Viana do Castelo is a city of culture, history, and natural beauty. It may not seem the most obvious destination in Portugal, but for many people, it may be one of the most enjoyable! Here we will explore some of the best things to do in Viana do Castelo, from its charming center to the Gil Eanes ship and the unmissable Santa Luzia promontory.
Viana do Castelo is one of the main cities of the Minho region in the far north of Portugal, about 70 km north of Porto and only half an hour from Spain. It’s ideally located for a nice day trip from Porto or to be included in an itinerary in Portugal. Historically it’s more of an industrial city (shipbuilding and fishing in particular) than a tourism destination. Yet, it’s a great destination with plenty of exciting things to do and see. Let’s explore them!
10 Best things to do in Viana do Castelo
#1 Praça da República (Republic’s Square)
Praça da República is the heart of Viana do Castelo. It’s the main square, where people gather, and unquestionably the most beautiful in the city. It’s surrounded by old beautiful buildings, while in the center, there’s a 16th-century renaissance fountain.
Besides the wonderful fountain, some of the most impressive buildings in the square are the Misericórdia Church and the costumes museum (we will discuss this later), and the council chambers. Now that it’s been restored, Misericórdia Church is particularly impressive with the walls covered in blue and white tiles, something Portugal is known for.
Similarly to other central squares in Portugal, Praça da República has several cafés where you can sit, have a drink, and enjoy the good life in Portugal.
#2 Costumes museum
The Costumes museum in Praça da Republica deserves a heading on its own. The museum was set in the old Bank of Portugal building, exploring the rich culture of Viana do Castelo and the Minho region.
Traditional Costumes from Viana are peculiar, colorful, and incredibly detailed. In this museum, you can see them, but you can also learn what they meant. Each costume had a code that boys needed to decipher in order to understand the age, origin, and, more importantly, the marital status of the girls wearing them.
These were very popular during the 19th century, but today besides the museum, you can only see these traditional dresses in festivities and fairs, particularly during the parade of Nossa Senhora da Agonia in August. I don’t usually find these museums very interesting, but this one is a glorious exception.
One of Portugal’s most famous symbols is the heart of Viana. A golden heart with a beautiful design in filigree. If you have been to Portugal, you have probably seen it. Here you can see some incredible examples.
Top tip: In the streets of Viana, you’ll find several jewelry shops selling the hearts of Viana. In our opinion, they are one of the best souvenirs you can buy in Portugal. The ones in gold are obviously very expensive (300 Euros +), but you can buy silver ones for a very reasonable price. The necklaces and earrings are particularly beautiful.
#3 Sé Catedral – Viana’s Cathedral
The Cathedral of Viana do Castelo isn’t in Praça da República, but it’s very close, so it’s the obvious next thing to visit. The cathedral is from the 15th century and still shows its original gothic aesthetics. It was built as a fortified church, similar to others in northern Portugal and Galicia – it still has the battlements at the top of the two imposing towers.
It was only in 1977 that this ancient church became a Cathedral. It isn’t the most spectacular building, but it’s imposing and well worth a few minutes to explore. Take time to notice the remarkable gothic main portal and the outstanding lacy-framed rosette on the facade.
#4 Decorative arts museum
The Decorative arts museum (and municipal museum) is installed in a 17th-century mansion. In this museum, you will find a vast collection of ceramics (the biggest in the country), traditional Portuguese tiles, old furniture, paintings, sculptures, and even some archeological pieces.
The ceramics and the tiles are the stars of this museum. The ceramics are some of the best produced in Portugal, particularly the blue ceramics from the 16th-18th centuries. These were produced in Darque, Viana do Castelo. Also, blue and white are the typical Portuguese tiles in the museum. The collection is enormous and occupies 3 full rooms. Primarily they represent hunting and other noble scenes, but there’s also a beautiful collection that evokes the continents known at the time.
#5 Gil Eannes Hospital Ship
The Gil Eannes Hospital Ship is possibly the most fascinating attraction in Viana do Castelo. Well, at the very least it is something very different and a good alternative to all the churches and museums…
The Gil Eannes was a hospital ship built in 1955 in Viana’s shipyard. It was a high-quality ship that was used to support the Portuguese fleet, which fished Cod. By now, you have probably realized how Portuguese love cod, but there isn’t cod in the Portuguese sea. So, we have to fish it in Newfoundland and Labrador with incredibly harsh conditions and danger. The Gil Eannes hospital ship was pivotal in this process for many years.
After many years it became obsolete, and in the 90s, it was ready to be dismantled when it was salvaged at the last minute by the people of Viana do Castelo. The ship was completely refurbished and became one of the most essential attractions in Viana. It’s anchored in front of the city, and it is now a museum.
You can visit the Gil Eannes, all of it – all the decks, the chambers, the engine room, the kitchen, and obviously the hospital. For those who love boats, it’s an opportunity not to be missed. The ship also has plenty of information about the Portuguese cod fishing fleet and process. It’s a really interesting thing to do in Viana, and it will help us understand how vital cod was back in the day.
The Gil Eannes is our favorite attraction in Viana, it’s fascinating, educative, and fun! For adults and kids. Just the ship would be enough reason to go to Viana do Castelo, but as you can see, there are plenty of others!
- Ticket price: 4.5 Euros
- Open: 9h30 to 18h (19h in Summer)
#6 Santiago da Barra Fort
The whole river area of Viana is very pleasant and soothing. From the Gil Eannes, we suggest you head to Santiago da Barra Fort (sometimes called the Castle of Santiago da Barra). The fort started as a small fortification in the 13th century and eventually grew to its current state, with significant developments in the 15th and 16th centuries.
One of the major features of the fort is Torre da Roqueta, from the 15th century, built with incredible Manueline features. The fort was built and expanded to defend the Lima River estuary, the port, and the city of Viana. The fort gives the river area of Viana do Castelo a more medieval feel, and it makes an excellent place for a walk while enjoying the views. The fort’s walls give a fantastic panoramic view of the Lima River and Santa Luzia Sanctuary.
#7 Santa Luzia Sanctuary
Santa Luzia Sanctuary is located outside the center but very close. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus dominates the whole mountain, and even if you are not very fond of religious tourism, we think you’ll enjoy this one. It’s a very imposing building, built in the perfect spot.
From the Basilica and the gardens close to it, you get the best views of Viana do Castelo, Lima River, and many miles of shoreline. In fact, you can make the case that it’s one of the best lookouts in the whole country. National Geographic even rated this panorama as the third-best in the world! The views are that good!
The building is only from 1898, and the construction of the Basilica was inspired by the Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre, Paris, in a typical revivalist style. The most striking feature of the Basilica is the huge magnificent rose windows which are the largest in the Iberian Peninsula and the second largest in Europe. The basilica’s interior is also worth the visit, with nice stained glass, sculptures, and frescoes.
#8 Santa Luzia Funicular and staircase
You can reach Santa Luzia by car, through the long stairs or using the funicular. If you are fit enough and have the time the stairs could be a fun way to do it. However, for most of us, the funicular is probably a better option. It’s always fun, you get some excellent views, and it’s an easy, quick, and comfortable way to reach the destination.
The funicular is the longest in Portugal, with 650 meters and about 160 meters of vertical rise. A return ticket is only 3 euros per person, and it takes between 6 and 7 minutes to reach the top o Santa Luzia.
#9 Santa Luzia Castro
Santa Luzia Castro is located a few hundred meters behind the Basilica. You can easily reach it from the sanctuary, and the ticket costs only 2 Euros.
The Castro or Citania is an Iron Age/Roman era fortified settlement. It’s one of the best-preserved Castros and thus an excellent opportunity to get to know this lesser-known era (between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD)
This settlement has very particular characteristics, especially in terms of architectural features, like the building stones arranged in a polygonal fashion. It’s estimated that the current ruins are about 1/3 of its actual dimension, and it was bounded by three lines of walls, complemented by turrets and two pits.
#10 Go to the Beach
Viana do Castelo isn’t by any means a beach resort town, but it’s on the Portuguese shore, so you might as well take advantage of it. For those of you who don’t know it yet, the beaches of northern Portugal have a cold (very) water, even in summer.
The best beach in Viana do Castelo is on the other side of the Lima River, and it’s called Cabedelo. It has a long stretch of sand, and it’s trendy among locals during the Summer. It’s also located in a less developed area, so you’ll have to walk across the woods and dunes (5 to 10 minutes) before reaching the main beach.
If you don’t want to cross the river, you can walk to the northern beach of Viana do Castelo, which is rightly called Praia Norte. It’s very rocky and definitely not as nice, but if you only want to catch a bit of sun and see the ocean, it will do the trick. This area also has pleasant pathways along the shore, which are great for doing a relaxing jog or walk.
Finally, if you have a car and really want to spend time at the beach, you may want to consider going to Moledo in Caminha, up in the extreme North. Moledo beach is the best beach in northern Portugal, but it’s 20 km from Viana do Castelo.
Where to stay in Viana do Castelo?
Now that we know all the best things to do in Viana do Castelo, we must choose where to stay. As we mentioned above, the city isn’t very big, and you can easily walk everywhere, so our suggestion is to find a place in the city center and then enjoy Viana. If you don’t have a car, this will be very important and make your trip much more fun.
Hi Viana do Castelo
The HI youth hostels in Portugal are always an excellent option for budget travelers, but in Viana, it’s extra good! The youth hostel is installed in a new building, ideally located by the river. It’s cheap, and you can have a shared or private room, with or without breakfast. Breakfast is usually a good deal in the Portuguese youth hostels. This hostel is often sold out, so book it as early as possible.
You can’t be more central than Hotel Laranjeira, less than 100 meters from the main square (Praça da República). It’s a good hotel with excellent value for money that fits any traveler, but particularly couples. It has one of the highest booking ratings in Viana do Castelo. You can book it here.
Hotel feelViana is the best option for people who want a great hotel close to Viana but outside the city. It’s on Praia do Cabeledo, and it’s possibly the best hotel in Viana. Despite being on the other side of the river, you can easily reach the center by getting the ferry. If you have a car, you just need to cross the Eiffel bridge. Check here if the hostel is still available as it’s very, very popular.
You can also check the map below for the best hotels in Viana.
What to eat in Viana do Castelo
Minho is possibly the best gastronomic region in Portugal. There are plenty of well-known dishes, and the meals are usually served in significant portions and relatively cheap. Viana do Castelo is one of the best cities to eat in Minho, and you can find plenty of great restaurants serving some fantastic food.
In Viana do Castelo, you’ll want to try fresh fish and seafood. Grilled fish is usually of very high quality there, with plenty of fresh fish and seafood at very reasonable prices. But it’s also a great place to eat cod. In fact, after visiting the Gil Eannes, you’ll surely want to try the Portuguese salted cod and understand why we love it so much!
Minho is also the land of Vinho Verde, a very specific kind of wine that originated there. If you are into wines, you really need to try this. Vinho Verde is usually light, fresh, and very slightly sparkling.
Regarding sweets and desserts, we need to mention the Berliners! Viana do Castelo is known to have one of the best Berliners (in Portuguese, it’s called Bola de Berlim) in Portugal. These are the bolas de Berlim do Natário, a pastry shop located very close to Praça da república. Note: there are two natário pastry shops, they both have good Berliners, but the really famous one is “Pastelaria Manuel Natário” on Manuel Espregueira Street.
How to go to Viana do Castelo
You don’t lack ways to visit Viana do Castelo. There are buses, trains, and several highways that go to Viana do Castelo. If you prefer doing tours, there is also the possibility of doing a tour from Porto.
If you are renting a car, then you need to take the highway and head to Viana, this has the advantage of being very fast, and it will allow you to visit other places that are less accessible. you can head to Ponte de Lima, Arcos de Valdevez, Caminha, or even Geres National Park. Though, it’s obviously more expensive than taking public transport.
If you prefer taking public transportation, there are direct trains from Porto to Viana do Castelo. However, from other locations, it’s probably best to take the bus, as there’s a much bigger variety of options. We suggest taking a look at rede expresso.
Finally, you can also walk to Viana do Castelo! Viana do Castelo is one of the major stops of the Coastal Portuguese Way of Santiago. This route has been extremely popular in the last few years, and it’s a very excellent way of exploring northern Portugal and Galicia. If you plan this, we strongly suggest you stop for a day in Viana.
What’s the best time to visit Viana do Castelo?
To decide the best time to visit a region, we usually consider two things, the number of tourists during the year and the weather. So, you want the place to be uncrowded, sunny, and at least warm.
Viana do Castelo has cold and rainy winters, while the summers are usually sunny and warm. It rarely is very hot in Viana do Castelo. this means that you should avoid the winter season, and if you want to go to the beach, you must go during summer, particularly in July and August. June and Early September are also good, usually.
Similarly to the rest of the country, the high season is Summer, and the closer you are to Summer, the more tourists you have. Viana do Castelo isn’t really the most touristy place around, so you don’t really have lots of international tourists. However, it is popular among locals and Portuguese emigrants returning to Portugal, so it can become a bit crowded.
All in all, we think that the best period to visit Viana is from June to September – you can take advantage of the best weather while the attractions have people, but it’s usually manageable. During the festivity of Nossa Senhora da Agonia in August, it does become very crowded, but it’s also a very fun time to be in Viana.