This Algarve resort is Portugal’s best kept secret

Standing among the fragrant orange trees in the central square of Vila Real de Santo António, surrounded by charming 18th-century mansions and a mosaic of striking black and white cobblestones at your feet, you could almost think that this town is only known for its looks.

In many ways you would be right, because travel the whole of the Algarve and you will not find a prettier, more ship-shaped town. But Vila Real de Santo António, which sits right on the Guadiana River that separates Portugal from Spain, has hidden depths.

It was only a small fishing village when it was devastated by a tsunami in the 18th century, but because of its importance as a frontier town it was rebuilt with a certain grandeur. The terrace of elegant whitewashed houses along the river is uniform, in order, so the story goes, to fool the Spaniards, peering through their telescopes, into thinking it was actually the facade of a magnificent palace. The energetic Marquis of Pombal (after whom the central square is named), who had just rebuilt Lisbon after the same devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1755, built this city in just two years using his Pombaline orthogonal grid and, at ruinous cost, stone transported from Lisbon.

In 1835, the city became the birthplace of canned fish, at one point boasting 27 canneries in the city. Look in your kitchen cupboards today and you might just see the Ramirez name on your tuna or sardines. It was that family, who lived here at the time (now in their fifth generation to run the world’s oldest canned fish company), who built the first purpose-built hotel south of Lisbon, the Hotel Guadiana, which opened here in 1926. Designed by Swiss-born architect Ernesto Korrodi, it was full of Art Deco elegance, embodying the style of the Roaring Twenties, in the hope of attracting people travelling to the 1929 Expo in Seville, less than 100 miles away.

Then the Second World War broke out. The Ramirez family moved their production to the north of Portugal to take advantage of the more efficient railway network. The city centre dried up, leaving the tall red chimneys of the canning factories for the storks that nest here year after year.

But just over a decade ago, a local boy became mayor and started a serious project to restore the city’s decaying heritage. Now the city is shining again, except among British tourists.

Vila Real de Santo António Portugal best kept secret visit holiday tourist free destination 2022 summer

A sunny day in Vila Real de Santo António – Getty

The Hotel Guadiana is now the Grand House, its light-filled rooms recreating the glamour of yesteryear and its bar serving the best Martinis in town. There is also a Pousada in four of the historic 18th-century mansions, right on the orange-tree-lined central square, where the rooftop pool overlooks the characteristic sloping terracotta roofs. A recent addition is an outpost of The Addresses, a beautifully restored three-bedroom house to rent with concierge services just off the central square.

The hotels have added restaurants to the ones already there, which mainly serve Portuguese regional dishes, from chicken piri-piri to grilled octopus. In between the restaurants there are shops aplenty, including the Soares wine shop on Teófilo Braga Street, where you can explore the very rich world of Portuguese wines.

And then there’s the beach. Praia de Santo António is reached through a pine forest rich in the scent of resin and over sand dunes adorned with yellow-flowered succulents and the occasional sunbathing chameleon. The Atlantic Ocean, warmed by the nearby Mediterranean, can reach a pleasant 26 degrees, making it the Algarve’s hot spot. 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

Grand House (00 351 281 530 290) is a riverside hotel offering 31 rooms with old-world elegance. €421 (£355) including breakfast.

Pousada Vila Real de Santo António (00 351 281 249 120) offers a choice of swimming pools and a restaurant overlooking the town’s central square. Double rooms from €144 (£122) including breakfast. Casa Três still has availability in late August for six people in three double bedrooms and a pool. From €3,700 (£3,125) for a week.

For more accommodation options, check out our guide to the best hotels in the Algarve.

What to eat

Live like a local and eat mussels from the Algarve. The best ones, with garlic, olive oil and coriander, you can eat at the Grand Beach Club with your feet in the sand.

For more dining options, check out our guide to the best restaurants in the Algarve.

Do not miss it

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

For more activities, check out our guide to the best attractions in the Algarve.

How to get there

BA and Easyjet fly from various airports in the UK 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 other secret places 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 bay is one of the most beautiful in Portugal. Lunch at O ​​Farol ( with freshly grilled fish.

3. Marvão, Alentejo

This medieval town is perched on a granite mountain and offers stunning views. It has a church and castle and is completely surrounded by 13th century walls.

4. Lindoso, Minho

This tiny stone hamlet in Portugal’s only national park is the best place to see the intriguing granite tomb-like architecture skewers (granaries).

18th century granaries in Lindoso Portugal18th century granaries in Lindoso Portugal

The 18th century granaries in Lindoso, Portugal

5. Linhares de Beja, Central Portugal

Dominated by the castle towers, Linhares is like a living museum with a forum where justice was administered in the heyday of the 15th century.

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

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