Defending a plateau on the right bank of the Tagus River, the city of Santarém was the home of Portugal’s kings throughout the middle ages. It was also where the Cortes, the country’s earliest parliament would sit. This has left the city with Portugal’s finest ensemble of Gothic architecture, in its walls, churches, convents and isolated monuments like a Gothic fountain with a king’s seal.
The city’s topography far above the fertile Tagus plain gives it some stunning vantage points, the most powerful being the Jardim das Portas do Sol, where you can command the plain from the city’s battlements. If you come to the city during a feira try to catch a fandango do Ribatejo dance, performed by two guys simulating a fight.
Lets explore the best things to do in Santarém:
1. Museu Diocesano
On Praça Sá da Bandeira this museum is in the north wing of the Jesuit college and integrated into the cathedral complex.
The architecture and marble ornamentation in the cathedral and college is part of the museum.
These sumptuous buildings are a kind of repository for all of the religious artwork painted, sculpted and crafted in Santarém’s diocese.
There’s art from the 1200s to the present day, and as a city that had royal favour in the late middle ages some of these statues, paintings and the later tile panels are sublime.
2. Igreja da Graça
A Portuguese National Monument, this church is one of Santarém’s postcard images and is one of the shining pieces of Gothic heritage.
It was started in 1380 and the work was quick, ending at the start of the 1400s, leaving the church with consistent Gothic architecture inside and out.
The facade is wonderful, with sculpted archivolts topped by a frieze of floral motifs, which in turn is crested by a very elaborate rose window.
The three cavernous naves are bare compared to Santarém’s Baroque temples, but the ribbed vault and historic sepulchral slabs going back to the 1400s will hold your attention.
3. Jardim das Portas do Sol
What used to the Castle of Santarém is now a peaceful garden with an amazing view of the Tagus.
It’s quite a rush to stand at this point and know that it has been inhabited for more since the 8th century BC. There was a Bronze Age “castro”, replaced by Roman, Visigothic and Moorish settlements.
In the 12th century King Afonso Henriques used this fortress as a base from which to stage the reconquista, facing Moorish attacks throughout the 12th century.
The garden replacing it has a length of the old walls, as well as a statue of Afonso Henriques.
It’s a picturesque place for a picnic in summer, with shade offered by the trees and a cooling breeze blowing off the river plain.
4. Igreja de Santa Maria de Marvila
There was probably a mosque where this church now stands, inaugurated in the 1100s on the back of the Christian reconquista.
That original Gothic building was completely reworked in the first decades of 16th century.
These changes were funded by none other than Francisco de Almeida, who was the Viceroy of India.
This is when the intricately hewn portal, with pinnacles and vegetal patterns, was made.
A lot of the interior decoration is newer, the most charming feature being the tiling on the walls.
The azulejos around the holy water font are in the atapete style (literally carpet), and date to the 1620s.
5. Mercado Municipal
Santarém’s covered market dates to 1928 and has a large hall with metal columns and roof, wrapped in a more traditional facade.
You don’t even need to come shopping to enjoy this monument; the walls are coated with 63 glazed tile panels created by the Fábrica Aleluia in Aveiro and recounting the history of agriculture and trade on the River Tagus and the wider Santarém region.
The hall itself is somewhere to get a snapshot of everyday life in Santarém.
It’s open ’til 12:00 every day and has all the produce you’d expect like fish, meat, fruit and vegetables and flowers.
6. Old Town
There’s a good reason why Santarém is known as the Capital do Gótico, as the city has many glimpses of its medieval splendour, mostly in the shape of churches and convents.
Even if it’s only a fragment of what used to be here you could lose whole days marvelling at this legacy.
The ravine-like shopping streets are fun to wander down, paved with patterned calçada Portuguesa and opening onto cultured squares like Praça Sá da Bandeira, which is where the big public gatherings take place.
7. Casa Museu Passos Canavarro
Almeida Garrett, the beloved 19th century writer stayed at this princely mansion in 1841. At this time he was writing his seminal book Viagens na Minha Terra (Travels in my Country) and immortalised the property in his work.
It stands over a medieval palace owned by Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, so this is a real chunk of recent and not so recent Portuguese history.
The museum was founded by current owner Pedro Cannavaro who spent much of his life in the Far East, and there’s painting, porcelain, furniture and other decorative arts from Japan and China.
8. Miradouro de São Bento
Up on the east side of Santarém is a lookout with a marvellous panoramas of the Tagus River and its endless plain.
For many miles to the east and south the landscape is flat, and you can meditate over the chequerboard fields, the route of the Tagus and the Ponte de D. Luís, which opened in 1881 and spans the river for more than 1,200 metres.
The viewpoint is at the end of a small esplanade, and there’s a bar with a terrace if you’d like to take in the view with a cold drink in hand.
9. Torre das Cabaças
Beside the Igreja de Santa Maria is a national monument, and an intriguing piece of the city’s old defences.
This fortification converted into a clock tower in the 1500s.
The popular name “Cabaças” (heads) comes from the hollow clay gourds attached to the iron campanile housing the bell.
These were added to give the bell more resonance, and were named “heads” as a jest at the expense of the city’s “hollow-headed” council members! The bell itself is from 1604 once set the rhythm daily life in Santarém.
10. Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park
The southern limits of this natural park are just 20 minutes by car.
And this limestone massif has a roll-call of natural wonders to experience.
You can see dinosaur footprints at Vale de Meious, revealed at one of the park’s former quarries.
The Mira de Aire caves meanwhile have been counted as one of Portugal’s seven natural wonders, and you’ll descend 110 metres in a colossal chamber.
Fórnea is a kind of cirque rising to more than 200 metres and with a waterfall and beautiful seams of rock and greenery.
There are also castles, yet more caves, salt pans, natural springs and lots of bucolic farmland divided by dry stone walls.
11. Casa dos Patudos
This fine house across the Tagus in Alpiarça was the residence of José Relvas, the 70th Prime Minister of Portugal, in office for just two months in 1919. In 1905 he commissioned a house to be built in an exuberant Revivalist style, with an arcade, loggia and pointed tower.
Relvas bequeathed the estate to the municipality when he died in 1929 and it opened as a museum in 1960. He had been a keen art collector, and the mansion is endowed with paintings, sculpture, glazed tiles, furniture and porcelain from across Portugal and Europe, but also Japan, China, India and Persia.
12. Convento de São Francisco
This lovely 13th-century convent is another of Santarém’s Gothic treasures.
It reopened in 2012 after a period of abandonment following a fire in 1940. The inside is quite stark, and that’s partly because medieval monuments like the tomb of King Fernando I have been moved to museums in Lisbon.
But you’ll know why you came as soon as step into the cloister, which has two levels, ribbed vaulting and capitals with foliate patterns and a representation of an Aesop fable, the Fox and the Grapes.
13. Fonte das Figueiras
Against the walls in the São Salvador parish is a hidden Gothic fountain from the 14th century, and the reign of King Denis I or Afonso IV. It was funded jointly by the city and the crown, as both coats of arms are visible.
The fountain was an important water source at the Porta de Atamarma, which opened from the citadel onto the Ribeira quarter by the river.
The whole scene belongs in a painting; there’s a very romantic-looking stone canopy, with three ogival arches and crowned with the same pointed merlons as the city wall.
14. Festival Nacional de Gastronomia
For 11 days every October Santarém puts on a national food and drink festival that celebrates the best of the Ribatejo region.
There are live cooking demonstrations, special themed lunches at 12 traditional restaurants and one concept eater around the city.
During this time dozens of artisan producers set their stall up in the town, specialising in herbs and spices, cheese, traditional convent confectionery.
As for wine, usually every DOC wine region from around the country will have a presence at the festival, but there’s an emphasis on Ribatejo wine, which can be a host of reds, whites, sparkling or fortified varieties.
15. Complexo Aquático de Santarém
Summers in central Portugal bring searing temperatures so most towns have municipal outdoor swimming pools.
Santarém’s is one of the better ones, which accounts for its wild popularity.
If you’re in the mood for a quiet swim arrive early in the day.
But if you have children or teenagers with you the three slides will be a hit.
And while they’re having fun you can seek the shade of the parasols and palm trees in the grassy areas around the pools.