Have you ever heard of Vila Real is Portugal? Most travellers overlook many beautiful places along the Douro valley in Portugal in favour of Lisbon and Porto. But, if you have got time on your itinerary, it is worth including some of the smaller and lesser known Portuguese cities such as Braga, Lamego and Vila Real. You will get an authentically Portuguese experience and way less tourists! Vila Real is a city located in the centre of Northern Portugal, some 100km inland from Porto (Portugals second city). It is not to be confused with Vila Real de Santo Antonio, which is a city on the Algarve coast near the Spanish border.
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I met my Brasilian friend Alex so that we could explore the city together. It was a chance to him to practice his English and me to practice my Portuguese!
How to get to Vila Real Portugal
You will probably fly into Porto and then take a bus from Porto to Vila Real, which takes around an hour and a half. You can stay over in one day, but it is possible to do Vila Real as a day trip from Porto (which is what I did).
To get to Vila Real you can take the Flixbus, which interlinks most main Portuguese and Spanish cities. They are comfortable coaches with Wi-fi and air conditioning on board. If you download the Flixbus App, you can get digital tickets in the form of a QR code. Take your charging cable and battery pack with you (you don’t want your phone to run out of battery if your travel tickets are on there!)
When to go to Vila Real
The best months to visit are May and October (shoulder season). I travelled to Vila Real in early November, which was a lovely time to go as the temperatures were mild and the queues were non existent. We could see the main sights easily and without them being overcrowded.
Avoid visiting in December and January (it gets too cold) and avoid the busy months of July and August. In the months, Casa de Mateus sees over 400 visitors a day and quite often the guided tours are fully booked, or you could find yourself waiting a long time in the heat of the day. I can’t imagine that it would be enjoyable and relaxing at this time of year.
Also, remember to check dates against the local festivals and Christian calendar (for example, Casa de Mateus will close on Christmas Day). Avoid Sundays as this is a busy time for Mass and you may not be able to visit the Churches.
History of Vila Real Portugal
Vila Real actually means ‘Royal City’ and the city was founded back in 1272. It is home to many historical buildings, many of which display the coat of arms and continue to be passed through generations of the original families. It was also the birthplace of Diogo Cão, a famous navigator who was the first to reach the mouth of the River Congo in back in 1482. The area has played an important economic role through the ages. The area is famous for its wine production and also the city was the first city in Portugal to have electricity in 1895. Today, visitors to Vila Real enjoy the mountainous setting, beautiful architecture and amazing food and drink on offer. Although it is slightly off the usual tourist track, Casa de Mateus (the main palace in the region of Vila Real) attracts thousands of international visitors each year.
How to spend one day in Vila Real Portugal
Your one day itinerary will start with the beautiful historical mansion Casa de Mateus. This will take you the morning. Then you can head to the centre of Vila Real for lumch and spend the afternoon sightseeing in the city centre visiting the amazing Churches and enjoying the architecture. Note that the city is quite hilly in places and so you will want to be wearing good walking boots. Mine are Bodmin weatherlite ladies walking boots from Karrimor.
Casa de Mateus
First on your itinerary should definitely be Casa de Mateus, a gorgeous 18th Century Baroque Palace. To get there, take an Uber from the city centre as its around 4km out of the centre of Vila Real. It is possible to get a guided tour without booking – they run every hour on the hour between 10am-3pm. However, it is better to book in advance in the busy season (June to August).
The cost to get into Casa de Mateus is currently 15€ (at the time of writing – December 2023). You will need approxmately one and a half hours to explore the house, church and surrounding gardens and Quinta (vinyards).
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The mansion (or palace) was built in 1744 after António José Botelho Mourão (the 3rd Morgado de Mateus) who appointed Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni on commission. The lower floor would have been for servants and staff whereas the upper level would have been for the aristocrats. The house was passed down through the generations. The original families would have made profit from the land by taking a percentage cut of the agriculture (whatever was farmed there). This would free them up to deal with political and bureaucratic issues.
In 1970, ‘Fundação da Casa de Mateus’ was founded) and the house was opened to the public as a museum. Many historical documents found there are currently being interpreted by historians on the lower level.
Bear in mind that the tour doesn’t include a tour of the vinyards or wine tasting! But, if you do want to take home some Mateus or other Portuguese produce, there is a lovely souvenir shop on the other side of the road opposite Casa de Mateus gates.
Lunch at Cardoso
Aim to be done by midday to head back into Vila Real for Lunch. One thing to remember about the smaller Portuguese cities, including Vila Real is that lunch is usually between 12-2pm and after that, restaurants will close until about 6pm or 7pm for dinner. If you miss this usual lunch time, there is a shopping centre called Nosso shopping where they still serve food between 2-6pm.
Now, it’s time for a traditional Portuguese meal at Cardoso. They are famous for their tasty ‘Francesinha’ (traditional Portuguese sandwich cooked in beer sauce with an egg on top!) and also they do a great ‘Bitoque’ (steak or Pork topped with egg plus a side salad and chips). There is also a great Pizza place in Vila Real called Forneria (with a few Portuguese dishes as well as just pizza). Prices for eating out at these restaurants in Vila Real are reasonable – you shouldn’t expect to spend more than around €20.
After lunch, head into the centre of Vila Real to admire some beautiful architecture and Churches. All three main Churches in Vila Real (Sao Pedro, Sao Paulo and the Cathedral) are free to enter and open to visitors. Just make sure that you are dressed appropriately (no shorts, short skirts or low cut tops) and remain silent inside.
Igreja Sao Pedro
Sao Pedro (Church of Saint Peter) is a good place to start your trail of Vila Real on foot. It was built in 1528 under the guidance of abbot Pedro de Castro, who is buried inside. This is the same abbot who instructed the next Church, Sao Paulo to be built. Also, make sure that you look up to the beautifully decorated ceiling.
Igreja Sao Paulo
Next you will come to Igreja Sao Paulo (Church of Saint Paul) located on the corner “Rua dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra”, known locally as “Rua Central”. The Church is sometimes known as Capella Nova (new Church in Portuguese) and it was designed by the same Italian architect who designed Casa de Mateus. Can you see the similarities?
Igreja Sao Paulo is my favourite Church in Vila Real due to its beautiful facade and the beautiful Azulejos interior – well preserved traditional blue Portuguese tiles.
Vila Real Cathedral – Igreja de São Domingos
The Cathedral is known as the Church of Saint Dominic (Igreja de São Domingos in Portuguese). It is a Roman Catholic Cathedral and the seat of the Bishop. It was originally built as a convent in 1424 by Friars from Guimaraes, who obtained a license to build it. It has two distinct architectural influences – Romanesque and Gothic. The Cathedral has been classed as a National Monument since 1926.
Inside you will see several gothic arches, and the tomb of the famous Portuguese navigator Diogo Afonso and his wife Branca Dias (15th century).
Museu da Vila Velha
Finally, if you still have time and energy, head to Museu da Vila Velha – an archaeological museum with an old cemetery (including statues). The museum itself is spread over two floors, one which has more modern displays and the other which is archeology. There is also a beautiful viewpoint Miradouro da Vila Velha which gives a fantastic view of the city with surrounding hills and countryside. You can get a good view of the hydroelectric waterfalls.
Also, attached to the university is a small botanic garden, which is nice to see if you have some spare time and are interested in plants and wildlife. It is located in the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro.
Vila Real Portugal – Street Art
Vila Real has some nice pieces of street art – the first one that I found was this woman and baby…
I then found this beautiful butterfly very close to the bus station….
Finish your day off with a Pasteis da Nata
And finally….it wouldn’t be a perfect Portuguese day without finishing it off with a Pasteis da Nata…look for any ‘pastelaria’ and you will find them! I highly recommend Pastelaria Gomes near the Cathedral.
Vila Real Portugal – Exploring the Surrounding areas
If you have more time and wish to stay over in Vila Real, it will be possible to explore the surrounding areas including Regua (for wine tourism) and Lamego (for Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios and Lamego castle). These are just 30-40 minutes away by car and there are many good tour operators in the area.
Further Reading on Portugal
I hope that you enjoyed my article on Vila Real, Portugal. if you would like to read more about travelling in Portugal, then you’re in luck – as it’s one of my favourite countries, I have also published the following articles…
- Highlights of Portugal
- Things to do in Braganca, Portugal
- Monsanto – The most Portuguese village in Portugal
- Guarda Portugal travel guide
- Is Aveiro worth visiting? The Venice of Portugal