Aveiro has a compact centre of handsome buildings and open squares, though what strikes most are its canals, looped over by footbridges and plied by colourful cruise boats. Aveiro grows upon visitors, rather than being thrust upon them: it lends itself rather easily to a couple of days doing not very much, and with no fixed plans you might well end up staying an extra night or two. In this you’re ably supported by an excellent range of restaurants and some lively bars, courtesy of the large student population at the Universidade de Aveiro.
Stand on the bridge over the Canal Central and most of central Aveiro is within a couple of minutes’ walk. The traditional industries are recalled by imposing statues of local workers on the bridge, notably the salineira with her salt tray. Pastel-coloured houses line Rua João Mendonça on the north side, with the old town streets and Mercado do Peixe (fish market; Tues–Sat 7am–1pm) just behind. Other arms of the canal branch off at intervals, with tiled houses facing each other across the water.
Aveiro has a preponderance of Art Nouveau buildings – the turismo is housed in a particularly fine example – the legacy of returning wealthy emigrants in the early years of the twentieth century. At the top of the pedestrianized Rua Coimbra, Praça da República is flanked by the blue snowflake-design tiled facade of the seventeenth-century Igreja da Misericórdia and the Câmara Municipal, a century older.
Aveiro’s one must-see attraction, the wonderful town museum, is inside the fifteenth-century Convento de Jesus. Its finest exhibits all relate to Santa Joana, a daughter of Afonso V who lived in the convent from 1472 until her death in 1489. Barred from becoming a nun because of her royal station and her father’s opposition, she was later beatified for her determination to escape from the material world (or perhaps simply from an unwelcome arranged marriage). Her tomb and chapel are strikingly beautiful, as is the convent itself, and there’s a fine collection of art and sculpture – notably a series of naïve seventeenth-century paintings depicting the saint’s life.