Why Portugal has so much more to offer than just sun and sand

The sixteenth century Nau Quinhentista ship.
The sixteenth century Nau Quinhentista ship.
Share this article

Messing about on the river is an idyllic way to spend a Sunday afternoon, splashing around as the sun shines down on the water.

When you include a couple of children and a few kayaks, the adventure becomes a bit less tranquil, far more energetic and much wetter.

The imposing Monastery of Santa Clara looks out over the Ave river.

The imposing Monastery of Santa Clara looks out over the Ave river.

We were on the Ave river in Vila do Conde, a picturesque town just 15 miles  north of Porto – our base for a long weekend in Portugal.

As our kayaking teacher told us how to keep the boat straight and row against the current, we navigated the river towards and then back from the Atlantic, spending an hour or so getting to grips - and for my two children, getting soaked.

Vila do Conde is situated at the mouth of the Ave and is said to be one of the oldest settlements in northern Portugal. It was an important salt exporter in Roman times and later a shipbuilding town, assembling vessels for Portuguese expeditions into Africa,  Asia and South America. 

A replica of one of these 16th century boats is moored on the Ave, giving visitors the chance to discover the kind of vessel built in the town. The old Customs House is also now a museum where you can discover more of its maritime history.

The narrow streets of Vila do Conde.

The narrow streets of Vila do Conde.

Away from the riverside, narrow cobbled streets with tall blue and white tiled homes combine with broad tree-lined avenues and grand villas in a town that is now turning to tourism rather than seafaring for its industry. 

After we had dried off we headed for one of the many street cafes and for a bite to eat while sitting in the warm spring sun, enjoying the history and soaking up the atmosphere down by the riverside.

There are also plenty of restaurants and bars offering food throughout the day and into the night – we later joined the locals to experience what Vila do Conde has to offer after dark.

For a bird’s eye view of Vila do Conde and the Ave, a climb up to the imposing Monastery of Santa Clara is a must. From here you can see the tiled roofs of the town, Santa Clara Church and out along the river towards the Atlantic. 

Vila do Conde

Vila do Conde

There are plans to convert the monastery into a hotel to bring more tourists to the town.

The site is also at the end of the town’s most impressive structure - the Santa Clara Aqueduct, which stretches for two-and-a-half miles and is said to be the second largest in Portugal.  

Just up the coast is the bustling town of Povoa de Varzim –  a modern and developed resort but without Vila do Conde’s history or sights. The following day we took the metro north, enjoyed a spot of lunch and some shopping in its narrow streets and then walked back along the golden sands, past the Forte de São João Baptista - looking out to the Atlantic from its platform of rock right on the beach.

Vila do Conde’s beaches are seen as some of the best in northern Portugal, stretching for 11 miles. 

The stretches of golden sand combine with rocky outcrops and pools to create a ideal spot for families and sun seekers alike. 

Heading back inland, Vila do Conde is a great base for visiting some of the less well-known areas  of the region as well as the World Heritage city of Porto.

Just a 30-minute drive east is the historic and lively city of Braga which was built more than 2,000 years ago and a hugely important administative centre in the Roman Empire.

Travel north and you come to what has been described as one of the most beautiful cities in the north of Portugal – Viana do Castelo. Located at the mouth of the river Lima with its extravagant religious buildings and plazas, the town is also known for traditions including its filigree gold work.

Portugal’s culture, history and sights are often forgotten in a country known more for its lively bars and beaches.  But a holiday soaking up the atmosphere away from the  sun-seeking crowds shows a place  which has far more to offer and for many remains unexplored.

Travel facts: 

We flew to Porto from Manchester with Easyjet which has three flights a week, and stayed overnight at the Village Hotel in Cheadle - just  four miles away from the terminal.

The hotel has a swimming pool with steam room and sauna plus gym, restaurant and bar.

Our package included airport parking via Holiday Extras.

To book the Village Manchester Cheadle with Meet and Greet Parking at Manchester Airport for £153, visit HolidayExtras.com or call 0800 955 5989. Prices were searched on May 28 for arrival on July 21, 2019.

For details of hotels and more about the Vila Do Conde area, go to  www.portoenorte.pt/en/