At the centre of a medieval pine plantation, Marinha Grande is a town that grew around Portugal’s Royal Glassworks in the 1700s. It has used the surfeit of pine resin and sand to fashion glassware since the 1700s, and this eventually evolved in a plastics industry that is still the largest employer. But that doesn’t tell the full story, as the Atlantic Coast also falls within the municipality.
The cute resort of São Pedro de Moel attracted the upper crust in the 19th century, while Vieira de Leiria was a more traditional fishing community, and both deserve your time. Both have accommodating sandy beaches that are lashed by the Atlantic surf.
Lets explore the best things to do in Marinha Grande:
1. Museu do Vidro
Marinha Grande and glassmaking have gone hand in hand for hundreds of years.
The museum documenting this relationship is in the Palácio Stephens, an 18th-century Neoclassical palace, the home of Guilherme Stephens, which was attached to town’s resin factory.
He was an English entrepreneur who made a lot of money during the reconstruction of Portugal after the 1755 earthquake, and in 1769 took the reins of Portugal’s Royal Glassworks.
His efforts turned Marinha Grande into a centre of excellence and laid the tracks for the future mould-making industry.
Centuries of glassmaking knowhow is revealed here, and there’s also a whole spectrum of glassware, from simple utensils to fine crystal works of art.
2. Praia de São Pedro de Moel
In the municipality is this breathtaking beach that is bordered by a well-to-do holiday community.
We’ll focus on the beach for now, which is full of drama: Apart from a small gap where the village spills down to the shore, the beach is walled by powerful cliffs, while along the wash it is strewn with rock formations.
It’s just the place if you prefer untamed coastline, with crashing Atlantic waves that are great for body-boarders and surfers but less suited to bathing.
The fine white sand and heart-lifting panaormas definitely make up for this.
3. Pinhal de Leiria
In every direction from Marinha Grande, spreading over more than 11,000 hectares is a forest of maritime pines.
And what’s fascinating about this woodland is that it isn’t strictly natural; it was planted in the 13th century to stop the sand dunes on the coast from spreading to the farmland around Leiria.
The forest was integral to the Portuguese Age of Discovery, especially as a source of tar that would keep Portugal’s famous caravel boats afloat.
And then later it was instrumental to Marinha Grande’s growth, providing pine resin and lots of fuel for glassmaking.
Now it’s bucolic walking country, scattered with hints of the past like tar ovens and old watchtowers.
4. São Pedro de Moel
This small tourist enclave next to the beach warrants a paragraph for its upmarket air.
São Pedro de Moel is all the better for its lack of modern buildings, as most of the houses are from the 1800s when the wealthy flocked to the town in summer.
One of those was the seminal writer and thinker, Afonso Lopes Vieira, and you can enter his house.
In the summer there are bars and seafood restaurants, as well as a nightlife scene that is much livelier than you’d guess from the sedate ambience by day.
5. Sights around Town
As a town with an industrial background, Marinha Grande is low on majestic landmarks, but it does have plenty of buildings that tell an interesting story.
The Casa do Vidreiro on Largo Ilídio de Carvalho is a surviving example of regional architecture, a humble single-storey house with a characteristic porch.
The Municipal Archive, Library and Gallery all form a central ensemble with the glass museum and are in genteel painted mansions.
There’s a host of minor monuments to look out for too, like the bust of Guilherme Stephens and the Orpheus statue by Joaquim Correia.
Also get a snap of São Pedro de Moel’s lighthouse on the cliffs, 55 metres above the ocean and dating to 1912.
6. Casa-Museu Afonso Lopes Vieira
Afonso Lopes Vieira was a poet and intellectual active in the 19th and 20th centuries.
His family had a residence in São Pedro de Moel, which was later given to him as a wedding gift and was a favourite summer residence of his when many great writers and thinkers of the time stayed as guests.
Not long before he died he donated the property to Marinha Grande on the condition that the furnishings in the living room and on the balcony were preserved.
If you’re stuck for ideas it’s a attraction to keep in mind, to admire the lovely turn of the century furniture and tilework, but also to be in a place that welcomed some of Portugal’s great minds of the age.
7. Coleção Visitável da Indústria de Moldes
The resin factory next to Palácio Stephens has recently been given an update, with a new transparent facade.
It contains a wing of the Glass Museum, but also a separate collection that will eventually form its own museum.
This deals with mass production, and the mould-making business that took over from glass-blowing techniques in the 1930s.
You’ll track the technological development of this industry across 80 years, assisted by decades of glass and plastic products made in the town, as well as photos, archive footage and machinery.
8. Museu Joaquim Correia
The Taibner de Morais Santos Barosa owned this building and had a hand in Marinha Grande’s glassmaking trade in the 1800s.
It’s a classic bourgeois mansion from that era, borrowing from a number of historical styles, and with a mansard roof that stands out.
Since 1997 it has housed an exhibition for the 20th-century sculptor, Joaquim Correia, one of Marinha Grande’s most famous sons.
He was born to a family of glassmakers and became an important member of Portuguese modernism’s second generation, with works in museums and public spaces across the country.
Some of his enormous body of work is on show here, and in 2010 a new pavilion was added to show off his larger sculptures.
9. Praia das Pedras Negras
You can see why the Pinhal de Leiria was planted when you head north from São Pedro de Moel.
After the lighthouse the coast flattens and the beaches are traced by dunes for miles into the distance.
If you’re into geology you might be intrigued by the changing environment at this beach; to the south there are dark marlstone outcrops that were quarried for their gypsum in the 20th century.
These rocks are the oldest in the region, going back as much as 245 million years.
As for the beach, it’s a wide sandy strip in front of the raging Atlantic and backed by that historic pine plantation.
10. Vieira de Leiria
This town is also within the Marinha Grande municipality, and sits four kilometres from the coast on the left bank of the Lis River.
A community of shipbuilders and glassmakers grew around the Lis after it was made navigable in the 1800s, while fishermen have made a perilous living on the coast for hundreds of years.
Just walking around Vieira de Leiria’s coastal enclave you’ll see a few traditional crescent-shaped “half-moon” boats that would be launched against the crashing surf on the main beach, and the traditional houses, painted in colourful stripes are very fetching.
The sandy beach is as inviting as any in the area, and is bounded to the north by the Lis and to the south by the northernmost cusp of the Pinhal de Leiria.
While Marinha Grande’s beaches are all spectacular in their different ways, none are really suited for younger kids to swim or even splash around in the shallows.
So you should also make for Vieira de Leiria to visit waterpark, which is in a complex with the town’s hotel resorts.
There’s a set of pools with shallow water, and a choice of three water slides.
Kids can also sign up for a range of activities like kayaking, obstacle courses and “aqua ball”, where they can run around on the surface of the water in a transparent sphere.
No more than 10 minutes by road, Leiria has the atmosphere of a big city and enough sightseeing to keep you on your feet for a whole day.
It was a fiercely contested stronghold during the Reconquista, and changed hands between the Moors and Christians a few times in the 12th century.
The castle, looking down on the old town from its lofty perch, is a testament to that period and was raised in the 1130s an effort to consolidate power.
Later this fortress was a home for kings Denis I, Fernando and John I, so was made more luxurious as time went on.
Also be sure to potter around the old town, browse the MiMo (moving image museum), and see what is officially Portugal’s oldest paper mill.
13. Outdoor Activities
You can thank Leiria’s medieval kings for the all the things to do in the countryside around Marinha Grande.
The Pinhal de Leiria is a fresh and fragrant environment for walks and bike rides, and has a few picnic spots.
In fact, bikes have been a prime mode of transport for a century as the town’s glassmakers used two wheels to get around.
Walkers can select from three marked trails, one of which tracks the route of an old tin mining train down to São Pedro de Moel.
Surfers and body-boarders will be itching to test their skills against the fierce local surf, and there are schools for these activities at São Pedro de Moel and Vieira de Leiria.
14. Batalha Monastery
When a UNESCO Site and one of Portugal’s national treasures is in range there’s no excuse not to make the trip.
It was more than a century in the making, with work beginning in 1386 as a memorial to the Portuguese victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Aljubarrota the year before.
This lends it an intoxicating mixture of High Gothic and early-16th-century Manueline architecture.
There’s a dizzying amount to see, from the unusually tall nave to the Royal Cloister and the ornate Unfinished Chapels linked by a marvellous portal.
The tombs of John I and wife Philippa of Lancaster are marvellous too.
Their sons became known as the “Illustrious Generation”, one of whom was the explorer Henry the Navigator, also buried here.
The earliest settlements in Marinha Grande were on the coast, and a lot of the traditional food is seafood or fish-based.
The trademark dish is probably arroz de marisco, which is rice, clams, prawns and mussels simmered in a garlic, tomato and onion broth.
Another that originated at Praia da Vieira is carapus abertos, dried mackerel.
This would be opened, washed, salted and then left out to dry in the sun for up to three days.
Some people eat it raw, but the alternative is to grill the fillets, season them with vinegar, pepper and onion and serve them with boiled potatoes.
The town’s glassmakers had their own soup; sopa da vidreiro made with whatever was in the cupboard, and had cod, egg, potato, garlic and leftover corn bread.