In northern Portugal, Vila Real is a town in a hilly landscape, clinging to a headland far above the Corgo River. The Corgo is a tributary of the Douro and meanders down to the main stream through an epic landscape of terraced vineyards.
Around the town you can visit a noble family’s palace, which was decked out in Baroque decoration by the Italian master Nicolau Nasoni in the 1700s. He also worked on the finest church in Vila Real, one of a selection of distinguished granite buildings in the old centre. And out in the countryside are mountain ranges, a village that has pottery listed by UNECO and the eerie ruins of a Roman sacrificial altar.
Lets explore the best things to do in Vila Real:
1. Mateus Palace
Nicolau Nasoni, the man who had a lasting impact on Portuguese Baroque architecture, helped design this noble estate in Vila Real.
The palace is agreed as one of the finest Baroque civil buildings, constructed in extravagant style for the 3rd Morgado of Mateus in the first half of the 18th century.
The property is still owned by his descendants, and the only way to see the richly furnished property is on a tour.
Some of the best bits inside are the library, which has little iron lanterns and the dining hall with a carved wooden ceiling.
On the grounds there’s a chapel, water garden, a garden of box hedges in filigree patterns and a “Túnel de Cedro” natural tunnel made from interlinking cedar branches.
2. UTAD Botanical Garden
The University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro planted this garden on its campus in 1987. It has one of the richest and most botanically significant collections of plant life in Portugal, extending over 80 hectares.
The garden’s main job is to conserve rare native Portuguese plants, which make up a big proportion of the 1,000 growing in the park, all carefully labelled.
The herbarium was founded at the same time as the garden and has more than 15,000 specimens in its archives, while there’s also an interpretation centre with background on the garden’s wealth of species.
3. Capela Nova
You won’t miss this chapel in the centre of the city, as its facade is very imposing, with masses of carved granite, including four tall Tuscan columns that support a pediment topped with a statue of St Peter flanked by two angels.
The chapel went up in the 17th century, but that grand stonework on the facade came later and was done by Nicolau Nasoni.
Some of the details to see inside are the tile panels relating the lives of St Paul and St Peter, and of course the main altar and side chapels, which gleam with gilded woodcarving.
4. Igreja de São Domingos
You won’t see a better example of Gothic architecture in the Trás-os-Montes region than this church established with a Dominican convent in 1424. Instead of the lavish ornamentation of High Gothic churches elsewhere in Europe, the ones in the north of Portugal have a discreet, pared down design, both inside and out.
The Igreja de São Domingos is along those lines, with austere buttressed walls and small rosettes providing the only light source inside.
The nave and chapels were stripped of their more recent Baroque decoration during the Estado Novo, but there are several medieval tombs set in niches in the walls (arcosolia).
5. Santuário de Panóias
A little way outside Vila Real is an absorbing Roman religious sanctuary where sacrifices were carried out 2000 years ago.
It was cut directly from the granite in the 1st and 2nd centuries, and it’s easy to make out written inscriptions, as well as a staircase and purifying pools and a round cavity that would have been a fire pit.
Animals would be slaughtered, butchered and then cooked in the Roman pagan tradition.
There’s an interpretation centre explaining the meaning of the inscriptions and the role of each element of the sanctuary.
You can take the tour with an audioguide, and there’s also a short movie with a 3D reconstructed image of the site when it was in use.
6. Museu de Arqueologia e Numismática de Vila Real
The sanctuary is one of many Roman and pre-Roman sites around Vila Real, and the best of the artefacts that they have yielded have been brought to this 18th-century mansion.
The permanent archaeological exhibition is chronological, running from the Stone Age, through the Bronze and Iron Ages to the Roman Empire.
There are polished stone axes, a menhir and an altar with an inscription dedicated to the god Reve Marandicui.
The numismatic wing has 35,000 coins, mostly from this region.
These come from several different hoards and many individual discoveries, and date from the 5th century BC to the 8th century AD.
7. Igreja de São Pedro
Vila Real’s outstanding Baroque religious monument is the Church of St Peter.
This was begun in 1528, and in the 18th century it was redesigned in the prevailing Baroque fashion.
That was when the facade was crafted, with two grand towers, and the nave was redecorated and expanded to accommodate a growing congregation.
The inside is absolutely glorious.
Directly overhead in the nave with 50 polychrome tile panels with gilded wooden framing.
In the main chapel the walls are also tiled, while the ceiling is completely lined with delicately patterned gilded woodwork.
8. Casa de Diogo Cão
A sight to be enjoyed from the outside while you make your way around the city, this house is from the 1400s and is claimed to be the birthplace of Diogo Cão.
He was a 15th-century explorer who was the first European to discover the mount of the Congo River.
Whether Diogo Cão was actually at this house or even in Vila Real is open to question, as records were only kept for royalty in this period.
At any rate the house is lovely, with a facade redesigned in the 1500s and outdoor stairway sheltered by a recess.
9. Alvão Natural Park
On the northwest limits of the city is a protected mountainous region of granite and schist peaks encompassing more than 70 square kilometres.
The highest summits are more than 1,000 metres and the higher ground is enveloped in fresh deciduous forest with oaks, hazel and chestnut trees.
If you’re up for some hiking you’re in for a treat; there are waterfalls to discover, peaks to conquer, as well as pretty villages with houses made from granite slate and straw.
On the trail you might catch sight of a wolf (at a safe distance!) or peregrine falcon, while mountain goats, wild boar and roe deer are mainstays.
10. Serra do Marão
On the western horizon is the seventh-highest peak in mainland Portugal, cresting at 1415 metres.
And while this isn’t extremely high it’s the breadth of this granite mountain that makes it remarkable.
The Serra do Marão is so large that it even delayed the development of the region to the east because it was so difficult to traverse.
This problem has only recently been solved by the Túnel do Marão, which opened in 2016 after seven years boring through the mountain.
Hikers can tackle the peak quite easily as it’s fairly rounded; at the top you’ll find a triangulation monument, observatory and rewarding vistas of the rest of the range.
Essentially part of Vila Real, this village is on the hill five kilometres to the west.
You have to check it out if you’re on the hunt for an authentic souvenir or gift to take home.
Here they make very unusual pottery, which goes by the same name as the village and is made from clay dyed black by smoke.
In November 2016 this process was declared UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, because of its uniqueness and as it was close to being extinct.
Only a handful of potters are trained in this art, but you’ll know why it’s worth supporting when you see some of the vases, pots and dishes made in the village, all with a obsidian sheen.
12. June Festivals
If you find yourself in Vila Real in June then there’s a good chance that you will coincide with one of the three traditional festivals that happen in this month.
The first is São Antonio on the 13th, when there’s a cattle fair and National Cattle Competition, as well as all sorts of cultural side events, like live music in the evening.
São João on the night of the 23rd brings the usual craziness that unfolds in northern Portuguese cities, and best of all is the big sardinhada, where sardines are grilled on the city’s streets.
And for São Pedro on the 28th and 29th there’s a craft fair on Rua Central, where you can peruse local savoir-faire like Bisalhães pottery.
13. Port Wine
The Vila Real district is rooted in the port wine trade, and the closest wine lodges to the town are on the left bank of the River Corgo.
This is a tributary of the Douro, the fabled waterway on which the wine would be transported down to Porto by rabelo sailboats.
You can drive down to Peso da Régua on the Douro in under half an hour, and it’s a wonderful journey, tracing the route of the Corgo through steep hillsides terraced with vines.
This is the Baixo Corgo arm of the Porto Wine Route and winds past venerable quintas, wine caves and cooperatives.
14. Teatro de Vila Real
Like many Portuguese towns, Vila Real built itself a brand new theatre and cultural centre in the noughties.
And like the best of the “Rede Nacional de Teatros”, it’s a landmark to put on your list and was designed by the acclaimed Filipe Oliveira Dias.
It has a flowing, organic design that goes down to the smallest details, like the harp-shaped chairs in the auditorium, which were also modelled by the architect.
A lot of expertise went into the acoustics as well and if you’d like to hear them in action there’s a busy program of dance, theatre and live folk, jazz and rock.
15. Local Food
In Vila Real there’s a line up of traditional tabernas where you can tuck into typical local fare.
In this region of Portugal that entails tripas aus molhos, “tripe in sauce”, which is tastier than it sounds, with calf tripe stuffed with cured ham in a spicy white wine and piripíri sauce.
Other classics are roast kid goat with rice, roast veal and, as we’re in Portugal, a number of different ways of preparing cod.
Vila Real is also known for its confectionery, with most recipes originating at convents and using eggs as people donated eggs when they were about to be married.
Toucinho do Céu is a decadent cake made with almonds and egg yolks, and Pitos de Santa Luzia are little pastry parcels filled with candied gila (similar to pumpkin rind).