It was brutally hot in Lisbon in July, so we looked at a map and found somewhere on the coast north of Porto whose temperatures were a lot lower. Having never been so far north, off we went, and what a great decision!
Viana Do Castelo is a small, attractive city on the coast with the River Lima at its heart. Viana has a significant history of involvement in the period of the Portuguese Discoveries as well as for cod fishing. The climate is more temperate than in Lisbon due to its position on the coast and even in July there were sea mists that kept the temperature down. The city centre can be walked around easily. It is mainly flat and has some beautiful buildings with interesting architecture. What struck us was the friendliness of the people and the feeling of community. From Viana it is easy to visit other towns and cities: Ponte de Lima is a short bus ride away and there are coaches and trains to Braga, Porto and Valença on the Spanish border.
Magnificent 7 // Viana Do Castelo, Portugal
- Visit the Gil Eannes hospital ship
- Ride the longest funicular in Portugal to the Santa Luzia Basilica
- Walk the city; admire the architecture
- Take time to visit Ponte de Lima
- Choose one of the many museums to learn more about the city/region
- Go to the beach
- Sample the regional food and drink
Getting there –
We took the train from Santa Apolónia station in Lisbon. The total journey time was around 5 and a half hours. The inter city to Porto was smooth, just over 3 hours. We had a wait at Porto for around an hour and a bit, and then catch a local train to Vianna that took just over an hour. The return journey was slightly quicker, but both getting there and returning was easy, hassle-free and much better than hiring a car and driving. We like using the Santa Apolónia station as it is easier to navigate than the larger station of Oriente and much closer to the Cais do Sodré station that we needed to take the Cascais line back to our apartment.
Where we stayed –
We stayed at the Flag Design Hotel. This is a four-star hotel within easy walking distance of the railway station. It is situated in the centre of the town and most things were a very easy stroll away. Our room was excellent: it had air conditioning, a fridge and the most comfortable of beds. We were particularly taken by the design features of the bathroom. One of the best we have stayed in. A continental breakfast buffet was included, which was very good. Check-in was great. We were given maps and recommendations for restaurants and attractions. Absolutely first-class service. There was also a fairly small but lovely rooftop pool, fantastic to cool off in after a day’s sightseeing.
To eat and drink –
Wherever we go in Portugal there are local specialities. As you would expect from a coastal city that sent fleets to Newfoundland to fish for cod, pescada à Vianese was a local dish to try. It is cod (or other whitefish) baked with sliced potatoes and garnished with garlic and onions. I loved it. This part of Portugal is well known for the young vinho verde wine and is incredibly inexpensive.
1. Visit the Gil Eannes hospital ship
This was a fascinating tourist site. Situated in the commercial docks, the Gil Eannes was a support ship built in 1955 for the fleet of cod fishing trawlers that sailed to Newfoundland to spend the best part of six months filling their holds with salted cod before travelling back to Viana. When accidents happened – and they did – the Gil Eannes was there to help injured crewmembers.
The (self-guided) tour of the ship was very interesting, lots of original medical equipment, x-ray equipment, operating theatre etc. You could also see where the doctors/nurses and other crew members lived, kitchens, engine room, dispensaries etc. Be sure to stay and watch the video at the end of the tour narrated by a senior crew member on many trips to the cod-fishing fields in Newfoundland. Extremely interesting and shows the skills and dangers involved. Highly recommended.
2. Ride the longest funicular in Portugal to the Santa Luzia Basilica
The funicular entrance is behind the railway and bus stations. It is the longest in Portugal and consists of one cable car that seats 24 people. On the return journey see if you can get the seats at the front as it is easier to see the gradient and views. It’s inexpensive, 3 Euros for a return trip, and takes about 6 minutes each way. It has a passing point in the middle for the cable car coming in the opposite direction that so reminded me of my children’s Brio railway set from back in the day! The views from the top at the base of Santa Luzia are fabulous. You can see the city laid out below and see the importance of the River Lima to the city. We are not connoisseurs of religious sites, but the church had a delightful domed roof with frescos painted around it as well as sculptures and interesting stained-glass windows. Behind the church is a small green shaded park. There are a few walks from Santa Luzia, one of which is to the remaining foundations of an Iron Age fortified settlement that would have had commanding views of the area.
3. Walk the city, admire the architecture
Spend time walking through the centre of the Viana Do Castello. A good start is the Praça da República which is pretty much the centre of the old town. It is pedestrianised and at its centre is a granite Renaissance fountain from the 16th Century. Just behind the fountain is the impressive Town Hall, also constructed from granite in the early 16th Century. It has Viana’s coat of arms just above the central window and a cool parapet at the top of the building. The City guide map provided by our hotel showed the location of 35 buildings of interest. Tourist information will undoubtedly have more detailed information. But just walk around and look at the architecture, it’s impressive.
4. Take time to visit Ponte de Lima
Ponte de Lima is about 25 kms inland from Viana Do Castelo. We took a bus from the bus station behind the railway station. The “Interface de Transportes” is impressive and certainly is a few steps above the High Wycombe bus station. Tickets can be purchased on the bus and it took us about 40 minutes to get to Ponte de Lima. This is a small town and the historic centre can be walked easily. The tourist information centre has a great guide “Historical Centre Thematic Guide” that outlines three different walks. We ambled around the town centre and then walked over the stunning bridge this town is named after. Part medieval and part 1st century Roman construction, this is a must.
There is also a statute of a Roman soldier on horseback on the banks of the river which children will love. This bridge is part of the route of the Santiago de Compostela. We continued walking along the bank of the river and returned to the centre of the town via a modern bridge a km or so away. If you have a car there is ample parking and great deals on Vinho Verde for which this region is known.
5. Choose one of the many museums to learn more about the city/region
The receptionist at our hotel highly recommended the Museu do Traje, which translates as the museum of traditional clothes and is situated in the historical centre, not far from the hotel in a former Bank of Portugal building. This museum does what it says; it tells the story of traditional Vianese costumes in this part of the North of Portugal and the tools used to make them. Lots of colour and gold filigree.
6. Go to the beach
The two closest beaches to the town centre are Praia do Norte and Praia do Cabedelo. Praia do Norte is easy to walk to and is a small urban beach to the north of Viana. This beach has large saltwater pools, but not much sand. The main beach, Praia do Cabedolo, is on the other side of the estuary and reachable by a ferry from near the cultural centre (or by car). This is a long-curved beach with lots of sand and water activities. The beach is on the edge of a nature reserve and is child friendly.
7. Sample the regional food and drink
This is cod country. And vinho verde is served everywhere. As mentioned above pescada à Vianese is a baked cod delicacy. Lots of restaurants offer fish stew and caldo verde, a traditional vegetable soup from the region. For dessert there is Torta de Viana, another Portuguese sweet that originated in a convent. Torta da Viana has a sponge base coated in a creamy egg yolk-based custard before it is formed into a roll and dusted with sugar or cinnamon.
Ponte de Lima was markedly hotter than Viana do Castelo although it is relatively close. Ponte de Lima does not have the sea breezes that Viana has.
Check out any festival that may be occurring on your visit. At Ponte de Lima we visited the international garden festival, where visitors can vote for their favourite garden. This year the theme was gardens and climate change. The gardens can be visited from June to October.
In Viana Do Castelo, there is an area by the side of the river that held events every day we were there. We even saw a Pink Floyd tribute band one night. There was also a relay swimming race on the river.
Our hotel had a reading room with books in many languages. It also offered spa treatments at great prices. These must be booked in advance. Some people love to be pampered!
Train journeys are very accessible and inexpensive. We travelled from Lisbon to Porto on an intercity, took a local train to Viana and went first class on the intercity return. One of us had a Senior discount, paying a grand total of 40 odd euros. The full fare was 60 euros. Fantastic value for money and great intercity trains that are unfailingly on time. On buses and regional trains face coverings are a must. The intercity was a little bit ambivalent as to whether a face mask was needed.
The operating theatre on the Gil Eannes hospital ship was on the bottom deck, close to the hull, to keep it as stable as possible given the weather conditions. If somebody had to have surgery that was very important!