Sitting comfortably between the Lima Estuary and the rolling hills of Portugal‘s enchanting Minho region, Viana do Castelo boasts an extended history with vestiges of human habitation dating back as far as the Stone Age.
King Afonso III granted it a charter in 1258 when it was a small fishing village. He built a tower at the mouth of the river to protect the village against pirates from Galicia and North Africa.
From its fishing roots, Viana do Castelo (indicated on the Google map below) expanded into a thriving maritime centre through its commerce with northern Europe and later with Brazil.
It became one of the busiest ports in Portugal, becoming closely linked with the Age of Discovery on account of its native son, Gonçalo Velho (one of the first navigators of Prince Henry) who was given the task of populating the islands of the Azores in the North Atlantic.
Other locally-born sailors of the 15th century include João Velho who first charted the mouth of the mighty River Congo and João Álvares Fagundes who mapped the shores of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia for Portuguese cod fishermen.
In the 16th century, Viana (as it is known by the locals) was so wealthy and prosperous that King Manuel I decided to build a square for festivals and other forms of municipal merry-making.
Viana was later granted city status in 1847 by Queen Maria II as a reward for the loyalty of the Commander of the Castle. It had been besieged by the forces of the Count of Antas who rose against the Cabrais during the Patuleia Civil War. The commander then travelled to Lisbon and gave the key of the castle to the royal sovereign. She elevated Viana to a city and changed its name from Viana da Foz do Lima to Viana do Castelo.
Nowadays, the town is popular for its pottery and regional handicrafts, most of which can be purchased at its busy Friday market.
Where to go in northern Portugal
In the centre of town, Praça da República (pictured) is one of the most impressive squares in Portugal. At its heart is the much-photographed Chafariz Fountain which was constructed in the 16th century, while the most impressive building on the square is the church of the Misericórdia, a unique three-storey structure featuring Roman arches and Renaissance balconies.
The town’s parish church was begun by King João I in 1285 and completed in 1433. Dominated by a large Gothic arched portal, the façade is flanked by two battlemented towers and the interior is emblazoned with an impressive ‘trompe-l’oeil’ ceiling.
Of equal interest to visitors, the municipal museum housed in an 18th-century palace displays rare ceramics, furniture, paintings and some of the regions most interesting archaeological discoveries.
Reached by road or more interestingly by funicular railway, the Monte de Santa Luzia vantage point 3 km from the centre of town offers exceptional views of Viana do Castelo as well as long stretches of the Minho coastline. At the top is a basilica completed in 1926, a pousada hotel and traces of a Celtiberian settlement nearby.
Accessible either by road or ferry, the popular beach of Praia do Cabedelo lies to the south of the town.
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