This town in Portugal’s Centro Region is rather low-key, except for one blockbuster monument: The spellbinding Monastery of Alcobaça. In 2007 this World Heritage Gothic complex was declared one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. The monument is the final resting place for the 14th-century King Pedro I and his star-crossed lover, Inês de Castro, whose lives were haunted by tragedy.
Meanwhile the technical accomplishments throughout the monastery almost beggar belief. After this you could stay on the monastery trail, stopping at two more close by. There are more museums and sights to keep you in town, while the awe-inspiring Atlantic coast is only 15 minutes by car.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Alcobaça:
1. Alcobaça Monastery
The first ever Gothic building in Portugal, this royal monastery has astonishing workmanship from a succession of artistic movements.
The church nave from the 12th century is the purest expression of that early Gothic design, 20 metres in height and 17 just metres, lending it a supernatural lightness.
The workmanship throughout is dazzling, whether on the Manueline portal to the sacristy or in the Gothic and Renaissance Cloister of Silence.
There are also gripping stories to uncover, like the forbidden love between Pedro I and his mistress Inês de Castro, who was murdered by Pedro’s father Afonso IV. The masonry on their 14th-century tombs, commissioned by Pedro himself, is incomparable.
2. Museu do Vinho de Alcobaça
In an old winery, this museum charts the achievements of one José Raposo de Magalhães, a 19th-century producer who changed Alcobaça’s viticulture forever.
In the 1870s he took over this winery equipping it with the latest technology and applying all the new scientific advanced made in the field of grape cultivation and fermentation.
The museum and its collection are his legacy, and there are more than 8,500 items to view, like portable presses, barrels, historic labels, bottles, farming tools and copper stills, collected across Portugal.
All the while you’ll be given an insightful tour through the cellars and distillery, with a tasting session to look forward to at the end.
3. Castelo de Alcobaça
At the crest of a high hill on the edge of town are the ruins of Alcobaça’s castle.
It has been this way since it was decommissioned and quarried during the reign of Queen Maria II in the 1830s.
The site goes back at least as far as the Moors, and after the Reconquista in the 12th century it was donated to the Cistercian order, whose monks planted vines on the slope, literally sowing the seeds of the local wine industry.
And although the castle has been abandoned for almost 200 years there are large portions of the walls and keep to pore over.
Best of all though is the unbroken view of the town and monastery at the foot of the hill and the Serra dos Candeeiros on the horizon to the east.
4. Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Cós
After the Monastery of Alcobaça the next stop on the trail is in the village of Cós in the same municipality.
It was established in the 12th century, sometime after Alcobaça as a place for widows who wanted to lead a monastic life.
Eventually it became a regional community for Cistercian nuns, and was rebuilt with its current design in the 1600s.
While the outside might look reserved the nave and chancel have striking proportions.
The choir has 106 seats, and there are coffered ceilings, azulejos from the 1600s and 1700s and altar with rich gilded woodwork.
5. Praia dos Salgados
With the Silver Coast in range you could pass a sunny afternoon at the beach.
Much of the coast in this region has unfettered nature and crashing Atlantic surf.
And Praia do Salgado ticks all of those boxes.
In summer you can lounge on the white sand and watch the mammoth waves.
Often these waters aren’t safe for more than dipping your toes in the wash.
That takes nothing away from the scenery, and that wide tranche of perfect sand and high, tree-less hills coated with heather, juniper and pine scrub.
6. Baia de São Martinho do Porto
Also in the Alcobaça municipality, and a short way down from Praia do Salgado is an equally beautiful beach that couldn’t be more different.
Baia de São Martinho do Porto is what remains of a huge coastal lagoon, which once extended many kilometres into the interior.
Now it’s a big bay, the shape of a clam shell, almost totally enclosed by cliffs save for a slender channel between two promontories.
During the Portuguese Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries these sheltered waters were an anchorage for caravels.
And unlike most beaches nearby, kids are safe to play in the water here.
7. Ruínas da Capela de Santana
Those headlands defending the entrance to the bay at São Martinho do Porto are spellbinding and merit a closer look.
You can do this on a trail that takes you to the southern lip.
And even though the awe-inspiring terrain might make the route look challenging, this is a light walk that almost anyone can do.
The panoramas at the end are your reward, taking in the ocean, the entirety of the bay and the resort of São Martinho.
Also up here are the ruins of a chapel, built in 1712 and left to disintegrate slowly over the last 50 years.
8. Nazaré Lighthouse
This lighthouse is atop a narrow promontory and embedded in a 16th-century maritime fort.
The architecture is interesting, but takes a back seat to what confronts you below it: The sight of the sea breaking against the jagged rocks is both spectacular and terrifying.
That’s down to an underwater canyon a short way out generating monster rolling waves.
When the conditions are right, between October and March, the surf can hit unbelievable heights, and people are mad enough to ride it and break records in the process.
9. Nazaré Funicular
There’s more drama in Nazaré thanks to the promontory rearing up behind the waterfront neighbourhoods.
At the top is a small village, O Sítio with a sanctuary, but until this funicular was laid in the 1890s the pilgrimage to the sanctuary was onerous.
Wealthier pilgrims were literally pulled up the incline on carpets! The original steam locomotives are long gone, replaced in the 60s with an electric system and updated again in the 2000s.
The trains depart at short intervals and make light work of the 42% incline.
10. Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré
O Sítio is a cute little community, and of course the views are marvellous, encompassing the full length of Praia do Salgado, as well as the bay at São Martinho behind.
The sanctuary has a back-story steeped in legend: The sheriff of Porto de Mós was saved from falling off the cliff during a hunt by invoking the Virgin Mary, and this chapel was supposed to have been built in memory of the event.
The sanctuary church is from the 1300s, but was renovated right up to the 19th century.
The chancel has an elaborate gilt-wood altar and coffered ceiling, while the blue and white tile panels in the transept portray passages from the bible like Jonah and the Whale.
These were painted by the Dutchman Willem van der Kloet in 1708.
11. Batalha Monastery
With another UNESCO World Heritage monastery 15 minutes from Alcobaça you can continue the theme.
Batalha (Battle) was started in 1386 to commemorate the Portuguese victory over Spain at the Battle of Aljubarrota the year before.
It would take more than a century to complete and the result of that labour is one of Europe’s finest Gothic monuments.
The stonework in the nave (towering vaults), King John I Cloister, Unfinished Chapel and Founders’ Chapel is simply mesmerising.
The latter holds the delicately carved tombs of King John I and his queen Philippa of Lancaster, as well as their four sons.
One of these was Henry the Navigator who helped claim Madeira, the Azores and parts of West Africa for Portugal in the 15th century.
12. Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros
The rounded chalk peaks of these mountain ranges have a cinematic quality that you can appreciate on walks, bike rides and horse treks.
But for all the flowing beauty over ground, there’s even more going on below the surface where subterranean rivers have hollowed out deep cave systems.
No fewer than four have been made accessible to the public: Mira d’Aire, Moeda, Santo António and Alvados.
Another natural sight worth going the extra mile for is on the eastern slopes of the Serra de Aire where dinosaur footprints from the 175 million years ago were discovered in a quarry.
These were left by sauropods, measure almost a metre in length and are some of the best-defined in the world.
13. Parque dos Monges
A family option just outside Alcobaça, this park has a loose medieval theme.
You pay a small fee to enter, and then the attractions and activities have additional price.
Kids can go canoeing on the park’s lake, take part in archery or climbing, ride the Tyrolean or visit the animal enclosures with wallabies, turtles, monkeys and alpacas.
There’s also a recreated medieval village and shop with traditional delicacies, while you can watch historical re-enactments with knights on horseback.
And apart from that the park has big inviting lawns with lots of shade, so you could just seek out a quiet spot and have a relaxed family picnic.
When the red flag has been hoisted on the beaches your alternative is this waterpark on high ground next to Nazaré.
It’s a relatively modest size, but has enough to keep youngsters happy, particularly kids aged nine or younger.
For toddlers and smaller children there’s a shallow pool with a playground and obstacles to climb over.
There are also four slides for older kids and a 25-metre pool for swimming or just cooling off.
Animal handlers visit the park with snakes and birds of prey, and there’s program of activities on the grassy areas so nobody gets bored.
15. Food and Drink
If you buy one souvenir in Alcobaça it has to be a bottle of ginja.
With an intense ruby colour, this is a cherry liqueur made from a type of sour cherry grown locally and following a recipe handed down by Cistercian monks.
Also passed on by Alcobaça monastic communities are a host of confectionery recipes, all using egg yolks.
Pão de ló is a fluffy sponge cake and pudim de ovos is a type of flan covered with a sweet syrup.
A classic main course that has been around for centuries is frango na púcara, chicken cooked in a clay pot with carrots, ham, chouriço, butter, mustard, brandy and herbs.