Evora, Portugal is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. Many visitors head for the more obvious Portugal sights, overlooking this enchanting city. As it’s only two hours away, some visit Evora on a day trip from Lisbon. But even this is missing out in a way, as there are too many things to do in Evora to see it in a few hours.

 

And here’s why. Évora is probably the most intact historic city in Portugal, with layer upon layer to discover. You can see Roman, Moorish, Portuguese Gothic and Baroque within the city walls. A few miles away, you’ll find some of the best prehistoric sites in Portugal, out in the countryside.

 

Évora is the capital of the Alentejo region, a largely rural part of the country dotted with cork and olive groves. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1980s, but still has the feel of a small provincial town.  We stayed three nights as part of a Portugal road trip during which we explored the Alentejo and Algarve.

 

It’s one of the best places to visit in Portugal, and a city that needs time to be savoured. It easily deserves two nights out of a Portugal itinerary. Read on for our guide to what to do in Evora.

 

EVORA OLD TOWN

 

Image of a woman walking through the cobbled streets of Evora's old town

A woman walking through the cobbled streets of Evora’s old town

The old town of Évora still has the same street layout of the Moorish medina which occupied the site for over 400 years. Much of it is a warren of cobbled back streets and alleyways, and many houses are painted white with a distinctive yellow border.  Sometimes arches also bridge the streets, with no obvious purpose. One of the best Evora things to do is to wander these lanes and travessas and get lost. For an hour or two, anyway.

 

Some of the prettiest streets in Évora are just below the cathedral, especially the Rua Freiria de Baixo and Rua Freiria da Cima. The Travessa do Manuelinho, which looks down onto the Igreja da Graça church. Rua do Cano, the street running alongside the Aqueduct, is another beauty.

 

THE ROMAN TEMPLE OF ÉVORA

 

Image of the Templo de Diana Evora at sunset

The magnificent Templo de Diana at sunset

The Roman temple, which dates back to around the 2nd century AD, is one of the best Evora sights. It is one of the best-preserved Roman ruins on the Iberian peninsula.

 

It’s traditionally known as the Templo de Diana, but nobody really knows if this was the correct name or not. Either way, it seems to have stuck.

 

This amazing temple is one of the best places to see in Portugal, the country’s premier ancient site. Yet the story of its preservation is bizarre. It was hidden in plain sight, as the framework for a fortress and later an abattoir. This incorporation into other buildings probably saved it from much greater decay and disrepair.

The temple is in the middle of a quiet square just to the north of the cathedral. There’s a small kiosk in the park opposite the temple, a wonderful place to watch the late light on the pillars.

 

THE LOIOS CHURCH – SÃO JOÃO EVANGELISTA

 

Image of the tiled interior of the Loios church in Evora

The sumptuous tiled interior of the Loios church in Evora

One of the most beautiful things to see in Evora is the convent church across the road from the Temple. Its plain whitewashed exterior hides a magnificent church. Its walls are covered with azulejos, the traditional blue and white painted tiles that are a very popular decoration throughout Portugal. Some show traditional motifs such as flowers and plants, and others depict scenes from the Bible and the life of St Lourenco Justiniano, founder of the Loios monastic order.

 

It’s also known as the Igreja da São João Evangelista, and it is still the private chapel of the Duques de Cadaval. Entry costs €4.  You can also visit the Ducal Palace next door. The church is also attached to the Convento dos Loios, which is now the luxury Evora pousada.

 

Opening times:  1000 to 1800 daily.

 

THE CATHEDRAL OF ÉVORA

 

Image of the west towers of Evora Cathedral

The mis-matched west towers of Evora Cathedral

We had a stunning view of the Sé, Evora’s Cathedral, from our Evora hotel window. It’s a fantastical building, a mish-mash of architectural styles throughout the Middle Ages. It has  a Harry Potteresque central lantern tower, two mis-matched western towers and a battlemented nave that gives it the appearance of a fortress.

 

The Cathedral was founded in 1186, and completed within 50 years, with further additions made over the following 500 years. So there are Manueline (a unique Portuguese form of Gothic) and Baroque additions to the church’s Romanesque and Baroque core.

 

The Cathedral is at the top of the highest hill in Evora, and makes a magnificent vantage point over the city. There’s a staircase up to the roof from the lovely 14th century cloister, where you can see this amazing architecture up close. In my case, I could only just see that, as a fog happened to descend on the cathedral when I was there. Oh, ye weather gods.  Nonetheless, this has to be on anyone’s list of what to see in Evora.

 

Opening times: 0900-1200 and 1400-1600 daily.

 

CHAPEL OF BONES EVORA

 

Image of skull in the Evora Chapel Of Bones

One of 5,000 poor souls who ended up in the Evora Chapel Of Bones

Evora’s bone church is one of the must see places in Portugal.  It’s unique in the country, a chapel decorated entirely with the bones of deceased local Franciscan monks.  It’s far and away the quirkiest of Evora attractions, and is the one place in the city we thought was busy during our visit.

 

The chapel was begun in the 16th century by a monk who wanted to remind others of the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life. The memento mori  – reminder of mortality – is one of the most common themes in medieval Christian teaching and religious art. This takes it to its logical conclusion, hammering home the message most emphatically.

 

The Capela dos Ossos is in the precincts of the Church of São Francisco, in the south of the Old Town. It’s estimated that the bones of around 5,000 people have been used to decorate the chapel. Every millimetre of the walls and pillars of the church are covered with skulls, femurs and tibias. Two desiccated corpses hang from the ceiling. And a message above the entrance reads,”Our bones await your bones.”

 

If you ever needed convincing that cremation was the way to go, then you should really pay this place a visit.

 

Opening times: 1000-1300 and 1430 to 1730 Monday to Friday, 1000 to 1300 Saturday.

 

PRAÇA DO GIRALDO

 

Image of Evora's main square, the Praça do Giraldo

Evora’s main square, the Praça do Giraldo

Gerald the Fearless – Geraldo Sem Pavor – was one of the heroes of the Portuguese Reconquista. He helped expel the Moors from Evora in 1165 after 450 years’ rule. His military deeds have led to him being compared with the Spanish soldier hero El Cid. Evora’s main square is also named after him.

 

During the Middle Ages it was the venue for public executions, especially during the Inquisition period.

 

These days it’s the busiest square in what is otherwise a very quiet city. Several cafes have tables out in the square, and it’s a most pleasant place to while away some time.  The Church of Santo Antão – St Andrew – dominates the northern end of the square.

 

AQUEDUTO DA PRATA

 

Image of a house built into an arch in the Evora aqueduct

A house built into an arch of the historic Aqueduto da Prata

The impressive 9 km (6 miles) long Evora aqueduct was built to supply the city with water. The architect was Francisco da Arruda, who was also responsible for the famous Belem Tower in Lisbon. It took six years to complete the project, between 1531 and 1537.

 

The best place to see the Aqueduct is along the Rua do Cano. Every possible space has been used, with houses crammed in beneath arches of the Aqueduct. Some of these have been turned into atmospheric cafes and restaurants.

 

JARDIM PUBLICO

 

Image of a peacock in the Jardim Publico park, Evora

A proud peacock strutting around the mock ruins in the Jardim Publico

The Jardim Publico is across the street from the Igreja da São Francisco and Chapel of Bones. After all that grimness you need a pick-me-up. The public park is just the place.

 

We stocked up on supplies at the main Evora market on Praça 1 do Maio, and made ourselves a delicious picnic with bread, cheese and chouriço sausage.  The kiosk in the park also serves great coffee.

 

The park is home to the Palacio de Dom Manuel – the Palace of King Manuel. Evora’s glory days were between 1385 and 1580 when it was the residence of the monarchs of the Avis dynasty. The Palace (Paço Real de Évora) is very much truncated nowadays, with the Ladies’ Gallery the only surviving part.

 

There is also an intriguing set of ruins just behind the Palace.  Several peacocks preen and display their plumage, and give some great photo opportunities, climbing the stairs or sitting on a stool. They’re actually mock ruins, a romanticist whimsy from the 19th century. They had me fooled until I got back to the hotel and went googling.

 

EVORA MUSEUM

 

Évora Museum has a long and fascinating story to tell. It has an excellent archaeological section. This includes artefacts recovered during excavations of the Zambujeiro dolmen (burial chamber) near Évora. There are also fine displays on the city’s Roman and Moorish past.

 

The Museu de Évora also houses some wonderful art treasures. The most striking of these is a series of thirteen 14th century panels depicting the Life of the Virgin Mary. The artists are unknown, but all are believed to be Flemish in origin.

 

Opening times: 1000 to 1800 Tuesday to Sunday.

 

CORK SHOPPING

 

Every destination has its unique souvenirs, but Evora’s came as a bit of a surprise. I was expecting to pick up some wine or olive oil, but found some unusual niche souvenirs made from cork.

 

If you visit Alentejo you’ll see small groves of cork trees in the roadside meadows almost everywhere you go. It’s the world’s biggest cork producing area, and it’s put to uses other than as a bottle stop. You could treat yourself to a cork hat (not sure how that would go in a hot summer), a cork belt or a cork handbag. We purchased a cork mouse which serves as our camera card storage pouch!

 

CROMLEQUE DOS ALMENDRES

 

Portugal’s best-known prehistoric monument is a short drive from the centre of Evora. It’s close to the village of Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe, off the N114 road that heads towards Montemor-o-Novo.

 

It’s not a cromlech in the British sense of the word (i.e. a burial chamber). It’s a series of three stone circles, some of which may have been in place 7.000 years ago.  Most of the stones are short and rounded, and some are decorated with ancient engravings.

 

EVORA ACCOMMODATION

 

Image of hotel sign in side street in Evora

Hotels are hidden away in the narrow side streets of Evora

There are some wonderful Evora hotels, both within the old city and in the nearby countryside.

 

The Convento do Espinheiro has an amazing story. The convent was founded on the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary, the church finally completed in 1458. It regularly hosted Portuguese kings who came to pay homage to the Virgin. It’s now a luxury hotel and spa, 4 km from the city. Car hire is advisable if you’re staying here, as no public transport passes nearby.

 

Hotel Albergaria do Calvario is another fine Évora hotel in a historic setting, this time in a 16th century olive oil mill.  It’s in the north-west of the old city, no more than ten minutes’ walk from the main Evora sights. It’s a lovely boutique hotel, with rooms decorated with local artworks.

 

The Noble House Hotel Evora has one of the best locations in Evora, a three-minute walk from the Cathedral. Some readers may remember it as the Pensão Policarpo. It’s had an upgrade, with more emphasis on luxury now. It still retains many of its historic features, including the Roman column in the reception area. It’s wonderfully atmospheric,  with ancient walls and medieval vaulted ceilings in some of the rooms.

 

 

EVORA RESTAURANTS

 

Image of a restaurant sign and church in Evora

There is a great selection of restaurants in Evora

Evora is in an ideal geographical position for gastronomic purposes. It’s around 50 miles (80 km) inland, so it’s close enough to the Atlantic to get fresh fish caught the same morning.  Evora also has plenty of Alentejan country cuisine on offer, with cheeses, sausages and hearty meat dishes from the mountains.

 

We visited several restaurants in Evora, and the best we came across were Café Alentejo (on Rua do Raimundo, off Giraldo) and Chão das Covas, on Rua do Cano close to the Aqueduct.

 

EVORA TOURS

 

Image of the Igreja da Graça church tower in Evora

Evora’s Igreja da Graça church tower

Evora is a popular destination for day trips from Lisbon, and if that’s all the time you have available, don’t miss out. Several day tours to Evora run from Lisbon, and they cover more ground than you would under your own steam. One includes a trip to see Persian-inspired rugs being made in nearby Arraiolos and a winery as well as a few hours in Evora.

 

You can comfortably get from Lisbon to Evora and back in a day by public transport. Two morning trains (0702 and 0902) depart from Lisboa Oriente, taking an hour and a half to reach Evora. The Evora to Lisbon trains run at 1657 and 1906.

 

DAY TRIPS FROM EVORA – ONWARD INTO ALENTEJO

 

Image of Monsaraz Castle Monsaraz Alentejo Portugal

Monsaraz Castle and village at dusk

Some of the best things to do in Portugal are reachable in a day trip from Evora.

 

Top of our list of recommendations is Monsaraz, a stunning hilltop village near the Spanish border.  It’s one of the most beautiful villages in Europe, only an hour’s drive from Evora.

 

The mountain-top village of Marvao is a two-hour drive to the north.  The Castelo de Marvão is one of the most beautiful castles in Europe. It sits on a rocky precipice looking down upon the plains of Spain. The whitewashed village below it is beautiful too.

 

Several lovely small towns are closer to Evora, including Evoramonte and Estremoz. The latter hosts a fantastic Saturday market in the Rossio, the main square.

 

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David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.  His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.