Torres Novas is a pretty town in Portugal’s central Ribatejo region, guarded by the fearsome walls of a medieval castle. The town’s big cultural claim to fame is the revered Portuguese painter Carlos Reis, who was born here in the 19th century. He made a name for his depictions of bucolic scenes, and the municipal museum has a strong collection of his work and pieces by his famous contemporaries.
For fresh air and the great outdoors, two chalk massifs, the Serras d’Aire and Serra dos Candeeiros, rise to the west. These are conserved by a natural park, and you can venture in to track down underground caves and footprints left by colossal dinosaurs.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Torres Novas:
1. Castle of Torres Novas
The standout monument in every sense, the Castle of Torrres Novas is a sign of the town’s political and strategic value in medieval times.
It was raised by the Moors in the 1100sm, and once it was securely in Christian hands became part of the Tagus Line (Linha do Tejo). This was a system of castles on a horizontal line protecting the right bank of the Tagus River.
On the walk from Praça 5 de Outubro there’s a tile panel portraying the 10-day siege in 1190 that brought an end to Moorish control.
The structure is essentially a shell, with an immense outer curtain that has 11 towers to scale for panoramas of the Ribatejo.
In the middle is a tranquil garden with the little 14th-century warden’s under 100-year-old cypresses and pines.
2. Museu Municipal Carlos Reis
Torres Novas has accumulated more than 30 works by Carlos Reis.
These are in the municipal museum’s and match pastoral landscapes with portraits of rural folk.
His paintings are hung next to works by other respected Portuguese artists, like José Malhoa, who worked at roughly the same time and was also inspired by pastoral themes.
Fine art is just one quarter of the exhibition though: You can also pore over liturgical treasures and Roman archaeology from local excavations.
And in the ethnographic galleries the antique farming tools, musical instruments and costumes bring to life the scenes painted by Reis and Malhoa.
3. Roman Ruins of Villa Cardillio
When this affluent villa was first excavated in 1962 a staggering array of artefacts were discovered, from bronze items of all descriptions to coins, ceramics, jewellery and glassware from as far away as Egypt and Assyria.
Most of these have ended up at the Carlos Reis Municipal Museum.
Investigating the site you’ll discover the intricate mosaics on the floor, with complicated geometric patterns.
The villa centred on a classic peristyle, an open courtyard with a colonnade, and this is 20 metres long with lower sections of the columns still in place.
There’s also an exedra (portico)laid with opus signinum (crushed tiles), while you can also see what remains of the baths, with the hot and cold zones clearly delineated.
4. Igreja da Misericórdia de Torres Novas
The most opulent religious monument in the town, this church is from the middle of the 1500s, with decoration and fittings added in stages over the next 200 years.
To enter you have to climb a baroque stairway lifting you to a resplendent late-Renaissance portal with columns and pediments.
Inside there’s dazzling decoration at every angle, whether it’s the expertly carved coffered ceiling from the 1500s or the azulejo panels from the 1600s that cover every inch of the walls.
Seek out the nativity scene, carved by the famous 18th-century sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro.
5. Praça 5 de Outubro
Torres Novas may be modest, but it will feel like a city at this impressive central square.
The southern edge of Praça 5 de Outubro is lined with cafes that have terraces blessed with a postcard view of the castle.
The tourist office is also here, as well as a couple of hotels housed in fine four-storey mansions.
Given the square’s large proportions and central location, it hosts most of the town’s public celebrations.
Come by at the start of the June and yuo can get involved with Memórias da História, a medieval fair with a market, craft workshops and re-enactments relying on a big cast of volunteers.
6. Grutas de Lapas
Under the village of Lapas two kilometres from Torres Novas is a spectacular labyrinth of tunnels hewn from the soft tufa rock.
Just who dug these tunnels and for what purpose remains a bit of an enigma; theories vary from Neolithic tribes for shelter, to Christians seeking refuge during Roman times or the Moors for defence and storage.
They may also have just been a medieval mine for building material, as most of the houses in Lapas are built from the same tufa stone.
Either way, you can come and explore; all you have to do is knock on the door of the caretaker who will let you in.
7. Moinhos da Pena
In a very pastoral scene is a row of 12 small windmills posted on a ridge over the village of Assentis.
How old the mills are is anyone’s guess, but what is known is that they were still grinding flour up to 1965. In 1992 seven of them were restored to working order and reopened as a museum.
It’s somewhere to come and contemplate the countryside, and check out the interiors of these buildings where flour is still being ground.
There’s also a snack bar at the site, which is all the invitation you need to spend a little while longer in this memorable setting.
8. Museu Nacional Ferroviário
Entroncamento, right next to Torres Novas, is a railway town established at a junction in Portugal’s rail network in the 19th century.
There’s no more fitting home for a Portugal’s National Railway Museum, delving into 160 years of rail travel in the country.
The set of steam and diesel locomotives is the main event, and you can board the plush royal and presidential carriages.
This rolling stock complemented by some 36,000 items such as signalling equipment, antique ticket office fittings, posters, textiles, kitchen utensils and much more.
9. Parque Natural das Serras d’Aire e Candeeiros
The western side of Torres Novas overlaps with a natural park safeguarding two chalk ranges.
Above ground , fresh air and exercise are in order in a mostly tree-less landscape that has a stark majesty to it.
There are 16 walks to take on, and one, the Rota das Minas da Bezerra, leads you into a mining zone that has been abandoned for more than half a century.
There’s a lot going on below the park’s surface, where the soft rock has been hollowed out by underground rivers.
There are a few show caves to check out, like the Mira de Aire Caves, 15 kilometres from Torres Novas, rife with bizarre concretions.
10. Monumento Natural das Pegadas de Dinossáurio
On the eastern nook of the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park, minutes from Torres Novas, are the footprints left by sauropod dinosaurs in the Middle Jurassic period some 175 million year ago.
These herbivorous animals are among the largest creatures ever to walk the earth, weighing up to 70 tons and reaching 30 metres in length.
The prints, a metre in diameter, were discovered by chance in a quarry.
This is now kept as a 20-hectare park, in which you can track the steps of a single dinosaur almost 150 metres, finding 20 prints as you go.
You can get some background on this unique place with an introductory video, while guided tours are available on request.
11. Reserva Natural do Paul do Boquilobo
Where the River Almonda flows into the Tagus there’s a wetland area of more than 520 hectares.
The allure of this space lies in its birdlife, which changes from season to season and is rich in waders and waterfowl.
Come for a walk around mid-July and you’ll be greeted by the inspiring spectacle of thousands of herons.
Then in November and February large flocks of ducks and geese stop by on their pan-continental migrations.
At any time the reserve is a soothing environment to stroll through, with willow trees and cane fields on the banks of the Almonda.
A stone’s throw from Torres Novas is Golegã, Portugugal’s “Capital of the Horse”. Every November this small community by the Tagus is the stage for the Feira Nacional do Cavalo (National Horse Fair), an event that can be traced back to 1571. Golegã has always boasted Portugal’s most prestigious stud farms for the fabled lusitano horse.
And for ten days there’s a lively schedule of equestrian competitions and artistic performances to celebrate this legacy.
Golegã feels a bit like a western town at this time, when people don traditional riding gear and park their horses outside shops and restaurants.
Tomar is a Knights Templar town established on land granted to the Order after this region had been re-conquered from the Moors in the 12th century.
Up a tall hill is the Convento de Cristo, with a circular Romanesque church at its heart that was based on Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the convent and the fortifications that protect it there’s a wealth of architectural flourishes like an iconic 16th-century Manueline window on the chapterhouse, and four marvellous cloisters.
Far below is the town, which was drawn up from scrath on a grid system in the 1110s, using sacred geometry to determine the distances between the churches and convents.
14. Museu Agrícola de Riachos
When industry arrived in Ribatejo in the 19th century, modes of life that had existed unchanged for hundreds of years were lost overnight.
This ethnographic museum in the local village of Riachos has put together a big haul of farming implements in a typical farmhouse with a winery and barn.
There are timeworn handicrafts, old wooden carts, an original wine press, a copper still and an array of sickles and hoes.
But the best exhibit of all is the beautiful steam tractor from the early 1900s.
15. Food and Drink
Ribatejo cuisine is unpretentious and satisfying, and sources its ingredients locally.
If you want to be authentic, order rice with morcela (blood sausage) to start, and then move on to young goat either roasted with garlic or slow-cooked in a clay pot with bacon (à Moda da Serra). Eels are plentiful in the Tagus, and come fried, grilled or in stews at restaurants in Torres Novas.
As for wine, you’re in the versatile Ribatejo DOC region, and the wines can be white, red, rosé, sparkling or sweet.
There are two estates, Quinta do Vale Pequeno and Quinta de S. João Batista, happy to give you an inside glimpse at production.