A town built in one go after the infamous earthquake of 1755, Vila Real de Santo António is a wonder of 18th-century urban planning.
It was founded by a royal decree, and has a “rational” style, with a precise matrix of streets centring on a noble square.
The reason this location needed a town is because of the Guadiana River, which since the 13th century has divided the southeast of Portugal from Spain.
The two countries haven’t always got along, and the fortresses and castles scattered around Vila Real hark back to tense times.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Vila Real de Santo António:
1. Núcleo Pombalino
Vila Real de Santo António’s story begins with the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake.
There had been a settlement nearby, across the river from Ayamonte, but this was swept away in the tsunami that followed the cataclysm.
And so a decree was issued during the 1770s to build a new town from scratch, using the anti-seismic Neoclassical style informed by the Enlightenment.
In Portugal this is known as Pombaline, after the prime minister who oversaw Portugal’s rebuild.
Vila Real de Santo António was built from nothing, on a strict grid system of 18th-century townhouses with dormer windows, smaller one-storey homes and civic buildings like the Customs House (Alfândega).
2. Praça Marquês de Pombal
Every Pombaline town has to have a majestic central square, and Vila Real de Santo António is no exception.
Praça Marquês de Pombal is the setting for concerts and processions during the city festival in June and the celebrations for patron saint Nossa Senhora da Encarnação at the end of August.
The chief architect of the royal court, Reinaldo Manuel dos Santos, was in charge and devised a perfect square.
On each side are handsome whitewashed houses of equal height, with terracotta roofs and underfoot there’s a “calçada portuguesa” pattern of lines radiating from the central obelisk.
This monument balances the square’s rational architecture; it is 50 palms in height, unifying the houses (30 palms) with the church (80).
3. Praia de Monte Gordo
Once a small fishing enclave, Monte Gordo has swelled into a holiday destination with new high-rise towers sprouting up each year.
But it’s still one of the rare places on the Algarve where Portuguese tourists might outnumber overseas guests.
The resort’s main beach has an alluring sweep of white sand and clear seas in summer.
The water is noticeably warmer than other parts of Portugal because of the influence of the Mediterranean.
And when the tide goes out you’ll often see fishers dragging nets along the wash, catching the clams that go into the delectable seafood stew, cataplana.
4. Farol de Vila Real de Santo António
In the south of Vila Real de Santo António, the last building before the dune and maritime pines is a lighthouse in place since 1923. The sandy ground posed a few problems, overcome by laying the building on reinforced concrete foundations, innovative for the time.
The lighthouse continues to function today, directing traffic up and down the river and past the coast with a signal that can be seen for 26 nautical miles.
You can experience it close up on Wednesday afternoons, climbing the stairs or catching the lift.
At 40 metres up the views of the ocean are joyous, and you’ll make out the Castle of Castro Marim, inland mountains and a small swathe of Andalucia.
5. Igreja Matriz
The showpiece on Praça Marquês de Pombal is the town’s only church, begun in 1774 and completed in just two years.
Reinaldo Manuel dos Santos also drew up the design for this building, which has simple Neoclassical lines and is positioned a metre or so in front of the rest of the facades on the north side of the square.
Spend a moment browsing the lateral chapels and the Rococo retables.
Also take a peek at the stained glass windows in the chancel and baptistery, crafted by the painter Joaquim Rebocho in the 1940s.
6. Cacela Velha
Minutes from the centre of Vila Real de Santo António, Cacela Velha is a precious little hamlet on a low cliff over the easternmost pool of the Ria Formosa lagoon.
It’s a knot of whitewashed houses that has been inhabited since the Phoenicians and was retaken from the Moors by the Knights of St James in 1249. There’s a square with a single tavern, a 16th-century church and a small fort from around the same period still guarding the cliff top.
With the scent of citrus and almond trees on the air you can contemplate the lagoon’s shimmering waters, and look out to the beaches on the barrier island.
7. Praia Verde
The next beach along from Monte Gordo is another couple of kilometres on the coastal N125, and is similar to its neighbour.
It’s one for people happy to swap resort amenities for nature, and this Blue Flag beach isn’t called “Praia Verde” by accident: On the foreshore are just a few villas and a couple of restaurants among the dunes, juniper and pines.
Monte Gordo’s tower blocks are visible on the horizon to the east, and that’s about it.
As a Blue Flag beach Praia Verde has lifeguards in summer, and you can also rent sun loungers and parasols.
8. Castelo de Castro Marim
Every culture that passed through the region laid down roots on this hillock over the marshes.
After the Moors were ousted in the 13th century the castle as we see it now was reconstructed.
After Portugal lost Ayamonte on the opposite bank of the Guadiana, the kings Afonso III and Denis I ordered reconstructions in the 1270s and there are two separate inscriptions from this time to commemorate the works.
Make time for the Renaissance chapel, the small museum with ancient artefacts and most of all the sweeping views from the battlements on the walls.
9. Centro Cultural António Aleixo
The venerable hall that is Vila Real’s cultural centre has served a few roles in its time.
It was built as a barracks before being converted into the town’s market.
But most recently the building was transformed into an exhibition space with two main galleries.
The larger is for short-term painting, sculpture and photography shows, while the smaller room is named in honour of the local 20th-century artist Manuel Cabanas.
He worked in with woodcuts, and there’s an engaging assortment of his prints.
The whole venue is named for António Aleixo, a poet of national renown who was active in the first half of the 20th century.
You could cross over to Spain and the town of Ayamonte on the left bank of the River.
There’s been an imposing suspension bridge since 1991, but before that the only easy way to hop over the border was by ferry.
This service still departs 24 times a day in summer, and is a much more fun way to do it.
Just remember to put your watch forward an hour on the journey.
Go to amble along Ayamonte’s lattice of old, narrow streets, idle at a bar in one of the squares and treat yourself to some tapas like boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) or chipirones (fried baby squid). Also watch fishing boats pulling in and out of the marina, and drop by the Renaissance Church of Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, which has the fabulous 17th-century statue of the town’s patron saint.
11. River Cruises
You can’t turn down the chance to sail up the Guadiana for a few hours, floating through a valley of pines, olive trees and almond groves.
There are a few operators arranging cruises from Vila Real’s marina, and you can work out which package suits you best.
Some serve alcohol and have a party atmosphere, while others are more family friendly and moor at river beaches for a swim.
It’s quite surreal knowing that you’re travelling along the border of two nations and time zones, and you can make regular stops in sleepy whitewashed villages.
12. Isla Canela
On the Spanish side there’s also a beach resort on a tidal island, a short ride downriver from Ayamonte.
Isla Canela is a small piece of paradise, with dunes, a golf course, beach bars and 5.5 kilometres of sandy beaches.
These are gigantic when the tide goes out, leaving vast pools for youngsters to play in.
The beaches poke out quite far into the ocean, and the brisk winds and lively surf are just what watersports fanatics are looking for.
Kitesurfing is big on Island Canela, but there’s a marina with a sailing school if you’ve ever been tempted to learn the ropes.
13. Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo António
The town can feel stranded when you approach as it is hemmed by the ocean and the Guadiana River.
But there’s also this environment of canals, marshes and salt pans directly north of Vila Real, which needs a closer look.
The fish, shellfish and crustaceans that live in the pools and mud are at the core of the local diet, and these attract wading birds like flamingos and black-winged stilts.
The park has an interpretation centre with more detail about its wildlife and the livelihoods supported by this landscape.
There’s also a network of footbridges around the salt pans, which have been exploited for centuries.
14. Outdoor Recreation
Vila Real de Santo António is in such flat country that you could forget the car and just jump a bike to get around.
There are hire companies in the town, and wide-open skies, pine woodland, almond orchards, dunes, wetlands, beaches and villages are all in store.
If golf is your game there are courses either side of the border.
In Portugal, the Quinta da Ria resort has two 18-hole courses that often rank in the top ten in the country.
As we mentioned, Isla Canela also has a golf club, and has tees, fairways and greens neatly woven into the salt marshes.
The big reserves of salt in Vila Real de Santo António put cured fish like salt cod and tuna on the menu, and these are irresistible baked or in stews.
And as for the shellfish and other seafood caught in the local lagoons, these are normally simmered with rice, and cockle rice and octopus rice are two of the most typical recipes.
For something sweet, Dom Rodrigo is confectionery first made by nuns in convents, and with a blend of egg yolk, sugar and locally harvested almonds.