The city of Tomar was founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century on land granted by Portugal’s first king. The order set up a convent on a hill and by the riverside plotted what would be the last Templar town in the world. The Convent of Christ is a World Heritage Site, with magnificent architecture perfected over more than 300 years.
When the Order of Christ took over from the Knights Templat, Tomar was where many Portuguese voyages in the Age of Discovery were planned. And as the order’s governor, the world-changing explorer Henry the Navigator lived in Tomar and took charge of its expansion in the 15th century.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tomar:
1. Convent of Christ
In the 12th century, King Afonso Henriques donated the region around Tomar to the Knights Templar, and they founded a convent famed for its round church.
This UNESCO site is indispensible, both for what you can see and what it represents.
It is separated from modern Tomar, far above the town and the Nabão River, on a promontory, and defended by a castle and walls.
There’s Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance architecture in the church, chapterhouse and cloister that will leave you spellbound.
When the Knights Templar was dissolved in the 14th century the Order of Christ replaced it, and used its enormous wealth to fund voyages in the Age of Discovery.
2. Castelo de Tomar
In the same compound is the Templar castle protecting the convent.
This has a curtain of walls and towers, all still adorned with the Cross of Malta and other more arcane symbols.
At the time of the Reconquista in the 12th century the castle was on the Linha do Tejo, a horizontal line of castles at the front between the future Portuguese to the north and the Moors to the south.
It’s hard not to be wowed by the scale and preservation of this structure despite the damage it took when Napoleon’s troops were stationed here in the Peninsular Wars.
There are Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance remnants, and every point of interest is labelled with a sign.
3. Aqueduto dos Pegões
The Convent of the Order of Christ needed a water supply, and the answer was to construct this magnificent six-kilometre aqueduct to conduct water from the four springs at Pegões.
The project began in the 1590s and was planned by the Italian military architect Filipe Terzio who had been hired by the Portuguese crown.
Work would continue for 21 years, and Terzio wouldn’t live to see it completed.
The aqueduct is most impressive when it crosses the steep Vale da Ribeira dos Pegões, with two tiers of arches (ogival underneath, round at the top) reaching a maximum height of 30 metres.
If you’re brave enough you can even walk along the conduit at the top.
4. Tomar Synagogue
Walking down the cobblestone Rua Dr Joaquim Jacinto you wouldn’t know the synagogue was here but for a discreet star of David.
The interior has high groined vaults borneby corbels and four columns with foliate motifs.
This masonry has symbolic meaning, as the columns represent the four Matriarchs, and the corbels are for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
The synagogue was founded in the mid-15th century but wasn’t in use for much more than 50 years as the Jews were expelled or forced to convert by King Manuel I at the end of 1400s.
Since 1939 it has been restored and houses Tomar’s Jewish Museum.
5. Igreja de São João Batista
The spiritual and physical heart of old Tomar this church went up at the end of the 15th century, during the reign of Manuel I. This era is known for its exuberant sculpture, and the church is furnished with a glorious portal with astoundingly intricate stonework crafted by an unknown French artist.
You also have to check out the tiles inside, which have 16th-century “ponta de diamante” (diamond tip) patters with a trompe l’oeil effect.
There are also some exceptional paintings, like the Last Supper by the Portuguese Renaissance master Gregório Lopes.
6. Old Town
One of many cool things about Tomar is that it was a planned city.
The oldest quarter follows a strict grid system plotted by the Knight Templar in the 12th century.
Even more intriguing is that it follows the shape of a four-armed cross, with each of these arms pointing to one of the city’s convents.
But that’s not the only instance of sacred geometry; the Igreja de São João Batista is at the centre of a perfect circle, lining up several oratories and convents to form the “sacred space” in which Tomar was built.
7. Praça da República
If you need a place to dive in and start a tour of the city, make it this square in front of Igreja de São João Batista.
The 16th-century Mannerist town hall is opposite the church and is very photogenic, with portuguese pavement, a statue of the Templar Knight and Tomar’s founder, Gualdim Pais in the foreground, and the walls of the castle as a backdrop.
If you examine the town hall’s facade closely you can see some hints of Manueline decoration, in the armillary sphere, which was King Manuel I’s personal emblem.
8. Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Conceição
This hermitage was built on a rise near the Convent of Christ in the mid-16th century.
Despite its modest size it is seen as one of the purest examples of Renaissance architecture in Portugal.
The chapel was actually intended to be the pantheon for King John III, a purpose never fulfilled.
It has none of the extravagant decoration of later Portuguese churches, and is planned like a classical basilica with a barrel vault held up by Corinthian columns, and with Ionic pilasters on the walls.
There are many openings letting plenty of light into the church, through a lunette above the portal and leaded windows on the walls that are topped with regal pediments.
9. Mata Nacional dos Sete Montes
This park is the divide between the Convent of Christ and old Tomar.
It’s an agreeable way to walk to the convent, and you’ll make the stiff but very pretty climb through oak and cedar woods.
The lower reaches are large terraces with fastidiously tended hedges in geometric shapes, topiaries, fountains and Classical stone vases.
In the days of the Knights Templar and Order of Christ initiation rites would take place in this park, while the slopes were laden with orchards and kitchen gardens.
Try to find the Charolinha, a delightful mini replica of the convent, designed in the 16th century by the João de Castilho, the greatest architect of the period.
10. Igreja de Santa Maria dos Olivais
Another must-see on the Knights Templar trail is this 12th-century church, which was the seat of the order in Portugal and was the pantheon for the order’s Grand Masters.
Over the course of the 13th century 22 Grand Masters were buried here, and you can see their names on a memorial slab.
And although the architecture is quite understated it is charged with secret meaning: The number eight, important to the Knights Templar, recurs several times, in the amount windows, number of steps in the staircase and number of columns in the nave.
The church is a short hop from the centre of Tomar on the opposite bank of the Nabão.
11. Castelo do Bode
There’s a dam on the Zêzere River about 15 minutes from the south Tomar, forming a 3300-hectare lake.
The structure itself is immense, climbing to 115 metres and powering a 138 MW hydroelectricity plant.
A road crosses the top of the dam, and there’s a space to park up to gaze down the valley.
And as for that lake, it’s a water reservoir for Lisbon, but also a placid setting if you need to cool off in summer.
The south shore has a campsite couched in pine forest, with a small beach and swimming area.
Or you could also take a woodland trail to get a better view of the dam from its base.
12. Anta do Vale da Laje
For a detour when you’re visiting the Castelo do Bode, head along the lakeshore to this Megalithic site.
It’s been declared the oldest funerary monument north of the River Tagus, with more than 7,500 years of history.
There’s a chamber composed of five granite slabs that you reach along a narrow corridor walled with smaller stones.
Outside there’s a courtyards with what is believed to have been a circular altar.
The site has recently been made a bit more accessible, with some of the encroaching woodland cut back and new interpretation boards installed.
13. Museu dos Fósforos
Tomar has a very quirky, and combustible, museum set up in the Convento de São Francisco.
This is for matches, matchbooks and matchboxes, gathered from all over the world and in every size imaginable.
One Belgian example has matches 40 centimetres long.
There’s a whiff of nostalgia at this attraction, with the bulk of the exhibits dating from the middle decades of the 20th century when smoking was the norm.
There are special books marking events like Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation or the USSR sending Yuri Gagarin into space.
What’s amazing is that all these pieces were collected by just one man, Aquiles da Mota Lima, who donated it to the town in 1980.
14. Festa dos Tabuleiros
This festival happens only once every four years, and the last edition was in 2015. People come a long way for the occasion, which looks like no other public celebration in Portugal.
The Festa dos Tabuleiros takes place around the first couple of weeks of July, and the parades are the most eye-catching events.
Here, young girls will wear pillar-like headdresses known as tabuleiros.
These are absurdly high and have stacks of bread tied together, garlanded with flowers and capped with either a dove or armillary sphere and a templar cross.
This tradition goes back to the 1200s and loaded with religious meaning.
In a covent town like Tomar there are several sweet preparations that have egg as the main ingredient.
In medieval times convents had a surplus of eggs as people would donate them for good luck when they were about to get married.
Fatias de Tomar (Tomar Slices) are made with only egg yolks and sugar, cooked in a special pan that is only sold in this town.
It comes out as sort of pudding that is cut into slices and flavoured with cinnamon, anise or lemon.
You can buy this treat in beautifully decorated pots to take home.
Beija-me depressa (kiss-me-quicks) are also melting egg confectionery, dusted with icing sugar and sold in 60s-retro-style boxes of 12.