On the Costa Alentejana Sines is an old fishing town best known in Portugal as the birthplace of the explorer Vasco da Gama. His statue stands proudly beside the walls of the castle in which he grew up, and the museum inside recounts the life of this national hero. Now, Sines is making waves as Portugal’s top container port, which is separated from the old quarter in a gigantic industrial enclave along the shore.
It’s a fascinating site if you’re into that sort of thing, as it has a natural underwater trench that allows the largest cargo ships to dock near the shore. Keep going south and the industry melts away, and you’ll come to a scalloped shoreline with little coves and the whitewashed village of Porto Côvo.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Sines:
1. Monumento do Vasco da Gama
The town’s most famous son was born here sometime in the 1460s, though nobody can agree on the exact day or where in Sines he was delivered.
Vasco da Gama earned his place in history during his voyage to India between 1497 and 1499, becoming the first European to get to India by sea, expanding the Portuguese Empire, opening up world trade and ushering in the colonial era.
Appropriately, Vasco da Gama’s statue, with its square-like silhouette, faces the sea just next to the west tower of the castle.
It was placed here in 1970, the year of his 500th anniversary.
2. Castelo de Sines
The deep waters that accommodate the container port also made Sines one of Portugal’s busiest fishing harbours in the middle ages.
This castle was put up to defend the fleet and town against enemy navies and pirates.
The hill it sits on has been settled since the Palaeolithic era, but the castle is only from the 15th-century.
That’s the reason the building is quite compact, as the streets around it had long been plotted when it was built and it had to adapt to that shape.
The keep is three storeys tall, and the handsome mullioned window at the top is original.
Not long after construction its warden was Estêvão da Gama, father of Vasco.
3. Museu de Sines
The town’s museum is in the keep and has a gripping little exhibition on Sines’ past.
Maybe the best exhibit here is the Visigothic masonry discovered during excavations at the castle.
Also see the Treasure of Gaio: This was found in 1996, 13 kilometres from the town during a dig at a burial mound.
It is Phoenician-made and comprises a necklace and earrings interred with a wealthy woman around the 3rd century BC. There’s also a multimedia presentation about Vasco da Gama’s life and achievements , and you can visit the rooms he’d have grown up in at the castle.
Afterwards you can get up to the parapet to contemplate the bay.
4. A Tour of Sines
The town is divided into lower and upper parts.
At the top of the hill is the castle and a small warren of streets along corridors of whitewashed and tile-covered buildings.
There are a few bars and cafes up here for a shot of coffee and a local pastry, and as you amble around you’ll be greeted by some nice examples of Art Nouveau architecture.
Down the hill is the Praia da Vasco da Gama, the natural cove that holds the town’s fishing port.
A promenade lines the beach on an embankment and you can trace the shore, surveying the fleet, ocean and the castle from below.
5. Industrial Tourism
Sines has one of Portugal’s largest coastal industrial complexes, made up of the container port, oil refinery, polymer refinery and thermal power plant (generating more power than any other in Portugal). And while that may not be if much interest to a casual tourist, avid industrial technology fans can book tours at seven different facilities in the complex.
It’s all part of a tourism initiative started by the municipality.
The one site with universal appeal is the deep-water seaport, which handles more freight by volume than any other in Portugal.
Groups of four or more will be given a two-hour guided tour of the state-of-the-art terminals.
6. Porto Côvo
After passing the industrial zone it can be hard to believe that this endearing whitewashed fishing village is in the same municipality.
Porto Côvo is 10 kilometres to the south, with a uniform grid of single-storey houses converging on the central Praça Marquês de Pombal.
This cosy square has the sweet parish church, iron gaslights and palms bordered by low cottages with terracotta roofs.
It’s a small community but there are lots of restaurants, catering to the growing numbers of tourists discovering this beautiful village and the fabulous rocky coastline next to it.
7. Praia dos Buizinhos
The closest beach to the centre of Porto Côvo is this gorgeous cove hemmed by cliffs.
There are rocks a few metres out that help to block the tides, so it’s one that you can bring children to as the surf is smooth and transparent . Unlike the larger Praia Grande nearby there’s no lifeguard patrol, but as long as you stay in the bay it’s a safe place to swim or just wallow in the water for a while.
And if you get peckish or thirsty the village’s shops and restaurants are at your fingertips.
8. Forte do Pessegueiro
In a very photogenic setting is an abandoned sea fort guarding a bay with an island 100 metres a little way offshore.
The fort was constructed during the Philippine Dynasty in the 16th century when Portugal was under Spanish control.
It has a polygonal plan, encircled by a moat, with a battery facing the beach and two pointed bastions to the rear.
You have to pass through a tunnel to get in, and you can take in the scene from the roof.
Below is the beach, which is lapped by gentle waters, and across the channel on the island are the ruins of the Forte do Santo Alberto, erected in the same period.
9. Praia de São Torpes
Now, although this beach is just around the coast from that mammoth industrial complex it is awarded the Blue Flag every year.
To gain that honour beaches have to pass stringent water-quality tests, which should give you some peace of mind.
But one very peculiar thing about the sea on Praia de São Torpes is its warmth, due to the massive thermoelectric plant a few hundred metres away.
So you’ll have the strange feeling of paddling in Atlantic surf that doesn’t chill you to the bone for once.
As you head south the factories disappear into the distance, and there’s nothing but the sand, rolling surf and greenery of the Southwest Alentejo Natural Park
10. Igreja de Porto Côvo
This sweet chapel in Porto Côvo serves as the parish church.
It went up during the reign of Queen Maria I towards the end of the 18th century and has the sober lines that came into fashion after the Baroque.
There are painted wooden ceilings in the nave, walls lined with azulejos (hand-painted glazed tiles) and a gilt-wood altarpiece.
At the centre is the polychrome image of Nossa Senhora da Soledade.
And if you’re around at the end of August this statue is paraded on evening and daytime processions setting off from the church on August 29 and 30.
11. Praia do Cerro da Águia
In truth this is one of many beaches that you could choose on the 10-minute drive down to Porto Côvo from Sines.
The open shore at São Torpes slowly becomes rockier and indented, and tiny coves like this one lie hidden between the sandstone rocks.
Families with children will adore this location as the tall bluffs at the entrance to the cove keep the waves out and protect the beach from winds.
You’re left with glimmering, crystalline sea and golden sand in a small piece of paradise.
12. Ruínas Romanas de Miróbriga
The ruins of an entire Roman town are ready to be discovered few kilometres away.
Miróbriga was settled from the Iron Age almost 3,000 years ago and finally abandoned in the 3rd century.
It was the Romans who left the largest footprint here, arriving in the year 50 and constructing a forum, marketplace, hippodrome for horse races and baths claimed to be the best intact in Portugal.
The first floors of numerous houses and temples have been excavated, and there’s a new interpretation centre to clue you up on the site before you explore it.
13. Badoca Safari Park
The top family day out nearby, this animal park has exotic creatures in a range of large habitats spread over a massive area.
You’ll ride through the safari zones on a bus and get a running commentary.
In these large spaces are giraffes, ostriches, zebras and antelopes.
The remainder of the park is explored on foot, and there’s an island with lemurs where people who pay an extra fee can hand-feed these animals.
There are tigers in a smaller enclosure, as well as aviaries and a farm where kids can bond with tame domestic animals like donkeys and goats.
14. Horseback Riding
The deserted beaches, coastal meadows, dunes and coastal forest on the Costa Alentejana were made to be crossed on horseback.
In Porto Côvo there’s the Herdade do Pessegueiro equestrian centre, which has riding experiences to suit everyone.
If you already know the ropes you can saddle up for a five-day trail ride, negotiating the unspoiled terrain on an agile and responsive lusitano.
But you can also come for the day and get a beginner’s lesson or ride out on a hack as the sun sets over the Atlantic.
15. Food and Drink
As a town with a fishing tradition since long before the days of Vasca da Gama, Sines turns to the ocean for its diet.
Just to breeze through the many seafood preparations on the menu, there’s rice with mussels, limpets, snails or clams, and seafood açorda, which is a thick savoury paste made with soaked bread, garlic, vinegar, eggs and herbs and combined with shrimp.
In summer you can order salads with roe, cuttlefish or conch, while a warming preparation in winter is feijoada de búzios consisting of whelks and white beans simmered with chouriço, bacon, garlic and tomato.