Just 20 minutes north of Lisbon, Vila Franca de Xira is on the Tagus River, right where it widens into that vast estuary.
The largest and most ecologically diverse wetland region in the country are on the banks here.
This is a dreamland for birdwatchers, and a new ultra-modern visitor centre can equip you with information about the thousands of species that inhabit or stop by the marshes and mudflats.
There’s also fertile farmland by the estuary, where the legendary lusitano horse and black fighting bulls are bred.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Vila Franca de Xira:
1. Reserva Natural do Estuário do Tejo
Portugal’s largest wetland zone, and one of the top ten in Europe, lies within the Vila Franca de Xira municipality.
This reserve is more than 14,000 hectares and was created to ensure a haven for the many thousands of birds that either breed here, winter here or stop by on their migration between African and Western Europe.
You could visit at any time of year and be treated to a spectacle of life and colour, but the migratory periods in autumn and spring are when the bird population is at its most diverse.
Winter is also special, when over 120,000 waterfowl and waders descend on the estuary for milder weather.
2. EVOA – Espaço de Visitação e Observação de Aves
The visitor centre for the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve is the place to get up to speed on the wildlife of the park.
It’s a modern complex raised on wooden piles, and smartly designed to have an observation space with a large window facing the marshes.
The centre is in 70 hectares of its own freshwater marshland, established to protect the park’s birdlife and make it easier to observe without intruding.
There are carefully devised trails and hides, and EVOA puts on regular guided birdwatching walks.
In the permanent exhibition is a clear summary of all of the birds that inhabit the estuary, so it’s a useful base if you’re planning to see or photograph this wildlife.
3. Museu do Neo-Realismo
Scholars of Portuguese 20th-century history should be enthralled by this museum about the Neo-Realism movement, which has displays of both literature and visual arts.
The museum has been around since 1990, but in 2007 it was given a modern overhaul, with spaces for short-term exhibitions, a 1,000-square-metre library and an auditorium.
Neo-Realism was a left-wing literary and art movement that started a few years before the authoritarian Salazar regime took over.
Most of its followers were either removed from their posts, forced into exile or, in the case of artist and communist leader José Dias Coelho, assassinated.
4. Igreja da Misericórdia de Vila Franca de Xira
This church on the Largo da Misericórdia was built around the 1560s and managed to survive the devastating earthquake in 1755. At that time the interior decoration was damaged enough to need a refit, which is when its ostentatious gilded altar and side altars were completed.
The beautiful azulejos on the walls are from 1760 and represent the 14 Christian Works of Mercy.
This is no coincidence as the church is connected to what used to be Vila Franca de Xira’s hospital, which were run by the clergy.
The pre-1755 azulejos are displayed in the sacristy and were produced by the great 17th-century tile-maker António de Oliveira Bernardes.
5. Casa-Museu Mário Coelho
To tap into Vila Franca de Xira’s bullfighting heritage, come to the birthplace of its most distinguished matador, Mário Coelho.
His career won in him fame in Portugal as well as Spanish-speaking world, taking him to Spain, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
Coelho is seen in bullfighting circles as a master of the sport.
In 2001 the house where he was born in 1933 was turned into a museum, and is loaded with memorabilia from his long career, with photographs, costumes, muletas (the famous red cloth) swords and trophies.
6. Parque Linear Ribeirinho Estuário do Tejo
The right bank of the Tagus Estuary had been allowed to fall into disuse after the decline of waterfront industry, but it is slowly being revived with the help of projects like this park a few minutes down from Vila Franca de Xira.
A long stretch of the wetlands have been made accessible with the help of 5.6 kilometres of paths and boardwalks, and the park also has bird-watching hides, playgrounds for children and sports facilities like volleyball courts.
The multi-million Euro project has also restored some of the old fishing huts and piers along the waterfront.
7. Equestrian Tourism
The estuary’s farmland, known as the Lezíria, is a historic breeding ground for black fighting bulls, but also the lusitano horse.
This was the breed used for bullfighters to ride on, but is now the favoured for equestrianism and ridden by the Portuguese Olympic dressage teams.
If you’d like to know more, there are numerous stud farms in the area, a few of which welcome visitors.
But the best way to get to know the lusitano horse is to ride one, and this possible at one of the five equestrian centres around Vila Franca de Xira.
Typically you’ll be given short lesson and can take join a hack or trail ride.
8. Fábrica das Palavras
Vila Franca de Xira’s new municipal library is named, Fábrica das Palavras (word factory). And while a library wouldn’t normally be much of an attraction, there’s nothing normal about this one next to the Tagus.
It’s a sensational polygonal building with irregular white walls and glass, designed by the architect Miguel Arruda and opened in 2014. Beyond the futuristic architecture there are also painting and photography exhibitions in the galleries and a cafe for contemplating the estuary with a hot drink.
9. Quinta Municipal da Piedade
The Vila Franca de Xira municipality owns a few historic estates acquired from landowning families.
These tend to be closed and hired out for private functions, but the 18th-century palace down in Póvoa de Santa Iria puts on regular exhibitions.
There’s also a delightful public park here.
Wandering in the grounds you’ll happen upon a couple of beautiful old chapels, but it’s the youngest members of the family who will get the most out of the estate: There’s an educational farm, with sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, pigs and poultry.
10. Barco Varino “Liberdade”
At the pier in Vila Franca de Xira you could board a heritage boat to float down the Tagus Estuary in the traditional fashion.
These trips are organised by the municipal museum and set sail from May to October.
You can check in with the tourist office for exact times, but there are several trips a month.
The vessel was designed especially to ship freight in the estuary’s shallow waters, so had a flat hull and high prows.
On your voyage you’ll get a better view of the estuary’s uninhabited islands and their waterfowl, so a pair of binoculars are a handy companion.
11. Wine Tourism
West of Vila Franca de Xira the hills are fluted with vines.
Arruda dos Vinhos is only 11 kilometres from Vila Franca de Xira and is the main village for the Arruda DOC, mainly known for its reds.
There are wineries littered across this area, some on gorgeous old quintas, but the nearest wine experience can be had at Arruda dos Vinhos’ own cooperative.
This is a large-scale industrial unit rather than a charming winery, processing grapes from some 200 growers.
It has massive stainless steel cylinders with automatic stirrers and subterranean vats where the wine is fermented.
A representative will be happy to show you around and you can buy a bottle or two from the cooperative shop.
If you’d like a day in Portugal’s capital it’s best to ditch the car and catch the Lingha da Azambuja communter train.
On weekdays these depart every 15 minutes or so and take half an hour to get to down to Santa Apolónia station.
You could also go to Moscavide, 20 minutes away, and change for the Lisbon Metro’s Red Line.
However you do it there’s tons to see in Lisbon.
If you’re up for some exploring Alfama and the hip Bairro Alto are typical animated neighbourhoods, and for old-fashioned sightseeing, the São Jorge Castle and Praça do Comércio are always crowd pleasers.
The National Tile Museum is a window on Portugal’s azulejo tradition, while the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum has an jaw-dropping collection of ancient and fine art.
13. Parque das Nações
You only need 20 minutes to get to this urban development in the northeast of Lisbon, designed for the city’s Expo ’98 World Exposition.
A heap of projects coincided for this event, like the European record-breaking Ponte Vasco da Gama bridge and the must-see Lisbon Oceanarium.
The nerve centre for Expo ’98 was the Parque das Nações, which has a dynamic, modern feel for its exhibition halls, towers, public art and cable car.
In the evening you have to come down for a meal or drink and see the area in lights, and if you’re planning a shopping trip the Vasco da Gama mall is one of the largest in Lisbon.
Something to love about Vila Franca de Xira’s traditional food is that it’s both very local and very seasonal.
In summer for instance there are melons grown in the fertile farmland bordering the estuary, while in early spring there’s a brief window to taste a traditional dish.
This is shad season, when this relative of the herring is deep-fried and paired with açorda, a typical Portuguese preparation with bread, eggs, coriander, oil and vinegar in a sort of paste.
The cooler months are the time to try a wide variety of stews with meat, fish or vegetables at their heart.
Take coelho da horta, a rabbit and vegetable stew with tomatoes, sweet pepper and peas.