This seaside town in the Algarve is Portugal’s best kept secret

Stand between the fragrant orange trees that line the main square in Vila Real de Santo António, surrounded by magnificent 18th-century town houses and a mosaic of bold black and white stones at your feet and you could be forgiven for thinking of a claim to fame. and fame in this small town. lying down.

In many ways you would be right, to travel along the Algarve you will not find a nicer and more ship-shaped town. But Vila Real de Santo António that stands right on the Guadiana that separates Portugal from Spain has a hidden depth.

It was just a small fishing village when it was hit by a tsunami in the 18th century but due to its importance as a border town, it was rebuilt with a certain grandeur. The terrace of elegant white-washed houses facing the river is uniform, in order, the story goes, to put the Spaniards, peering through their telescopes, to think that it was really the face of a magnificent palace. The energetic Marquis of Pombal (after whom the main square is named) who had just rebuilt Lisbon after the same devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1755 built this town in two years using his orthogonal grid Pombaline and, at a ruinous cost, an eisle carried from Lisbon.

In 1835 the town became the birthplace of canned fish, at one point there are 27 canning factories in the town. Look inside your kitchen cupboard today and chances are you’ll see the name Ramirez on your tuna or sardines. It was that family, who lived here at the time (now in its fifth generation running the oldest tinned fish business in the world) who founded the first purpose-built hotel south of Lisbon, Hotel Guadiana, which opened here in 1926. Designed by the Swiss born architect Ernesto Korrodi Full of Art Déco elegance, embodying the style of the Roaring Twenties, expected people traveling to the Expo 1929 in Seville, less than 100 miles on away, to attract.

Then came the Second World War; the Ramirez family moved their production to the north of Portugal to take advantage of the more efficient railway network and boosted business in the center of town, leaving the tall red chimneys of the canal factories to the antics that nest here year in after a year.

But a little over ten years ago a local boy became Mayor and started a serious campaign to restore the town’s decaying heritage and now it sparkles, brilliant with everything but British tourists.

Vila Real de Santo António the best portugal free secret visit for tourists summer destination 2022

A sunny day in Vila Real de Santo António – Getty

The Hotel Guadiana is now the Great House, its light-filled rooms recreate the glamor of the past and its bar delivers the best Martini in town. The Pousada is set within four historic townhouses from the 18th century, right on the main square with an orange tree and from the rooftop pool you can look across the characteristic terracotta sloping roofs. A recent addition is an offshoot of The Addresses, a beautifully renovated three bedroom house to let with concierge services just off the main square.

The hotels have added restaurants to their existing ones that serve mainly regional Portuguese food, from piri-piri chicken to grilled octopus. Between the restaurants, there are many shops including the Soares wine shop on Teófilo Braga Street where you can explore the rich world of Portuguese wines.

And then there is the beach. Praia de Santo António is reached through a rich pine grove with the scent of resin and across sand dunes adorned by yellow flowering succulent plants and the occasional basking chameleon. The Atlantic Ocean, warmed from the nearby Mediterranean Sea, can reach a balmy 26 degrees, making it the Algarve’s hotspot. What’s not to love?

Fishing boats on the beach, Monte Gordo, Vila Real de Santo AntonioFishing boats on the beach, Monte Gordo, Vila Real de Santo Antonio

Fishing boats on the beach

Visit Vila Real de Santo António in the summer of 2024

Where to stay

The Great House (00 351 281 530 290) stands on the river front and offers old world beauty in its 31 rooms. €421 (£355) including breakfast.

Pousada Vila Real de Santo António (00 351 281 249 120) offers a choice of swimming pools and a restaurant that overlooks the town’s main square. Doubles from €144 (£122) including breakfast. Casa Três still has availability at the end of August where he will sleep with three double bedrooms and a swimming pool. From €3,700 (£3,125) for a week.

For more places to stay see our guide to the best hotels in the Algarve.

What to eat

Live like a local and dine on Algerian clams. The best ones, with garlic, olive oil and coriander can be found at Club na Trá Móire with your feet in the sand.

For more places to eat see our guide to the best restaurants in the Algarve.

Don’t lose

A visit to the nearby salt pans at Castro Marim. Recently renovated by the artisanal salt company Sal Marim, they now supply many of Portugal’s best restaurants. Their well-packaged salts make the perfect souvenir to take home, especially if you opt for the piri-piri.

For more things to do see our guide to Algarve attractions.

How to get there

BA and Easyjet fly from multiple UK airports to Faro, which is a 50-minute drive along the coast from Vila Real de Santo António.

For more advice on visiting the region see our Algarve holiday guide.

Five more secret spots in Portugal

1. Cacelha Velha, Algarve

Here the streets are named after poets, you can eat oysters in the shadow of the church tower, and enjoy the sunset on the beautiful beach.

2. Portinho da Arrábida, Lisbon Coast

Located in a Natural Park, this cove is one of the most beautiful in Portugal. Lunch at O ​​Farol ( on fresh grilled fish.

3. Marvão, Alentejo

Situated on a granite mountain, with spectacular views, this small medieval town, with a church and a castle, is completely surrounded by its 13th century walls.

4. Lindoso, Minho

This tiny town in Portugal’s only National Park is the best place to see tomb-like granite architecture. espigueiros (granaries).

18th Century Granaries in Lindoso, Portugal18th Century Granaries in Lindoso, Portugal

18th century granaries in Lindoso, Portugal

5. Linhares de Beja, Central Portugal

With its castle towers the largest, Linhares is like a living museum with a forum from where justice was once dispensed in its early days in the 15th century.

This article was first published in August 2022, and has been revised and updated.

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