Located at the mouth of the Ave River, just 25 km from Porto, Vila do Conde has a beautiful architectural heritage and some of the best beaches in the north of Portugal. Whether on a day getaway, on a weekend, or a vacation, Vila do Conde is the ideal destination in the North of Portugal for those who want beach and culture in a city with a relaxed atmosphere.
Vila do Conde is also one of the main stops on the Coastal Portuguese of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is common to see pilgrims visiting the city and enjoying what it has to offer. Naturally, there are several pilgrim hostels for those interested in traveling that way.
For these and other reasons, Vila do Conde is one of the favorite beach and vacation destinations among Portuguese, especially those from Porto and the North. However, it is often overlooked by foreign visitors and even by Portuguese from the center and south. So, let’s explore the best things to do in Vila do Conde, what to eat and where to stay.
What to visit in Vila do Conde
# 1 Beaches of Vila do Conde
The beaches are the main reason why Vila do Conde has become such a popular holiday destination in Portugal. In fact, in Vila do Conde, we have some of the best beaches in the northern region, with fine sand, clear water, and nice waves. Some of the beaches, particularly the urban ones, have enough sets of rocks that at low tide create small bays and lakes, great for children to play.
One of the best characteristics of the beaches in the Vila do Conde is the absence of large buildings next to the beach. On the contrary, there is even a small dune area along Praia Azul. Historically the city has not grown on the beach, which creates an atmosphere that is always very relaxed, giving the feeling of not being in the middle of the confusion, even when they are crowded.
The negative features of Vila do Conde beaches are the wind and the water temperature. In fact, even in summer, the average seawater temperature is always quite low, rarely exceeding 18º. In addition, it is usual to have a cold north wind which, when it is too strong, makes trips to the beach less pleasant. It is the infamous “nortada.” Yet, note that these are characteristic of all beaches in the northern region of Portugal.
#2 Church of Vila do Conde
Built in the 16th century, the Mother Church (Igreja de São João Baptista) is one of the ex-libris of Vila do Conde and one of the most significant monuments of Manueline art in Portugal, and with elements of Gothic and Renaissance style. It is right in the historic center of Vila do Conde, in Vasco da Gama Square, in front of the city hall.
The two main exterior elements are the Manueline portal and the bell tower. While the portal is richly decorated with fabulous details in the reliefs sculpted in the stones and in the Gothic spiers, the imposing bell tower stands out for its dimension and absence of ornamentation. This dichotomy of styles gives a certain charm to the building.
The interior was built with a Latin cross plan with three naves separated by columns and round arches. The baroque-gilded altarpiece is probably the highlight of this majestic interior.
# 3 Town hall and Pillory
As mentioned, the Town Hall of Vila do Conde is right in front of the main church, the church of S. João Baptista in Vasco da Gama square. It is an old building, from the 16th century, where the 3 beautiful arches, the staircase leading to the sessions room, and the imposing gilded tribune inside stand out. The town hall of Vila do Conde holds the curious record of being the oldest one still active in Portugal.
The pillory right in front of the Town Hall building dates from the same period and reflects the administrative autonomy granted by the charter of D. Manuel I. This is a curious monument because the shaft is twisted in the shape of a rope, in the Manueline style, in the on top is an arm with a sword.
#4 Santa Clara Convent
The Santa Clara Convent is the most striking monument in the city and visiting it is surely one of the best things to do in Vila do Conde. It may not be the most beautiful, but its size and high location on a hill next to the Ave river make it really imposing. In fact, when you reach Vila do Conde from the south, it is impossible not to appreciate the size of the building built in the 18th century.
The convent of Santa Clara was founded in 1318 as a female convent and became extinct in the 19th century. Much of the current monumental building was built in the 18th century, but after serving several different purposes in the 20th century, it was abandoned in 2002. Currently, it is planned to be completely remodeled and transformed into a luxury hotel.
It is not possible to enter the building, but we must note that next to it there is a wonderful viewpoint where you can see the city, the mouth of the Ave river and the sea. On the other hand, it is possible to appreciate the convent from the riverside area, for example, from the “Nau Quinhentista” area.
# 5 Church of Santa Clara
The church of Santa Clara is right next to the convent, as it was part of the convent when it was operational. Built between the 14th and 16th centuries in a Gothic-Manueline style, it is considered a fundamental example of Portuguese Gothic architecture. Since the construction took quite some time, Manueline, Baroque and Rococo elements were added.
Architecturally, the church has several points of interest, such as the large rose window on the west facade, the battlements at the top (which only have a decorative function), and the enormous transept. However, the greatest highlight of it is the tomb arks of the founders, as they are one of the most beautiful tombs in the country. It is worth entering the church just to see these tombs.
# 6 Santa Clara Aqueduct
The third monument in this area of Vila do Conde is the Santa Clara Aqueduct, built in the 18th century to carry water from Terroso, Povoa de Varzim, to the convent. This is an amazing monument as it would initially have 999 arches and more than 5 km in length – the second most extensive aqueduct in Portugal. Unfortunately, some of the arches in the aqueduct were destroyed with abandon and the passage of time.
The most impressive part of the Aqueduct is the final area next to the convent of Santa Clara because that’s where the arches are bigger and are in better condition. This whole area is quite beautiful and not sufficiently explored. Also, note that the section of the aqueduct that passes next to the stadium (called the arches for that very reason) is also quite beautiful. For those who have time, it’s worth walking along the aqueduct, from the Convent to the Stadium – it’s one of the most pleasant things to do in Vila do Conde.
Curiosity: A few years ago, National Geographic Spain considered this aqueduct the 4th most beautiful in the world, only behind Pont du Gard in France, the Aqueduct of Segovia, and Milagres Aqueduct in Mérida, Spain.
# 7 Royal Customs – Naval Construction Museum
The Naval Construction Museum is located in the riverside area of Vila do Conde, opposite the Nau Quinhentista in the old building of the Royal Customs (Alfândega Régia). The river and the beautiful historic houses make this area very pleasant during the day, while at night it is very lively with lots of restaurants and terraces.
The Royal Customs (Alfândega Régia) building is originally from the 15th century. It was expanded during the 18th century to accommodate the increase in international trade but was abandoned during the 20th century. After being completely rehabilitated, it was converted into an interesting museum with three different areas of intervention:
- Portuguese Navigation, with a clear focus on the role of Vila do conde;
- History of Royal Customs;
- History of shipbuilding in Vila do conde;
# 8 Nau Quinhentista – the 16th century ship
On the river, in front of the Royal Customs – Naval Construction Museum, we have the 16th-century ship or Nau Quinhentista in Portuguese. Despite being anchored only since 2007, it is already part of the city and its history – at least I can’t imagine strolling along the river and not seeing this wonderful ship built in the shipyards of Vila do Conde.
At 27.50 meters in length, 7.70 in width, 4.75 in height, with a weight of about 300 tons and 180 of cargo, it is an impressive and striking monument. Despite this, be sure to visit its interior as it has even more to offer. There you can see reproductions of what life was like on board, the crew members’ quarters, the storage of goods, cartographic material and navigation instruments, and even artillery pieces.
Seeing the ship from outside is free, but to enter we have to buy a ticket for 1 Euro at the museum. It is well worth it. As well as being a fun visit, it turns out to be fascinating to observe live and in full size how was the world of Portuguese navigators in the 16th century. This beautiful ship in one of the most unique things to do in Vila do Conde
# 9 Saint John’s Baptist Fort
Situated at the mouth of Rio Ave, Saint John’s Fort, or “the Castle” as it is often referred to, was built during the 16th century to protect Vila do Conde and its bar. It is a fortress with 5 bastions, of which 3 have guardhouses. Its location next to the river and the beach make it one of the city’s most visited landmarks.
After being abandoned for some tens of years, the “castle” was rehabilitated to be a luxury hotel (with only 8 rooms) and restaurants, and later a nightclub.
# 10 Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Guia
Next to the fort, we have the small chapel of Nossa Senhora da Guia. However, this simple monument hides a long past, as it is already mentioned in documents from the 11th century, even before Portugal’s independence. However, we must mention that very few things remain from the original chapel, as its location makes it very sensitive to the wear and tear of the elements.
A visit to the interior reveals a wooden coffered ceiling, painted with biblical scenes, but above all, the beautiful tiles from the 17th and 18th centuries on the walls of the nave and chancel. It is also believed that the arch of the chancel may have been the main entrance to the original chapel, however the remaining building will be from the 17th century.
# 11 Walkways of Vila do Conde
Although not as famous as those from Paiva or Sistelo, the walkways in Vila do Conde are much older and very beautiful. These walkways (also called Ecovia do Litoral Sul) run along the coast from Azurara on the south bank of the River Ave to the River Onda on the “border” with Matosinhos.
This route follows along the beach, in dunes and sandy areas, but always with stunning coastal views. We have to highlight the ornithological reserve of Mindelo because it is especially pleasing, the sections that go through the typical villages of Mindelo and Vila Chã, and almost at the end the beach and iron age settlement of São Paio, which we will talk about below.
This route is almost 9 km long, of which about six are on walkways. These walkways are shared by walkers and cyclists, which means that the entire route can also be done by bicycle. This activity is one most satisfying things to do in Vila do Conde for those who enjoy hiking or cycling.
# 12 São Paio beach and settlement
As mentioned above, the beach and iron age settlement (Castro) of São Paio is probably the highlight of Vila do Conde’s walkways. Discovered only in the 50s of the last century, the Castro of São Paio is the only Coastal settlement of this kind present in Portuguese territory.
Despite being quite destroyed, this iron age village still has remains of housing constructions (with interpretive signs) and prehistoric evidence of high interest, such as the engravings of Penedos Amoladoiros. For example, next to the geodesic landmark, we have an engraving, which resembles a rune used in the alphabet of pre-Germanic writing, demonstrating the Norman presence in this place.
In addition to the historical and cultural interest of Castro de São Paio, the rocky outcrop of São Paio creates a beautiful landscape with rocks entering the sea and small sandy beaches protected from the wind and waves creating little beaches. In addition to having an unusual beauty, they are especially pleasant for children and sunbathing.
The beach and Castro de São Paio have an Interpretation Center that allows us to learn a little more about the area and a restaurant with a terrace where you can eat and relax.
Where to eat in Vila do Conde?
As a tourist city, Vila do Conde has plenty of nice restaurants, cafes and terraces and above all good restaurants to eat fresh fish, so our suggestions in Vila do Conde is to enjoy the proximity to the sea and eat delicious grilled fish.
In terms of restaurants, our first suggestion goes to Restaurante Senhora da Guia, as it combines a fabulous location on the beach, next to the fort and the Chapel, with freshly grilled fish at reasonable prices.
Another excellent restaurant for eating fish is Cangalho, which is close to the Nau Quinhentista. This is a more expensive restaurant, but it is often considered the best fish restaurant in the city. For those who want a restaurant outside the city, Salitre in Vila Chã is our favorite restaurant in the municipality of Vila do Conde.
In addition to the fish, we have to mention that the existence of an important convent in Vila do Conde, makes it a history of conventual sweets. Unfortunately, that tradition has been almost lost completely and many of the recipes have been forgotten. The only typical sweet of Vila do Conde that is still prevalent is the pastel de Santa Clara, which is very similar to a pastel de nata, but with a slightly different cream (more reddish) and a sugar crust on top.
Where to stay in Vila do Conde
Despite being a trendy Portuguese beach town, Vila do Conde does not have a very large offer of hotels. This happens because many tourists coming to Vila do Conde are Portuguese from relatively close cities, and they as day-trippers, and those who stay longer tend to rent a room or apartment for the holidays. Still, we can suggest some good accommodation options.
Villa C Boutique Hotel – Design Hotels
Villa C is probably the best hotel in Vila do Conde today. It is a four-star hotel, with Spa, gym, restaurant, and bar. It is a hotel that offers a lot of comforts. However, it is outside the historic center and on the other side of the river. It is also relatively far from the beach, but still perfectly possible to go there on foot.
Hotel Brazão has recently been renovated, so it is now a very modern and quality hotel. It has the great advantage of being in the city center, close to nearly all attractions, restaurants, and bars. Despite this, it is still almost 1 km from the beach, as the historic center of Vila do Conde is not by the sea. Anyway, it is a pleasant walk, and you can get to know the city better.
Rua de São Bento n.123
If you prefer to rent an apartment, Rua de São Bento n.123 is an excellent option. It is in an old house completely renovated, in the historic center of Vila do Conde. The beautiful exterior won’t fool anyone, everything was designed and decorated with nice attention to detail. It has a fully equipped kitchen and is great for a city and beach escapade for two.
How to go to Vila do Conde
As we mentioned initially Vila do Conde is only about 25 km north of Porto, so it is an excellent option for a summer getaway. The trip between Porto and Vila do Conde can be easily made by car or by subway.
If you go by car, the easiest way is to take the A28, and exit in Vila do Conde. There is also the possibility of taking N13, but there’s always lots of traffic on this road. Note that there is a lot of traffic to enter Vila do Conde during the summer and especially on weekends.
If you choose public transport, the metro is undoubtedly the best option as it allows you to go directly from the center of Porto or the airport to Vila do Conde. There are several departures every hour, and it takes about 45-50 minutes. The negative is that the Vila do Conde metro is well outside the historic center and even further away from the beaches. Allow about 15 minutes to reach the center and half an hour to reach the beaches.