Vila Real de Santo António is a small city located at the far east of the Algarve coast. Nestled between the Atlantic and the Guadiana River, the relatively new city was built under royal decree in 1776. It developed first as a frontier city, then as an industrial city becoming the cradle of the canned fish industry in Portugal. Today it’s a popular and lively Algarve city. Attracting thousands of tourists each year for its white sandy beaches, history, culture, and a mix of local restaurants and shops. Want to find out more? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know before visiting Vila Real de Santo António.
An Introduction to Vila Real de Santo António
Vila Real de Santo António commonly shortened to VRSA was a new settlement commissioned by Joseph I of Portugal and his chief minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal, following the great earthquake in 1755. The Marquis played an important role in the reconstruction of Lisbon, which led to a new architectural style that would be named after him – Pombaline. The same style was applied in the construction of VRSA which was reportedly built to increase the country’s occupancy near the frontier with Spain. At that time which was limited only to the village of Castro Marim. With its grand buildings lining the Guadiana River, it’s rumoured that the modern city was built to upset the neighboring Spanish city, Ayamonte.
What characterises Pombaline Style in Vila Real de Santo António?
Developed in Portugal during the 18th century, Pombaline style is famously the architectural system used to reconstruct areas of Lisbon that were destroyed by the great earthquake of 1755. It’s remarkable for its utilitarian nature, the style introduced anti-seismic buildings and a system of architectural planning. In contrast to the medieval streets, the new style implemented an orthogonal street plan providing more space between house blocks, better light, and improved ventilation.
New to the time, the buildings were almost entirely manufactured outside the city, then transported to the site where they were assembled. Making the constructions more functional, economic, and faster. Vila Real de Santo António was built in the period of 2 years, a very short amount of time for that period. Another aspect of a Pombaline building was less decorated façades, and the reduction in the use of tiles. In Vila Real de Santo António, you’ll see this in its open squares, wide streets, and palm tree lined avenues. Although seen as charming and even idyllic today. This form has plenty of function at minimising earthquake damage should buildings collapse and minimising the spread of fire.
When should you visit Vila Real de Santo António?
With a wide range of things to keep you active, when to visit entirely depends on what you’d like to do. The warmer months are the best for beach and river activities, including Guadiana River cruises or boat trips to the wider Algarve. For those wanting to avoid the crowds and the heat, or simply get to experience the city in a more authentic way, late spring or early autumn are good options too.
How to get to Vila Real de Santo António?
Located approximately 60km from Faro, and 25km from Tavira, Vila Real is easy to access both by car, and public transport. If you are driving from Faro, the quickest way is the A22. The 45-minute drive does include tolls though. Alternatively, a 1-hour drive along N125 will take you directly to Vila Real de Santo António, the road is toll free but can get quite busy during the weekends and peak season. When it comes to public transport, VRSA is covered by buses and the regional train. A bus departing from Faro (Faro – Vila Real de Santo António line 67) with tickets costing €5,80 takes approximately 1h40m to get to VRSA’s bus station. The line has stops in 8 towns across the coast, including Olhão and Tavira. Timetable is available here. With more flexible hours and slightly more comfortable, the regional train might be a better option. One-way tickets for the 1-hour trip costs €5,30. However, the train station in VRSA is not as centrally located as the one in Faro. Be prepared for around a 15-minute walk to get to the historical centre.
What to See and Do in Vila Real de Santo António?
Riverside Walkway – Avenida da República
Start by taking a stroll along Avenida da República. The city front facing the Guadiana. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Vila Real de Santo António and where some glamourous constructions like the Grande Hotel Guadiana are located. Vila Real de Santo António’s harbour is also placed at the riverside. Here you can book river cruises, boat trips to the beaches, as well as take a ferry to Spain. For the less adventurous, a simple walk along the traditional Portuguese pavement allows for great views of the river and across the border. The waterfront has plenty of restaurants, cafés and shops. If you happen to be visiting during summer, on every second and third Saturday of the month the area gets even more lively with one of the best antique fairs in the Algarve.
Praça Marquês de Pombal – Marquis of Pombal Square
Opposite the harbour on Avenida da República is Praça do Marquês de Pombal. The perfect square or praça was designed to be the civic and commercial centre of the city. Housing, originally, not only the city council and church, but also the jail and local armed forces. These days, the square is framed by two story buildings with shops on the bottom floor and houses on top in the typical Pombaline way. Praça Marquês de Pombal is also paved in the traditional Portuguese pavement with patterns converging to a central obelisk dedicated to Joseph I of Portugal. You will find clothes and craft shops, as well as restaurants and cafes in the lively square.
Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação – Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation
Located at Praça Marquês de Pombal, Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação is one of the finest examples of Pombaline churches in Portugal. The church features a façade with stonework frame, and straight doorway decorated with a curved pediment held by two stone carved pillars. The stonework extends to the inside where the church comprises a single naval with main chapel dedicated to the patroness Our Lady of the Incarnation. And five minor side chapels, including a baptismal chapel, that are all beautifully decorated in Rococo style. Another impressive feature is the stained-glass windows commissioned in the 40’s by Joaquim Rebocho.
Centro Cultural António Aleixo
A couple of streets away from the church is Centro Cultural António Aleixo. The hard to miss green and yellow building was built during the 20th century to lodge the town’s first municipal market. In 1998, the ever-growing market was moved to a bigger location, and the old market became the cultural centre. The centre works as an art gallery, theatre, and a tourist information office. Additionally, during Christmas season, the centre hosts the biggest nativity scene in the country. In 2020, a total of 20 tons of sand and 3000 kilos of cork were used to craft the impressive scene.
Mercado Municipal de Vila Real de Santo António
Head to Rua Professor Egas Moniz to visit Mercado Municipal. Although less scenic than its original location, the much bigger market is a great spot for shopping for fresh produce, fish, and local artisan products. If you are interested in fresh fish, then its imperative you arrive early. Like most fish markets, there isn’t much left past midday! This is a great place for those who prefer shopping local or simply want to get a little more involved in the local life during their stays.
Arquivo Histórico Municipal Rosa Mendes
Head to Avenida da República for a visit at Arquivo Histórico Rosa Mendes. Distinct from the rest of the buildings at the waterfront, the structure exists to protect the city. Although fitting in with the rest of buildings, you’ll see it’s actually slightly taller, and has bigger and several more prominent windows. These taller buildings formed defensive towers and mark the limits of the original city. Another identical building can be found 209 Av. de. Republica and marks the northern edge of the historic city. The building it’s not only part of the city’s history, but it contains most of it too. For those interested, it has a permanent exhibition about the tuna fishing and cannery industries of VRSA. And smaller short-term exhibitions about different features of the city. Unfortunately, for now, the archive and its exhibits are temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Farol de Vila Real de Santo António
Placed between the city and the dune forest is Farol de Vila Real de Santo António. It was built in 1923, during its lifetime the 46 meters tall tower has been modernised several times. In 1927, it was electrified through an oil powered generator. In 1947, it was then connected to the local electricity grid, and the rudimentary engines replaced by fully electric ones. Finally, in 1957 a lift was installed. These days the lighthouse still operates guiding vessels for both Portugal and Spain, having a range of over 29 miles! Every Wednesdays the lighthouse opens to the public, offering breath taking views of the Guadiana, the city and the coast of both Portugal and Spain.
Beaches in Vila Real de Santo António
After visiting the main sites of VRSA, perhaps it’s time to sit back, relax and take in some of the Algarve’s famous coastline and beaches. Within easy reach of VRSA are two beaches, both offering quite different experiences!
Praia da Ponta da Areia – Ponta da Areai Beach
Praia da Ponta da Areia is the last beach of the eastern Algarve and where the Guadiana meets the Atlantic. It can be accessed by car through the road leading to Farolinho de Vila Real de Santo António. As the road can get quite busy with campers and fishermen, we recommend you take a right halfway through the road and follow the signs to Caramelo Beach Club. You will find better parking space and board walks leading to the beach. You can also get to the beach through Caminho dos Três Pauzinhos. The 15-minute hike through the pine forest (Mata Nacional das Dunas de Vila Real de Santo António) offers a shaded retreat from the Algarve sun. Keep an eye out for the native Algarve chameleon! Alternatively, you can take a tourist train which follows the same path. With return tickets costing €2, the train is available from June to September and it stops in a couple of points in the city.
Stretching for almost 2km, the unspoilt beach is famous for its calm and warmer waters. The beach has no facilities, other tham occasional seller offering bola de berlim or drinks from an ice box. So you’ll need to bring your own refreshments. You also won’t find life guards, sun beds, or parasols here, this is the more relaxed and do it yourself beach!
Praia de Santo António or Praia dos Três Pauzinhos
The next beach along is Praia dos Três Pauzinhos or Praia de Santo António. It’s slightly confusing, and many people assume they’re the same beach. They practically are, with the dividing line a small rock groyne. The car park is the same, the access is the same, the only difference is whether you turn left or right when you reach the beach!
Compared to the empty Praia da Ponta da Areia, Praia de Santo António is your more traditional Algarve beach. It has more facilities, including a beach bar and a full-service restaurant. You’ll also find several shacks selling beach items and refreshments. You’ll find sunbeds and parasol rental, and the beach is split between the ‘sunbed only’ area and the towel area for anyone! During the summer months it’s also lifeguarded. So it’s safe for swimmers too! Praia de Santo António stretches for 3km before meeting Praia de Monte Gordo to the west. Backed by the dunes and forest, the beach is still well preserved and a lot less hectic than neighbouring Monte Gordo.
Best Restaurants in Vila Real de Santo António
Puro Café is a great place to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee while watching the square’s movement. They have plenty of drinks with coffee, pastries and options for a light lunch too!
Reasonably priced, Restaurante Cuca is a good option for fresh grilled fish and seafood. We recommend their prawn skewered!
Green Buddha serves a variety of meals with a more modern and healthy approach. From burgers to
Pad Thai, they also have vegetarian and vegan options, great service!
Where to Stay in Vila Real de Santo António
Located right in the traditional center in Praça Marquês de Pombal, the 4 star Pousada Vila Real de Santo Antonio offers the comfort and charm of the typical Pousadas. The well-located hotel has 3 different swimming pools and lovely views into the historic square.
At the more moderate end, Hotel Apolo has all the amenities and a lovely breakfast for a very affordable price. The hotel is well located too and withing walking distance from the Municipal Market.
At the very premium end, the 5-star Grand House Algarve offers glamourous rooms and an exclusive experience. Built in the 20’s under the name Hotel Guadiana, to be the first, and most luxurious hotel in the South. The historic venue was renovated in 2019 becoming Grand House Algarve.
For a full range of accommodation in Vila Real de Santo Antonio and nearby take a look here!
Should you visit Vila Real de Santo António?
Vila Real de Santo António offers a blend of Algarve experiences, without leaning too heavily into one. A traditional and small city, that offers walking access to some of the best beaches in the Algarve. Not to mention the history, culture and of course food. Unsurprisingly, it can get busy during the peak months, and this can put people off. Its main square can get hectic. Restaurants and cafés can be busy, and you may have to queue for its most popular attractions. But realistically this is insignificant, compared to the bigger resorts in the Algarve. Similarly, if you’re looking for bars, nightlife, and resort style features, then perhaps Vila Real de Santo António isn’t for you. You might want to consider nearby Monte Gordo. Or further into the Central Algarve to places like Vilamoura and Albufeira.
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