Silves – Highlights
Top attractions in Silves:
• A very well preserved old town
• History and monuments
• Medieval fair
• The beautiful beaches of Armação de Pêra
Silves – General information
Silves is a municipality in the Algarve. The biggest town is Silves, but other towns in the municipality are Alcantarilha, Pêra, Armação de Pêra, São Bartolomeu de Messines, São Marcos da Serra, Tunes and Algoz. The municipality has around 37.000 inhabitants, of which around 11.000 live in the town of Silves. The town is about 15 kilometres northeast of Portimão. Since it is quite a small town, it is the perfect place to visit for a day trip. When you approach Silves, the first thing you will see are some Roman structures, plus the castle and the Cathedral on top of the hill.
Silves is situated near the Arade river. This river was very important in the development of Silves as a town in the Middle Ages. Silves is a town with a long history and is one of the oldest towns of the Algarve. During the Moorish era, Silves was the capital of the Algarve, and was called Xelb. The town is quite different from the touristic resort towns in the Algarve. In a way this is how the Algarve was, before the advent of mass tourism. You can still feel this when visiting the town. Silves has a medieval atmosphere and visiting the town in a way feels like going back into time.
Silves – What to see
The centre of Silves is a beautiful small square with the town hall and a turret with the former entrance of the medina. This turret, which was part of the city wall and is very well preserved, was used as the Town Hall until a new one was built at the end of the 19th century. Until the past century, when the whole town was still surrounded by a wall, the town´s gate was closed every day at sunset.
The Moorish castle is a castle from the Moorish era and attracts many tourists to Silves each year. It was built between the 8th and 13th century and is the best preserved castle in the Algarve. Moreover, the castle has been restored in the 20th century. The castle was built by the Arabs on former Phoenician and Roman fortifications. Situated on the highest part of the town, built with the red sandstone of the region, the castle was used to defend the whole population of the town in war time.
We recommend that you visit the castle. On entering the castle (entrance fee: 2 euro) you see in front of you the statue of the Portuguese King Sancho I. His title after the conquest of Silves in 1189 was: “Sancius dei gratia, Portugalis, Algarve, Silves, rex, 1189”, which means: “Sancho, thanks to Gold, king of Portugal, Algarve and Silves, 1189”.
From the wall you can enjoy the beautiful panoramic views. Back in the days, having a good overview of the area was of strategic importance. Thus you can understand the reason why the castle was built on top of a hill.
On the northern part of the castle there is a huge cistern, which still supplies the town with water. There are some archaeological excavations of the Phoenician, Roman and Arabian settlements. There is a second cistern, called the dog´s cistern (80 metres deep), which is supposed to be the pit of a copper mine exploited by the Phoenicians and Romans.
This Gothic cathedral called Sé de Silves was built in the 13th century on the site of a mosque. Although destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt afterwards, the building still has its Gothic characteristics: ogival portal, interior of three naves with Gothic arches, transept, chancel and side chapels. In the ogival vaults, you see some interesting medallions. In the Chancel there is an image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (14th century) holding the Child. There are many tombs of nobles and bishops. In the middle of the transept is a symbolic gravestone where king John II was buried until his body was transferred to Batalha in 1499. There are also some baroque chapels with gilt carved woodwork. Nowadays, this cathedral is considered by many to be the most important Gothic building in the Algarve.
Below the cathedral is an archaeological museum (in Portuguese: Museu Municipal de Arqueologia de Silves), which is well worth a visit. It exhibits Roman, Moorish and prehistoric materials. The centerpiece of the archaeological museum is a very well preserved Arabian well (15 metres deep) with a staircase. The staircase was actually only found a few decades ago. This fantastic museum has exhibits from the different periods in history of the region (prehistorical section, Phoenician, Roman and Moorish exhibits).
The Roman bridge of Silves (in Portuguese: Ponte de Silves) is a bridge above the Arade river. It stems from the 15th century.
Cruz de Portugal
This beautiful stone cross is fine piece of sculpture representing the Crucification of Christ on one side and the Descent from the Cross on the other. This Gothic cross is around 3 metres tall and dates back to the 15th or 16th century. It is made out of a type of limestone, which does not exist in the region.
Every year in July/August, there is a Medieval festival in Silves. The streets around the castle turn into a medieval market place. People dress in medieval costumes, you will find traditional food and drinks you will find entertainment from the Middle Ages on the street. The festival lasts for 9 days, and Silves is the perfect town to hold this festival. Although this festival is quite popular and it can get quite busy, it is a unique experience.
Armação de Pêra
The coast of Armação de Pêra has two completely different sections: the rocky coast with high cliffs and some beautiful small beaches (from Armação de Pêra towards the west) and a 5 km long sandy beach (fantastic for seaside walks) from Armação towards the east. This beach is one of the best and most famous in the Algarve. Armação was founded as a fishing village (the name ‘Armação’ means tuna fishing base). Until the 18th century the fishermen lived in the neighbouring villages of Pêra and Alcantarilha. But when a fortress was built in Armação to defend the coast against the pirates, the fishermen felt safe enough to build their homes near the fishing base. As in Albufeira, the fishing harbor is on the beach, where you can see many small fishing boats and the normal activities of the fishermen.
The name of this village has an Arabian origin, meaning ‘small bridge’. In the Parish Church there is a Bone’s Chapel (in Portuguese: Capela dos Ossos), which is decorated with human skulls and bones.
São Bartolomeu de Messines
The village of São Bartolomeu de Messines is an important centre of agriculture. The three naves of the Parish Church are divided by very interesting columns, which represent ropes. In Messines you can see the famous orange groves of Silves (which produce 20% of the Portuguese oranges) and the two large dams called ‘barragens’. These dams are used for the irrigation of the agriculture.
Silves – Secret tips
Take a tour with Bulldog Buggies across the nature around Silves. This tour has been rated #1 thing to do in Silves by the TripAdvisor community.
The most beautiful sight of the town is from across the hills, which overlook Silves. Here you can see the orange trees of the countryside, with the picturesque town in the background. To get to there, cross the Roman bridge and follow the road in the direction of the train station.
The best way to get to Silves is by car. Although there is public transport by bus, the buses do not run very frequently. There is a train station 2 kilometres south of the town. When you do go by public transport, make sure you check the timetable beforehand.
If you feel like you want to explore the nature in a traditonal way, you can take a horse ride in the hills around Silves.
Silves is built on a hill. Walking around Silves can thus be quite tiring. The best is to wear runners or sandals when exploring the town by foot.