An hour from Lisbon, on a plateau above the river Tagus, Santarém is a city steeped in history and sunshine, good food and river trade. Founded by the Romans, it was an important centre for the Visigoths, Moors, and during the Reconquista, and has many rewards for today’s visitor. Let’s take a look.
1. Main square and Cathedral
On the main praça or square in the historic centre of Santarém, impressive steps lead up to the Cathedral’s bright white Mannerist façade complete with niches where statues of the saints are housed. Dating from the 17th century, the church was built on the ruins of Alcazaba Nova royal palace by architect Mateus do Couto.
2. Jardim das Portas do Sol
Catch the sunrise or sunset in this lovely park contained within ancient citadel walls, with major viewpoints overlooking the mighty River Tagus coursing 100m below and across the river plains beyond. At the time of the Christian Reconquista in the 12th century, this was one of eight ‘gates’ leading to the city. In places archeological vestiges are visible.
3. Portuguese tiles façades
Portuguese ‘azulejos’ tiles adorn Santarém’s historic quarter. From the Arabic for ‘small polished stone’, they’ve been making buildings pop and gleam since the 1700s, with architects drawing on Moorish influences and contemporary colours and fashions.
4. Convento São Francisco
Re-opened to the public in 2009 after decades of closure, São Francisco convent’s cloisters are breathtaking. They lie in a quadrangle, and have two storeys, and capitals decorated with bearded heads, fruit, vegetables and a rare sculpture of Aesop’s tale of the fox and the grapes.
5. Hoopoe street art
On the corner of Rua Primeiro de Dezembro and Rua Vila de Belmonte, you’ll find a giant street painting of a hoopoe bird, known for its distinctive crown of feathers. With a narrow winding street and the magnificent Gothic rose window of Santa Maria da Graça church in the background, it’s a two-for-one of old and new.
6. Casa Museu Passos Manuel
This delightful house-museum is in the private residence of Pedro Canavarro, a descendant of famous Portuguese parliamentarian Passos Manuel. The courtyard is otherworldly in its beauty, filled with citrus trees, roses, fountains and birdsong. Channel your inner writer or painter and choose your spot.
7. Teatro Rosa Damasceno
On Rua Engenheiro Zeferino Sarmento, stand the haunting ruins of Teatro Rosa Damasceno. A listed building since 2002, it’s not just urbexers who will appreciate the art deco and modernist stylings of the venue, its central bay window and thrusting vertical lines.
8. Azulejo tiles
Santarém is chock full of buildings decorated with glazed tiles or azulejos. With Arabic origins, the word azulejo signifies ‘small polished stone’. They all tell a story: from ‘Manueline’ tiles brought back from Seville by King Manuel I, through the white and blue, greens and golds of Age of Discoveries fashions, and the gradual move from geometric shapes to botanical and more ornate designs. How many different colours and patterns can you spot as you stroll from the main square to Jardim das Portas do Sol?
9. Ribatejo hills
The olive-studded hills and limestone clay river valleys surrounding Santarém are so picturesque, you’ll want to set some time aside for them. Why not drop by a vineyard or quinta, or have an afternoon at a spa while you’re in the area?
10. Rooftop vista
The view across Santarém’s terracotta roofs and church spires is not to be missed. See it during a guided tour of the Cathedral belltower.