One step in from the coast, Caldas da Rainha is a spa town founded by a queen. In the 15th century Eleanor of Viseu discovered locals bathing in the strange-smelling springs, and so began Europe’s first hydrotherapy resort since Roman times. People descended on the town from far and wide in the 1800s, when it was furnished with a tasteful park and spa complex, now restored as a museum.
As a place where nobility and the bourgeoisie gathered, Caldas da Rainha has lots of distinguished architecture from the Baroque to Art Nouveau. And you will never lack for things to do, with the medieval village of Óbidos next door and two of Portugal’s best beaches moments away.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Caldas da Rainha:
1. Parque Dom Carlos I
There’s a taste of Belle Époque spa life at this graceful park, named after King Carlos I, who ruled Portugal at the turn of the century.
In the late-1700s the vineyards and olive groves that used to be here were cleared to offer a space for guests at the thermal hospital to take walks.
This evolved into a Romantic garden with statues, a boating lake, lawns, a sweet bandstand, a picnic area, bar with terrace and paths twisting through woodland.
The old hospital pavilions complete the scene and are reflected in the lake’s waters.
2. Museu José Malhoa
José Malhoa was a prominent Naturalist painter, born in Caldas da Rainha and active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He is made his name with folk scenes and a masterful use of light.
This museum named after him is in the boathouse in Parque Dom Carlos I and has a statue of the painter in front and a handful of his works in its galleries.
These are joined by sketches, sculptures and medallions from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as elaborate traditional pottery.
3. Museu de Cerâmica
In a town with Caldas da Rainha’s reputation for ceramics, this attraction is one not to miss.
First off the setting is a dream, on a Romantic 19th-century estate, built for the 2nd Viscount of Sacavém, who was an avid ceramics collector, maker and patron.
He even initiated his own workshop on the estate in the 1890s.
Now it’s an unmatched summary of the town’s ceramic tradition, with examples going back to the 1600s, but has also brought together pieces from all of Portugal’s major factories and overseas.
Be sure to see the anthropomorphic vessels made by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, which have become a Portuguese icon.
4. Museu do Ciclismo
In an exquisite Art Nouveau townhouse facing Parque Dom Carlos I is a free museum mapping the history of cycling in Portugal.
This is managed by the city and a handful of national cycling associations.
If you’re into competitive cycling you’ll be enthralled by the exhibits from the Porto to Lisbon race in 1911, and the first five instalments of the Volta a Portugal from 1927 on; there are jerseys, posters and many vintage bicycles, among which are several models from the legendary Spanish Zeus company.
5. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Pópulo
A Portuguese national monument, this church took shape at the end of the 1400s.
The man in charge was Mateus Fernandes, a master of the Manueline style who spent more than 25 years working on the World Heritage Batalha Monastery.
The surviving decoration from this time is in the vault, which has elaborate ribbonwork and keystones with floral motifs and a central coat of arms.
This is above a marvellous altarpiece, carved from marble in the late Renaissance.
The rest of the church was transformed over time, with a dramatic change coming in the 1600s when the walls of the nave were given a layer of atapete (carpet-patterned) azulejos.
6. Museu do Hospital e das Caldas
In the regal surrounds of the old thermal hospital is a museum about Caldas da Rainha and the hot springs that drew people to the town.
It’s on the site of the Caza Real, where Eleanor of Viseu, the queen consort would stay during her visits in the 15th century.
There are galleries devoted to her time here, as well as the reign of John V, who developed the spring complex in the 18th century.
If you work in healthcare or like to see how medicine has evolved you’ll enjoy the old medical instruments and old photographs of the wards.
7. Fabrica de Faianças Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro
True aficionados of Cadas da Rainha’s faience can come to the source, at this workshop that was set up by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro in 1884. For more than 130 years this brand has produced ceramics that are functional and decorative at the same time.
It’s no exaggeration to say that some of these designs produced are in Portugal’s cultural memory, whether it’s the emblematic tiles with vine leaves and corn, or the figures of Zé Povinho, a symbol for the Portuguese working class.
The factory shop has both contemporary and traditional designs (using the 19th-century moulds!), still combining usability and ornament.
8. Praia da Foz do Arelho
On the coast is a wonderful beach that almost defies description: It’s a sandbank where the Óbidos Lagoon enters the ocean.
So on one side you have the roaring Atlantic waves, but you need only walk a few metres across to the inward-facing beach lapped by the warm and transparent waters of the lagoon.
Provided you look out for the changing tides, children can swim and play here in safety, which is quite rare on the Atlantic shoreline.
There’s also an esplanade beside the beach with ice cream stands and restaurants, all with vistas to savour of the lagoon and the cliffs in the distance.
9. Praça da República
This long rectangular plaza is the town’s nerve centre, and has no shortage of postcard-worthy sights.
The square is hemmed by handsome townhouses painted in a variety of colours or with a layer of geometric tiles.
The big landmark is the city hall, built in the Baroque style in the 1700s.
Even the ground itself is easy on the eye, as it’s paved with calçada portuguesa in a chequered pattern laid out in 1883. The square’s local name is Praça da Fruta, as there are market stalls here every day, selling fruit, vegetables and other produce from the region.
It’s meant to be the largest open air farmers’ market in Portugal.
10. Ermida de São Sebastião
While you’re visiting Praça da República take a minute to find this cute chapel, which has been on one of the side streets since the 1500s.
The architecture is Mannerist and Baroque, and although the building looks rather plain from the outside, the interior decoration has earned it a “Property of Public Interest” listing.
On the walls are tile panels, painted and fixed in 1600s, and recounting the life of St Sebastian, the chapel’s patron saint.
11. Óbidos Village
One of the many advantages of staying in Caldas da Rainha is that you’re a stone’s throw from one of Portugal’s most beautiful villages.
Óbidos is also up there with the country’s most popular day-trip destinations, so you’ll appreciate being able to get in and out early in the day.
Either way, the hilltop enclosure is somewhere you’ve got to explore.
There’s a lattice of quaint cobblestone streets, lined by whitewashed houses with artisan shops for souvenirs.
The Porta da Senhora da Graça is the main entrance to the walled town, and is festooned with beautiful azulejo panels in the 18th century.
12. Castle of Óbidos
The castle that dwarfs the village of Óbidos was voted one of Portugal’s seven wonders in 2007. The village is enclosed by its outer walls, while the keep is further up the slope and has been turned into a pousada (heritage hotel). So although you can’t go inside you can console yourself with a walk along the battlements, which will send you straight back to medieval times.
The vistas on both sides are heart-stopping, over the terracotta roofs of the village, or out towards the lagoon, mountains or the mosaic of farmland with villages that are little white clusters from this height.
13. São Martinho do Porto
Sun-seekers are truly spoiled in Caldas da Rainha, because another of the top beaches in the country is only 15 minutes up the road.
São Martinho do Porto has a perfectly symmetrical bay, defended by cliffs that circle round and almost meet at the entrance.
This leaves a scallop-shaped expanse of rippling water, protected from the ocean currents.
The beach has fine pale sand, perfect to flop on and do nothing in summer.
The scenery deserves to be seen in winter too, and you can ramble up from the beach along a trail that will bring you to the ruins of a chapel on the southern clifftop.
Call it hyperbole, but you cannot find a better location for water-based fun in Europe.
The steady winds blowing off the Atlantic are the stuff of dreams for windsurfers and kite-surfers.
But when you combine them with the crystalline waters of the Óbidos lagoon, or the sheltered ocean in the São Martinho bay, you’ve got something very special.
If you’re a novice there’s a catalogue of companies that will give you the tuition to get going.
And we haven’t even mentioned Peniche, 25 minutes down the coast, and christened Capital of the Wave.
It’s easily one of the best surf spots in Europe.
15. Food and Drink
One of the souvenirs you can pick up in Óbidos is ginjinha, which is a dark ginja berry (sour cherry) infusion.
In Óbidos it will be poured into a chocolate cup that you’ll eat when you’ve finished the drink.
Wine is also grown in this temperate ocean climate, and the Encosta da Quinta winery takes you behind the scenes and invites you to try its light rosés, reds and whites.
For food, it seems like every Portuguese town has a different way of preparing cod.
Caldas da Rainha is no different, and here the speciality is baked cod and potatoes that are crushed with olive oil and garlic.