An hour north of Lisbon, Leiria is a university town down the slope from its medieval castle. Kings John I and Denis I lived here and turned it from a tough fortress into a luxurious palace. King John also made his mark close by at the Batalha Monastery, a UNESCO site and vital piece of Portuguese heritage.
Around Leiria you’ll pass time in animated city squares and historic churches, browsing museums dedicated to the old printing and glassmaking trades. When the mercury rises in summer the coast with its generous sandy beaches and cool Atlantic air is just a short, scenic drive to the west.
Lets explore the best things to do in Leiria:
1. Leiria Castle
Few medieval castles have been adapted into palaces as well as the majestic Leiria Castle, and it’s among the most distinguished in the country.
There were three building phases, each giving the castle a different look and role.
The initial construction was during the re-conquest of Portugal from the Moors under its first King Afonso Henriques.
Later there were Gothic extensions under Kings Denis I (14th century) and John I (15th century) adding a graceful palace connecting to the keep as a home for royalty.
One of many delightful elements here is the loggia, completed in the early 15th century by King John.
2. Museu da Imagem em Movimento
Within the castle walls is a museum of the moving image, founded in 1996 in the former stables.
That date isn’t random as it marked a century of movies in Portugal.
The museum was set up to preserve and display recording, editing and presentation equipment from all periods: Movie buffs will be keen on the vintage cameras, lights and projectors, as well as more primitive gear like the zoetropes.
There are also pianos from silent movie theatres, antique cinema ticket machines, vintage reel canisters and some interactive games for children.
3. Museu de Leiria
This attraction is now a century old and was moved around a number of venues in the city before recently finding a permanent home in the defunct Convent of Santo Agostinho.
The exhibition is ordered chronologically and the prehistoric displays are particularly riveting; there are fossils discovered in Guimarota of 150 million-year-old animals, and the Menino do Lapedo, the remains of a child from the Upper Palaeolithic found in the Lapedo Valley.
There are also Iron Age ceramics, artefacts from the Roman city of Collipo and religious art from dissolved convents and churches.
4. Leiria Cathedral
A Portuguese National Monument, the cathedral dates to the 16th century and has a Mannerist shell, with Classical and Baroque interiors.
Like many of the buildings in Leiria, it almost collapsed in the 1755 earthquake.
And this explains the building’s hardy, buttressed appearance as it was reconstructed to be resilient.
There was more trouble on the way in 1810 when a fire during the Peninsular War with the French gutted the interiors.
So it stands more as an interesting testament to Leiria’s challenges than a dazzling monument, although the gilded Baroque altar inside is appropriately splendid.
5. Moinho do Papel
This medieval paper mill on the bank of the Lis River can be traced to 1411, when it was mentioned in King John I’s royal charter.
It was the first recorded paper mill in the country and in 1496 would influence the local printing industry when the Almanach Perpetuum by a Hebrew scholar became one of Portugal’s first printed books.
Before that the mill had been had been used to grind grain and produce oil.
When the interior was restored in 2009, each of those old applications was revived, but the best part is watching pulp and fabric being turned into sheets of paper before your eyes.
6. Praça Rodrigues Lobo
This central square is the hub of Leiria’s nightlife and a sociable place just to take the weight off for a few minutes and sip a coffee or cold drink.
The view helps too, as peeking above the buildings to the north are the wallsof Leiria’s castle.
The square is named in honour of one of Leiria’s most famous figures, the early-17th-century poet Rodrigues Lobo.
He was born into wealth but chose to write about the humble farmers working by the Lena and Lis Rivers.
Lobo is commemorated with a statue, erected in the southwest corner in 1923.
7. Igreja de São Pedro
Set near the castle is an absorbing little Romanesque church built around the same period.
For a short time this was Leiria’s cathedral, but after the 17th century it fell into disuse, and was repurposed as a theatre, barn and even a prison.
This makes it even more amazing that so much of the 12th and 13th-century carvings outside are still here.
Your attention will be on the main portal, which at the top has images of animals sculpted into the corbels supporting the cornice.
And below the archivolts are decorated with vegetal motifs and human faces.
8. Museu Escolar
In Marrazes, a couple of minutes east of the centre of Leiria, is a museum shedding light on Portuguese school life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It started out as a project at the local school, led by teachers to show students what school was like in days gone by.
But there was soon enough valuable material to open a museum in a separate building.
There’s furniture, antique toys, books and everyday items (slates, blackboards, erasers, clocks, crosses) from the classroom.
The museum is broken up into eight different rooms according to subjects like carpentry and geology, or time periods like the end of the monarchy, First Republic and the Dictatorship.
9. Pinhal de Leiria
As you leave the western edge of Leiria on the way to the villages of Marinha Grande and Vieira Leiria, the serene wooded landscape may seem completely natural, but humans had a big hand in this setting.
The Pinhal de Leiria is an 11,000-hectare forest of stone pines planted during the 13th-century reign of King Afonso III. This was to protect Leiria and its agriculture from encroaching sand dunes blown in from the coast, and you can visit these dunes on the edge of the forest.
The forest also had a part to play in the Age of Discovery when it provided a lot of the pine and resin for Portugal’s world-conquering fleet.
There are viewpoints, glades in the forest with picnic benches, cycling trails and the restorative banks of the River Moel.
10. Monastery of Batalha
A mere 15 minutes south of Leiria is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the country’s most prized monuments.
This was commissioned by King John I to memorialise the Christian victory against the Moors in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. The church, royal cloister, unfinished chapels and chapter house all warrant as much time as you can give them.
This is because of the wealth and complexity of the carvings, which were completed in the Gothic and early-15th-century Manueline style, blending High Gothic, Spanish Plateresque and Moorish architecture to create something uniquely Portuguese.
Out of everything the Founders’ Chapel is the part you can’t miss, containing the tomb of John I and Philippa his wife, as well as the 15th-century explorer Henry the Navigator.
11. Museu do Vidro
A few minutes west of Leiria on the way to the coast is the town of Marinha Grande, which is ensconced in that fragrant pine forest and used its abundance of sand to make glass.
The town is still Portugal’s largest glass manufacturer, and time-honoured methods have been taken over by modern moulding facilities.
The museum is installed in the 18th-century palace belonging to William Stephens, an English immigrant who was in charge of the Royal Glassworks in Marinha Grande in the 1770s.
In showcases you can marvel at artistic glazing, antique glasses and vases going back to the 18th century, and items produced in Portugal’s other glassmaking centres from the 1600s onwards.
12. Praia de São Pedro de Moel
If you’re hankering for the ocean air and a beautiful beach to laze on, you’re in luck, as this genteel coastal village is under 20 kilometres.
The drive will also take you through that pine forest, while the village has a lot of 19th century architecture, including the home of the turn-of-the-century poet Afonso Lopes Vieira . The waters are chilly, even in summer, and aren’t for casual swimmers or younger children; this is the Atlantic Coast after all, and is better suited to surfers and bodyboarders.
But really the allure lies in the beach itself, which is vast, and has white sand and lots of awesome to invigorate you, with rocky outcrops and soaring cliffs crested by a lighthouse.
13. Praia de Paredes da Vitória
Another beach that should be on your radar is this one a few kilometres down from São Pedro de Moel.
With hardly any tourist encroachment, there’s just a village and a long string of cliffs covered with vegetation behind this beach.
The soft pale sand disappears into the distance in either direction, while the village has the facilities to ensure a comfortable day in the sun.
The cliffs in Paredes da Vitória need a mention too, as these limestone and sandstone formations contain fossils from the Lower Jurassic Period, some 200 million years ago.
Only 20 minutes to the southeast is Portugal’s most cherished pilgrimage site.
It all began with Marian apparitions reported by shepherd children 100 years ago.
A sanctuary was built at the site, in an idyllic spot amid hills 350 metres above sea level.
People from all over the world make the journey, and for the non-religious you can just come to see one of Christendom’s gathering points in action.
The sightings were first reported on May 13, so Fátima gets especially busy on this date.
But the 13th of any month between May and October is also very popular, October being the last time Mary was seen here.
15. Local Cuisine
If you’re pootling about the old centre of Leiria and look in the windows of bakeries you’ll see these bright orange sweets in little paper cake cases.
They are a local speciality and known as Brisas do Lis, made from egg yolk, sugar and almonds and originally made by nuns at the defunct Santana Convent.
For savoury food there’s the typical morcela de arroz, a type of black pudding made with pig’s blood, rice, pork meat and various herbs and spices.
And for a traditional local meal try bacalhau com migas (cod baked with breadcrumbs), deep-fried whitebait, suckling pig or chanfana, a goat or lamb stew.
Leiria is also in the Encostas de Aire wine DOC famed for its light reds and fruity whites.