Évora is large enough to lose yourself in over a long summer day – idly wandering the cobbles, pausing to visit the Roman Temple, the cavernous cathedral and the beautiful churches of the Convento do Carmo and the Igreja de São Francisco.

Nowhere in the Alentejo is more redolent with history than its capital, Évora. Rising in narrow, winding Moorish streets to a central praça, crowned with a magnificent ruined Roman temple, ringing with the peal of bells from an array of Portuguese Golden Age churches and littered with stately mansions and monuments, the city has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Its listing as such owes as much to its architectural unity as it does to its magnificent churches and small museums, for while Lisbon was levelled by the 1755 earthquake, Évora retains its medieval and Renaissance buildings. Nowhere in Portugal better preserves the country’s architecture of Empire.

Évora is large enough to lose yourself in over a long summer day – idly wandering the cobbles, pausing to visit the Roman Temple, the cavernous cathedral and the beautiful churches of the Convento do Carmo and the Igreja de São Francisco (with its grisly chapel of bones). There are myriad fine restaurants dishing up traditional cooking from the area and cafés and bakeries serving local cakes, cheeses and wonderful coffee. The shopping is the best in the region – not just for souvenirs, but for everyday items like shoes, clothes and hats, which are so much better value in Portugal than back home, and for fine food and drink, including wonderful Alentejo wine.

But Évora is more than a historic monument. It is a bustling community too. And while many of the smaller villages in the Alentejo feel abandoned by the younger generation, Évora is eternally youthful, its streets rejuvenated annually by the arrival of fresh batches of students rushing to attend lectures at the Alentejo’s biggest university, gathering to gossip under the arcade in the Praça do Giraldo and nursing weekend hangovers over over a late breakfast in one of the numerous cafés.

What to see and do in Évora

Capela dos Ossos

‘We bones wait here for yours to join us’ reads the inscription over the Chapel of Bones. Thousands are squeezed into the walls of the building, yellowing in the frowsty air. It’s hard to know what’s more horrible – the chapel itself or visions of it being built. One imagines the friars with a huge pile of remains in the middle of floor, arranging them neatly by size, fitting them into the gaps in the wall like pieces of a puzzle – a femur here, a tibia there, a small skull squeezed into the last small space between the top of a column and the ceiling.

Popular mythology has it that the monks were trying to solve an overcrowding problem at the city’s monastic cemeteries and that the bones are all of the clergy. In reality, the friars robbed graveyards throughout the city, exhuming the dead from the city’s cemeteries in a quest for morbid masonry. By the time they had finished their work, the monks had consumed some 5,000 skeletons and were, it seems, so inured to death that they hung two desiccated corpses – one of them of a child – from the chapel walls for extra shock factor. A popular legend has it that they are the corpses of an adulterous husband and his son, cursed never to rot to bones by the betrayed wife on her deathbed.

Templo Romano

With dark Corinthian columns stark against the sky, the Roman Temple is the only significant remnant of the old Roman settlement of Ebora. It once stood on one edge of the main public square, or forum, which would have served as the Roman town’s principal meeting place and market.

The building you see today is not original, but is rather a romantic reconstruction built in the late 19th century by the Italian architect Giuseppe Cinatti. Archaeologists have had to piece together clues as to the building’s origin and purpose from its parts rather than Cinatti’s whole.

Sé (Évora Cathedral)

A vast stone hulk, Évora’s cathedral inelegantly fuses Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. Its massive masonry and squat pinnacled lantern tower dominate the sky. It looks like a refuge in the shape of a church, built by a despot to fortify himself against any conceivable onslaught. And in essence this is what it was.

When work began on the building, the prevailing architectural style was Romanesque. The side façades, cavernous, top-heavy lantern tower and huge, frowsty nave (with its massive, rounded rose granite arches) are in this style. The expansive cloisters (with Manueline flourishes and sculptures of the Evangelists), rose windows and entrance portico are later Gothic. The last is particularly impressive – extending in six marble arches over corbels decorated with effigies of the apostles standing over rows of human and fantastical animal figures.

Igrejo do Carmo

This is the most peaceful and little-visited churches in the city. Entrance is through an impressive Manueline doorway made up of carved ropes and knots and transposed from an original Manueline Braganza palace destroyed in a fire in the 17th century.

The church interior has been largely renovated in recent years. The expansive, airy nave is flanked by chapels with towering gilt altarpieces which rank among the best in the city and whose exuberant carving seems inspired by the hope of Resurrection rather than the gloom of crucifixion and death so often expressed in Baroque church art in Iberia.

The city walls

Évora has two sets of city walls – one dating from Roman times, the other from the late Renaissance. Remnants of both still exist. The most impressive remnants of the early wall are the Porta de Dona Isabel, a very well-preserved Roman arch, and the Torre de Sisebuto, where bits of Roman wall are visible, together with the exposed ruins of a 1st century AD Roman house with simple glazed frescoes.

The city’s outer walls, which are still largely intact in a number of places – most notably around the Porta da Lagoa gate – date from between the Middle Ages and the 17th century. Évora’s aqueduct bisects the 17th-century walls between the Porta da Lagoa and the Porta de Avis gates in the city’s north. It was built on
the site of an earlier Roman construction, and dates from the early 16th century. A walking or bike trail follows its path, beginning on Rua Cândido Mendes and continuing for 8.5km past the 17th-century Forte de Santo António to Metrogos, from where it is possible to catch a taxi back to Évora.

Getting to Évora

Évora has good road connections with Lisbon and the rest of the Alentejo. Lisbon
is 135km from Évora on the E90 and E1 motorways – just under 2 hours’ drive.

Trains run to Lisbon via Casa Branca and to Beja. Buses run to Lisbon, Beja, Borba, Elvas, Estremoz, Moura, Portalegre (change for Castelo de Vide and/or Marvão), Reguengos de Monsaraz (for Monsaraz) and Santarém.