The best independent guide to north Portugal
The best independent guide to north Portugal
Viana do Castelo is a delightful and characterful city, which makes a wonderful day trip. Viana do Castelo is a city which is steeped in history, surrounded by beautiful scenery and contains many outstanding tourist attractions, including the magnificent Santuario de Santa Luzia.
The Rio Lima waterfront, with the Santuario de Santa Luzia high above the city
The city is situated in a picturesque setting, nestled between the slow flowing Rio Lima and the steep Santa Luzia hills, while along the western shores, huge Atlantic waves pound the rugged coastline. Viana do Castelo is a hardworking and prosperous city, with a large fishing fleet and extensive shipbuilding facilities, which dominate the mouth of the estuary.
There is a lot to love about Viana do Castelo, but surprisingly the city is virtually unknown by foreign visitors. If you are staying within Porto for more than four days, break with the conventional tourist routes and head north for a day trip; you certainly won’t be disappointed.
For the day trip, Viana do Castelo is easy to travel to, being connected to Porto by a direct and inexpensive train service. This article will provide a guide to a day trip to Viana do Castelo and includes a suggested itinerary and details of main sights
The total day trip to Viana do Castelo will be a very long day. It is over an hour and a half for the train from Porto to Viana or an hours drive. Once in Viana expect to spend two hours in the historic centre, then one hour (at least) for the waterfront, castle and fishing harbour (including the Gil Eannes boat), and a further two hours for the visit to Monte de Santa Luzia. The total day trip could be 8-9 hours, so always start the excursion as early as possible.
For those visitors with limited time could reduce the visit to the castle and fishing harbour. The “must do” section of the day is the Monte de Santa Luzia, but this should be visited towards the end of the day when it is quieter. Viana do Castelo has sufficient sights to easily fill a whole day of sightseeing, never try to combine a day trip with another town.
The day trip to Viana do Castelo is suggested to divide into three sections; the historic centre, the Rio Lima waterfront and the Monte de Santa Luzia. This section is combined with an image tour of the city.
The Historic centre
• Arrive in Viana do Castelo train station (GPS: 41.69515, -8.83161) or bus station (GPS 41.69508, -8.83226) - both are next to each other.
• From the train station head to the Rua Cândido dos Reis to view the Palácio dos Távoras (GPS: 41.69479, -8.82993). This ornate building was originally a 16th-century mansion, with beautiful stone carvings around the doors and windows following the Manueline style. Today the building is always a hive of activity as it is the city hall.
Viana do Castelo train station
• The pedestrianised Rua Cândido street ends at the charming Praça da República, the main square of Viana do Castelo. This plaza is a delightful assortment of different design styles and contains some of the most notable buildings of the city, including the Old Town Hall, the Igreja da Misericordia and the Museu do Traje. At the centre is the Chafariz da Praça da República fountain, which once supplied drinking water to the city.
The Praça da República is the main square of Viana do Castelo
• The Museu do Traje is a fascinating museum detailing the heritage of the region, through the regional dress and clothes. One of the most curious exhibits is the work attire that is made out of straw.
• While pass through the Praça da República, it is very easy to overlook the Igreja da Misericordia (GPS 41.69375, -8.82831), and this would be to miss the stunning interior of Azulejo tiled walls, ceiling frescos and ornately gilded altar. If you were to visit just one church while in Viana do Castelo, it must be the Igreja da Misericordia. (Entrance fee only €1)
The spectacular interior of the Igreja da Misericordia church
• The side streets leading from the Praça da República hide two visually opposite churches; the ancient Se cathedral and the decorative Capela das Malheiras. The Malheiras church (GPS 41.69380, -8.82700) is one of the finest examples of the Portuguese Rococo style of architecture, while the Se Cathedral (41.69329, -8.827364) is Gothic with a fortified and imposing form.
The ancient Se cathedral
• The next section is just to wander the peaceful shopping streets of the historic centre. This area is filled with independent and family run businesses along with numerous cafes and restaurants, ideal for a coffee and delicious Portuguese cake. While wandering sights to include are, the Hospital Velho (GPS 41.69262, -8.82831) the Casa dos Nichos (41.69166, -8.82792)
• End the tour of the historic centre at the delightful Capela das Almas. (GPS: 41.69437, -8.82535)
The baroque Capela das Almas church
Viana do Castelo Waterfront
This section of the day discovers the Rio Lima waterfront between the Ponte Eiffel bridge to the east and the Castelo de Santiago da Barra to the west.
• Head south from the Capela das Almas to the Jardim da Marina (GPS: 41.69238, -8.82345).
• The Jardim da Marina park provides riverside views over the distinctive double layered Ponte Eiffel bridge. The bridge spans the 560m of the Rio Lima and was constructed in 1878 by Gustave Eiffel (the engineer who was famed the Eiffel Tower in Paris).
The Ponte Eiffel is the double level road/rail iron bridge
• Continue the tour along the waterfront in a westerly direction. This route passes the modern Biblioteca Municipal and the Centro Cultural, which are either side of the Praca da Liberdade (GPS 41.69058, -8.82770).
At the centre of this plaza is the unique (and rusting) Monumento ao 25 de Abril. The Monumento ao 25 de Abril is a memorial to the 1974 Carnation Revolution, and the broken chains symbolise ending the oppression of the Portuguese people by the Estado Novo regime. Originally the entire chain hung from the Monumento ao 25 de Abril, but the high winds of the exposed waterfront meant that all, but two hoops had to be removed and placed on the ground.
The Monumento ao 25 de Abril, with just two hanging loops
• Moored on the docks just beyond the modern section is the best tourist attraction of Viana do Castelo; the Gil Eannes hospital ship. The Gil Eannes was the support and hospital ship for the cod fishing fleet, which shipped off the treacherous seas surrounding Newfoundland.
The Eil Eannes ship was a hospital ship
This ship has been lovely restored and there are four decks to explore, from the bridge down to the vast engine room, and includes the macabre surgery and the unique barber shop. There is a surprising amount to see, and cleverly explains an aspect of history which few would have ever considered.
• The tour continues into the working and more industrial section of the waterfront, which is dominated by Viana do Castelo’s main industry, shipbuilding
The old lighthouse and the lifeboat station in the docks of Viana do Castelo
• Follow the Rua Alves Cerqueira and the docks into the fishing harbour, which is surrounded by the brightly painted fishing houses (GPS: 41.68875, -8.83646).
• Visit the Castelo de Santiago da Barra (GPS 41.68892, -8.83807), this low-rise stone fort was constructed in a star shape arrangement and served to protect the Lima estuary since its construction in the 15th century. The castle is solid and stout but not one of Portugal’s most impressive castles and can easily just be viewed from the outside.
The heavily fortified Castelo de Santiago da Barra castle
• An optional sight is the Capela de Nossa Senhora da Agonia (GPS: 41.69278, -8.83787), which across the park from the Castelo da Barra. The Nossa Senhora da Agonia has a rich interior with carved and gilded wood. Interestingly the tower of the church is not actually connected to the main building and was constructed many decades later.
• From the western side of the city it is now a walk back to the train station. Instead of retracing your steps along the waterfront head into the town via the Jardim Dom Fernando. This route passes the Igreja de São Domingos church (GPS 41.69148, -8.833981) and the Museu de Arte e Arqueologia (GPS: 41.69162, -8.83332), both of which are on the pretty Largo de São Domingos square.
• This may be a convenient location and time for a later lunch as there is a wide selection of restaurants close to the Avenue dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
• When at the train station cross to the northern side, either through the Estação Viana Shopping centre or footbridge to the right of the station. From here walk to the Funicular station (GPS 41.69672, -8.83022) for a visit to Monte de Santa Luzia and the final part of the day.
Monte de Santa Luzia and the Santuário de Santa Luzia
The third section of the day trip explores the Monte de Santa Luzia and the Santuário de Santa. A more in-depth guide to this section of the day can be found here.
The Santuario de Santa Luzia
• It is advisable to ride the funicular up to the summit of the Monte de Santa Luzia, as it a climb of 250m and the path has over 660 steps.
• The funicular takes seven minutes to reach the top and the station is just to the east of the Santuário de Santa (GPS 41.70166, -8.83408)
Note: Be aware of the time of the last funicular departures, as they do not operate late into the evening.
The Elevador Santa Luzia Funicular eliminates a tough uphill walk
• Once at the top of the Santa Luzia hill, head to the stepped terraces at the base of the church and admire the view. From this vantage point there are wonderful views over Viana do Castelo, the Rio Lima and the rugged coastline south of the city.
• Visit the church the interior of the Santa Luzia church, with its distinctive domed roof and beautifully decorated altar.
• Climb to the top of the Santuário de Santa (€2) for the finest view of Viana do Castelo
Warning: This climb within the Santuário de Santa is very challenging, with narrow spaces, tight stairs and few handrails. Only attempt it if you are comfortable with heights, enclosed spaces and are moderately fit.
The view from the top of the Santuário de Santa
• Depending on time and remaining energy the Citânia de Santa Luzia ruins could be visited. These ruins are of a pre-Roman and Roman settlement, which are formed of low stone walls and the foundation of houses. Annoying the entrance to the ruins (GPS 41.70629, -8.83596) is on the opposite side of the Monte de Santa Luzia to the Santuário de Santa and is a long walk around the grounds of the Pousada Viana do Castelo hotel.
The Citânia de Santa Luzia ruins
• For the return to the train station the funicular could be caught and alterative this the shaded walk down the hill. The walk begins next to the funicular station and crosses the route of the funicular providing great photo opportunities.
• The day ends at the train station for the return train back to Porto.
The highlight section of this article may make Viana do Castelo seem a little stuffy and boring for children, but there is a surprising amount to entertain families of all ages. The standout tourist attraction is the Gil Eannes hospital boat; this has been extensively restored (including levers/switches/cabins) and will fascinate children and adults alike.
Children will enjoy the funicular ride (Elevador Santa Luzia) up the Monte Luzia, while the climb to the top of the Santuario de Luzia dome is great for older children. During the summer there are boat rides and tours along the Rio Lima departing from the harbour and the Praia Norte has both a sandy beach and rockpools. The castle (Castelo Santiago da Barra GPS: 41.68887, -8.83827) and fishing harbour are another set of good sights for families to explor.
For younger children there are two well equipped and maintained play areas at Parque Infantil Da Praia da Norte (GPS: 41.69407, -8.848807) or closer to town at the Parque Infantil Do Jardim da Marina (41.69184, -8.82499). Unfortunately, the train ride is around one hour and passes through non-descript scenery, children will tire of this journey…