An enthralling town by the River Ave, Santo Tirso took shape in the early middle ages around a Benedictine monastery. This is still the main attraction, easily spotted by its towers with pyramidal, tile-coated domes. Attached to one of the monastery buildings there’s a new museum that presents Santo Tirso’s love for outdoor contemporary art.
There are more than 50 works dotted around the town, contributed by some big names like Vladimir Veličković and Wang Keping, adding a sense of theatre to parks and squares. The town has also invested in its parks and riverside, for restful walks and invigorating morning jogs.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Santo Tirso:
1. Mosteiro de Santo Tirso
In the centre of town on the left bank of the Ave River, this monastery was established in 978. The present architecture dates to a rebuild from the middle of the 17th century.
The monastery’s beautiful outbuildings are now city offices, amenities and private residences, but are worth seeing from the outside.
You can get into the cloister, with semicircular arches bordering a small garden with a fountain.
There’s plenty to see in the church, like polychrome statues, gilt-wood altars, and elaborate side chapels.
A very rare fitting here is the iron railing that would have separated the monks in the chancel from the rest of the church.
2. Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, Monte Córdova
If you take the sinuous country road out of Santo Tirso to the southeast you’ll climb the Monte de Nossa Senhora da Assunção.
From the terrace up here you can see Santo Tirso, the open Ave Valley and even as far as the Atlantic when the weather’s clear.
Facing west, the sunsets are as idyllic as can be, and you can also get onto a signposted trail that leads back to Santo Tirso.
On the terrace stands the sanctuary, built in 1901 and with a Romanesque Revival design.
August 15 is when this otherwise deserted spot erupts with life and colour for the Nossa Senhora da Assunção holiday and pilgrimage.
3. Parque Urbano da Rabada
Little by little over the last decade Santo Tirso has been given a new park that nestles in a meander on the Ave.
It’s an enticing green environment of oak trees and cork oaks, and with new facilities installed in stages since 2010. The park is scattered with public art by some high-profile international artists like Wang Keping, Pino Castagna and Philippe Perrin.
There’s a lake, ample sports amenities, a children’s playground, cafe and paths that wind through fresh woodland and down to the water’s edge.
4. Castro do Monte Padrão
One of the peaks mounting to the southeast of Santo Tirso has the mysterious ruins of a Bronze Age citadel-village.
There are many of these sites in the north of Portugal, but Castro do Monte Padrão is pretty remarkable for its preservation and the length of time it was inhabited.
The oldest ruins are from the 9th century BC and there are signs of occupation from the Late Middle Ages in the shape of a chapel and necropolis.
There’s a modern interpretation centre on the site, which explains the tangled story of this castro.
In the showcases is a trove of items from different eras like bronze and iron ornaments, axes, beads, glassware, coins, enamel, grinding stones and pieces of pottery.
5. Parque D. Maria II
This delightful park is in the middle of the town was first landscaped in the 1870s.
The plantain and ginkgo trees alone give you an idea of the age of the site, climbing high above the park and affording generous shade in the summer.
The cute gazebo, teahouse and genteel esplanade are all from the park’s earliest years.
There’s a small pond with ducks and geese, a playground for younger members of the clan, and temporary art exhibitions are held inside the teahouse.
In July this park is also where the town gathers for the Festas de São Bento.
6. Museu Municipal Abade Pedrosa
This museum is housed in a wing of the monastery, in a beautiful, elongated building that used to be a lodge for pilgrims.
It’s a handsome 18th-century structure with a cellar and granary still intact.
Along a lengthy corridor there’s a small but engaging assortment of artefacts dug up at archaeological sites in and near Santo Tirso.
You can inspect more coins, inscribed stones and glass from the castro at Monte Padrão, as well as glassware from a Romano-Celtic necropolis.
7. Museu Internacional de Escultura Contemporânea
Just unveiled in 2016, this museum is in an angular modern building joining with the municipal museum.
It was designed by Álvaro Siza and Pritzker winner Souto de Moura and catalogues Santo Tirso’s modern public art.
There have been ten public art symposiums in the town since 1991, leaving 54 works by 53 different artists (we’ve mentioned some of the pieces in the Parque Urbano da Rabada). Two of these were contributed by the 20th-century sculptor Alberto Carneiro, who spearheaded the scheme in 1990. The museum doesn’t actually hold any of these works, but is a sort of interpretation centre documenting all 54 and holding short-term contemporary art shows.
8. Parque do Ribeiro do Matadouro
The last of our parks is in a regenerated area to the south of the centre, linking the old Quita do Tapado estate with the fabric of the town.
It took shape in 2013, and features state-of-the-art urban design.
The most eye-catching part is the Rota das Esculturas, which is in the spirit of Santo Tirso’s public art heritage.
There are strange fibreglass structures here that blur the lines between art and furniture, and are there to be interacted with, as ramps for skateboarders or obstacles for little ones to climb on.
9. Termas das Caldas da Saúde
Across the River, on the road to Vila Nova de Famalicão is a natural hot spring that emerges at a temperature of 36°C. It has been channelled into a fountain, and gives off quite a strong sulphuric smell.
Beside the fountain is the thermal spa, which has been in business since 1891. The waters are claimed to be good for musculoskeletal issues, arthritis and respiratory complaints.
But if you’re just up for some relaxation you could book a one-time massage, or hydro-massage using the spring waters.
10. Igreja de São Pedro de Roriz
This enigmatic Romanesque church is a National Monument, and was constructed by the Augustinians on land granted by King Afonso Henriques.
Built over a few decades starting in the late 1100s, the work was done to a high standard and its stonework has stood the test of time: The scallop shell motifs on the capitals in the portal indicate that this was a stop on the Way of St James pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
There are more carvings to be found on the pillars, in the tympanum and inside on the capitals supporting the blind arches in the apse.
11. Citânia de Sanfins
For keen historians there’s another castro a little way east at the Citânia de Sanfins.
This one differs from the Castro do Monte Padrão in that one of the homes has been restored, complete with a thatched roof.
So you’ll get a valuable glimpse of what it was like to live here 2,500 years ago.
There are more than 150 buildings on the site, in rectangular and circular plans.
Many date to the 5th century BC, while this settlement peaked 400 years later, around the time that the Romans took over.
If there’s one thing you can’t leave without checking out it’s the “pedra formosa”, a monumental inscribed stone in the village’s public baths, with a delicate pattern above a small arch in the rock.
12. Festas de São Bento
Santo Tirso has one of the Norte region’s great religious festivals, in honour of St Benedict the patron saint.
The whole thing unfolds in the five days leading up to St Benedict’s Day on July 11. The days are filled with esoteric customs and rituals that have been handed down the generations.
There are masses, drum parades (bombos), dances, solemn processions, theatre performances and fireworks.
And every evening the centre fills up for concerts by Portuguese pop acts, with the night of the 11th devoted completely to fado music.
13. Rio Ave
While the Parque Urbano da Rabada was being laid out upriver, Santo Tirsos also invested several million Euros in making the Ave riverside accessible in the heart of the city.
There’s a new, 1.4-kilometre walking and cycling trail with fishing piers and numerous points where you can step off the path and walk down to the water.
As well as being among the blissful nature on the riverside you’ll get a fresh perspective of the monastery and its pyramidal towers.
14. Day Trips
Santo Tirso is a kind of geographical oddity, as it lies equidistant to the cities of Braga, Guimarães and Porto (all roughly 30 kilometres). All are UNESCO sites and all merit your time for different reasons.
Braga is one of the oldest cities in the country, with Portugal’s first ever cathedral, as well as the glorious Bom Jesus Sanctuary at the top of an epic Baroque stairway.
Also steeped in history, Guimarães was the birthplace of Portugal’s first King, and has an atmospheric old centre home to the Gothic Palace of the Dukes of Braganza.
Porto hardly needs introduction, as the home of port wine and a gorgeous riverfront neighbourhood, the Ribeira, with colourful houses and a bubbly square beneath the famous Dom Luís I Bridge.
15. Local Flavours
At Santo Tirso you’re in vinho verde country.
Here the word verde (green) refers to the age of the wine rather than the colour.
Vinho verde doesn’t mature for long, giving these wines a crispness and lightness that people adore.
See if you can get hold of a bottle of award-winning Quinta de Gomariz, produced by Antonio Sousa, one of Portugal’s most respected wine makers.
The Benedictine monks in Roriz passed down licor de singeverga, an artisanal liqueur distilled from saffron, cinnamon, vanilla, myrrh, cloves and coriander.