Commanding vineyards and golden plains, Estremoz is a historic city within two layers of defensive walls. The upper core was a medieval home to royalty, where the Queen Elizabeth of Aragon passed away in the 14th century. In the lower reaches there’s a newer wall from the 17th century responding to the threat from Spain after the Restoration War.
Estremoz has the nickname “Ciudad Branca”, the White City for its profusion of white marble that is quarried close by. Houses and monuments across the town are made from this material, granting them an irresistible lustre.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Estremoz:
1. Castelo de Estremoz
The castle rules over the town from the highest point, and has a glossy marble keep from the 14th century.
At this great height you’re met with awesome vistas over Alentejo’s golden plains at almost every turn.
At the foot of the 27 metre-high keep there’s a square with a statue of Elizabeth of Aragon, who died at the castle in 1336, and a ceremonial hall that has a sumptuous marble arcade.
Portions of the castle are a pousada (historical hotel), but day-trippers get a lot of access and can scale the keep to get a closer look at its Gothic trefoil windows and pointed merlons.
2. Capela da Rainha Santa
In the castle the rooms once occupied by Elizabeth of Aragon in the 14th century were turned into a chapel after she was beatified.
She had been famed for her sense of charity and became a saint in 1625. Work began on the chapel just after the Portuguese victory in the Battle of the Lines of Elvas in 1659 to give thanks.
The opulent Baroque oil paintings and blue and white tiles on the walls recount moments from the life of the queen, including the miracles attributed to her.
Below the gallery there’s a marble panel with an inscription from 1808 praising the saint for protecting Estremoz from French looting in the Peninsular Wars.
3. Castelo de Évora Monte
A little way southwest of Estremoz, this castle protects a village on a tall escarpment.
Although some sort of fortress has been here since the Romans the tale of the current Gothic and Renaissance building begins in 1306. By the 14th century it was in the hands of the Braganza family, which gave it a Renaissance redesign following an earthquake in the 16th century.
Despite the graceful appearance, the building’s purpose was purely defensive, and was never intended as a residence.
The interiors are still bare, but warrant a look for their columns and vaults.
The countryside from up here is magnificent and you’ll be able to spot the castle over the plains in Estremoz.
4. Museu Municipal Prof. Joaquim Vermelho
In the upper enclosure, the municipal museum is in a 16th-century hall facing the castle keep.
The building has had a lot of jobs in its time, from hospice in the 1500s to a vocational school in the 1800s.
The museum is a successor to that institution, highlighting the local crafts in Estremoz in the 18th and 19th centuries.
There’s carved marble, painted Alentejo furniture, pottery and items made from cork.
You can also see inside a local home from the period, where cookware and other utensils are on display.
There’s also a functioning workshop on site where you can watch potters making the town’s clay figurines (Bonecos).
5. Núcleo Medieval de Estremoz
Conquering the slope to reach the older, upper part of Estemoz feels like a real adventure as you approach the Porta de Santarém and the crenellated walls from the west.
These once had 22 towers and mostly date to the 13th century during the time of Afonso III and Denis I, but on the corners bastions were constructed much later to deal with artillery.
The moment you pass through the arch and head up to Largo Dom Dinis everything feels much older.
Some of the buildings have seen better days, but the mullioned windows and Gothic pointed arches hint at the age of this quarter.
6. Lower Town
Most of Estremoz now sits outside the ring of 13th century walls and this settlement has been growing since medieval times.
After the Portuguese Restoration in the 17th century a new line of fortifications was drawn up to contain the city’s outer reaches.
The “Segunda Linha” was ordered by King John IV in 1642 and he recruited the Dutch engineer Joannes Ciermans for the job.
These walls have the low profile of Vauban’s famous defences in France, and are broken by four gates: Évora, Santa Catarina, Santo António and Currais, each with its own historical details worth checking out, whether it’s a coat of arms, drawbridge or sculpted relief.
7. Estremoz Marble
Only Carrara in Italy exports more marble than Estremoz, and the quarries outside this town have been exploited since Roman times.
Marble is almost everywhere you look in Estremoz, on the facades of buildings, in lintels and window frames, on doorsteps, fountains and even in the mosaics on the pavement.
Of course this lends the town a regal appearance and atmosphere, and if you’d like to know more you can consult the tourist office.
They will put you in touch with working quarries where great slabs are sliced from the ground, or a stonemasonry workshop like Oficina Avelino Lopes, where the stone is shaped with effortless skill.
8. Igreja de Santa Maria
This Mannerist church from the last decades of the 16th century is another of the upper town’s ensemble of Portuguese National Monuments.
What excites the experts about this building is its perfect symmetry in accordance with Mannerist principles.
The interior is divided into three equal naves, and the length of the building is equal to the width and height, although the chancel was extended in a later renovation.
The church’s strict geometry sets it apart, as both the outside and interior have very sober decoration, which another trait of Portugal’s Mannerist architecture.
9. Centro De Ciência Viva De Estremoz
Parents escaping the summer sun could bring their little ones to this interactive science museum.
The hands-on galleries deal with topics like evolution, the solar system, the earth’s geology and volcanoes, as well as the physics of atmospheric pressure and how it applies to underwater exploration.
Grown-ups will also be captivated by the museum’s building, which is the Renaissance Convento das Maltesas (Maltese Convent). This National Monument also houses the town hall and got its name as at one time it was the only convent for the Maltese order in Portugal.
10. Praça Luís de Camões
This square in the lower town has a lots of gravitas, facing down the slope and hemmed by handsome townhouses, one with a beautiful loggia.
The pavement here is laid with calçada Portuguesa in eye-catching patterns.
In centre of the square on a compass mosaic is the town’s pillory, a symbol of municipal autonomy and justice.
This dates to the start of the 16th century when King Manuel I was on the throne.
Originally it was set in front of the castle keep, but was shifted around before ending up in its present location in 1916. Despite its mixed past, the pillory’s shaft, capital and pinnacle all have their original Manueline masonry.
11. Bonecos de Estremoz
If you need a souvenir or gift that can only have come from Estremoz, bonecos are brightly-painted ceramic figurines that have been crafted in the town since the 1600s at the latest.
They are an enduring part of its cultural identity and are made by just a handful of artisans who learned the skill from their parents.
The statuettes have a rustic, naive quality and are of nativity characters or illustrious personalities from the city’s past like Elizabeth of Aragon.
Over time more than 100 characters have been inventoried.
12. Mercado Semanal de Estremoz
Rossio Marquês de Pombal is a gigantic public space in the middle of the old town, claimed to be the largest square in Portugal.
There’s a superb perspective of the castle from down here, and on each side rise the towers of another church or convent.
This is all the scene for the weekly market on Saturday mornings.
The square is crammed with stalls trading fruit and vegetables, cereals, herbs, cheese, olives and olive oil, cured sausages and even live animals.
Running at the same time is an antiques fair where people sell anything from old gramophone records to stamps, coins, furniture, porcelain and kitchen implements.
13. Teatro Bernardim Ribeiro
The town’s resplendent theatre opened in 1922 and has an Italianate design inspired by the Renaissance.
In the auditorium the masterful stuccowork was designed and painted by the feted artist and interior designer Benvindo Ceia.
On the front of the stalls you’ll read the names of the most prestigious figures in Portuguese theatre at the start of the 20th century.
The venue stages plays, concerts, dance performances, opera and poetry readings.
There are also movie screenings for new releases, and these are in English with Portuguese subtitles.
14. Festival da Rainha
Estremoz puts on a medieval fair on a weekend towards the end of May.
This is a big celebration of the town’s heritage, with special attention for Queen Elizabeth of Aragon.
There are lots of fun events going over the weekend: You can catch choreographed swordfights, dance recitals, jousts, roving theatre groups and bards.
Artisans and traders from far and wide set their stalls up at the market, and this is a great chance to get your hands on Alentejo’s prized olive oil or presunto (cured ham).
15. Wine Tourism
The sunny climate and soil in Estremoz support a rare diversity of wine grapes.
For reds, the Periquita, Aragonez and Trincadeira varieties account for more than three quarters of all the wines produced in this area.
For whites Perrum, Roupeiro, Tamarez and Rabo de Ovelha all do very well in the clay-rich earth and plentiful sunshine.
And if you want to go to the source, there are as many as 20 wine estates around Estremoz that are open to visitors.
Begin your journey with Tiago Cabaço, Herdade dos Servas and the Adega Vila Santa, run by celebrity winemaker João Portugal Ramos.