Aveiro: Portugal’s colourful alternative to Venice without the crowds and high prices

In northern Portugal, Aveiro is often referred to as “the Portuguese Venice” thanks to its canals and gondola-style moliceiro boats. Yet, it receives far fewer visitors than its Italian counterpart, which has just announced its €5 daily visitor fee will be trialed on 30 peak days next year.

There’s no denying Venice’s charm. For centuries, it was a mandatory stop on the Grand Tour, and to this day, it remains one of the most visited places in Italy. But over-tourism and the increasing water traffic are leaving Venice in a fragile state.

It is hoped that the new day-tripper fee will help manage the crowds, but it’s also a good time to look to alternatives. There are many other “Venices” (from Birmingham and Bruges to Mexico City) but a particularly colourful option is Aveiro.

While it may be half the size of Venice, it shares many of its iconic features, including the canals, bridges and boat rides. The Portuguese city registered over 400,000 overnight stays in 2022, an all-time high, but still nothing compared to the 8.9 million who flocked to Venice in the same year. If you’re looking to escape the crowds but still want part of that Venice experience, Aveiro might be the answer

A moliceiro boat on one of Aveiro's canals (Photo: James O'Neil/Getty Images)
A moliceiro boat on one of Aveiro’s canals (Photo: James O’Neil/Getty Images)

Like Venice, Aveiro sits along a lagoon crossed by a chain of canals and arched bridges. You can stroll the city’s waterfront, lined with Art Nouveau buildings, or take a boat ride on a moliceiro. At first sight, the shape may resemble a gondola, but Aveiro’s boats are much more colourful, featuring satiric illustrations and quotes along their bows and sterns. The 45-minute boat trip crosses the city’s main canals and costs little more than £11 for adults and £5 for children aged 5 to 12 (a fraction of a gondola ride in Venice, which costs between €80-€100).

In the past, these vessels were used to harvest moliço, a type of seaweed used as land fertiliser. Alongside these, there is also the mercantel, a bigger boat that once transported Aveiro’s salt and other goods between riverside areas. The tour takes you along the old ceramic factory of Jerónimo Pereira Campos, the saltpans and the fishermen’s neighbourhood. Visit the city in mid-July to catch the Festival dos Canais, where artists from around the world gather for a series of performances, including music, theatre, and dance, along the city’s canals.

The city's Carcavelos bridge over the Sao Roque canal (Photo: Finn Bjurvoll Hansen/Getty Images)
The city’s Carcavelos bridge over the Sao Roque canal (Photo: Finn Bjurvoll Hansen/Getty Images)

Another way to explore the city is to rent a bike. The government-sponsored BUGA network allows you to book a ride through a mobile app. You won’t have much trouble pedalling here, as the city is pretty flat.

Most of Aveiro’s Art Nouveau buildings, including the Art Nouveau Museum, are located along the main canal, but there are others to explore in the surroundings. The self-guided Art Nouveau Tour highlights some of these. You’ll also find plenty of tiled buildings scattered across the city.

For an insight into the city’s history, visit the Aveiro Museum, housed in a 15th century convent. The Portuguese princess Joana lived most of her life here, following a nun’s strict rituals. She was later beatified as a saint, and her ornate tomb is now one of the museum’s highlights. Inside is also a collection of paintings, sculptures and Baroque tiles.

Aveiro’s lagoon leads straight out to the Atlantic, making it an ideal location for fishing. Depending on the season, you can catch anything from sea bream to lamprey and eel. This last one is one of the city’s main delicacies, often eaten fried or in a traditional stew known as caldeirada de enguias. You’ll also find fresh grilled fish in most local restaurants, like Cais do Pescado. For something more contemporary, Subenshi Sushi serves some of the best sushi in Portugal.

But it’s sweets that really sell the city’s culinary credentials, not least the ovos moles, a sweet paste made of egg yolk, water and sugar that is stuffed inside miniature barrels or wafer-like cases shaped like fish and shells (a nod to the city’s location).

Ovos moles were originally introduced by the nuns of a local convent as a fortifying medicine for patients. Founded in 1856, the Confeitaria Peixinho is the oldest shop in Aveiro selling these sweet delicacies. You can also learn to make your own batch at the nearby Oficina do Doce. It’s also worth trying the tripas (not to be confused with the meaty Porto tripe), a thick crepe often stuffed with fillings like chocolate or the infamous ovos moles. Tê Zero serves both sweet and savoury versions.

Costa Nova's striped houses are a draw (Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)
Costa Nova’s striped houses are a draw (Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)

You can cover Aveiro’s main attractions in a day, but it’s worth staying a bit longer to explore the surroundings – from the picturesque seaside town of Costa Nova with its iconic striped houses, to the Passadiços de Aveiro (a 5km trail along the riverside) or the museums in Ílhavo covering Portugal’s ties with codfish and ceramics.

How to get to Aveiro
The nearest international airport to Aveiro is in Porto, about 47 miles north. From Porto, you can hop on a train or bus to Aveiro. Both transports depart from the Campanhã terminal station.

Where to stay
At the edge of the city’s canals, the Meliá Ria (meliaria.com) stands out with its striking cube-shaped building. The modern four-star hotel features 128 rooms, most overlooking the waterfront. It’s a 10-minute walk from the train station and major attractions like the Aveiro Museum. Facilities include a restaurant and a spa with an indoor swimming pool. Doubles from €116 (£100). Half board and full board available.

More information