A medieval city on the way to Spain, Serpa is still watched by its castle and walls. Being so close to the border the town has lived through many sieges and sackings, all following the conflict between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Moors in the middle ages.
The old walls and castle remain and punctuate a landscape of ancient olive groves that turns from green to gold in summer. On the city’s western wall there’s the curious sight of a 17th-century aqueduct built onto the older defences, while inside the walls you can get your bearings on a tangle of alleys.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Serpa:
1. Castelo de Serpa
Reigning over the town, Serpa’s castle is a charming ruin after being sacked by the Spanish and lying abandoned since the 1600s.
But that takes nothing away from the monument, as its battlements are still intact and you can scramble up to survey the town and the Alentejo countryside.
There has been some kind of fortress up here since at least the Romans, but this castle’s timeline begins with the Moors in the 700s.
During the Reconquista in the 12th and 13th centuries the it was besieged by both Christian and Moorish forces before Afonso III finally conquered the Algarve to the south.
Get a good look at the fabric of the walls, as you might discover some recycled Roman funerary stones with inscriptions still legible.
2. Muralhas de Serpa
Serpa’s medieval outer walls defend much of the old town to this day.
The most photogenic stretch has to be to the west, where the wall is surmounted by an aqueduct that we’ll talk about next.
Below this you’ll come across the most impressive of Serpa’s two remaining city gates, the Porta de Beja.
The portal is flanked by two muscular, crenellated towers.
In the garden below the eastern line of walls there are tall cypresses and olive trees with such thick and knotty trunks they must be a millennium old.
The other opening is on the northeast side at Porta de Moura, with two noble cypress trees and the remnants of the stairway that served the battlements.
3. Aqueduto de Serpa
On the western side of the city is that extraordinary sight of an aqueduct along the top of the walls.
What makes it more unusual is that this wasn’t a public project supplying the city with water: Instead it was built for just one residence, the Solar dos Condes de Ficalho, backing onto city’s defences.
At the southern end of the aqueduct you’ll spot the wheels that conducted water from a Moorish well onto the aqueduct.
4. Museu do Relógio
The only attraction of its kind on the Iberian Peninsula, Serpa’s clock museum is in the Convento do Mosteirinho.
This dates to the 15th century and gives the exhibits an atmospheric backdrop.
The are some 2,400 mechanical timepieces here, the oldest of which is from 1630. It all stems from a private collection begun in the 1970s with just three broken watches.
And maybe the showpiece is an Edward East clock from the 17th century, for which the museum has turned down some six-figure offers.
The museum is now in its second generation, and has its own clock restoration workshop.
5. Igreja de Santa Maria de Serpa
On its namesake square near the top of Serpa, the town’s church was probably built over the Moorish Mosque.
And it’s likely that the bell-tower was the mosque’s minaret.
Although the rest of the exterior is more Baroque, inside you can tell that this church had medieval origins, by its Gothic ogival arches that separate the nave from the two aisles.
These are supported by columns that have foliate motifs, carved around the 14th century.
The chancel and two adjacent chapels at the end of the church are Mannerist extensions from the 1500s, and they’re loaded with the radiant Baroque gilt-wood that was in style in the 1700s.
6. Serpa Old Town
Inside the walls Serpa has the layout of a town built to make life difficult for invaders.
There’s a confusing tangle of ravine-like streets walled by handsome whitewashed houses with wrought iron balconies.
Turn a corner and suddenly you’ll be on the spacious Praça da República facing Serpa’s arcaded town hall.
Take a break from your own quest at the cafe or browse the bakeries and cork artisan shops on this square and its side streets.
Also make time for the Solar dos Condes de Ficalho, up against the walls and once fed by that 17th-century aqueduct.
7. Torre do Relógio
Also at the highest point of the town, just next to the Church of Santa Maria, you won’t help but notice this eye-catching square tower.
The building has sported a timepiece since 1440, which makes it Portugal’s third-oldest clock tower.
A few decades later, during the reign of Manuel I the decorative, turrets, belfry and merlons were added at the top.
The rest of the tower is older, probably dating to the reign of King Denis I in the 14th century when Serpa’s defences were reinforced.
8. Museu Municipal de Arqueologia
In the castle’s inner courtyard there’s a small museum that reopened in 2016 after a 10-year closure and a €1m investment.
All the artefacts uncovered during excavations in Serpa have ended up in these galleries.
On the ground floor the museum handles the town’s Prehistoric, Bronze and Iron Age heritage, while the first floor deals with everything from Roman times through to the middle ages.
There’s pottery, Roman gravestones like the ones you can see in the castle walls, Templar crosses and a necklace from the Bronze Age.
9. Ermida de Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe ou de São Gens
On a hillock a couple of kilometres down from Serpa is a hermitage to the patron saint of the municipality, Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe.
This saint has been venerated in these parts since the 500s, when Leander of Seville brought a Marian statue with him here from Rome.
The chapel has Gothic-Mudéjar architecture, with that strong Moorish influence manifest in its domes.
Outside there’s a panel of glazed tiles portraying the Sacred Heart of Mary, and striking views of the Alentejo landscape of dry hills and olive groves.
At the altar the current Marian image goes back to the 1400s and is nested in gilt-wood.
10. Museu Etnográfico de Serpa
At another immersive setting for a museum, Serpa’s ethnographic collection is housed in the city’s former municipal market from the late-1800s.
The museum opened here in 1987 and shows off Serpa’s ancestral skills and savoir-faire, a lot of which was lost when agriculture became industrialised in the middle of the 20th century.
You’ll see reconstructed workshops or antique utensils belonging to basket-weavers, wheelwrights, potters, blacksmiths, cheese-makers, furniture makers, potters, fishermen, shoemakers and tailors.
Each trade is labelled with a bilingual information board and blown-up black and white photographs.
11. Ermida de Santa Luzia de Pias
In the same municipality, the nearby town of Pias also has an isolated hermitage.
This one rests on low ground amid gentle slopes covered with fallow land.
The scenery turns golden in summer and is interspersed with pointed cypress trees or olive groves in rows.
The chapel wouldn’t look out of place in a western movie, not least because the old cemetery beside it has crumbling walls and is overrun with scrub and evergreen trees.
The building is Manueline, from the start of the 1500s, with fading frescos on its barrel vault and decorative capitals on the arch between the nave and chancel.
12. Pulo do Lobo
If you stick with the Guadiana River as it courses into the Vale do Guadiana Natural Park you’ll come to a waterfall at the head of a rugged canyon.
The environment is as harsh as it is beautiful, with rock eroded into jagged shapes by the green water.
The Guadiana harbours a lot of life in this otherwise arid environment and if you’re patient you might see watersnakes and turtles in the water, and a variety of birds including raptors circling overhead.
Better to come in spring when there’s a torrent of water, as it can get a bit dry at the height of summer.
13. Outdoor Activities
If you get to Serpa before it gets really hot in summer the countryside of low hills is a pleasure to travel on foot or by bike.
Spring is especially lovely, when the fallow fields are carpeted with marigolds.
You can stop at the Tourist Office in the town or get in touch with a couple of companies like Serpa Lovers for details of guided walks or one-off activities like balloon rides.
Many holiday rentals also hire out canoes or stand-up paddleboards for the Alqueva Reservoir around half an hour north of the town.
This immense body of water only dates to the 2000s after the construction of the $1.7 billion Alqueva Dam.
Nocturnal activities are also organised around Serpa as the night skies are brilliant in this distant corner of Portugal.
14. Days Out
The cities of Beja and Moura are within 30 kilometres, and both should be kept in mind.
In Beja the show is stolen by the castle’s Gothic keep: At 40 metres, this is the highest medieval tower in the country and it’s made almost completely from marble.
To the northeast, Moura is a town with a Moorish flavour.
The Mouraria here is a small neighbourhood of winding alleys where the town’s Islamic population lived until the 15th century.
There’s also a museum in one of the low cottages, containing an original clay well and with an assortment of inscribed stones and ceramics from the middle ages.
15. Food and Drink
For much of Serpa’s existence people would go out and catch their meals, and so game is still on the menu in the town.
We’re talking about partridge, rabbit, hare and wild boar, to go with stews and roasts for lamb and pork.
At Serpa’s clutch of Alentejano restaurants the seasonings all come from the countryside, as wild rosemary, mint, oregano, parsley and coriander all flourish.
Olives and olive oil are a speciality, and there a number of private producers and agricultural cooperatives if you’d like a bottle of extra virgin oil to take home.
A glass of robust Alentejo wine goes well with the regional cured ham (Presunto), olives and Serpa’s creamy sheep’s cheese.
In summer a bowl of gaspacho, made with diced tomato, onion, pepper cucumber, always hits the spot.