Évora is arguably the most interesting place in Portugal. While Lisbon and Porto remain ever-favorable city breaks, the Douro Valley a visually-stunning wine escape and the Comporta coastline endlessly beautiful; the town of Évora—just an hour outside of Lisbon—has all the components of a dream city break, with beautiful architecture, endless history, and memorable cuisine.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, Évora is the capital of the Alentejo region. It stretches from the Tagus River in the north to the Algarve in the south and is known for its countryside planted with cork trees, hearty food and wine production. Here, though, there’s more to see than nature. Évora has a colorful and fascinating history—which allegedly goes back to Celtic times. Romans began inhabiting the city in the 2nd century BC, and many ruins—including the Temple of Diana—remain from this time. Since then, there have been many occupants, from the Moors to Portuguese royalty, who built palaces and convents in the 15th century that remain, leaving a mismatch of aesthetic styles that remain largely intact, even now.
With its cobbled streets within the city walls, typically whitewashed Portuguese houses, and pretty tiles, Évora has inspired cities elsewhere, such as Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. It’s also set to be the European capital of culture in 2027, and simply strolling around here is endlessly inspiring. Shaped by more than twenty decades of history, there’s nowhere quite like Évora; here’s what you shouldn’t miss.
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Best hotels in Évora
About a 20-minute drive from the centre of Évora is Octant, a brand making a name for itself in the Portuguese hotel scene with eight properties around the country and on the islands of the Azores. This particular hotel is set on 30 acres. As a result, it makes the most of what the Alentejo has to offer—four contemplation pools (one heated, a rare treat in Portugal) sit on the edge of the property overlooking the low-lying land, where the hotel’s pony and pigs roam free. The sunset sets beautifully over the plain before the stars burn bright.
Simple but beautiful is the best way to describe the aesthetic throughout the property. The hotel’s 56 rooms and 16 villas make the most of local wood and cork, with white walls and blue accents, in true Alentejo style. Views are either of the property’s main pool or the plain, and villas have a small private pool on the outside terrace for moments when you need some time to reflect.
Octant’s wonderful staff are particularly memorable; whether you’re travellng with children and hoping to get some free time in while they spend a few hours in the on-site crêche or planning something special (hot air balloon rides, picnics in the plain, stargazing and even a chef’s table experience can all be organized if you wish), they will happily go the extra mile to ensure you have the trip of dreams.
L’AND is a property that ticks many boxes, but there are two things it does exceptionally well: nature and wine. The hotel has a beautiful setting on a gentle south-facing valley, looking towards the skyline of the mediaeval Montemor castle and with vineyards blending seamlessly into the landscape. Of course, wineries are nothing new in the Alentejo region (the area is the leading producer of wines in Portugal), and many Quintas offer a place to stay for those who want to spend a little more time getting to know the area. But it’s rare for a hotel to provide such an insight into the winemaking process. Guests at L’AND are encouraged to learn about grape varieties grown locally. They can even make their own wine blend—an enriching and educational experience in which you get to take the rewards of your own work home to enjoy later.
Relaxing here isn’t difficult, given the property’s vastness and the way the low-lying, whitewashed buildings blend into the landscape. The hotel’s sky view suites are particularly worthy of praise, with many exciting details; outdoor, wood-burning fires in the front and a plunge pool in the back patio, plus vast swimming pool-like bathtubs made from granite and decor throughout by Brazilian architect Márcio Kogan. The star of the show, though, would be the retractable roofs, which are positioned above the bedroom’s cloud-like bed, allowing you to sleep under the starry night skies of the Alentejo.
The property’s Vinotherapy spa uses wine by-products like grapes, seeds, skins, pulp, and stems to revitalize and reawaken dull skin. The peel and full body massage are highly recommended if you’re looking for pure indulgence; you’ll leave feeling shiny and new.
Best restaurants in Évora
Alentejo cuisine is some of the most talked-about in Portugal. Popular dishes that you shouldn’t miss include the many cheese made locally paired with Alentejo bread, açorda (a bread soup with garlic and poached egg), migas com carne de porco (a sort-of breadcrumb dish made with local pork) and desserts queijadas de requeijão (small cakes made from egg yolks) and bolo de mel (honey cake).
Housed in the courtyard of the Palace of the Dukes of Cadaval, Cavalariça is a must-visit. With a large outdoor patio framed by panels, which were created by South African artist Esther Mahlangu in 2018 at the age of 82, the colorful theme continues through to the indoor restaurant, which was designed by Jacques Grange and features bold tiled flooring, rattan chairs, and bright walls. The result is a bright, open space that feels welcoming and just different enough from everything else in Évora to be memorable. Sitting outdoors, you can enjoy the warm breeze and the smell from the courtyard’s medlar tree, while inside has a fun, exciting vibe that helps lunches easily stretch into the afternoon.
Dishes are inspired by the local cuisine but with a more international twist than the Comporta offering of the restaurant. That’s partly down to Chilean head chef Catalina Viveros, who brings her flair for flavor to the inventive menu divided into snacks, starters, and mains, although everything is meant to be shared. Don’t miss the Portuguese tortilla, which comes warm, with a wonderfully runny centre and is—dare I say—better than all Spanish equivalents I’ve tried. There’s a focus on freshness here, so while you can expect plenty of meat and fish offerings (the lamb empanada with green seaweed sauce and wild line-caught fish are particular highlights), they’ll be paired with something special—whether that’s Alentejo bread migas or triple-fried potatoes with smoked lard.
Address: Palácio dos Duques de Cadaval, R. Augusto Filipe Simões, 7000-845 Évora
Price: Two courses with wine is about £40pp
Other restaurants or eateries which have been recommended to me – but which I haven’t personally tried—include Pastelaria Conventual Pão de Rala for traditional pastries, including Queijinhos do ceu (little cheeses from heaven), Tempero & Prosa for the combination of Portuguese and Brazilian dishes and Origens for sustainably-minded local cuisine.
Things to do in Évora
Although some may consider Évora to be an ideal day trip from Lisbon, the reality is that there’s far too much to see here in the space of a few hours. If you can, set two or three days aside to slowly enjoy what’s on offer and soak up the atmosphere without feeling rushed. Aside from the visibly obvious—the 16th-century aqueduct which lines the old town—there’s much to do here:
Take a walking tour
Évora is small enough to walk around, but without the expert knowledge of a local, you’ll almost certainly skip some of the more exciting things to see. Tour guide Elza knows Évora better than most and offers a free walking tour that can be completed in a morning and will leave you with a deeper understanding of the historical and social nuances of the town.
See the Chapel of Bones
Undoubtedly one of the must-see attractions in Évora is São Francisco, a 15th-century church once part of the Franciscan Monastery and whose main draw now is the Chapel of Bones. The monastery was mostly destroyed during the French invasion in 1808. Still, the chapel (which has virtually no record of the thousands of skeletons found here) remained intact—perhaps due to fear of what would happen if it was torn down. A rather spooky warning sits above the entrance, reading: "We bones that lay here wait for your bones."
Visit the Roman Temple of Évora
In the Conde Vila Flor square sitting above the old town, stands this large Roman temple, a symbol of the emperor’s worship, which for many centuries was thought to be dedicated to the goddess Diana. This iconic landmark started the period of prosperity in the Roman Empire. It was almost always used throughout the many faces of Évora—by the Arabs as a mosque during the Moorish period, then as a market in medieval times before becoming a slaughterhouse in the 19th century. Now, it’s retained for those visiting Évora to see and better understand the area's history.
Visit Évora Cathedral
Considered the greatest gothic building in Portugal, the cathedral spire marks the city's center and is visible from almost all of Évora. Visitors can walk on the roof, which gives incredible views over the town and towards the countryside. Inside, you’ll find a collection of sculptures of the apostles carved in the 14th century, plus the oldest organ in Portugal, added in the 16th century.
Explore the Cadaval Palace
This 14th-century palace houses one of the most impressive collections of tiles I’ve seen in Portugal. The main hall’s walls are adorned with typical white and blue tiles, and the effect is mesmerizing; the type of place that encourages you to sit and take in the quiet for a short while. Summer 2023 will see the palace welcome a new exhibition featuring 30 artists from various countries, including well-known Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.
Shop for local textiles
The city’s main square, Praça do Giraldo, is home to a fountain with eight spouts, said to represent each of the streets that lead away from the square. Rua 5 de Outubro is where you’ll find shops selling local ceramics, cork souvenirs, and wooden trinkets to take home.
Relax in the Jardim Público
The public garden was designed in the 1800s by Italian architect José Cinatti, who is said to have modeled his design on a typical English garden. Here you’ll find a bandstand, what is left of the royal palace from 1468 that was abandoned in the 17th century, and even ‘fake ruins’, now home to the peacocks that roam freely through the space.
See the city from above in a hot air balloon
The vast plains of the Alentejo are undoubtedly best viewed from above, so many visitors take to the skies in hot air balloons to see things from a new perspective. Balonissimo is based in Évora and offers early morning flights so that you can see the sunrise from above the city and beyond.
Visit local wineries
Of course, no visit to Évora would be complete without plenty of local wine. While there are wine tastings available within the walls of the old town, it’s a wonderful experience to visit nearby wineries and see the process from field to bottle. Quinta Amoreira da Torre gives a unique perspective as the first vineyard in Alentejo to be classed as organic in 2005. You can try their unique whites or reserva reds as you overlook the fields.
This article originally appeared on Condé Nast Traveller UK.