Vila Real de Santo António has a relatively recent history. The region was sparsely populated prior to its foundation. For centuries, Castro Marim was the only town protecting the area from neighbouring hostile Spain. But on December 30, 1773, during the reign of Joseph I, a royal decree was signed demanding the creation of a new town in the tip of the Algarve. Santo António de Arenilha was a medieval piscatorial town that was destroyed by the sea, possibly by a tsunami triggered by the devastating 1754 Lisbon earthquake. Yet the new town inherited part of its predecessor’s name; “Vila Real de Santo António” means “Royal Town of Santo António”.
Vila Real de Santo António is architecturally like nowhere else in the Algarve. Submerged by the sea in the 17th century, it was subsequently rebuilt by the Marquês de Pombal who was a very influential Royal Minister in the 18th Century, along a grid system; the town features a perfectly rectangular street pattern reminiscent of Lisbon’s downtown Baixa district. Vila Real de Santo António was erected at great speed, in only two years time and construction took place between 1774 and 1776. Marquis of Pombal designed the town in a Pombaline orthogonal grid. In a pioneering technique, entire buildings were prefabricated in pieces outside the city, and then transported to their final destination to be assembled. This procedure permitted a fast and methodical construction of the town. It soon became the seat of the municipality, stripping the once important town of Cacela from this status. Cacela had been steadily declining due to the effects of the earthquake and also English pirate attacks.
Vila Real de Santo António often run together as is a city, civil parish, and municipality in the Algarve. It is one of only three municipalities in Portugal without territorial continuity, the others being Oliveira de Frades and Montijo. Vila Real de Santo António’s territory comprehends two parts, with the municipal seat located in the eastern part. Both the city and the municipality are the south eastern most of Portugal.
The city is situated next to the Guadiana River. Before the construction of the Guadiana International Bridge it used to be the easiest access to Portugal from Andalusia. Nevertheless, international movement of people and goods is still intense and visible in the city. With the construction just to the north of the town of a new bridge in 1991 across the River Guadiana now provides rapid connecting with Seville and the rest of Spain.
Between the town and the Ocean is a popular beach resort area named Monte Gordo that offers the tourist kilometres of sea washed beach lined with a pine forest and safe bathing.
Its extensive stretch of sandy beaches attracts both national and international tourists, especially during the warm season. Monte Gordo is particularly visitor-oriented, counting with many hotels, bars and a casino.