The best independent guide to the Algarve
The best independent guide to the Algarve
Silves is a fascinating Portuguese town that makes for an enjoyable day trip from the resort towns of the Algarve coastline. Silves is situated in the rolling hills of the northern Algarve and is close to the cooling waters of the Arade River. This once-mighty river transformed Silves an important Moorish (9-11th century) city, with a large fortified castle and population in excess of 30,000.
Today Silves is a popular tourist destination and provides interesting tourist attractions, an extensive history and an abundance of Portuguese charm. Silves is a highly recommended day trip, and this guide will provide an overview for a visit to Silves.
The pretty town of Silves and the imposing castle
Silves is a relatively small and compact city, which is very easy to explore on foot. The main attraction of Silves is the large red stoned castle that stands high above the town, but this is on the opposite side of the town to the train station, bus stop and car parks so, is best visited after exploring the town centre. The majority of Silves can be visited in a 4-5hour visit or a one-day excursion and a night's stay is not required.
There are many good restaurants in Silves, and these tend to be clustered in the town centre. Meals are slightly cheaper than in the resort towns and tend to be more traditional Portuguese.
The Arade River that flows through Silves
The following section is our suggested day trip to Silves, which includes all of the main attractions of the town.
The map below displays the 1-day tour.
Sights along the route: 1) Tourist Information (2) Ponte Romana bridge (3) Rua Elias Garcia (4) Praça do Município (5)Portas da Cidade de Silves (6) Museu Municipal de Arqueologia (7) Catedral de Silves (8) Misericórdia de Silves (9) Castelo de Silves (10) Café Inglês (11) Mercado Municipal (12) viewpoint (13) Cruz de Portugal
Silves has excellent public transport connections and is served by both bus and train services. The train is the recommended means of public transport as Silves train station is on the main east-west Algarve line and there are numerous daily services in each direction.
The only issue with rail travel is that the station is 2km south of the main historic town. The distance can be walked but is along busy roads and bus times do not align with train arrivals. The recommended means of travel from the train station to the historic centre is by taxi. The main bus stop (there is no bus station in Silves) is on the southwestern side of the town, within the town vicinity. Generally, train travel is quicker than bus travel to Silves.
For visitors who have their own transport, Silves is served by the A22, the main expressway of the Algarve. Junction number 6 connects the A22 to Silves and follows the N124 north. There is plenty of car parking to the south-west side of the town, and car parking is not usually an issue. The historic centre of Silves has narrow streets with very limited car parking, it is much easier to park in the main out of town car parks and then walk to the town centre.
One of the first sights you will see entering Silves is the Rio Arade, which runs along the southern side of the city. The fortunes of Silves have been closely tied to the river, during the Moorish era the river was significantly wider, allowing boats to navigate along its length to Portimão and the sea. As the river silted up the prosperity of Silves dwindled, and the town was reduced to a population of less than 500 people.
The Arade River and the Ponte Romana in Silves
Historically, the only river crossing was the Ponte Romana bridge, and there has been a bridge at this location since the Roman era, hence the name. There are no remains of the Roman bridge or subsequent Moorish bridge, and the current pedestrian-only walkway dates from the 15th century. From the southern side of the river, close to the N124 road there are wonderful views (and photographs) of the town.
The view over Silves from the N124-1
While wandering around Silves, you will notice that many of the historic houses are covered in beautifully decorated tiles. This feature is not purely decorative and serves a particle purpose, the glazed tiles offer more protection against the elements than the painted plaster found in other Portuguese towns. The other distinctive feature of Silves is the locally quarried red sand sandstone that is most prominent in the castle but is also found in many historic or restored buildings.
The heart of Silves is located around the pretty Largo do Municipio, and this is the suggested first destination for visitors to Silves. The main square is dominated by the massive stone tower that acted as the main city gate, Porta de Loule. This solid structure is unique due to the high arches but comparatively narrow width of the gateway while the secondary door is significantly smaller. Today the Porta de Loule is the city library.
The Porta de Loule main gate in Silves
In the centre of the plaza is the only pillory found in the Algarve, though these are common through Portugal. The use of the pillory was to hang criminals in a visible location and act as a deterrent to others. The Largo do Municipio is overlooked by the charming town hall.
Close to the town hall is the Silves museum which houses the Moorish cistern and a good collection of ceramics dating from the Moorish era. The cistern is a notable feature as it was used to collect and store the city’s water, reputably enough to withstand a siege of one year.
The town hall of Silves
The 10-meter deep chamber has a spiral staircase winding down to the base and was protected for many generations as a house was constructed over it. The museum's collection of ceramics are regarded as one of the finest collections in Portugal. The museum is open Monday to Sunday 9:00-17:30 and the admission is €2.00.
Silves cathedral is the best-preserved gothic cathedral in southern Portugal, but for the average visitor, there are more impressive religious buildings in the Algarve. The cathedral was initially constructed in the 12th century on the site of a ruined Moorish mosque. The church took until the 15th century to be fully constructed.
Up until the 16th century Silves was the religious seat of the Algarve, but after the demise of Silves few alterations were made to the cathedra. The exterior was restored after the 1755 earthquake, but much of the original gothic cathedral remains.
The Se Cathedral in Silves
The exterior is a beautiful blend of Silves sandstone and brilliant white plastered walls while the interior follows the classical Latin cross layout. The most historically significant feature of the interior is the tombstone dedicated to King John II who died in strange circumstances in 1495 close to Silves. The entrance fee to the cathedral is €1.00.
The second church of Silves is the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, this church was dedicated to the crusaders who fought against the North African Moors over the protected wars that converted the city into a Christian centre. The church was constructed over three stages in the 12th, 16th and 18th centuries, the later stage was after the devastating 1755 earthquake.
After exploring the town of Silves, it is suggested to have lunch before climbing to the castle. Popular choices are the Casa Velha (traditional Portuguese food) with its delightful pink tiled exterior or the Cafe Ingles (continental cuisine) with its charming courtyard and interior. The pedestrian street of the Rua Cruz de Portugal close to the river front, has many pleasant open-air cafes for lighter lunches and are great for a coffee.
The pink tiled Casa Velha in Silves
Silves castle dominates the city and it makes for a great tourist attraction. There is an extensive history, battlements to explore and wonderful views over the town. The castle is a complex of imposing defensives towers connected by solid walls and wide ramparts. The castle is open every day from 9:00 until 18:00, and the admission fee is €2.50. By the entrance to the castle is a statue of Sancho I, who lead the crusader army and conquered Silves in 1189.
Inside Silves castle and the exposed Roman foundations
The site of the castle was originally a Roman fortification and individual sections have been excavated to review the original Roman foundations. The castle walls and towers date from the 12th century, but the amazing state of preservation is due to the extensive restoration program of the 1940s. This project rebuilt most of the battlements that were destroyed by the 1755 earthquake and allow visitors to walk the perimeter of the castle.
The statue of Dom Sancho I guarding Silves castle
The final sight of Silves is the Cross of Portugal (Cruz do Portugal) which is situated on the northeastern side of the town. This 6m high gothic cross was constructed during the 15th century and is a wonderfully preserved example of fine marble carving from the period. The Cruz do Portugal is an interesting monument but should only be visited by tourists with plenty of energy after a whole day of exploring.
The 15th century Cruz do Portugal
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