In Central Portugal, Viseu is an old city of distinguished granite monuments on streets winding up to the magnificent cathedral square.
Known as the Adro da Sé this plaza has a group of monuments from the Gothic to the Rococo periods, and each one deserves a visit for an hour or two.
Down the hill there are all kinds of things to catch your imagination, like historical houses full of elegant furnishings, archaeology museums, a tile panel designed by a famous painter and vestiges of Viseu’s old fortifications.
Lets explore the best things to do in Viseu:
1. Viseu Cathedral
This wonderful building was started in the 12th century, during the reign of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques.
Seen from the square in front there’s a 17th-century Baroque facade flanked by two towers; the south is medieval, while the north, like the facade, needed to be rebuilt in the 1600s after a storm.
That fusion of styles and periods is clear inside, where there’s a 14th-century statue of Mary up in a Baroque gilded wood altarpiece dating to the 18th century.
Above it the choir’s barrel vault is lined with gorgeous filigree painted tiles.
2. Centro Historico
Inside the circle of 15th-century ramparts is Viseu’s historic quarter, cresting at the cathedral square.
These twisting alleys are laid with rounded granite flagstones and have proud whitewashed houses, some in better condition than others . A few streets to include in a bewildering jaunt through this labyrinth are Rua Escura, Rua Direita and Rua Augusto Hilário.
The latter, despite being only a couple of metres wide, has some striking houses in various states of repair and with overhanging iron balconies.
This will lead up to Praça Dom Duarte, with a statue of King Edward, who was born in Viseu in 1391.
3. Adro da Sé
A monumental square in the highest part of the city (literally built on granite boulders), the Adro da Sé is up there with the most impressive ensembles in the country.
Wherever you stand there’s a photo-worthy view, whether it’s the cathedral, seminary (containing the Grão Vasco Museum) or the Igreja da Misericórdia.
One of the structures that you’ll want to see more of is the Passeio dos Cónegos (canons’ walk), which is a marvellous elevated cloister with a colonnade connecting to the cathedral.
This was designed by the 16th-century architect Francesco de Cremona.
4. Grão Vasco National Museum
Named for one of the most important painters of the Portuguese Renaissance (Grão Vasco), this absorbing museum has painting, sculpture and applied arts from the 1200s to the 1900s.
The venue is also exciting, in that seminary by the cathedral.
The obligatory works here are the 16th-century painting composed in the 16th century by the Viseu Grão Vasco and his great rival Gaspar Vaz.
They were both influenced by Flemish artists like Francisco Henriques who had travelled to Portugal to establish workshops.
There’s a lot more to discover, including 19th and 20th-century Portuguese painting, sculpture from the 1200s to the 1500s and tapestries and paintings that once decorated the cathedral.
5. Praça da República
In the Rossio area, the this handsome central square is worthwhile for the tile panel at the foot of the slope on the northern edge.
You’ll need to cross the road to go in to see the details better.
These azulejos (traditional glazed tiles) were painted by the vaunted Portuguese artist Joaquim Lopes in the early 1930s.
On a panel capped with a balustrade and iron gaslights there are images from pastoral scenes in Viseu and Beiras, like the old livestock fair.
6. Igreja da Misericórdia
The other striking landmark on the Adro da Sé is this church opposite the cathedral and constructed in the 18th century.
It combines Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical design, and if it weren’t for the cross you could almost mistake this building for a palace; the facade grabs you with its pilasters, pediments, shell motifs and ostentatious balustrades.
In the interior you won’t be able to ignore the three Neoclassical altarpieces painted in white and gold, and centring on a statue of Our Lady of Mercy.
7. Porta do Soar
One of the remaining traces of Viseu’s defensive walls is this gate to the west of the cathedral.
It guides you into the old town and was built in 1472 when King Afonso V renovated the fortifications, as the inscription on the gate will tell you.
Something this fragment of wall shares with all late medieval defences in Portugal is the niche with an image of St Francis.
The house beside the gate, the Casa do Soar, is from the 1600s and has a curious inscription on a corner window.
This shows man as a soap bubble (Homo Bulla) to emphasise the fragility of life.
8. Parque do Fontelo
The largest green space in the city is a soothing oak and chestnut forest where the people of Viseu go to recharge their batteries and get active.
The park has an interesting history as it was part of a huge estate belonging to the bishops of the city.
They built a palace here in the 14th century, which is used by the regional wine commission.
Also see the Portal do Fontelo, a stone arch built by one of the bishops in 1565 and the ruins of the chapel of St Jerónimo.
As well as trails for jogging in the woodland the park also contains the municipal stadium, swimming pool, tennis courts and skate park.
9. Museu Almeida Moreira
You can pop into this museum to get to know one of Viseu’s most intriguing 20th-century characters.
Almeida Moreira was the founder and first director of the Grão Vasco Museum, and started collecting art and artefacts as a teenager.
It’s no surprise his house is crammed with faience, porcelain, sculptures, furniture and 19th and 20th-century Portuguese painting.
If you’re interested in Portuguese culture you might also be inspired to know that Almeida Moreira entertained leading lights like Raul Lino, Luciano Freire and Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro in these rooms.
10. Palácio do Gelo
If you’re stuck for somewhere to go on a rainy day this leisure and shopping centre is just south of the centre of the city.
It goes back to 1996, but got an expensive overhaul ten years ago.
There are more than 160 shops in a clean, airy building.
But if you’re here with family the main appeal will be the leisure facilities; there’s a bowling alley and amusement arcade, but the marquee attractions is the 600 square-metre skating rink (the centre is called Ice Palace after all!). Parents can treat themselves to a spa trip, blowing off steam in the Turkish baths, jacuzzi suite or selecting from a menu of treatments.
11. Casa do Miradouro
This palace on Largo António José Pereira is the only piece of Renaissance civil architecture surviving in Viseu.
And it was built by the Francesco de Cremona, the same man responsible for the awesome colonnade at the Passeio dos Cónegos next to the cathedral.
Go through the grand portal decorated with a coat of arms and pilasters and you’ll be rewarded with one of the city’s most interesting archaeological collections.
This was curated by the 20th-century historian Dr José Coelho who assembled Iron Age votive stones and Roman funerary monuments from the region’s ancient “Castro” settlements.
12. Museu do Quartzo
North of the city close to a quartz quarry on Monte Santa Luzia is the world’s only quartz museum.
It was conceived by the preeminent Portuguese geologist Galopim de Carvalho and opened in 2012, on the site of a former tram factory.
The beauty of the location needs mentioning, and there’s a sweeping view of Viseu in front of you.
And mineral hunters or anyone with a passing interest in natural science can marvel at the geodes and peculiar crystal formations on show, while finding out about the many commercial applications for quartz.
13. Cava de Viriato
The powerful earthworks to the north of the city have been puzzling historians for centuries.
This octagonal mass, 38 hectares in size, was intended for a colossal fortress, but there’s a lot of disagreement about who constructed it.
Some claim it was the Romans and others say it was the Moors or the Christians during the Reconquista in the 12th century.
The site has been a Portuguese national monument since 1910 and in 2001 the slopes were buttressed with walls to prevent erosion.
On the south side there’s a walkway to help you envisage the ambition of this ancient project.
14. Casa da Ribeira
There’s a hint of how life used to be in Viseu, to be found in the northern suburbs.
The Casa da Ribeira is a big compound on the River Pavia which provided room for a iron forge, warehouses, a tavern and even student housing.
The house has been kept as an ethnological museum and a souvenir for old handicrafts like weaving, lacemaking, basketry and pottery.
The various instruments for each trade are presented, and on special days demonstrations are given by the few people that retain these traditional skills.
15. Food and Drink
That former palace next to the Parque do Fontelo can be your stepping stone for trips into the Dão DOC wine region, which is one of the oldest in Portugal.
You can come to this beautiful old building to sample the region’s wines and see which meet your fancy.
Reds from these parts are normally very robust and are traditionally high in tannins, so they pair well with the rich and satisfying cuisine in this upland area.
Roasted veal with rice, roast lamb and a kind of stew with a pork preparation (Rojões)and blood pudding are all old-school classics here.
Typical sweets are castanhas de ovos, made with sugar, egg yolks and flour, and first made in the city’s convents.