The substantial inland town of AVEIRO lies south of Porto on the edge of a system of coastal lagoons which stretch for around 40km both north and south. Until the mid-1500s, it was a vibrant coastal port but the local economy was devastated when the river mouth silted up and the hinterland turned to swamp. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, canals were dug to open up the town and drain the marshes, creating saltpans, and facilitating the harvesting of seaweed, and the town began to flourish once more. Today, Aveiro’s economy depends increasingly on tourists, with visitors attracted to the “Venice of Portugal” by boat rides on the canals, Art Nouveau buildings and the nearby Vista Alegre factory, famed for its ceramics. The town’s closest beaches – at Barra and Costa Nova – are built up and packed in summer, but still good fun, while the São Jacinto nature reserve provides coastal attractions of a more peaceful kind.
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 colourfully painted cruise boats.
Stand on the bridge (actually a busy roundabout) over the Canal Central and most of central Aveiro is within a couple of minutes’ walk. The town's 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 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.
Apart from a boat trip, the town’s must-see attraction is the wonderful Museu de Aveiro, housed 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.
On Aveiro’s main Canal Central, the traffic consists largely of barcos moliceiros, the traditional flat-bottomed lagoon boats with raised prows, colourfully adorned with paintings of flowers and scantily-dressed women. Once used to transport kelp, they now almost exclusively serve as cruise boats, and a trip on them is something of a must. Numerous companies offer 45-minute boat tours departing from either side of the Canal Central. The trips usually pass down the main canal to local saltpans and back into town with surprisingly knowledgeable rowers giving an interesting commentary on local history; if you’re (un)lucky, this may be accompanied by a song or two.