Although it boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in north-central Portugal, to call Viana do Castelo a seaside resort would be an understatement.
Located at the estuary of the Limia River, Viana is an elegant and refined city, dominated by a sumptuous church on top of a hill.
The characteristic old town, full of elegant historic buildings in Manueline and Renaissance style, is appreciated by those who love architecture, but you do not need to be an expert in history and art to fall in love. It is enough to take a walk along the narrow streets of the city center or along the lovely riverfront to want to never leave.
On the opposite bank of the river from the city center is Praia Caradelo, the beautiful city beach, and from there begins a stretch of coastline more than 20 kilometers long where you can find an abundance of beautiful beaches.
Viana also boasts a lively nightlife; inoltra is famous for its popular festivals, lived with involvement and passion by its citizens.
Palaces, streets, squares, churches, museums, archaeological sites… before even seeing the sea you will have already occupied a day visiting the most famous attractions of Viana do Castelo!
The nerve center of the city’s life is the central Praça da República, a pedestrian square that you’ll pass on several occasions, perhaps on your way to a cultural attraction in the city or to enjoy a cold beer sitting at one of the tables of the outdoor bars.
It is flanked by elegant historical buildings, including the Antigos Pagos de Concelho, the old town hall, but the real wonder of the square is the Renaissance Chafariz granite fountain, built in the second half of the sixteenth century.
Almost certainly you will have already visited a ship from the glorious past now retired, but have you ever visited a ship-hospital? In Viana do Castelo you can have this unusual experience.
The ship Gil Eannes was built in the fifties of the last century to bring medical aid to Portuguese fishing boats that fished for cod in the cold and treacherous waters of the island of Newfoundland and Greenland. A sort of floating hospital, complete with x-ray equipment and operating room, its name recalls the tenacious Portuguese navigator who in 1434 was the first to sail past Cape Bojador off the coast of Africa.
Today the Gil Eannes is permanently moored along the river. One area of the ship houses a museum open to the public: you can climb the decks, enter the cabins and see some of the original medical instruments. The other area houses an original hostel, recommended for those who want to have a unique experience… as long as you don’t suffer from claustrophobia.
Do not leave Viana do Castelo without having climbed the Monte de Santa Luiza, the leafy hill that rises behind the city.
The easiest and most fascinating way to get there is to take the funicular railway that leaves from the train station, in operation since 1923. At 650 meters long, it is the longest “elevador” in Portugal and in some places also the widest; it covers a difference in height of 160 meters in seven minutes.
Another way to get to Monte de Santa Luiza is a challenging 2 km uphill staircase: cheaper, but also much more tiring.
Once at the top, you’ll be able to admire beautiful panoramic views of the coast and the Limia River Valley and visit two interesting tourist attractions.
The most famous is the Templo do Sagrado Coração de Jesus, a lavish sanctuary scenically perched atop the hill. Built in the 20th century in neo-Byzantine style and inspired by the Sacred Heart of Paris, it is at times excessive and at times magnificent. You can climb the dome via a very narrow staircase or elevator.
The second attraction of Monte de Santa Luiza is much older: it is the Citania de Santa Luzia, the ruins of a Celtiberian fortified village that dates back to prehistoric times (estimated around the fourth century BC).
If you stay in the city long enough to have seen all the main attractions dedicate your remaining time to these attractions:
The enchanting Praia de Cabedelo is the most famous tourist attraction of Viana: it is a beach of fine golden sand that stretches over an arched bay about a kilometer long, bordered by sand dunes and a row of pine trees.
The seabed slopes gently so that even when the wind blows hard, small children and inexperienced swimmers can swim in complete safety.
Praia de Cabedelo is on the other side of the river from the city center; it can be reached by bus but it is much more fascinating to take the river ferry and cross the Limia estuary by boat (departures every hour).
Starting from Viana along the north coast there are beautiful beaches for over 20 km, many of which are suitable for surfing. The most beautiful is probably the beach of Afife, reachable by a local train that runs along this stretch of coast.
In many cases these are wild beaches, not equipped, where access is through wooden walkways created to protect the delicate ecosystem of the dunes. Perfect for nature lovers!
Where to sleep in Viana do Castelo? Near the beach, in the center or in the rural surroundings? The choice depends on the type of vacation you want to take and your budget.
Budget options, such as hostels or family-run hotels, are concentrated in the center or nearby areas; near the beach there is a greater choice of comfortable and modern mid-range hotels. If you’re looking for something more special, choose a rural house in the surroundings of the town.
Finding accommodation in Viana do Castelo during the summer months and especially during the traditional festival Romaria Nossa Senhora d’Agonia held in August is very difficult: it is better to book well in advance.
Viana do Castelo is located in the Minho region of northern Portugal. Thenearest international airport to Viana do Castelo is PortoAirport, served by many low cost flights, which is about 100 km further south.
The cities of Viana do Castelo and Porto are connected by frequent direct trains; travel time is about an hour and a half.
Direct trains and local buses connect Viana do Castelo to other cities in the surrounding area, such as Braga. However, if you are using Viana as a base for exploring the region, it is more convenient to rent a car.