Evora is one of the oldest cities in Europe, located in Portugal’s Alentejo region, about 1.5 hours’ drive inland from Lisbon. Fought over by empire after empire for several hundred years, today Evora is a monument to its ancient Roman and Moorish conquerors. If you’re asking yourself if Evora is worth visiting then UNESCO certainly seems to think so and we do too…
Evora’s beautifully preserved city center is filled with a stunningly diverse range of architecture that spans thousands of years (yep – thousands!). Evora’s most famous landmark is the remains of the Templo de Diana, or Roman Temple, built two full millennia ago. On top of that, Lisbon is the only city in Portugal that has more national monuments than Evora, so there’s plenty more to get through besides.
In this guide, we’ll answer is Evora worth visiting by running through seven key draws of the city. We’ll start with the sumptuous square of the Praca do Giraldo, where you’ll spy out some of the most handsome building work in the whole country, and then hit the incredible churches, the great cathedral, and the haunting standing stones that lurk on the town’s outskirts. Ready? Let’s go…
Drink in Evora’s history on the Praca do Giraldo
It’s often said that all roads in Evora lead to the Praca do Giraldo. The beautiful central square has been the hub of life here since it was first laid out nearly 500 years ago. The square was built in the 16th century to honor Geraldo Geraldes, also known as Gerald The Fearless, a 12th-century Portuguese warrior who overthrew the Moors who had occupied the city for over four centuries.
The Praca do Giraldo is certainly a magnificent plaza. It’s lined with gorgeous Neoclassical architecture and arched arcades. Dominating the top end of the square is the Santo Antao Church, a beautiful baroque church that was built in 1557. In front of that is the marble Henriquina fountain, also built at the same time as the square itself. The fountain’s eight jets of water are said to represent the eight streets that lead to the Praca do Giraldo.
Today, Praca do Giraldo is the heart of Evora. There are several cafés and bars dotted along the square, as well as shops, and the city’s tourist information center where you can go to get that all-important walking map. Basically, this is the ideal starting point for exploring Evora and also the perfect place to begin or end the day over a drink and a bite to eat.
Marvel at Evora’s 2000-year-old Roman Temple
There’s no clearer sign of Evora’s historical importance than the Roman Temple, or Templo de Diana, that stands in the center of the city. The temple was built to honor Augustus, the first Roman Emperor in the 1st century AD, who was diefied while he was still alive. Although badly damaged by a 5th-century German invasion as well as the ravages of time, the preserved remains are nonetheless still among the finest and best-preserved examples of Roman architecture in Portugal.
These days, visitors can see the whole peristyle temple perched on a high podium above the main square of the city. A number of the original columns are still in tact, complete with filigreed tops and fluted bodies. Archaeologists have speculated that the temple once contained big reflective pools and statues.
After the Romans had been unceremoniously replaced by the Moors, the Roman Temple was used for all manner of things – up until the early 1800s it was still being used as a butchers shop! In the mid 19th century the first attempts to restore and preserve the site were carried out. However, fourteen of the temple’s original columns still stand today, as does most of the temple’s base.
The other Roman ruins of the town
Evora was conquered by the Romans in 57 BC. The city soon became a vital part of the empire in Iberia because it was at the meeting point of several trade routes that reached all the way to Roman Hispania, Gaul, and out to northern Italy. What’s more, the Romans ruled the city for over 500 years, leaving an indelible mark on its character and makeup.
That meas you can expect to find many other reminders of Evora’s Roman past besides the great Templo de Diana. They include the city walls, which were built by the Romans in the 3rd century to defend it from attack. Now classified as a national monument, the muscular bulwarks still ring the town center with their crenulations and keeps, although the ones seen today are largely later expansions made by King Afonso IV in the 1400s.
During urban renovations in the 1980s, the remains of Roman baths dating from the 1st century were also discovered buried underneath the center. You can now explore those with a handy leaflet guide by heading to the Town Hall and asking for the entrance. They are small but pretty interesting, with a preserved bathing area that looks a little like the hot tubs we have today.
Contemplate life (and death) at the Capela dos Ossos
In a city filled with stunning and ornate churches, the Capela dos Ossos is probably the most unforgettable of all, though, admittedly, for rather more macabre reasons. Located inside the Igreja de Sao Francisco, the Capela dos Ossos translates into English as ‘chapel of bones’ and this ossuary may not be the ideal place for the faint-hearted. Built in the 17th century, the walls and columns of the chapel are lined with thousands of neatly arranged human bones and skulls.
It’s thought that around 5,000 bodies were exhumed from nearby graveyards to create the ghoulish chapel. Deliberately morbid, the Capela dos Ossos is meant to make visitors reflect on their own mortality and show gratitude for experiencing the miracle of life. Along with the decorative skulls and bones are several death motifs, grisly messages that ponder our own existence. A text written above the entrance to the chapel translates: “We the bones that are here await yours.”
Two hanging skeletons, one of an adult and one of a child, and two desiccated corpses encased in glass only add to the grim spectacle. Written on the ceiling is a quote from the Old Testament that translates “better is the day of death than the day of birth”.Yep, there’s no denying that the Capela dos Ossos is a truly unique and unsettling experience.
Admire the remains of the Prata Aqueduct
Another of Evora’s mesmerizing architectural gems is the Prata Aqueduct. The Prata Aqueduct is a truly impressive feat of engineering and design. The aqueduct was built to provide a constant supply of water to Evora, a city miles away from the nearest water source, and one that suffers from hot and dry summers. Even more impressive is that the Prata Aqueduct was built in 1537! It reaches all the way into the center of Evora from the nearest spring, situated something like ten miles away.
The aqueduct was designed by Francisco de Arruda, who also built the stunning Belem Tower on the banks of the Tagus River in Lisbon. A huge section of the aqueduct still stands today on the northern side of the city and ends just a few minutes’ walk from Praca do Giraldo. The aqueduct’s arches gradually rise in height as it leaves the center. The tallest arches reach over 20 meters! Shops and houses were built within many of the aqueduct’s arches within Evora’s old city walls. Take a walk along Rua do Cano to see where the Prata Aqueduct begins and the beautiful cottages worked into the structure.
Take in the spellbinding views from the Cathedral of Evora
As soon as Gerald The Fearless recaptured Evora from the Moorish in 1166 a Catholic cathedral was built to re-establish the Christian faith as the city’s dominant religion. Built in the highest spot in the city, The Cathedral of Evora has undergone several renovations and grown in size since it first opened in the 13th century. The twin towers at the entrance of the cathedral and the third lantern tower adorned with castle-like turrets are now amongst Evora’s most recognizable and important landmarks.
The largest medieval cathedral in Portugal, the Cathedral of Evora is a mishmash of styles, incorporating Gothic, Baroque, and Romanesque architectural touches. The cathedral’s interior is just as spectacular, largely redesigned in the 17th century. Perhaps the most impressive wonder, however,, is the panoramic view from the roof. That’s officially the loftiest spot in the city. As well as a close up look at the cathedral’s striking towers, there are spectacular views across the rooftops of Evora and out to the mountain ranges and plains far beyond.
See the city through its incredible collection of art at the Evora Museum
Art lovers will not want to miss the Evora Museum, which has been called the National Museum of Friar Manuel do Cenáculo since 2017. Located between the Templo de Diana and the Cathedral of Evora, the museum is mostly made up of the collection of Friar Manuel do Cenáculo, an 18th century monk who had an eye for Renaissance masterpieces, architectural monuments, and Roman sculptures. The polymath friar often salvaged artworks from convents and churches in the region that faced closure.
Entrance to the museum is only €3 and there are over 20,000 pieces on display. The most significant of the artworks and archaeological finds come from Evora’s most important churches. Amongst the Evora Museum’s highlights is Life of a Virgin. That has thirteen panels that create a single artwork depicting the life of Mary. It once stood over the altar inside the Cathedral of Evora itself. Not only is the collection at the Evora Museum a fine array of art but it’s also a fascinating and valuable insight into the history of the city.
Take a trip to the Almendres Cromlech, Evora’s answer to Stonehenge
If you’re spending more than a day in Evora consider taking a trip out of town to see Almendres Cromlech. Not content with thousands of years’ worth of history within Evora, the Almendres Cromlech are a complex of standing stones that dates back to 6000 BC. Close to one hundred oval stones stand in a group of circles, some reaching as high as three meters tall. The region is rich in megalithic history and the Almendres Cromlech is one of the largest prehistoric standing stone sites in Europe.
Though often called the Portuguese Stonehenge, the Almendres Cromlech are somewhere between two to three thousand years older than their English cousins. Their original purpose is still up for debate. The most likely answer is that the stones were either a place to mark religious or ceremonial services or had some kind of early astronomical use. The Almendres Cromlech are a twenty five minute drive from the center of Evora. If you don’t have a hire care you’ll need to take a taxi to reach the stones as there is no public transport to them from the town.
Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Mamede
Okay, okay, so the Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Mamede isn’t exactly in Evora itself. You’ll need to keep whizzing down the Portuguese highways for another 1.5 hours or so. Still, Evora makes the perfect pitstop on the way to this stunning national reserve if you’re driving out from Lisbon (as most people are). What’s more, it’s just too beautiful not to include on this list of reasons why Evora is worth visiting.
Yep, the Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Mamede (or the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park) is long swathe of hills and peaks that looms 1,000 meters above sea level. It straddles the Portugal-Spain border with its canyons and babbling rivers and caves where there’s evidence of human habitation going back a very, very long time indeed.
The hiking is fantastic. You can hit trails that skirt peaks like Pico de Marvão through dense and fragrant holm and oak forests. Keep the eyes peeled for Iberian lynxes and wild wolves, both of which inhabit the region. Oh, and don’t forget to drop into lovely Castelo de Vide, a town topped by a particularly photogenic church.
Is Evora worth visiting? Our verdict
Evora is consistently rated among the most atmospheric and alluring cities in Portugal. It’s up there with Sintra and Coimbra, famed for its striking churches and centuries-old architecture. Yes, it’s a touch touristy in the peak season and parking can sometimes be hard to find but those aren’t reasons to miss this spectacular jewel amid the lush Portuguese peaks. It’s got loads of cultural sights and moving churches, and then a backcountry of pine-studded mountains to get through. We’d say it’s a prime break from the big city of Lisbon and the built-up resorts along the Alentejo and Silver coasts.
How many days do I need in Evora?
We’d say plan at least two days in Evora. There’s just too much history, too many churches, and too many charming plaza cafes to get through in a single 12-hour outing. On top of that, we think you’ll need at least an extra day set aside to make the most of the surrounding mountains, where it’s possible to hike and do wild swimming.
What is there to see in Evora?
There is loads to see in Evora. The town is up there with the most culturally-rich destinations in Portugal – Sintra, Coimbra, Aveiro. The main thing is the old town, which has an aqueduct and a great cathedral that dates back some 700 years. We also think the chapel of the bones is something you won’t forget, and the surrounding nature reserves are pretty special to boot.