Perched on the edge of wide Rio Guadiana, low-key Vila Real de Santo António's small pedestrian centre is architecturally impressive: it was founded after the 1755 earthquake to defend the region from neighbouring Spain, and was expanded in 1774 by the Marquês de Pombal using the same grid pattern of streets as Lisbon’s Baixa district. The town's square named in his honour – Praça Marquês de Pombal – is the lively focal point of the centre. Cobbles radiate out from a statue of King Don José I, who was on the throne at the time of Pombal's efforts.
The impressive fortress of Castro Marim lies 4km to the north, and the large, sandy Monte Gordo beach is 4km to the southwest. With cheaper prices across the river in Spain, easily reached by car ferry or road, many travellers base themselves on the Spanish side and visit the area as a day trip.