The town of Santa Maria da Feira is a short way in from the coast, half an hour south of Porto. A landmark that makes an immediate impact is the castle, in immaculate condition and preserving 500 years of Portuguese medieval history. Every summer this is the scene of one of Europe’s largest medieval festivals, with epic re-enactments, markets and entertainment for kids.
There’s more to keep you around, like a museum in a 16th-century convent with artefacts retrieved from a Celtic citadel, Portugal’s only avian zoo, hot springs and a set of diverting local museums. Another festival sweeps Santa Maria in May, when troupes from many countries come to dazzle the crowds at Portugal’s premier street theatre festival.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Santa Maria da Feira:
1. Castle of Santa Maria da Feira
The town’s crowning glory is one of the most complete medieval monuments in the country.
The castle was a regional stronghold from the 11th to the 15th centuries, and amazingly, large pieces of architecture survive from each period.
There’s an oval-shaped citadel commanded by an intimidating keep that has pyramidal towers on each corner.
You enter the complex under the barbican, which even now bears a coat of arms.
The keep is three storeys high, with a cistern on the ground floor, below the great hall that was heated by three massive fireplaces.
Further up were the intimate apartments, and you can also get onto the roof to take in the scenery from the parapets.
2. Viagem Medieval em Terra de Santa Maria
Every summer Santa Maria da Feira stages an event putting ordinary renaissance fairs to shame.
The Viagem Medieval em Terra de Santa Maria has markets, jesters, mock jousting tournaments, traditional dances, falconry demonstrations and a whole lot more.
Kids can see puppet shows, ride donkeys and tackle adventure courses.
The event builds up to nightly spectacles with legions of volunteers, stunt performers on horseback and even working siege machines.
Although entertainment is the aim there’s also a historical context to the celebrations, tackling different chapters in the region’s medieval history, like the Reconquista or the reigns of famous Kings like Denis I or Afonso IV in the 13th and 14th centuries.
3. Museu Convento dos Lóios
Also a museum, this 16th-century convent is a sight in its own right: It has a cloister with a fountain in the middle and the stunning monumental stairway that zig-zags up to the western facade of the connecting Church of the Holy Spirit.
On the upper terrace there’s a cross from 1746, while at the base of the steps is a beautiful 16th-century fountain topped by an armillary sphere.
In 2000 the convent became a museum when the town’s archaeological and ethnological heritage was relocated in its rooms.
On show are earthenware vessels going back to the Bronze Age, and then coins, metal tools and stelae from Roman times.
In the ethnology rooms are tools for local crafts like paper-making, coopering and weaving.
4. Zoo de Lourosa
This zoo has the distinction of being the only ornithological park in Portugal.
And it is dedicated to no other animal, with some 500 birds from 150 species, and housed in 80 different aviaries or open enclosures.
By way of introduction there are pelicans, toucans, many parrot species, flamingos and birds of prey like vultures and snowy owls.
Keep an eye on the calendar, because if you come by at certains times of the year like Valentine’s Day, Carnival, Easter or Halloween there’s a program of special activities for kids.
5. Museu do Papel
People have been making paper on an industrial scale in Santa Maria da Feira for more than 300 years, and in 2001 the town opened Portugal’s first paper museum.
This is housed in a complex of two paper mills from the early 1800s that also includes the eerie ruins of a third factory from the end of the 1700s.
In the first of the former mills you can get acquainted with the older hand-made paper-making process, while the second mill has the machines that took over production in the 19th and 20th centuries.
There’s a set of watermarks to inspect and you can also note the difference in paper produced in other parts of Portugal.
6. Castro de Romariz
This fortified hilltop village was inhabited from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD, but lay forgotten until the 19th century.
Proper excavations weren’t made until the 1980s, when archaeologists revealed one of the most complete castros (ancient citadels) in the Entre Douro e Vouga region.
They unearthed ceramics, glass, coins and metal utensils, some of which had travelled from as far as Greece and Carthage.
These are all on display at the Museu Convento dos Lóios.
The village has the characteristic network of circular and rectangular walls that were the imperishable lower sections of houses and meeting halls.
You can book a guided tour of the site with the museum during the week.
7. Museu de Santa Maria de Lamas
A couple of minutes up the road is the parish of Santa Maria de Lamas, where the stately former home of a philanthropic 20th-century inhabitant has been turned into a museum.
Henrique Alves de Amorim donated his estate to the town when he died, and as an art-lover he had amassed a full 16 rooms of tiles, tapestries, paintings, sculpture and many liturgical items.
There are whole rooms lined with Baroque gilt-wood and polychrome statues.
But the most dumbfounding of all is Amorim’s cork collection, filled with cork processing tools, and with models such as Lisbon’s Torre de Belém and 15th-century caravel ships from this material.
This multisensory, hands-on science museum encourages kids to learn about technology, astronomy, chemistry and the human body through experiments and interaction.
You can find out how Portuguese explorers sailed the globe in the Age of Discovery, and explore the inner-workings of human organs and microchips with moving models and multimedia displays.
There are six rooms in all, with six cartoon characters accompanying the displays, as well as the “Laboratorium”, a high-tech lab where kids can watch experiments and demonstrations in microbiology, forensic science, genetics and even molecular gastronomy.
9. Termas de São Jorge
The hot spring at Caldas de São Jorge has drawn visitors for its curative properties for generations.
The water is sulphurous and claimed to be good for musculoskeletal, respiratory and skin complaints.
Many people come for long treatment courses, but the Termas de São Jorge spa is just as accommodating for day visits.
The “Termalbreak” package entails a Vichy-style shower-massage, bathing in the thermal pool and time in the gym.
“Termalfit & Form” is a slightly longer program to detox and fine-tune your nutrition and fitness.
10. Igreja da Misericórdia
This church is also on a terrace served by a lovely old staircase from the 1700s, with gas lanterns and a fountain.
Once you’re at the entrance you can look back for a satisfying panorama of the town, with the Castle in the backdrop.
There had been a much older church to St Nicholas on this ledge, before a new one was built by the Brothers of the Misericórdia at the turn of the 18th century.
One of the peculiar things about the building is that even though dates to the height of the Baroque, the facade has a Mannerist design that had been in style more than 100 years earlier.
Make time for the triumphal arch with Tuscan pilasters, the wooden ceiling and the Baroque gilded altar.
11. Mercado Municipal
Santa Maria’s market is inscribed as a “monument of public interest”, and dates to the 1950s.
If you need some provisions there are vendors selling flowers, fish, meat, cheese and the like, but shopping will take a back seat to the ground-breaking modern architecture.
The market was designed by the influential Fernando Távora, and specially drawn-up to make the most of a small plot of land.
It has pavilions for its stalls, which are permanent concrete slabs, and is set on two levels around a central courtyard with a fountain in the middle adorned with geometric tiles.
For three days at the end of May, the town puts on the largest annual street theatre festival in Portugal.
This is an international festival, now in its 17th edition and hosting some 400 performers from 13 countries.
It’s an intensive three days, scheduling hundreds of shows and with nine permanent installations in the streets.
These tend to be very creative and blur the lines between street theatre and conceptual art.
One of the most eminent guests in recent years was Spencer Tunick, known worldwide for his photo shoots with big crowds of nudes.
But there’s also plenty of fun and whimsy, and opportunities for kids to get involved.
13. Festa das Fogaceiras
On January 20 Santa Maria celebrates a festival that has 700 years of tradition.
Its roots are in the Black Death; the townsfolk baked special cakes, fogaças, as votives to St Sebastian to chase away the plague.
The town quickly recovered, only for the plague to return when they stopped baking the cakes.
So they’ve been baking them ever since! The most characteristic part of the day is the procession by the town’s girls on Rua Direita.
They wear white dresses with red or blue sashes, and carry the famous fogaças over their heads.
14. Days Out
You don’t need to drive more than a few kilometres to see the best of the area.
The town of Ovar is just ten minutes away and a centre of excellence for the Portuguese art of tile-making, with churches, houses and even a central square coated with colourful azulejos.
The town’s traditional melting sponge cake, sold at bakeries tied in linen paper, is all the incentive you need.
The Ria de Aveiro is a massive shallow lagoon, sprawling over 75 square kilometres and both a haven for wildlife and ancient water-based traditions like salt-farming and fishing.
And then there’s the coast, at just 15 minutes, where you’ll come to boundless white sands and surging Atlantic waters at Praia do Furadouro.
15. Local Food and Drink
As the town’s most typical sweet, fogaças are sold at bakeries in Santa Maria at any time of year.
They’re made with egg yolks, butter, sugar and flour, flavoured with cinnamon and lemon zest, and shaped at the top to resemble castle battlements.
Another old-time confectionery is the caladinho, a soft, round biscuit usually taken as an afternoon snack with a hot drink.
Cheese is also a local forte, and the supermarket brand Lacticínios Maf has been based in the town since the 1930s; they’re known for soft, buttery cheeses with a smooth texture and mild flavour.
Last up is the local drink, chamoa, made with blackberries and comes as a liqueur or wine.