Lisbon might be the main draw for visitors to Portugal, but just to the east lies an alternative city break with just as much dazzling architecture, enthralling history and fine food – and a fraction of the tourists.
Évora, capital of the Alentejo region, was once the seat of the Kings of Portugal and today its rich cultural heritage is plain to see. It is a city of museums and monuments, where Mudejar, Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance and Baroque architecture rub shoulders on the narrow streets, and domes, spires, bell towers and Corinthian columns are framed against the blue skies. There’s a Roman temple, a 13th-century cathedral (Santa Maria) considered the greatest Gothic building in Portugal, a 16th-century aqueduct, and the recently renovated 14th-century Cadaval Palace, to name a few.
But it’s also a destination to get the mouth watering, where hearty regional dishes and impressive local wines encourage one to linger.
Churches and cheese
Évora’s religious dedication is reflected in the number and variety of its churches and monasteries. Start with the granite cathedral of Santa Maria, with its fusion of Gothic and Romanesque and curious mismatched towers. Between them, flanking the portal, is an impressive collection of sculptures of the apostles carved in the 14th century. Inside, the organ, added in the 16th century, is the oldest in Portugal and there’s an unusual stone statue of the Virgin Mary, both painted and pregnant, commonly known as the Lady of the O due to her round belly.
Next up should be São Francisco, a 15th-century church whose main draw is the Chapel of Bones, created from the skulls of 5,000 monks as a visual statement on the transience of human life. ‘We bones that are here, await yours,’ read the words over the entrance.
Pause to purchase supplies at nearby Divinus (divinus.pt) a deli that stocks all manner of gourmet delights, including scores of Alentejo wines and the region’s standout DPO (Protected Designation of Origin) sheep’s cheeses: Queijo de Evora, pleasingly salty and fruity, Queijo de Serpa, strong and spicy, and Queijo de Nisa, creamy with a hint of walnuts. For a more leisurely experience, take a seat at the little Cartuxa enoteca (cartuxa.pt), which offers wine tastings and traditional tapas.
Temples and tiles
Another architectural highlight of Évora is its ruined Roman temple, which dates back to the 1st century and features 14 granite columns, topped and tailed with marble from nearby Estremoz. It sits at a high point in the town centre, soaring up to the blue expanse and contrasting wonderfully with the whitewashed church of São João Evangelista and the Cadaval Palace behind it. Inside the latter is a feast for the eyes, in the form of the remarkable blue-and-white tiles that adorn its walls as well as an exhibition, on loan from the Fondation Pierré Bergé until October 31, on Yves Saint Laurent’s love affair with Morocco.
Across town, through the Moorish quarter with its narrow, atmospheric streets, more beautiful, centuries-old tiles can be seen at the University of the Holy Spirit (uevora.pt), founded by the Jesuits in 1559. They are pleasingly used to depict the subjects taught in each room.
A taste of Évora
Found growing all around Évora, pennyroyal, from the mint family, or poejo, as it is known here, can be tasted in several ways. A popular sweet liqueur is made from it, ideal as a digestive after one of the typically hearty regional dishes. Or try it in traditional Alentejan Açorda, a kind of bread soup with garlic and poached egg, whose origins – and name – can be traced back to the Moorish occupation here. Walk that off at the city’s small National Museum (patrimoniocultural.gov.pt), where paintings and sculptures guide you from Roman Évora to the modern day.
In the historic centre of the city, all roads lead to Praça do Giraldo, its bustling main square. Pastelarias spill out onto the pavements – so pull up a chair for coffee and a custard tart (pasteis de nata), while admiring the marble drinking fountain, whose eight spouts represent the eight streets that terminate at the Praça. One of them, Rua 5 de Outubro, is the main shopping street and ideal for picking up local handicrafts such as painted wooden furniture and pottery. More modern designs (think boldly woven rugs) can be found at Gente da Minha Terra, about half way along the cobbled road.
For a meal to remember, the renovated Cadaval Palace is now home to an outpost of celebrated Comporta restaurant Cavalariça (cavalarica.com) where diners can enjoy lamb empanadas, beef tartare and the melt-in-the-mouth presunto surrounded by the eye-catching murals of South African artist Esther Mahlangu.
Escape the city
On the edge of town, a 16th-century aqueduct, poetically called ‘of the silver water’ (Aqueduto da Água de Prata), originally carried water as far as the fountain in the Praça do Giraldo and even had a mention in the Portuguese epic, Os Lusiadas, by Luis de Camões. It was damaged in the 17th century during the Restoration War with Spain but a stretch of around five miles survives.
Further afield, around 30 minutes by car beyond the city walls, are the Almendres Cromlech, the finest examples of Neolithic structures on the Iberian Peninsula and even older than Stonehenge.
Another easy day trip is the beautiful winery of Fita Preta (antoniomacanita.com), found in a medieval palace and with acclaimed winemaker António Maçanita at the helm.
Sleep in style
Right next to the palace above and the Roman Temple is the 15th-century Convento dos Lóios, now a hotel under the Pousadas de Portugal banner (00 351 210 158 100; pousadas.pt; doubles from £150). Bedrooms are in the old monk’s quarters and the dining room is housed in the stunning cloisters. For a sense of place there is nowhere better, with modern comforts such a swimming pool tucked away. See our guide to the best hotels in Portugal for more ideas on where to stay.