Vizela is a spa town in Portugal’s Norte region, in a landscape of tall, coniferous hills capped with granite outcrops.
The Romans were the first to take advantage of Vizela’s mineral-rich hot springs, but today the town has a Belle Époque air about its spa and the graceful park around it.
Around this time the town also gained a name for its bolinhol, a decadent sponge cake topped with icing and just the accompaniment for tea in the afternoon.
There are also lots of little sights to seek out like a Roman bridge, several hilltop sanctuaries with mountain views to die for, while the World Heritage city of Guimarães is barely 15 minutes by car.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Vizela:
1. Parque das Termas de Vizela
In the 1880s the horticulturalist José Marques Loureiro planted hundreds of trees, both native and exotic, around the thermal springs for its patients.
Those trees are now gigantic, and bring real drama and personality to this park, which erupts in bloom in April and May.
The hot springs are still served by a luxury spa hotel that has just been updated, and there are also cafes on the banks of the Vizela River, a children’s playground and a minigolf course where the “Minigolf European Championship” was held in 2016. Where the Vizela River bends past the park there’s a bar and a new outdoor bathing area.
2. Caldas de Vizela
After refinements were made to the spa complex in the 1870s it became the haunt of affluent Portuguese and British nobility.
In the evenings there were lavish balls in the park, and Vizela was soon dubbed “Rainha das Termas de Portugal” (the Queen of Portugal’s Spas). The spa complex survived its inevitable decline in the 20th century and was restored in 1982. There are several springs of sulphurous and sodium rich water, at anything between 15°C and 65°C and gushing out at more than a million litres a day.
Patients with skin, rheumatic, musculoskeletal and respiratory complaints come to soak in the waters and take shower massages.
3. Ponte Velha de Vizela
Crossing the Vizela River on the Roman road from Braga to Amarante, this bridge has been here some form for 2,000 years, and is inscribed as a National Monument.
There are a few giveaways that identify it as a Roman bridge: The shape of the semi-circular arches, the large cutwater in the middle and the two hollow chambers.
The hollows especially are a signature of Roman bridges, designed to reduce the load on the vaults and allow water to follow through when the river was flooded.
4. Praça da República
Vizela’s main square is a cultured space, with long lines of plane trees, cafe terraces and ice cream stands in summer.
The hot springs are also diverted into a fountain here.
The Bica de Água Quente is a hot water spout that has just been restored: The custom is to step down to the tank and dip your finger in the hot sulphurous water.
But beware, according to Vizela’s folklore, anyone who does this won’t want to leave the town again.
5. Jardim Público Manuel Faria
Next to the square is a refined garden that has another fountain fed by Vizela’s springs.
There are also flowerbeds arranged in formal patterns , a bandstand, a tree-lined avenue and a very ceremonious stairway leading up to street level.
At the foot of the stairs you can grab a coffee or cold drink at the cafe.
The head-turning feature though is the statue titled Vizela Romana, which is an allegory of the town’s Roman origins.
6. Santuário de São Bento das Peras
At the top of the 410-metre hill of São Bento is the religious sanctuary of the same name.
You can drive up the hill on a twisting road or walk it, which is what hundreds of people do on July 11. This is the saint’s day when there’s a long procession up to the chapel, and it’s a spectacle worth catching if you’re around at that time.
If not, it’s still a trip that needs to be made.
In truth the new chapel is secondary to the Xisto panoramic restaurant, the arresting view of the Vizela Valley, and the mammoth granite boulders that litter the summit.
7. Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Pombeiro
Woven into a quiet green valley, this monastery is a National Monument with roots in the 9th century.
The monastery really took off in the 1100s when it was granted privileges and patronage by Portugal’s first king Afonso Henriques.
Beyond the striking facade, with a rose window flanked by pointed spires, there isn’t much left of the Romanesque buildings as the monastery was constantly expanding into the Early Modern Age.
This accounts for the Baroque splendour of the choir and altar in the church, oozing opulence with their gilded woodwork and mouldings.
Outside you can also stand in the ruins of an uncompleted Neoclassical cloister, started at the beginning of the 1800s but ended abruptly after the monastery was dissolved in 1834.
8. Caves do Casalinho
One of the oldest wineries in the Vinho Verde region is located in Vizela: Caves do Casalinho started life in 1944 and sits in 30 hectares of vineyards halfway up the Vizela Valley.
It’s a very bucolic setting and is optimal for growing wine grapes, on a gentle slope with drainage and lots of sunshine.
You can look around previous winery, where the original press and old vats are still in place.
Caves do Casalinho produces several types of wine, among which are the robust, fruity reds normally found in the Douro Valley and Alentejo.
But the ones you need to taste and take home are the fresh and elegant Vinho Verde wines made with Loureiro and Arinto grapes.
9. Capela de Nossa Senhora da Tocha
Nobody can agree on exactly when this chapel was built.
What is known is that it has a Pre-Romanesque design, which dates it to sometime in the early medieval period.
It’s a very compact building with a single nave and chancel.
The walls are totally bare, except for the sculpted merlons along the roof and the small belfry.
The chapel’s mountain perch is part of its charm and there’s a belvedere up here with distant panoramas of the countryside.
This humble parish is ground zero for the world’s longest-running alliance between two nations.
The Treaty of Tagilde was signed in 1372 between King Fernando I and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster.
This united Portugal and England against the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in Spain.
It was the first legal basis for a pact that has survived for nigh on 650 years.
To honour this event an obelisk was placed outside the Igreja Matriz in 1953; hewn from granite are the medieval Royal arms of Portugal and England.
11. Casa de Sá
A minor sight, but still one that merits a detour, is this Baroque mansion in the countryside southeast of the town.
Casa de Sá is a private property, but that shouldn’t deter you as the bit worth seeing is outside, where the gates to the house and its chapel are richly adorned with pinnacles, pilasters and pediments.
If you’re into Portuguese literature you might be intrigued to know that some illustrious figures have passed through these gates, like the authors José Régio and Camilo Castelo Branco.
12. Citânia de Sanfins
Take the twisting mountain road to this archaeological site that is almost unmatched on the Iberian Peninsula.
The earliest remnants in the Citânia de Sanfins are from the 5th century BC, but the city reached its peak around 300 years later.
At this time it was the host city for a much wider region, and was home to at least 3,000 people.
The city is littered with the dry-stone walls of dozens of houses, most in a circular format.
Maybe the best part is the pedra formosa, a carved stone at the city’s public baths.
And don’t miss núcleo familiar, where an entire house has been reconstructed, complete with a thatched roof to give you a rare glimpse of how people lived in these settlements.
In Vizela you’re just 10 kilometres from a UNESCO World Heritage City, and Guimarães must not be missed.
As the supposed birthplace of Afonso Henriques this city has helped shaped Portuguese history.
The old centre of the city is breathtaking, with scurrying streets arriving at ancient squares like Largo da Oliveira.
This was named for its lone olive tree from the middle ages and has a haunting Gothic monument to the Battle of Salado in the 14th century.
The Palace of the Dukes of Braganza is another great Gothic landmark, and the home of what would later become the Portuguese royal line.
14. Monte da Penha
Approaching from the south you could drive directly to this sanctuary atop the Penha Mountain that soars above Guimarães.
But it might be more of an experience to leave the car in the city and catch the cable car at €5 for a return.
The scenery is mesmerising and at the summit you can see all the way to the ocean when the weather is clear.
There’s an Art Deco sanctuary church up here, dating to 1930 and receiving pilgrims throughout the summer.
But you might be happier just milling around the vast granite boulders and woodland.
15. Local Flavours
If Vizela is known for one delicacy, it’s the bolinhol, or pão de ló coberto.
This is a moist, rectangular sponge cake topped with icing.
The place to buy one is the Casa de Pão de Ló Delícia which has been baking them since 1880. The recipe is probably much older than that, and was probably invented in the Carmelite Convent in Guimarães at some point in the middle ages.
For something savoury, go for traditional recipes like roast kid goat (cabrito), roast veal (vitela) and salted cod (bacalhau), baked with potatoes, onions and garlic.