The town of Abrantes is commanded by a medieval castle above the right bank of the Tagus River, which bends past far below. The townscape is hilly but the surrounding countryside is flat, and Abrantes has a few lookouts where you watch over the river plain for miles. In the old town are sociable squares linked by slender cobblestone streets.
Nationally-listed churches and a host of undiscovered curiosities await in this pretty but untouristy town. And just next door is the cute village of Constância and another magnificent castle. Both the Tagus and the dammed Zêzere River just north of Abrantes have small beaches, and their slow-moving waters are safe to navigate on a kayak or canoe in summer.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Abrantes:
1. Castelo de Abrantes
On a 200-metre-high plateau over the town, Abrante’s castle was one of the Linha do Tejo, a sequence of 12th-century fortifications defending the north of Portugal at the River Tagus.
This was drawn up by the Knights Templar, and the castle would see action for the next hundred years as the Moors attempted to retake the town.
Nearly all the architecture today dates to a 17th-century refit during the Portuguese Restoration War when the walls were lowered and reinforced, while bastions were added in time for the Peninsular Wars in the 18th century.
For vestiges of the original medieval castle see the restored keep at the centre and sections of the battlements with distant panoramas of the Tagus Valley.
2. Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo
Inside the castle walls, standing proudly next to the keep is this Gothic church dating to the 1400s.
On this very space there probably would have been a temple in Roman times, as a marble statue was recovered in excavations (you can see this inside). The church is no longer a place of worship as it’s been turned into a small archaeological with revolving exhibits of Islamic ceramics, Roman stonework and Prehistoric hand-axes unearthed at the site.
The church was also the pantheon for the noble Almeida family, so there are some very ornate tombs to see, boasting Manueline masonry from the 1500s.
3. Old Quarter use squares
The historic centre of Abrantes is a pretty jumble of streets and squares on the slope blow the castle.
Many of the buildings are listed and a lot of the old-school family businesses have been handed down for generations.
The former site of the straw market, Praça Barão da Batalha is a meeting point and hang-out that was completely pedestrianised at the end of the 20th century.
At this time a set of bronze sculptures of people of different ages was installed on the terraces to represent the square’s conviviality.
On a rise south of the old centre is Abrantes’ municipal library.
Take a peek, because it’s in a converted 16th-century Dominican convent, and the old cloister with Doric columns has been integrated into the building.
4. Igreja de São Vicente
This wonderful National Monument was built by the Order of Christ, replacing an earlier church that had been in the town since the Reconquista.
The design is Mannerist, with classical columns, a pediment, niches and balustrade framing the portal, and a similar format used for the solemn altars inside.
The church has nine altars in all, including one in each of the three side chapels, and three at the end of each nave.
There’s a ton of precious liturgical sculpture, a fine pulpit and two beautiful tile panels recording the life of St Vincent.
Also see the Tuscan columns dividing the naves, and the lavish 18th-century baroque organ.
5. Praia Fluvial Aldeia do Mato
A mere 10 kilometres north of Abrantes is the Albufeira do Castelo do Bode, a reservoir filling the Zêzere Valley and created in the 1950s by the Castelo do Bode Dam.
If you’re searching for somewhere to cool off in the torrid summer months, look no further.
The beach has designated swimming areas in a green environment dominated by the aroma of pine trees Watersports like rowing, canoeing and wind surfing are offered at the nautical centre, and there are even occasional boat tours of the reservoir.
To see the dam come around to the village of Castelo do Bode where this megastructure dominates the valley.
6. Igreja de São João Baptista
Another of Abrantes’ National Monument is this cultured Mannerist church from the 16th century.
At this time the original 12th-century building was completely remodelled and expanded, with two additional naves placed either side of the original central one.
Check out the wooden panels on the ceiling and the 17th-century Mannerist altars by the master sculptor Dionisio Rodrigues.
In the 1700s these were also embellished with gilt wood in the Baroque style.
7. Jardim da República
The best place to park with a book, the Jardim da República is up the hill from the old town, next to the municipal library.
Until 1940 this was a regular square, but in an effort to beautify the town in the 1940s lawns and flowerbeds were laid out, and a variety of trees like chestnuts and cedars were planted, earning it the popular label “Jardim”. There’s a small cafe here with outdoor seating, and where the garden is paved it has patterned calçada portuguesa (Portuguese pavement). In the centre is a monument from 1940 for the war dead from the Battle of the Lys in 1918. It was the first sculpture in Portugal to be made from reinforced concrete.
8. Outeiro de São Pedro
With tall hills defending Abrantes, and the River Tagus curling around the town, there’s no lack of belvederes to walk or drive to for uplifting views of the water, town or countryside.
The pick is the Outeiro de São Pedro on a hilltop to the east, with a panorama of the Tagus to catch your breath.
This spot has been put to various uses down the centuries, as the site of a church in medieval times and a small fort in the early 19th century.
There’s a local legend that the great general Nuno Álvares Pereira camped here on the way to lead Portugal to victory against the Spanish at the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, and a monument to mark this was built in 1968.
9. Coleção Visitável da Cavalaria Portuguesa
There’s still a military presence in Abrantes thanks to the RAME (Military Emergency Support Regiment). Their HQ is on Avenida de Aljubarrota and is actually open to the public on Fridays, weekends and holidays, and visitable for the rest of the week by appointment.
In a beautifully presented space is an exhibition for the history of the Portuguese cavalry, broken down into chronological order.
You’ll get a potted history of the major conflicts to unfold in Portugal, and a general account of the use of horses for by the military starting in prehistory and culminating with international peacekeeping operations.
On the left bank of the Tagus is a riverside where you can look back at the city for a while.
There’s a touch of mystery about the location as well, thanks to the Mourões, a line of stone piles.
Their purpose had been completely forgotten by the 20th century and there was a theory that they belonged to a lost Roman bridge.
The truth is that they’re the supports for a military pier from the beginning of the 19th century.
These piles are listed as “property of public interest” and set a picturesque scene with the city and river in the background.
11. Núcleo Museológico da Quinta das Sentieiras
The Quinta das Sentieras a couple of minutes from Abrantes is a gorgeous 18th-century estate that has been turned into upmarket holiday accommodation and a museum.
There’s 55 hectares of grounds and a lovely mansion that hosted kings, queens, barons and baronesses in its day.
The museum space is in the quinta’s converted stables, where antique farming equipment and tools for a variety of trades based on the estate are on show.
There are ploughs, scythes, rakes, forks, barrels, balers, gourds and vintage glassware, with neat descriptions of each piece and what it was used for.
Ten minutes to the west is Constância, an extremely pretty village with a labyrinth of scurrying streets at the confluence of the Tagus and Zêzere Rivers.
It is all whitewashed old houses with brightly painted borders, on cobbled lanes beckoning you to hushed squares with fountains.
The river banks lined with gardens that have willow trees and are also alive with water activities like canoeing in the summer.
One figure eternally associated with Constância is Luís de Camões, the seminal 16th-century Portuguese poet who lived here and is recognised with a large bronze bust.
13. Centro Ciência Viva de Constância
There’s an astronomy park isolated in the hills above Constância only ten minutes from Abrantes.
The attraction opened in 2004 and has exhibits and programmes to keep kids and adults engaged.
The park’s interactive exhibits are all open-air and surrounded by pines.
These include a model of the solar system that you can move and a large celestial sphere that allows you to stand inside.
There’s also a planetarium, an auditorium with a live feed from the telescope, and if you’re from a big city you should come back in the evening for star gazing as the skies are phenomenal.
14. Castelo de Almourol
This mighty castle defends a small rocky island on the Tagus and was built and manned by the Knights Templar.
It was part of that line of defences along the river devised during the Reconquista in the 12th century, although the site had also been used by the Moors, and the Visigoths and Romans before them.
You reach it by crossing the river in a boat, which is an undeniably epic way to approach a castle.
Given its great age the castle is essentially just a shell with a tower surrounded by crenellated walls, but there are plenty of information boards, and marvellous views from the roof.
If you’re searching for something typical to take home with you, a selection of marmalades, jams and conserves have been made in Abrantes since the time of the convents.
Honey has been cultivated here since the 12th century and is part of the Ribatejo Denomination of Origin.
There are different types, from the dark eucalyptus honey, to the lighter varieties using pollen from rosemary and heather.
Also look out for local olive oil, the range of cured sausages, and brejo da Gaia goats’ cheese.
Classic dishes at traditional restaurants are a cabbage and bean soup, roast cod, eel stew, roast goat kid, lamprey rice and entrecote steak with migas: These are leftover breadcrumbs soaked in water, olive oil and garlic and then fried.