The city of Torres Vedras is a versatile kind of place an hour north of Lisbon. Signs of civilisation go back more than 4,000 years, but the period that left a lasting mark on the city was the early 18th century. This is when the Lines of Torres Vedras was born; a massive network of fortresses defending Lisbon from Napoleon’s army.
Torres Vedras has two forts in the city, as well as two more in the countryside. The local landscapes are green, hilly and coated with vineyards. The wider municipality also includes 20 kilometres of coast, with eight Blue Flag beaches and the resort of Santa Cruz serving up all the water activities you can handle.
Lets explore the best things to do in Torres Vedras:
1. Forte de São Vicente de Torres Vedras
The outstanding local remnant of the Lines of Torres Vedras is this fort that is dug into the tallest hill in the area.
It was one of the system’s key defences, begun in 1809, with a 1.5-kilometre wall, 39 cannons and able to hold 4,000 men if necessary.
The fort never saw action as André Masséna the Marshal in charge of the French force in 1810 saw how difficult it would be to get through the Lines of Torres Vedras and pulled back to Spain.
The fort has been left as it was at the start of the 19th century, and has deep trenches, a chapel and powder room.
2. Castelo de Torres Vedras
On the steep forested slopes north of the city is the castle, which has been in use on and off for almost 2,000 years.
The Romans were the first to occupy this site, constructing two cisterns, while the Moors erected the first walls.
When the Christians took over in 1148 they pulled these down, but had to build new ones straight away for Moorish attacks, including a mighty siege in 1184. Much later it was brought up to 19th-century standards, as stronghold 27 in the Lines of Torres Vedras, with 11 cannon positions.
Each era left its signature on the castle, like the Portão de Armas from the start of the 16th century, which still sports Manuel I’s coast of arms, flanked by two armillary spheres.
3. Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo
Contained by the castle’s outer walls is a church built directly after Afonso I reconquered the region in 1148. It’s a Portuguese National Monument, and the traces of Romanesque design here are the only ones to be found in the Torres Vedras area.
One of these is in the main portal, which has a double archivolt with capitals carved with doves and intertwining branches.
You should also come round to the side portal, which has two epigraphs dated to 1250. The bell in the 16th-century tower continues to set the rhythm of the day in Torres Vedras.
4. Museu Leonel Trindade
Torres Vedras’ municipal museum is in the Convento da Graça and is brimming with artefacts unearthed at the local archaeological sites.
There’s a prehistoric settlement a few moments to the west, yielding tools and ceramics, while models of the copper smelting furnaces have been constructed.
There are also Roman inscribed stones, mosaics and jewellery from the castle and local villas.
And if you’re curious about the Napoleonic era there’s a big display on the Lines of Torres Vedras and the Peninsular War, with guns, swords, uniforms, models and tableaux.
5. Aqueduto da Fonte dos Canos
The background of this aqueduct that stretches for two kilometres on the east side of Torres Vedras is actually hazy.
All that is known is that it was extended in the 1560s at the behest of Maria of Portugal, daughter of King Manuel I. There are two tiers of Gothic arches, most eye-catching when the structure crosses the Sizandro River.
It conducted water to the Chafariz dos Canos (Fountain of the Pipes), which is a monument in its own right.
6. Chafariz dos Canos
The destination of the aqueduct’s water was first mentioned in 1331, and today is recognised as a Portuguese National Monument.
The current design is from 1561, the same time the aqueduct was restored and extended by Maria of Portugal.
Inside there’s a rectangular tank with two stone spouts that have Baroque vegetal carvings.
This is covered by a pavilion with ogival arches, and a cross vault that has ribs resting on conical corbels.
And crowning the structure are ornamental merlons that have been painted white and continue along the wall behind.
7. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia
Maybe the most charming of all the city’s churches is in a complex with the city’s historic hospital.
It was constructed in the last years of the 17th century and has kept hold of all of its original fittings.
In the nave you won’t be able to miss the blue and white glazed tiles, which have images from the Old Testament.
Above this is a gallery, which had a side door so that the hospital’s sick wouldn’t have to miss mass.
Also see the pulpit sticking out from the right wall of the church, and the central altar, both of which are adorned with gilded wood, sculpted to an extraordinary standard.
8. Santa Cruz
Part of the municipality is a coastal community boasting four Blue Flag beaches.
Despite being attached to the resort these have a rare natural beauty, with golden sands and a line of cliffs that breaks off into a couple of dramatic outcrops.
The immense boulder at Praia de Formosa has a natural arch that you can view from a platform that has been cut into the neighbouring outcrop.
The shoreline is completely open to the Atlantic, and if wave sports are your thing you need to put Ocean Spirit in your diary.
Every July, this is an international festival, holding competitions for skim-boarding, surfing, body-boarding as well as an open water swim race.
9. Castro do Zambujal
Close to Torres Vedras are the ruins of a settlement from the third millennium BC. The Castro do Zambujal is from the copper age, and is believed to have been a vital centre for smelting and ore trading until it was pulled down around 1700 BC. The site was discovered in 1938 and quickly declared a National Monument.
What’s left is a courtyard 25 metres in diameter and ringed by a large wall.
This is defended by semicircular barbicans, and the openings would have been so small that people could only crawl through.
A lot of the inner fortifications have been excavated, as well as some of the narrow passageways leading into the courtyard.
10. Paços do Concelho
One reason the history of Torres Vedras can be a bit sketchy is because of something that happened at the town hall in 1744. A criminal trying to escape from the prison on the lower floor started a fire that wiped out all of the medieval and early modern historical records! This building was constructed around the 14th century and was restored in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
There’s an inscription dated to 1776 above a beautiful marble fountain with a dolphin.
This used to be fed by an offshoot of the Fonte dos Canos aqueduct.
11. Azenha de Santa Cruz
Overlooking the ocean at Santa Cruz is an interesting glimpse of rural life from the not too distant past.
This hydraulic mill is from the late 1400s and functioned until as recently s 1950 when it was finally abandoned.
It was left to decay until 2009 when it was restored and opened to the public.
An interpretation centre has been set up inside for traditional flour and bread-making, with a restored waterwheel and replica of the mill’s grinding mechanism inside.
This a special time to be in Torres Vedras, as the carnival celebrations are unique, both because they are distinctly Portuguese and because they rely on spontaneous participation of the locals.
The whole city cuts loose, with crazy parades, live djs and bands and bars that are packed with revellers until the early hours.
Carnival has been observed here for centuries, but it was in 1924 when the current tradition began; there are 13 satirical floats with very bawdy themes, giant ceremonial puppets, two carnival kings that are usually local personalities and “matrafonas”, guys dressed up in outlandish drag.
13. Grande Rota das Linhas de Torres Vedras
This immense walking trail has been devised to follow the course of the network of defences that deterred Napoleon’s army during the Peninsular Wars.
Obviously you won’t have to attempt the entire 112 kilometres, but you could use it to visit a couple of the forts nearby.
The forts of Archeira and Feiteira are in the countryside near Torres Vedras, and you’ll get to them on a rollercoaster trail, winding past vineyards and the typical windmills that characterise these landscapes.
Another excursion to plan is a walk to the Nossa Senhora do Socorro Hermitage, dating to the 1500s and standing on a beautiful grassy hilltop.
The Região Oeste and the Torres Viedras area in particular is up with the most productive wine regions in Portugal.
For a long time this was associated with the mass market, but over the last 20 years quality has started winning the battle with quantity.
Reds are robust and aromatic, while the whites have a far lower alcohol content and are light and fruity.
If you’re into wine or just have a passing interest, a winery tour is worth every penny as you discover local grape varieties and the finer details of wine production, but also get to see more of the gorgeous countryside.
Adega Mãe is 10 kilometres from the centre of Torres Vedras and has an ultramodern facility ensconced in this bucolic landscape.
15. Traditional Food
In the 1800s the Torres Vedras resident Joaquina Rodrigues invented the pastel de feijão (bean pie), which started out as a family recipe but spread to friends and acquaintances and eventually became a hallmark sweet for the city.
White beans are turned into a sweet paste and baked in pastry and dusted with icing sugar.
As for savoury dishes cod is on the menu by the coast, and it seems like every restaurant has its own way of preparing it.
You could try it grilled with chickpeas, in cream, in a salad, deep fried, roasted and served with “crushed” potatoes.
In the cooler months carnivores can indulge in roast goat kid, veal steak and roast suckling pig.