Things to do in Vila Real de Santo António - 1-day itinerary

The warm sea, the vast pine forest and the Guadiana river are all good reasons to visit Vila Real de Santo António, the modern city of the eastern Algarve.
The town centre is surrounded by fairly modern buildings introduced by Marquês de Pombal following the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed most of the town.

In the 19th century, Vila Real was a canning centre for sardines and tuna, and its port was always busy with ships sailing up and down the Guadiana River, dividing Portugal and Spain.

Below we cover the best things to do in Vila Real de Santo António, including top beaches, restaurants and day trip suggestions.

Day 1

Morning: Praça Marquês de Pombal

Start the day at the Praça Marquês de Pombal, the main square of Vila Real de Santo António. Many of the town’s festivals take place here. The square is surrounded by whitewashed buildings, citrus trees and wooden benches. Beyond the cafés and restaurants, two buildings stand out: the town hall and the 18th-century church of Vila Real de Santo António. It’s worth stepping inside to admire the lateral chapels and stained glass windows.

Centro Cultural António Aleixo

Near the square is the Centro Cultural António Aleixo. Once the site of the town’s market, the building has been converted into a cultural centre, giving room to art exhibitions and local events. It is named after a local 20th-century poet.

Afternoon: Farol de Vila Real de Santo António

Slowly make your way south towards the lighthouse of Vila Real de Santo António. The building marks the beginning of the dunes and pines that back the town’s beaches. Erected in 1923, it is still functioning today, guiding boats along the river and the sea.

Vila Real Beaches

Vila Real has a long stretch of beaches backed by low sandy dunes and a large pine forest. The closest beach to the centre is the Praia de Santo António. There’s a trail leading to the beach for pedestrians, bikes and a tourist train that runs in summer. The waters at Praia de Santo António are among the warmest in the Algarve due to the proximity to the Mediterranean. Set across the border from Spain, the beach is popular among Portuguese and Spanish visitors.

A bit further west is the Praia de Monte Gordo, one of the most popular beaches in Vila Real. There isn’t a single cliff blocking the views, just a wide open bay with golden sands and clear waters. Around low tide, you’ll often spot people collecting clams buried in the sand. Backing the beach is a lively promenade with bars and restaurants.

Mata Nacional das Dunas Litorais de Vila Real de Santo António

If you’re up for an adventure, visit the Mata Nacional das Dunas Litorais, the largest forest in the Algarve. With an area of 440 hectares, it is the ideal spot for nature lovers looking to escape the beach crowds. If you look carefully, you may see a chameleon blending in with the trees. Many locals come here for a run or a relaxing picnic under the trees.

Day 1 - Vila Real de Santo António Tour Map

Day trips from Vila Real de Santo António

  • Ayamonte (Spain): Head to the Marina of Vila Real de Santo António and catch the ferry boat to Ayamonte. It takes 15 minutes to cross the Guadiana river to this charming Spanish town. Once you get there, take your time exploring the historic centre and visit monuments like the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias. Before you leave, treat yourself to some delicious tapas at LPA The Culinary Bar.

  • Castro Marim: Drive a few minutes north to the historic town of Castro Marim. Visit the medieval castle and explore the nearby salt marshes of Reserva Natural do Sapal, where you can observe storks and flamingos.

  • Cacela Velha: About 20 minutes west of Vila Real de Santo António is Cacela Velha, a small village of whitewashed houses overlooking the lagoons of Ria Formosa. Beyond the beach, the main attractions here are a Renaissance church and an 18th-century fortress.

  • Isla Canela (Spain): Also on the Spanish side is this popular island resort. It is famous for its wide beaches, golf course and bars. Enjoy a relaxing day on the sand or try water sports like kitesurfing and sailing.

Things to do with kids in Vila Real de Santo António

Vila Real de Santo António offers a few family-friendly attractions. In the summer you can head to one of the town’s beaches for a swim or to practise water sports like paddle boarding or kayaking. Close to the lighthouse is the Parque Aventura Vila Real de Santo António, a theme park complete with high rope courses and zip lines. You can also enjoy a walk along the pine forest of Mata Nacional das Dunas Litorais. Another option is to embark on a river cruise along the Guadiana River to other Portuguese towns or even across the border to Spain.

Where to eat near Vila Real de Santo António

Fish and seafood represent the gastronomy of Vila Real de Santo António. Local dishes often use ingredients like clams, cuttlefish and tuna combined with rice. For a long time, this town was a hub for the canning industry, and fish preserves are still a part of the local diet. For dessert, don’t miss the Dom-Rodrigo, a conventual sweet made with egg yolk, sugar and almonds. Below are some of the best places to eat in Vila Real de Santo António:

  • Tasquinha da Muralha: Fresh fish and seafood are the highlights at this no-frills spot near the town’s marina. Choose your favourite ingredient and enjoy it with a plate of potatoes and salad on the side.

  • Restaurante Ernesto: This restaurant on Avenida da República combines Italian and Portuguese flavours. There is no pizza here, only homemade pasta, fresh fish and seafood.

  • Dom Churrasco: This takeaway spot specialises in grilled meats such as chicken and beef steak. The set menus include fries and a drink.

  • Green Buddha: For a vegetarian meal, don’t miss Green Buddha. The menu combines inspiration from Asia and South America. You can order anything from light snacks, such as wraps and burgers, to full meals, like pad thai and chili.

Where to stay in Vila Real de Santo António

  • Grand House (5 stars): Facing the Guadiana river and the town’s marina, this five-star hotel is inspired by the Belle Époque. The 26 rooms and suites feature crystal chandeliers, antique pieces and ornate ceilings. Guests can order afternoon tea at the Grand Salon Bar or unwind with a cocktail at the hotel’s nearby beach club. There is also an outdoor pool and a restaurant on-site.

  • Pousada Vila Real de Santo António (4 stars): Set in Praça Marquês de Pombal, this hotel offers the perfect location to explore the city on foot. There are three pools on-site, including one on a rooftop and a restaurant. Breakfast is included in the stay.

  • Hotel Apolo (3 stars): Close to the municipal market is this comfortable three-star hotel. It features 56 modern rooms that can take up to four people. Guests also have access to a swimming pool, a restaurant and free parking.

Golf courses near Vila Real de Santo António

There are several golf courses near Vila Real de Santo António, both in Portugal and in neighbouring Spain. The closest one is probably the Castro Marim Golfe & Country Club, with three nine-hole golf courses. A bit further is the Quinta da Ria, featuring two 18-hole courses and the Monte Rei Golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. If you don’t mind crossing the border to Spain, there is also the Isla Canela Golf Club nestled amid salt marshes.

Best time to visit Vila Real de Santo António

The best time to visit Vila Real de Santo António is around spring and summer. Between March and May, the temperatures range from 15ºC to 25ºC, but they can reach up to 35ºC in the height of summer. These hot days are ideal for a refreshing swim on the nearby beaches or a picnic in the shade of the town’s pine forest. You’ll also have the chance to catch many of the town’s top festivals around this time. If you prefer milder temperatures with fewer crowds, come around autumn or winter.

Vila Real de Santo António Festivals

  • Dia da Fundação da Cidade: On the 13th of May, Vila Real de Santo António recalls the foundation of the city by Marquês de Pombal in 1774. The festivities include a historical parade and a medieval fair on Praça Marquês de Pombal.

  • Festas de Santa Rita: At the beginning of July, the town hosts this party in honour of Santa Rita. There is a religious procession, live music and a food fair showcasing delicious regional sweets.

  • Festas de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação: On the 1st Sunday of September, a religious procession takes over the streets. It departs around 6 pm from Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação. In the evening, there are usually concerts and fireworks around midnight.

  • Feira da Praia: Around the 2nd week of October, Vila Real welcomes a fair along the Avenida da República and Praça Marquês de Pombal. Visitors can buy anything from handmade crafts to regional delicacies, like cheese and cured meats.

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