On the southern hills of the Serra de Candeeiros range, Rio Maior is a town known for a strange natural phenomenon that occurs close by. These are salt flats, much further from the ocean than you’d ever expect to find them, and exploited by locals since the 12th century.
The natural park should figure in your plans, whether you’re traversing its arid and vast valleys on foot, bike or horseback, or venturing below the surface into epic show-caves. There’s also a good helping of local sights to check out, from a prehistoric dolmen integrated into a church, to a Roman villa that has mosaics in almost pristine condition.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Rio Maior:
1. Salinas Naturais de Rio Maior
A natural oddity, the salt flats outside Rio Maior don’t really belong in a place like this.
They’re 30 kilometres from the ocean, and are the only interior salt flats active enough for industrial-level salt production in Europe.
The water is seven times saltier than seawater and is the vestige of an ancient sea, passing through an underground layer of rock salt.
It’s a strange thing to see salt being farmed in the middle of green countryside of agriculture and vineyards, and you can come for a tour if this unusual scene arouses your curiosity.
Just for the photos of salt pyramids it’s unmissable.
2. Villa Romana de Rio Maior
Rio Maior’s Roman villa came to light next to the river in the 80s and wasn’t excavated until 1995. This house is from the turn of the 4th century and gives you a glimpse of the luxury and splendour of the building through its highly intricate mosaics.
What’s also exciting is that the villa is only one element of a site that has yet to be totally excavated.
The baths, temples and service areas are still waiting to be unearthed.
Call in at Rio Maior’s tourist office to arrange a tour.
3. Casa Senhorial d’El Rei D. Miguel
This cultivated townhouse in the centre of Rio Maior is named after the 19th-century King Miguel I, as he stayed here during the Portuguese Liberal Wars.
The house goes back hundreds of years but took on its current Baroque appearance in the 1700s.
The reason you have to come is to see some of the booty recovered from the Roman villa.
The outstanding piece is the marble nymph.
This would have been part of a fountain, and you can make out where the water would have flowed below her left hand.
There’s also a scale model of the villa, as well as exhibits of local art.
4. Dólmen de Alcobertas
Something you can’t miss in nearby Alcobertas is this megalith, which was later adapted by the village’s parish church.
One of the ten largest monuments of its kind on the Iberian Peninsula, the dolmen is at least 4,000 years old, and is made up of a chamber accessed via a corridor of granite stones.
In the 1400s the church incorporated the dolmen as a side chapel, fitting it with a small altar and capping the structure with a terracotta roof.
It’s a pretty strange feeling to enter a prehistoric pagan monument via a church! As for the church, take a minute to see the baptismal and holy water fonts from the 1500s, and the daintily painted azulejos from the 1600s.
5. Jardim Municipal de Rio Maior
For a bit of fresh air and greenery, Rio Maior’s municipal park has three hectares of lawns and trees to the southeast of the centre.
Parents could bring littler children to the playground, and if you’re in search of somewhere for your morning jog the ample foliage gives you lots of shade.
There are also some moderately interesting buildings to be seen as you go: One is the courthouse, right in the middle of the park and with an uncommonly daring design from the 1960s.
The same goes for the parish church, which also has asymmetrical avant-garde lines.
6. Igreja da Misericórdia de Rio Maior
The town has a modern parish church because the original fell into ruin at the start of the 1700s.
And so from that time to the 1960s, this temple took over as the town’s main place of worship.
It’s also the finest Baroque work in the area, and has 17th and 18th-century refinements on a 16th-century Renaissance base.
In the chancel go in for a good look at the central altar, which has gilt-wood from the 1700s, suffused with religious symbolism in its seraphim, vines, doves, lambs and seraphim.
Among the other highlights are the two 16th-century polychrome statues of Mary (Our Lady of Sorrows) and St John the Baptist.
7. Gruta de Alcobertas
The Serra dos Candeeiros is laced with caves, and there’s an important one within the Rio Maior municipality at Alcobertas.
This site is as compelling for its human history and its geology, as it has been inhabited by people for more than 5,000 years and human remains were uncovered from the end of the Neolithic period, around 4,000 years ago.
For more than 200 metres are four chambers with ceilings up to nine metres in height.
The caves had become a modern curiosity as early as the 1870s, and the large numbers of visitors led to them being closed, with only restricted access.
The Cooperativa Terra Chã is in charge today and you can contact them for details of the next tour.
8. Parque Natural de las Sierras de Aire y Candeeiros
If you’re up for more caves you don’t have to go much further.
The fact that a bat has been chosen as the mascot for this natural park tells you that there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on below the surface.
The calcareous rock beneath your feet has been carried away and moulded by underground rivers, hollowing out cave systems bursting with strange concretions.
Alvados, Mira de Aire, Moeda and Santo Antonio are a few to look up.
In the daylight these barren mountain ranges have a raw majesty about them, with deep valleys of white rock with a light sprinkling of pine scrub, juniper and olive trees.
9. Forno Medieval de Alcobertas
Labelled the Núcleo Arqueológico de Alcobertas, this medieval archaeological site has been converted into an interpretation centre.
It was unearthed in the 1950s and was a community kiln where the whole village would bake its ceramics.
The walls are made of raw clay, ten centimetres thick, and there’s a sump, duct, furnace and chamber to see from the platform above.
The walls of the new building around it have information signs informing you how the oven worked and who would have used it.
10. Museu Didático do Automóvel em Miniatura
In Assentiz, close to Rio Maior a one-of-a-kind museum housed in the former kindergarten building.
In glass cabinets is a fleet of some 1,000 miniature cars from many periods, and there’s another 500 in the museum’s archive.
The person responsible, Rui Teixeira, opened his labour of love to the public to give Rio Maior a little more tourist interest and open up a space for local people of all ages to use.
The museum has a workshop where the miniatures are serviced, as well as a library and a projection room where you can watch a 60-minute video about the collection if you’re really intrigued.
11. Silos de Alcobertas
Another medieval curiosity in Alcoertas is a series of medieval storage chambers that were cut from the rock.
They were found in the village’s gravel quarry, and there are historical mentions of these small caves going back to the 1400s, although they were probably being used long before then.
They were made to store harvests where animals, water or dampness couldn’t get to them; the hole was sealed either with sand a limestone slab covered.
In some cases the silos still had this stone at the entrance when they were unearthed.
12. Village of Chãos and Terra Chã
On a small plateau on the stony, southern slope of the Serra dos Candeeiros is the sweet little village of Chãos.
In the midst of olive groves, the neat thing about this place is that you can still identify the dry-stone walls of houses going back to antiquity.
Known as “eiras”, these buildings have a circular shape, broken by a small entranceway and with mortar or stone slabs on the floor.
The scarcity of water at this height forced its inhabitants to get creative, and instead of wells (useless because of the chalky bedrock), there are dozens of historic cisterns dug to catch and hold rainwater.
13. Outdoor Recreation
On the boundary of one of Portugal’s biggest natural parks you won’t be low on inspiration for activities.
If you want to descend into those underground cavities where few tourists go, you can hook up with cavers via the tourist office and go on a proper underground adventure.
There are also stables nearby, organising hacks and treks in the park on ponies or lusitano horses, while the terrain is easy to navigate on two wheels and you could hire a mountain bike for a day.
Or you can just use your own two feet, on 16 different walking trails that lead you to viewpoints, ruins, disused mines or smaller caves.
14. Day Trips
Rio Maior is on a Roman road at an ancient nexus point, and even today is a very handily located town.
The coast is under half an hour, and at Foz do Arelho is one of Portugal’s finest beaches, sandwiched by the Atlantic surf on one side and the crystalline Óbidos Lagoon on the other.
Óbidos, the fortified medieval village and traditional home of Queen of Portugal, is unforgettable for its web of alleys guarded by castle walls.
Caldas da Rainha is a genteel spa town noted for its skilfully-made ceramics.
Then there’s Santarém, a city 20 minutes to the east above the Tagus river plain and fabled for its Gothic architecture.
15. Food and Drink
The cuisine in Rio Maior is simple and full of flavour: There are also Mediterranean tones, partly because people from further south would come to this region to work in agriculture or mining.
Olive oil, olives, wine and bread are staples, most of all cornbread (broa de milho), which is the basis for migas: Bread, soaked in water, and then fried with garlic and pork.
Lapardana meanwhile is pork or salted cod (bacalhau) baked with potatoes and bread seasoned with olive oil and garlic.
You could also order rooster roasted with walnuts.
And it goes without saying that you have to take home some flor do sal, salt infused with herbs, from the shop at the salt farm in Rio Maior.