On the shores of a coastal lagoon filled with birdlife, the colorful city of Aveiro in northern Portugal has a fascinating blend of historic architecture, youthful exuberance, and quiet prosperity, all built around a network of picturesque canals unique in the country.
Easily accessible as a day trip from Porto or Coimbra (a direct train takes barely half an hour), the town is surprisingly overlooked by most international visitors. If you’re looking for something a little different from the usual attractions, however, it’s well worth a visit. These are the top five things to do in Aviero.
Take a Ride on the Canals
No visit to Aviero is complete with a trip along its famous canals—it’s not known as the "Venice of Portugal" for nothing! While that nickname might be overstating things a little, exploring the town from the water is still highly worthwhile.
Flat-bottomed moliceiro boats, once used to harvest seaweed from the adjacent Ria lagoon, have found new life as brightly-decorated tourist gondolas.
Several companies run similarly-priced tours that wend their way under raised bridges and past colorful grand buildings and humble fishermen’s houses, often adorned with the azulejo blue tiles renowned throughout the country.
If you’ve got the time, go for a sunset cruise, which is when the town and canals look at their best. Most tours take one to two hours, although longer options are also available, including some that cross the lagoon to the adjacent sandbars.
The most impressive building in Aviero, the Convento de Jesus sits right in the heart of the old town, opposite the cathedral. Also known as the St Joana Convent, due it being the final resting place of a royal princess and saint who devoted her life to the religious order, the structure dates back to 1462. So esteemed is the Infanta, as she is known, the city devotes a religious festival to her on May 12 each year.
Eventually closed after the death of the last nun in 1874, the building was briefly converted into a college, before becoming a national monument in the early twentieth century.
The attached church features extensive gilded wood carvings and an ornately-decorated ceiling, but it’s the marble tomb of Saint Joana herself that stands out. Complete with mosaics and several panels depicting the princess’s life, it’s undoubtedly the highlight for most visitors.
The convent is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday, except public holidays. There’s a small entry fee.
Enjoy a Delicious Local Meal
Aviero is renowned as a destination for food lovers, with several high-quality seafood restaurants serving up delicious, inexpensive meals from the ocean like fish soup and eel stew, plus plenty of more traditional fare.
Even more widely known, however, is the leitao (suckling pig) that’s a highlight of the region and, indeed, the country. If you’re a fan of pork, be sure to be in town over a mealtime, and bring a good appetite!
For those with more of a sweet tooth, you won’t have to walk far before you come across ovos moles, a light treat made with egg yolk and sugar.
Some of the best restaurants can be found around Mercado do Peixe, in the center of town. Expect to pay a little more for riverside locations, although food costs are generally low by European standards.
Laze on the Beach Among Candy-Striped Houses
Once you’ve had your fill of sights in town, head over the other side of the Ria lagoon to Averia’s beachside locales. Costa Nova, Barra, and Sao Jacinto all lie close by, with the former two being easily accessible by car or local bus. While you can also drive to Sao Jacinto, it requires a thirty-mile detour around the lagoon, so you’re better off taking the short ferry ride, or incorporating it into a boat tour.
Costa Nova is the closest strip of sand to town, famous for the candy-striped houses that dot the shoreline. These palheiros, as they’re known, are used mostly as holiday homes, and make for a great, colorful photo stop as you’re exploring the beach.
The sandy beach on this narrow spit of land lies on the exposed western side, where the Atlantic winds and swells make it a popular surfing spot. The calmer lagoon side doesn’t have a beach, but sees plenty of kayaking, kite surfing, and other water-based activities regardless.
You can walk the length of the beach on a wooden boardwalk, making it easy to track down your own little piece of sand. While the area can get busy in peak summer months, there's plenty of room for everyone, and it never attracts anything like the crowds of the Algarve in the south of the country.
If you head to the top of Costa Nova, you'll find yourself in Barra. Named literally after the sandbar it sits on, its most prominent sight is the 200-foot lighthouse perched near the end of the beach. It’s the tallest in the country and dates back to 1885. You can visit the lighthouse on Wednesday afternoons, but the area surrounding it is open year-round.
Get Back to Nature
If you do take the drive or ferry ride over to Sao Jacinto, you’ll soon find yourself in a peaceful nature reserve, the Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto. While there’s plenty of opportunity for sunbathing, body boarding, and other water activities on the Atlantic beach, many visitors prefer to stroll along the nature trails through the dunes instead.
A roughly five-mile loop trail takes walkers past plentiful bird life, especially between November and February. Purpose-built hides let you watch the birds without disturbing them, and it’s easy to spend a few hours wandering in the tranquil environment.
A helpful visitor center in the Sao Jacinto township can provide more information on trails, birdlife, and other activites in the area. To get there, take the bus from Aveiro to Forte da Barra, and then the ferry on to São Jacinto.
Departures vary depending on day of the week and public holidays, so are worth checking ahead of time. Rates for single trips, returns, and combined tickets are available on the same site.