With a growing reputation among food-lovers, this historic and up-and-coming Portuguese city, just an hour from Lisbon and easily accessible by car or train, has everything for the perfect city break.
1. Coffee and pastries at the Pastelaria Bijou
Start your first morning in Santarém with coffee and pastries on the main square or praça in Santarém’s historic centre, with bright sunshine falling on the white steps and façade of the 17th-century cathedral, the Church of Our Lady of the Conception and the Jesuit College.
Pastelaria Bijou is tucked in a corner of the square. Their pampilhos (a long butter pastry filled with cinnamon custard and named for the shape of cattle herders’ sticks) are hailed by some critics as the best in the world. Or why not sample their legendary Celeste cakes, made with almonds, egg yolks and sugar – a heavenly treat that originated with nuns at the Santa Clara convent. Find a table and feast, while soaking up the atmosphere and getting a feel for the city. Santarém is shaped like a hand, and here you are in its palm.
2. Visit the Museu Diocesano and Cathedral
The Museu Diocesano on the main square offers a modern and imaginative take on religion and history in Santarém. It’s well worth finding out in advance about guided visits both to the museum and the town. Friendly guides have stories and tricks to help children engage. Alongside the museum, the Cathedral is truly breathtaking – with trompe l’oeil frescoes, ornate gilt detail, statues and Juliet balconies. Such splendour reminds us this was once the seat of a royal hunting palace, abandoned after an accident gave rise to superstitions. Holes in the decorative roof show where children used to be made to crawl out onto the ceiling and drop petals during special masses. Some visits include behind-the-scenes access to the vast tiled hallways of the Jesuit seminary as well as a climb to the bell tower with impressive city views from on high.
3. Take a Gothic tour
Santarém is known as the Capital of Gothic because it showcases the full story of the Gothic style. Don’t miss Church of Santa Maria da Graça, originally part of an Augustinian convent. The remains of Pedro Álvares Cabral (the Portuguese explorer credited with discovering Brazil) are honoured here. Stripped of all additions later than 1500, the clean modesty of the building’s mendicant Gothic style provides the perfect backdrop for its Flaming Gothic rose window.
Believed to have been rebuilt on the foundations of an old mosque in the medina of Santarém, the inside of Church of Santa Maria de Marvila is astonishingly bedecked with decorative ceramic tiles. Not far away, St Stephen’s, aka the Miracle Church, draws believers from all over the globe. Treasured within is a relic consecrated as the body of Christ.
4. Lunch – Patio da Graça
Japanese-Peruvian food might not be the first thing you think of trying for lunch, but chef Rafael Duarte’s fusion offerings, like soft crunchy crab bao buns and stickily tender yakitori will open your eyes to the excitement of Santarém’s food scene right now. All this, in a welcoming and classy location overlooking the afore-mentioned magnificent rose window of Santa Maria da Graça.
5. Stroll the streets and hit the tiles
Santarém’s historic centre is filled with ladies’ and menswear boutiques, backstreet bakeries and independent shops, and longstanding neighbourhood canteens. Dogs bask in the sunshine beside clean-swept doorsteps and you too can take your time, treasure-hunting your favourite patterned tiles on building after building. Such beauty for your Instagram feed.
6. Jardim das Portas do Sol
Be at these gardens for glorious vistas at sunset or yoga at sunrise, or both. Remember, Santarém is shaped like a hand, so the Jardim das Portas do Sol is on the site of a former Roman citadel at the tip of the index finger of the town. Archaeological digs have uncovered vestiges here. It’s a beautiful park with a sense of opening out, pointing towards the river plains beyond and the River Tejo flowing impressively 100m below the city. Nearby, check out the picturesque Santiago archway, dating from at least the 13th century, through which countless Compostela pilgrims have passed.
7. Dinner at Ó Balcão
In this destination restaurant, local chef Rodrigo Castelo brings neglected and delicious regional ingredients to the table in the place where he learnt to cook with his father. Be sure to book in advance for an unforgettable dining experience.
You’ll need to make an appointment to visit this hidden gem. An exquisite walled courtyard filled with fountains, citrus trees and roses leads to a museum and art collection in the private home of Pedro Canavarro, great-great-grandson of Portuguese politician and parliamentarian Passos Manuel.
Fascinating artefacts, from silverware and porcelain to Japanese furniture, to ancient tomes and letters, tell the family story which is intimately linked to that of the city and country. Canavarro, who hosts tours himself, has led an extraordinary life in the political and cultural spheres, including curating the XVII Exhibition of Art, Science and Culture. Artists Mimi Fogt and Pedro de Sousa bequeathed their collections to Pedro and their works are expertly displayed in a wing of the house.
9. Brunch at Dois Petiscos
Back in the historic centre, Dois Petiscos or ‘two snacks’, serves a menu of stylish and family-friendly dishes, such as burgers, egg or beef croquettes, salmon tartare, scrambled eggs with asparagus, green bean fritters and suckling pig terrine. As well as brunches with cocktails, there’s a really affordable €22 tasting menu, and takeaway is an option, if you’d prefer to take your food for a picnic in the Jardim das Portas do Sol.
10. A vineyard visit
Among the limestone clay Ribatejo hillsides surrounding Santarém, there’s no shortage of quintas and vineyards where you can sample and stock up on local produce. Just 15 minutes outside the city, at family-run Quinta da Ribeirinha you’ll find a warm welcome and an introduction to their excellent range of sparkling, rosé and red wines.
By arrangement, you can tour of the premises, including the cellars with living roofs that help to keep them cool.
11. Dinner at a 150-year-old tavern
This place is so successful it has three branches around town, but for the original experience, make sure you go to the one near the old market grounds on R. Pedro de Santarém. Taberna do Quinzena’s chequered tablecloths, vintage posters and framed pictures, dark wood panels and original zinc bar are all part of its authentic charm.
Customers used to tie their horses up outside, while bulls and livestock from the local agriculural fair were frequent traffic. The menu offers homely Portuguese and regional favourites, like pluma Ibérico and bacalhau. Portions are generous and delicious.
12. Where to stay
Just 15 mins drive from Santarém, Quinta da Cabrita is a pleasant walled farm, converted into holiday cottages by an architect family. Equipped kitchens, roll top baths, wood fires and picture windows with views onto surrounding fields are part of the charm, as well as winding cobbled paths and a heated pool.