This Alentejo town is on the left bank of the River Sado, just before it widens into an immense estuary. The low-lying countryside is a patchwork of rice fields and coniferous woodland that yields a big pine nut harvest.
Alcácer do Sal is still marshalled by a medieval castle, with a superb museum in its crypt that brings to light 2,700 years of history. On the estuary you might catch sight of the resident pod of dolphins, and if you trace the river down to the coast the Tróia Peninsula has flawless white beaches that need to be seen to be believed.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Alcácer do Sal:
1. Castelo de Alcácer do Sal
This rocky promontory by the Sado River has been inhabited since time immemorial.
During the Moorish occupation it was an integral provincial stronghold with a powerful keep and 20 towers that climbed to over 25 metres.
But by the 16th century the castle was obsolete and was turned into a convent.
Neglect and earthquakes had left the site dilapidated until a pousada (heritage hotel) opened for business in the 1990s.
In the upper reaches linger for a moment to appreciate the huge, flat expanse of the plain where rice fields line the course of the river.
2. Cripta Arqueológica do Castelo
There are 27 centuries of history in the subterranean galleries beneath the castle, and every few metres you’ll find yourself in a new civilisation.
These foundations, streets and forgotten buildings were found during the castle renovations in the 90s.
The earliest traces down here are from the Iron Age, around 700 BC and from then on a succession of cultures left their mark, ending with the Moors in the middle ages.
In the showcases are artefacts like busts, pottery and statuettes from each overlapping epoch.
3. Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo
Within the castle’s walled enclosure, this church is from 1217 and was consecrated by the Order of Santiago after King Alfonso II re-conquered the city.
There are pieces of Gothic, Manueline and Baroque design at this building.
The most striking works inside are from the 1700s, when the ornamental stone pulpit was completed (see the carving of an archangel that supports it). At this time the nave walls were clad with tiles and the chapels were embellished with rich gilded woodcarving.
And lastly, like many of the taller buildings around the estuary this church has a stork’s nest, visible on the adapted Gothic spire.
4. Reserva Natural do Estuário do Sado
The Sado River is born near the city of Beja and meanders for 180 kilometres east to west.
After Alcácer do Sal the river empties into this huge estuary, safeguarded as a natural reserve and still supporting a fishing community – although the fishers have to compete with a pod of dolphins living happily in these tranquil saline waters.
Rice fields trace the water’s edge and in drier parts there are pines and cork oaks.
You can see what remains of ancient salt basins and take peaceful walks under the big skies, sighting birds like storks that make their nests on roofs and electricity pylons.
5. Cais Palafítico da Carrasqueira
On the south side of the Sado Estuary, you’ll come across a series of wooden piers attached to drunken-looking stakes.
These quaint structures push a long way out into the water and were cobbled together by fishermen so that they could launch their vessels at low tide.
Some have rustic wooden huts and boats moored at the stakes.
Others have fallen apart completely, leaving just a column of skeletal piles poking out of the water.
The piers are from the 1950s and 60s, and the wide open sky, rickety piles, glassy water and the greenery of the marshland will give you some amazing photographs.
6. Riverside Promenade
The tourist office on Largo Luís de Camões in Alcácer do Sal is a good starting point for a leisurely stroll beside the Sado River.
From the office you can look up to the castle at the top of the hill and back to the metallic bascule bridge from 1945 that lifts to allow sailboats to pass.
The townhouses and apartment buildings on the waterfront are all whitewashed and have bars, restaurants and cafes on their ground floors.
There are benches in front of the water and moored on the opposite bank are vintage wooden sailboats that make excursions in summer.
7. Praia da Comporta
If you’re accustomed to the raging waves on Portugal’s western coast you might be caught off guard by the beaches on the Tróia Peninsula.
The ocean currents are fended off by the Cabo Espichel, a dominant headland west of Setúbal and this sits in the distance while you lounge on Praia da Comporta.
The water is clear, shallow and on calm days the waves only reach knee height.
“Unspoiled” is a cliché that genuinely applies to this long, wide beach trimmed by dunes.
You’re far from any big cities or resorts, so there’s not much tourism until you get to the northern tip of the peninsula.
8. Espaço Museológico “Museu do Arroz”
One way to dip into the culture of the Sado Estuary is to get to know its rice-growing tradition.
In Comporta a former rice husking station next to a sea of rice fields has been converted into a museum and restaurant.
As well as the husking machine in the centre of the former factory the museum reveals how this remote site was self-sustaining: It had a blacksmith to craft harvesting tools, and a farrier to shod the workhorses that ploughed the fields.
There was also a bakery, barber, canteen, mechanic and chapel all in the same place.
9. Barragem do Pego do Altar
Alcácer do Sal’s rice industry was also boosted by a major project in the 1930s and 40s on the Alcáçovas River, a tributary of the Sado.
This dam trapped 94,000,000 cubic metres of water to irrigate the rice fields, and remains integral to agriculture to this day.
The dam and reservoir are in a bucolic rural scene, traced by orchards and mixed woodland.
People come down to the water for fishing or to glide around the waters in kayaks or canoes.
10. Igreja da Misericórdia
According to an inscription on the lintel of one of the portals, this Mannerist church was consecrated in 1547. Something out of the ordinary is that the chancel and nave are integrated into the same space, and not separated by a choir or archway.
The lower half of the inside walls is festooned with azulejos painted in the 1600s, while above this is dainty stuccowork from the end of the 18th century.
In 1895 the feted painter Francisco Flamengo was commissioned for the fresco on the ceiling, portraying the three Virtues of Hope, Faith and Charity.
11. Santuário do Senhor dos Mártires
Keep going past Alcácer do Sal’s western outskirts and you’ll come to this chapel erected in the 1200s for the knights of the Order of Santiago.
This was a pantheon or funerary chapel for the order, and it’s not hard to see the Gothic influence in the buttresses, vaults and traceried windows.
This piece of land has an interesting past, because it has been a place of burial since the Iron Age and was an early-Christian hermitage in Roman times.
12. Tróia Peninsula
If Praia da Comporta has whetted your appetite for deserted white sandy beaches, you can continue up the peninsula for miles until you finally get to the tourist resort at the northwestern end.
On the ocean side the beaches never seem to stop, but human settlements are few and far between.
If you’re lucky enough to watch the sun go down behind the Serra da Arrábida it’s a scene you won’t soon forget.
All of the beaches are suitable for bathing, but the one at the tip of the peninsula is a cut above.
Pointing towards the estuary, the sugar-white Praia de Tróia could be on a tropical island.
The water may be a little chilly, but it is tranquil, safe and totally transparent.
13. Herdade de Montalvo Riding Centre
Herdade de Montalvo is a holiday village on the southern cusp of the natural reserve.
Alongside its swimming pool, coniferous forest and sports facilities there’s a riding centre with lusitano horses.
If there’s a young horse fanatic in your family you could make her or his holiday with a day at this centre.
On the “Entre Amigos” program first-time riders will be introduced to their mount and equipment, and will then get a lesson from an expert.
They’ll go on a leisurely hack around the woods and lake, and riders with more experience can test their skills in the show-jumping arena.
14. Sado River Trips
Keep an eye on the municipality’s website, because there’s a schedule of cruises along the Sado in summer.
These are on board the Pinto Luisa or Amendoeira sailboats, and can be full-day or half-day trips.
On a day-long cruise you’ll cross the Sado estuary and moor up in Setúbal or the divine beaches at the tip of the Tróia Peninsula.
The whole time you’ll be clued up on the history and birdlife of this fabulous setting.
And with any luck you’ll come across the dolphins that are the scourge of fishing boats in the estuary as they chew their nets to steal their catch!
15. Local Food
Any food-lover from northern Europe will know that pine nuts can be pricey.
But Alcácer do Sal is Portugal’s leading pine nut producer and you can get big bags for just a couple of Euros.
Along with the local honey, pine nuts are the main ingredient in the town’s pinhoadas confectionery.
The estuary and ocean provide Alcácer do Sal with a lot of fish and seafood, and these are simmered with the rice for arroz de lingueirão (rice with razor clams). Torrão, to the east of the municipality is in rolling hills of wheat and olive groves, and has made a name for its crusty bread and high-quality olive oil.