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If you’re looking to get truly off the beaten path in the Algarve, there’s no better option than the town of Vila Real de Santo António. Just across the border from Spain, this hidden-gem town oozes Spanish influence whilst retaining its authentic Portuguese charm.
Most visitors to the Algarve have never heard of Vila Real de Santo António, but if you’re looking for a laid-back town to relax in, with quieter beaches than the more popular Algarve destinations, then Vila Real de Santo António is definitely worth visiting whilst you’re in Portugal.
Here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip to Vila Real de Santo António, including the best things to do, places to stay, and my recommendations of how many days you should spend here.
Let’s dive in!
Where is Vila Real de Santo António?
You’ll find Vila Real de Santo António in the Eastern Algarve, right next to Portugal’s border with Spain. It’s around 60km east of Faro.
Since there are so many other towns on the Algarve to choose from, Vila Real de Santo António doesn’t get a whole lot of tourists compared to fan favourites like Lagos, Faro and Albufeira.
However, if you want to experience a blend of Portuguese and Spanish culture in a stunning, hidden gem town, Vila Real de Santo António should definitely feature on your Portugal itinerary.
How to Get to Vila Real de Santo António, Portugal
If you’re flying to the Algarve you’ll land at Faro airport, which is just a 45-minute drive from Vila Real de Santo António. To get to town from the airport, you’ll first need to take the airport shuttle bus from Faro airport to Faro train station, which takes around 15 minutes.
From Faro train station you can catch a direct train to Vila Real de Santo António, which takes around 1 hour 10 minutes.
From Lisbon, you can either catch the bus or the train to Vila Real de Santo António, but the bus is quicker. There’s actually a direct bus that runs from Lisbon’s Sete Rios station to Vila Real de Santo António, which takes around 5 hours and costs around €5 if you book in advance – you can’t beat that!
Things to Do in Vila Real de Santo António
Praça Marquês de Pombal
Marquis of Pombal Square is the heart of Vila Real de Santo António. It’s the perfect place to stop for a coffee, soak up the sun and people watch.
Occasionally, the square is home to an antique market, but at other times you’ll find the square empty except for the huge statue, erected in 1776, in honour of King Jose I.
There isn’t anything particular to do at Praça Marquês de Pombal, but I figured it needed to feature on this list because it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Vila Real de Santo António.
Praia de Monte Gordo
The beachside resort of Monte Gordo is just a 5-minute drive away from Vila Real de Santo António (around 40 minutes to walk), and it’s the Algarve’s closest beach resort to Spain!
This huge white sand beach, which stretches for around 1 mile, is the perfect place to soak up the sun in summer, and the straw parasols dotted along the beach will make you feel like you’re on a tropical getaway!
Lifeguards patrol the beach in summer and, since the beach has been awarded a Blue Flag, you can rest assured that the waters and sands are clean, safe, and beautiful.
Vila Real de Santo António Lighthouse
You’ll find the red and white Vila Real de Santo António Lighthouse on the banks of the Guadiana River, and it’s one of the most famous landmarks in Vila Real de Santo António.
It was built in 1923 to replace a much older lighthouse on the spot and stands 40 metres tall. Don’t worry though, there’s a lift to the top (thank god).
It’s temporarily closed, but usually you can visit the lighthouse for free and check out the epic views from the top.
Visit Castro Marim Castle
Just a 10-minute bus journey from Vila Real de Santo António is the small town of Castro Marim, where you’ll find the Castro Marim Castle. It was once part of a defensive chain of castles controlled by the Knights Templar, and it’s another glorious example of Moorish-style castles in the area.
Most of the ruins you see today actually date back to the 17th century (it’s thought that the original Moorish castle was rebuilt and expanded during this time).
Inside the castle, you’ll find the Church of Santiago, which was the first headquarters of Castro Marim before being converted into military barracks in 1504. Admission is free!
Centro Cultural António Aleixo
This museum and arts centre, which is located in the old market of Vila Real de Santo António, is one of the best things to do in Vila Real de Santo António when it rains – even though that’s quite rare!
The cultural centre, which is named after local poet António Aleixo, is home to a rotating range of temporary exhibitions which display local art, sculpture and photography throughout the year. It also has a concert hall where plays, live music and dance performances are held.
Praia de Santo António
The huge beach is the easternmost beach on the Algarve, and when you’re here Spain is so close you’ll feel like you can almost touch it! You’ll find this beach right next door to Praia de Monte Gordo.
Unlike Praia de Monte Gordo, this beach is not very touristy and far quieter. However, given how close it is to Spain you’ll find quite a few Spanish tourists here!
On the east side of the beach you’ll find a pier stretching out into the sea. Having a wander along here is the perfect opportunity to stretch your legs after a few hours of sunbathing and will give you the best views over the beach.
Take the Ferry to Ayamonte, Spain
The most fun day trip from Vila Real de Santo António is to Ayamonte, just across the Spanish border. As if that wasn’t fun enough, the best way to get there is via the water on a ferry. What an adventure!
To get here, you’ll need to catch the ferry along the Guadiana River, which departs multiple times per day throughout the year and takes 15 minutes. Don’t forget that Spain’s time zone is one hour ahead of Portugal’s!
Start your visit to Ayamonte by strolling around its cute old town before heading on to two of the town’s most beautiful churches, Iglesia de las Angustias and Iglesia del Salvador. To round off your trip head to one of Ayamonte’s beaches and enjoy the beautiful Spanish sun.
Best Restaurants in Vila Real de Santo António
Vila Real de Santo António is a pretty small town, but it certainly doesn’t lack a variety of restaurants serving both Portuguese and Spanish food, so you’ll get to indulge in both cuisines during your visit! Here are my top picks:
- Grand Beach Club – the name gives it away – this place is an amazing beach club, but they also have a top-rated restaurant here that’s one of the best places to eat in Vila Real de Santo António. They serve modern food with a Portuguese twist and use fresh fish caught locally.
- Taberna Moleiro – this colourful Portuguese restaurant, which is right in the centre of town, serves excellent and fresh tapas, including local seafood and some Spanish-inspired dishes. Locals and tourists alike love this restaurant and its affordable prices.
- Green Buddha – one of the most popular restaurants in Vila Real de Santo António is Green Buddha, where you’ll find healthy Mediterranean food. So, if you’re looking for a lighter meal to combat the grogginess of the summer heat, this is the best place to eat at!
Where to Stay in Vila Real de Santo António
If you want a luxurious experience on a budget, look no further than this top-rated hotel and spa, which overlooks Praia de Monte Gordo – one of the best Vila Real de Santo António beaches! So, whether you want to spend a day at the beach, lounge by the pool and get a spa treatment, or get your tourist on and go sightseeing, this is the perfect place to base yourself for your Vila Real de Santo António trip.
Just a 9-minute walk from the beach, this stunning boutique hotel offers serious bang for your buck. With rooms overlooking the ocean, a huge swimming pool and a pool bar, it has everything you need for a relaxing and secluded beach getaway near Vila Real de Santo António. Oh, and breakfast is included in the room price, which always sweetens the deal!
Hostels in Vila Real de Santo António
There unfortunately aren’t any hostels in Vila Real de Santo António at the moment – but I guess that makes sense given it’s not a huge tourist destination. I’ll update this section if one opens up!
How Many Days to Spend in Vila Real de Santo António
You only need to spend one day to see all of the highlights in Vila Real de Santo António. For this reason, it’s a great day trip option if you’re staying elsewhere in the Algarve, or the perfect destination to stay overnight if you want to spend time in a town that’s off the beaten path.
What to Pack for Vila Real de Santo António
There’s nothing specific that you’ll need to pack for a trip to Vila Real de Santo António that you wouldn’t need if you visited anywhere else on the Algarve. That said, there are a few essentials you should bring that you may not have thought of:
- This quick-dry towel is my go-to! It dries super quickly, so you don’t have to carry a soggy towel around with you, rolls up into a tiny ball, and sand doesn’t stick to it. It’s perfect for a beach trip.
- Reef-friendly sunscreen is the way to go if you want to protect your skin without polluting and damaging the ocean and marine life there.
- This waterproof phone lanyard. If you want to go into the sea but don’t want to leave your valuable belongings on the beach I can’t recommend getting one of these enough! You can put your phone, money and ID in the waterproof pouch and wear it around your neck as you go for a paddle or swim. I also love that the case is see-through, so you can take selfies and videos underwater!
- I’m a travel guidebook superfan and believe that the best way to spend time on a long bus journey, or an afternoon on the beach, is reading about the destination I’m heading to. I recommend packing the Insight Guides Pocket Algarve guidebook to help you to plan your Algarve trip. This guidebook has loads of super useful information to help you plan your trip and is also full of wanderlust-inspiring photos!
The Best Travel Insurance for Vila Real de Santo António
I’ve never travelled without insurance, but it’s scary just how many people do. You can be as careful as humanly possible, but bad luck happens to all of us and some things are just totally out of our control.
That’s where travel insurance comes in. Get your wallet stolen? Fall sick and need emergency medical treatment? The airline loses your luggage? No problem, your insurance will have you covered. It’s unlikely that anything bad will happen to you in Vila Real de Santo António, or Portugal in general, but having insurance could be the difference between the trip of a lifetime and a total nightmare.
For travellers from outside the EU I recommend World Nomads. This is probably the most popular insurance in the world for adventurous travellers. It also covers a ton of fun activities so you can go hiking or mountain climbing with no worries.
For my EU readers I recommend SafetyWing. World Nomads isn’t available to EEA residents at the moment, so SafetyWing is a great alternative. They offer a pretty similar service and cover package and very competitive rates.
Is Vila Real de Santo António Worth Visiting?
As you can see from this post, there aren’t many things to do in Vila Real de Santo António, so although it’s worth visiting if you have time to spare, it’s definitely not a Portugal must-visit.
Instead, Vila Real de Santo António attracts travellers who want to get off the beaten path and experience an authentic Algarve town away from other tourists.
If that sounds like you, add Vila Real de Santo António to your itinerary and start planning your trip!