laden with intricate carving.
These are in the tympanum, just above the doorway and in the trefoil achivolt on top and the pinnacles on each side.
The interior has more of that Manueline stonework in the chancel, while the altar is Baroque, with gilded woodwork from the 1740s.
4. Convento de Santa Clara
This commanding ensemble stands on a small rise above the Rio Ave and was once one of the richest convents in Portugal.
The convent dates to the 14th century, and the Gothic church here is from that first phase.
The main convent building is newer and was constructed in the 18th century, now housing Vila do Conde’s municipal services.
Your attention will be taken by the 14th-century church, cutting a warlike profile in a period when Castilian attacks were common.
There are bare walls of granite, opening only with a rose window, and pointed merlons along the roof.
5. Santa Clara Aqueduct
Befitting its power the Convent of Santa Clara once drew a lot of water.
Quite literally in fact, as in 1626 it initiated a giant project to improve its water supply.
Channelling water down from the high ground in Terroso this structure stretched for four kilometres and needed almost 90 years to complete.
One reason it took so long is that there was an interruption in the 1630s when they realised they had miscalculated the slope.
Parts of the aqueduct were lost in the 18th and 19th centuries to construction and storm damage, but when it was finished in 1714 it had 999 arches.
6. Praia Azul
Vila do Conde has several Atlantic beaches, but Praia Azul, about 500 metres from the old town is the cream of the crop.
This Blue Flag beach has a generous swathe of golden sand traced by a promenade and bikeway that runs several kilometres up to Póvoa de Varzim in the north.
And despite having all the amenities to qualify it for a Blue Flag, Praia Azul feels remote and almost unspoiled.
This is down to the Marginal Atlântica, a broad expanse of dunes and coastal scrub keeping the city at bay.
Youngsters can play in the pools created by the many rocks along the beach, while the more open areas have surf-friendly waves in autumn and winter.
7. Capela de Nossa Senhora da Guia
One of a couple of engaging sights on the right side of the Ave River estuary is this tiny chapel.
A religious building of some description has been in this very place since before the 12th century, and the design of the current building is from around 1636. And although the low, whitewashed walls and terracotta roof are pretty discreet, the inside is as rich as can be.
The ceiling has frescos traced by square gilded panels and the altar has a blend of marble and ceramic decoration.
Also take a close look at the patterned tiles on the walls, made in the 17th century at the Coimbra Manufacture.
8. Forte de São João Baptista
A few steps from the chapel is this sturdy 17th-century fortress, embedded in a platform of rock right on the beach.
This fortification was active for 200 years, not least due to its strategic location, defending the shipyards in the Ave River from attacks by pirates and privateers.
In the 1980s, after the fort had been abandoned for decades, the decision was made to transform it into a boutique hotel with just eight suites.
Visitors are still able to enter the pentagonal compound and climb the walls to see the bartizans and contemplate the Ave as it arrives at the Ocean.
9. Museu das Rendas de Bilros
This museum opened in 1991 in the splendid Casa do Vinhal townhouse, dating to the 1700s.
The attraction is devoted to safeguarding Vila do Conde’s traditions, mostly the craft for which the museum is named (bobbin lace). There are some very dainty examples of local lacework in cabinets, on their own or attached to period clothing.
You can cast your eye over the instruments used to craft this material, both in Vila do Conde and abroad.
There are lace pillows, bobbins and wooden bulbs, and if you come on the right day you’ll get to see a skilled artisan crafting some lace in the old-fashioned way.
10. Praia do Forno
Despite being next to the city, Vila do Conde’s main beach feels natural and out of the way.
Between the ocean and the town the Marginal Atlântica, keeps the high-rise apartments at a distance.
The only building on the beachfront is the Forte de São João Baptista, which brings some drama to the scene, sitting on its bed of granite.
Praia da Forno is a small bay bookended by rocks, which help to screen it against the crashing waves and strong currents.
In the summer there’s a line of kiosks and bars in little huts at the back of the beach.
11. Casa Museu José Régio
On the left bank of the Ave River is the home of a revered Portuguese cultural figure.
The writer José Régio was a gently dissenting voice during the Estado Novo regime in the 20th century.
He inherited this house from his aunt and decorated it with the plan of living there when he retired.
This was just a little while before he passed away so the museum is a snapshot of Régio’s life: There’s a lot of religious art in the form of paintings, ex votos (offerings) and statues (religion was a big theme in the author’s work). Régio was also prominent in the Portuguese modern art world, and you can view the paintings he collected, as well as his own works.
12. Póvoa de Varzim
At just a few minutes up the coast is all the fun and choice of a big holiday resort.
You can see Póvoa de Varzim skyscraping apartment blocks from Vila do Conde.
The city wasn’t always like this; at the turn of the 20th century it was a spa getaway for the rich and a centre for fishing, with a fleet of “poveiro” sailboats.
Some of these vessels are restored at the history museum (set in an 18th-century count’s palace) and there are memories of Póvoa’s posh history at the Art Deco pavilions on the beach and the Beaux-Arts casino, which goes back to the 1930s.
13. Cividade de Terroso
Civilisation of a more ancient kind awaits at this citadel in the hills northeast of Vila do Conde.
The Cividade de Terroso was a sizeable Bronze Age settlement, ringed by three defensive walls defending scores of homes for hundreds of people.
The oldest parts of these ruins are almost 3,000 years old.
But there are also thrilling traces of Roman settlement from the 2nd century BC when the streets were paved with stones still in place and grooved to allow rainwater or sewage to flow.
You can see some of the pottery and metalwork discovered at this site at Póvoa’s history museum.
14. Festas de São João
The 23rd and 24th of June are all about the patron saint, St John the Baptist in Vila do Conde.
There are celebrations for São João all over the Norte Region, but the events in this city have their own flavour.
Yes people hit the streets on the night of the 23rd to make merry in Praça José Régio and bash each other over the head with soft plastic hammers.
But there are a few things that make it special; first almost every balcony is decorated with red and yellow tinsel and maybe an image of St John, while there are songs and rituals, like the traditional trip to the beach on the 24th, that are unique to this city.
15. The Style Outlets
This outlet mall near Vila do Conde is such a hit in the region that there’s even a shuttle bus from Porto.
What the mall lacks in size, it makes up for with its spectrum of premium brands: Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Armani, Guess and Polo Ralph Lauren, along with mid-market fashion labels like Mango, Benetton and Levi’s.
In Vila do Conde it’s close enough that you can make it a day out when the skies are overcast.
There’s free Wi-Fi, a crèche and kids’ play area, as well as the usual food court.