Centuries ago, at the mouth of the Guadiana River, bordering the Spanish city of Ayamonte, was the fishing village of Santo António de Arenilha. It was in 1773 that the Marquis of Pombal gave orders for this village, almost destroyed by a tsunami, to be rebuilt using the latest technologies; designed in a Pombaline orthogonal grid, it was to become the most modern city in the country and the flourishing economic center of the Algarve in the 18th century.
The strategy decreed the village a center of commerce, to develop a thriving fishing industry, and the Customs House, the old Alfândega, was one of the first buildings to be completed during the Pombaline reconstruction, to house the offices of the Sociedades das Pescarias (fishing associations/societies), and dividing the settlement in two.
Proving the dynamism and richness of VRSA, as Vila Real de Santo António is often known, this locality was the first in the Algarve to have gas lighting installed in 1886. As the fishing industry went into decline (around the 1960s), tourism took over as the principal economic livelihood for many of its residents; visitors were attracted by its extensive stretches of sandy beaches and wonderful climate.
The center of the city is the Marquês de Pombal Square which showcases Pombaline urban style and illustrates the architectural rigor of the city; the streets line up as neatly as soldiers in a military parade. In the middle of this remarkable square stands the obelisk, a vertical symbol of the power of King José I, put in place in 1776 when the city was finished, and in front of the square is the Igreja Matriz Mother Church. Since its original construction it has changed significantly but you will find in the Town Hall some images of the 18th century iteration that are very much worth seeing.
Nestled between the houses of this fascinating city was the oldest canning factory in the world – Ramirez. Vila Real de Santo António is also the birthplace of the famous poet Antonio Aleixo, marked by various engravings throughout the city and the Antonio Aleixo Cultural Center in the old market square.
We encourage you to lose yourself in the intriguing history of this culturally important town and bask in the unique sub-tropical microclimate of continental Portugal while you’re doing so; because of this natural phenomenon, the county of VRSA is the warmest of the Portuguese coast and has the warmest waters too.