To visit Elvas means being greeted by the Amoreira Aqueduct

Visit Elvas, “Queen of the Border” | Unesco’s Alentejo near Spain

Elvas, also called “Queen of the Border”, is one of the pearls hidden in the Alentejo frontier with the Spanish Extremadura. Due to its strategic position on the border, Elvas was shaped by war. This military history can be revisited through a tour of the city’s rich military heritage.

Its fortifications, together with the Forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça, are considered some of the largest and best preserved fortifications with bulwarks in the world. Like the centre of Elvas, they are extremely well kept.

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Elvas from Graça Fort

There are many reasons to visit Elvas, because its importance is not limited to military heritage. There are several testimonies to its relevance in the very rich religious patrimony of many churches, of which the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Church of Our Lady of the Assumption), which got to become the cathedral and is one of the most remarkable churches in the city), several convents and the sanctuary of the Senhor Jesus da Piedade (Lord Jesus of Mercy).

However, any description of the city would be incomplete without mentioning the trade mark of Elvas, the Aqueduto da Amoreira (Amoreira Aqueduct). This is one of the most important examples of hydraulic architecture in Portugal. It is also impossible to ignore the Castle of Elvas, which dominates the whole city from the top of a hill.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Elvas was considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in June 2012. This classification covers the entire historical centre, the 17th-century fortified walls, the Forte de Santa Luzia (Santa Luzia Fort), the Forte da Graça (Graça Fort), the Aqueduto da Amoreira (Amoreira Aqueduct) and the three smaller forts: São Pedro, São Mamede and São Domingos (or Piedade). Évora and Elvas are the two cities of Alentejo considered world heritage by UNESCO.

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Graça Fort is like this… photogenic
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Graça Fort Gate, Elvas

Brief history of Elvas

The Goths and Celts were probably the first settlers of this true “fortress city”, which the Romans conquered in the first century B.C.. In 714, the Arabs conquered it and gave it the name Lalbax, leaving so many marks of their presence that some still persist to this day.

In the reign of King Afonso Henriques (first king of Portugal), more precisely in 1166, Elvas was conquered from the Moors for the first time. But it was only definitely integrated in the Portuguese territory by King Sancho II, in 1229, the year in which he granted it a charter. It had a new charter in 1513, granted by King Manuel I, which established the elevation of Elvas to the category of city.

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Elvas Coat of Arms

Considered the “Key to the Kingdom of Portugal”, Elvas defended nationality during the Guerras Fernandinas (Fernandine Wars) in the 14th century and was instrumental during the Guerra da Restauração (War of Restoration) – 1640-1668). On January 14, 1659, its walls and the forts of Santa Luzia and Graça played a central defensive role in the Batalha das Linhas de Elvas (Battle of the Lines of Elvas), which marked the end of the War of Restoration.

What to visit in Elvas

Inside the historic centre

Elvas was the first border town to become permanently fortified after the Restauração da Independência (Restoration of Independence – 1640). The construction of the fortress began in 1645 and was inspired by Dutch masters.

The Praça de Elvas, inside which lies the entire historic centre, consists of seven bastions and four half bastions, which result in the distinctive star shape. The access to the city is made by three double doors and by several “poternas” (secondary doors hidden in the walls) that appear in the middle of the pits.

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Elvas Fort Gate

Venture through the streets of the city centre and uncover its treasures – palaces, historical houses, churches, convents and fountains, in a parade of architectural styles: from Romanesque to Gothic, going through Manueline and ending in the splendour of Baroque and Rococo.

The Praça da República (Republic Square), right in the centre of Elvas, is dominated by the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Church of Nossa Senhora da Assunção – former cathedral) and is where the Tourism Office and the Casa da Cultura (House of Culture) are located. In this square, there are several terraces that allow you to appreciate all the surrounding architecture, while you rest your legs and refresh (or get warm) with a drink.

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Praça da República (Republic Square), the heart of Elvas

The Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, which was built under orders of King Manuel, in 1517, became the Cathedral in 1570, a title it retained until the diocese’s extinction in 1881. The interior of the church is of Manueline style in the ceilings and side doors and baroque in its marble altars and the imposing organ wrapped in gilded woodwork. Next to the Cathedral is the Casa do Cabido, which houses the Museu de Arte Sacra de Elvas (Sacred Art Museum of Elvas). It is here that you can admire a vast and valuable collection of religious pieces.

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Elvas Cathedral in Praça da República

The Elvas Tourist Office occupies a 16th century building, where an imposing marble entrance stands out. Beside it is the Casa da Cultura (House of Culture), whose hall is currently used for exhibitions. The magnificent building served as Town Hall until mid-20th century. Outside this house is the beautiful five-star gallery, which opens onto the Praça da República, and a Manueline window opposite this gallery, which can be seen from the Rua da Cadeia.

When you pass by this street, be sure to climb to the Torre Fernandina (Fernandine Tower), which served as a jail from the end of the 15th century. There, you will find a permanent exhibition about the fortifications of Elvas and you can enjoy a beautiful landscape from this medieval tower.

At the back of the old Cathedral of Elvas you will find the Igreja das Domínicas (Church of Domínicas), which was part of a convent of Dominican nuns, demolished at the end of the 19th century. This church has a rare octagonal plant, Renaissance frescoes, tiles and gilded woodwork from the 17th century.

Next to the Church of the Dominicans, in Largo Primeiro de Dezembro (a square) is the Pelourinho (pillory). This one was built in the 20th century, taking advantage of the original parts of the old pillory from the 16th century, which had been destroyed.

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Elvas pillory

Connecting the pillory square with the following one, we find the Arco do Dr. Santa Clara (an arch), an intervention of an important 19th-century scholar on an original door of the 1st Arab fortification. After the reconstruction, it was called Porta do Tempre (Door of the Tempre), in honour of a battle fought by knights of the Order of the Temple against the Moors.

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Arco do Dr. Santa Clara (arch)

On the Alcáçova (Alcazaba) square, on the way to the Castle, you can admire the Igreja de Santa Maria de Alcáçova (a church), built in 1230 on the site of the main mosque of Elvas. The construction of this church and the subsequent works have hidden the Arab remains. It is a simple building, with three vaulted naves, one of the chapels standing out, which is completely covered with gilded woodwork from the 17th century.

At the highest point of the city is the Castle, taken from the Moors and rebuilt in 1228. Elvas Castle was the stage of several important events in the history of the country: from peace treaties, to princess exchanges and royal weddings.

Let yourself be inspired by the stories of Portuguese history and enjoy the breathtaking view from Elvas Castle. For some reason it became the first Portuguese National Monument in 1906…

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Elvas Castle walls

Still in the historical centre be sure to visit some more churches. The Igreja de S. Pedro is one of the oldest in the city, holding a beautifully decorated romantic-gothic portal. The Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco is characterised by its decorative richness, characteristic of the baroque style of the 18th century. The Igreja do Salvador once belonged to the Jesuit College of Elvas.

As for the Igreja de São Domingos, the largest in Elvas, it is one of the best examples of gothic mendicant architecture in the south of Portugal. In its back we find the old Convento de São Domingos, which is inside the Museu Militar de Elvas (Military Museum of Elvas). After the extinction of the religious orders in 1834, the convent began to serve as barracks.

In 2006, the last barracks were extinguished and the space became the Museu Militar de Elvas. In this museum there are several collections of military material, which is worth discovering. However, the obvious highlight goes to some spaces that belonged to the old convent: the cloister, part of the Fernandine wall, the barracks of the manor house, the Fonte de São José (a fountain) and much of the 16th-century wall.

But visiting Elvas does not mean just discovering the past. In this city you can find the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Elvas – MACE (Elvas Museum of Contemporary Art), installed in the former Hospital da Misericórdia de Elvas, itself a remarkable baroque building from the mid-18th century. MACE houses the António Cachola collection, a private and exclusively national collection, with more than three hundred works ranging from the 1980s to the present day. Dare to explore this very interesting collection.

Amoreira Aqueduct seen from the top of the hill

Don’t forget to take a look at Museu Municipal de Fotografia de João Carpinteiro (a photography museum) to see cameras and thousands of images. This collection is available to visit in Elvas at an old cinema. The space also has a photo lab, a specialised library and an image bank about Elvas and its history.

Outside the historical centre

The Amoreira Aqueduct is the great landmark for those who visit Elvas. Its population has always endured periods of drought and had problems with the water supply, so this project proved to be fundamental for the development of the city.

It is a gigantic monument, almost 5-miles long (8km), which extends from the source in the Amoreira site to the Fonte da Misericórdia, a fountain in the centre of Elvas. This construction includes underground galleries and a channel at ground level. However, its most imposing feature is the arch, supported by robust buttresses and reaching a height of 100ft (31m).

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Elvas Fort and Amoreira Aqueduct

Construction of the Aqueduto da Amoreira began in 1537, but due to technical and financial problems, it dragged on until 1622. Be sure to walk around this place during the day, at dusk and at night. Only then will you be able to better appreciate the light changes in the arches.

The Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça (fort) is a masterpiece of military architecture and is considered one of the most powerful fortresses in the world. The military strategist Count of Lippe planned its construction in one of the highest points of the region, with the objective of defending the northern entrance of the city of Elvas.

The fortification was completed in 1792 and its main structure consists of four bastions, an underground cistern, a chapel, several radial compartments, the former Military Hospital and the beautiful Governor’s House (with its two floors and terraces).

 Choose your accommodation from this list of hotels in Elvas 

Enter through the beautiful main door, called Porta do Dragão (Dragon Gate), and take some time to roam the various structures that make up the fort. When you are on the last terrace of the Governor’s house, let yourself be enchanted by the wonderful view of the fields of Alentejo in the surrounding territory.

Enter through the beautiful main door, called Porta do Dragão (Dragon Gate), and take some time to roam the various structures that make up the fort. When you are on the last terrace of the Governor’s house, let yourself be enchanted by the wonderful view of the fields of Alentejo in the surrounding territory.

Forte de Santa Luzia (another fort) is an impressive 16th century fortification and one of the best and most genuine examples of European fortification. It was completed in 1648, having received the name of the hermitage that existed there. This fort consists of four bastions, a moat and a rectangular stronghold in the centre. In this central stronghold we find the old furnace (today, the reception), the old barracks, the vaulted barracks (now, Military Museum), the cistern, the Governor’s House, and other structures.

Forte de Santa Luzia has always been involved in several military actions, namely the Guerra da Restauração (War of Restoration), the Guerra da Sucessão de Espanha (War of Succession of Spain) and the Invasões Francesas (French Invasions). We advise you to visit the museum nucleus inside, where you can deepen all the military history of the city, as well as explore various objects, weapons and war equipment from various eras.

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Sanctuary of the Lord Jesus of Mercy, near the place where the largest fair of Elvas is held, the Fair of St. Matthew

The Santuário do Senhor Jesus da Piedade (a sanctuary) is an excellent example of the 18th century religious architecture. It is located outside the historic center, next to the current Parque da Piedade, a park well known for being the place where every year, in the month of September, the Feira de São Mateus (fair) takes place.

The present Igreja do Senhor Jesus da Piedade (church) was built in the 18th century, having replaced a chapel, which had become a known place of pilgrimage throughout the Alentejo and neighbouring Spain due to the belief in the healing powers of Senhor Jesus da Piedade.

This church has baroque characteristics, mixed with influences from Central Europe and Brazil. Inside, take the opportunity to appreciate the main chapel, the two side altars in marble and the sacristy, with its doors with carved and gilded cushions and tile covering.

Finally, be sure to visit Elvas in a different way. Stroll aimlessly through the city at night. You won’t regret it! You may take the risk of falling hopelessly in love with this stunning city and never want to leave!

Elvas Tour | Visit the city Unesco World Heritage
tour elvas visitExplore the city with us. Choose the Elvas Tour (1 day) or the Tour Alentejo Unesco (2 days). In this last tour you will also discover the other places and traditions that are Unesco world heritage in Alentejo.
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