João Leite is a councillor in Santarém, Portugal, with responsibility for urban revitalisation and tourism. I met him on a November morning at Quinta das Rolas, an equestrian centre with charming holiday cottages clustered around an attractive pool, where sunlight gleamed between clouds. Visitors can benefit from fully accessible facilities, including the stables, covered arena, and paddocks.
It’s easy to see why Leite chose to meet here. Horses, especially the region’s handsome Lusitano breed are one of his passions. The other? Promoting the region and shining a light on its offering of architecture, landscape, history, viniculture and gastronomy.
So with so much to choose from, what does Leite advise visitors to put on their Santarém bucket list?
We are the capital of Ribatejo, a big agricultural area, and so the horse is close to our heart.João Leite, City Councillor of Santarém
1. Experience Santarém’s food scene
Santarém’s Gastronomy Festival was the first national food festival of its type and has been going for 40 years. It’s considered one of the top 10 European gastronomic festivals in Europe. Many credit it with what’s happening now in the city: up-and-coming chefs making a name for their restaurants. Chef Rodrigo Castelo works with local producers to bring forgotten regional ingredients back to the table. Fusion food reigns at Patio da Graca, while O Varga spotlights wines from all over the region and the country.
Leite, whose parents run a restaurant in the city, notes that a great food scene has become something tourists really look for in a destination and so the city’s festival and exciting restaurant culture are a big draw. He describes his ambition for Santarém “to continue to be a place of gastronomic encounters – where excellent food from across the country and beyond shares a platform with local produce. And to make it into the top 10 festivals!”
2. Go horse-riding
“We are the capital of Ribatejo, a big agricultural area, and so the horse is close to our heart,” says Leite as we explore Quinta las Rolas and are greeted by some of the magnificent horses there. “Most of us feel comfortable around horses, having grown up around them and they are an important part of our farming traditions. People who love horses, experienced riders, or anyone curious about horse-riding should all find great experiences on offer in the region.”
3. Escape into the country
Before Covid times, Lisbon was starting to have problems with crowds and visitor numbers, like they have in Barcelona and Venice. Visitors can still benefit from Lisbon airport’s proximity, but by coming to Santarém they can have a city break and get out into the Portuguese countryside to breathe and relax. There’s a wonderful range of quintas and farm stays to choose from nearby.
4. Take a historical or architectural tour of the city
Santarém’s city centre can be easily discovered on foot, as Leite suggest. Its historic centre is jewelled with a rich religious heritage, traditional azulejo tiles, and Roman and Moorish vestiges. Much of the city is “listed” which makes renovations a challenge, but in some ways the sense of a city-in-waiting adds to the atmosphere.
5. Take part of Santarém home with you
Leite sums up with a blueprint for Santarém visitors. He envisages “families visiting Santarém and the Ribatejo to enjoy our great gastronomy, taking a tour with a traditional horse and carriage, seeing the historical centre and monuments, and getting to know the landscape and our heritage, our Ribatejo way of life.”
And before you leave, you should treat yourself one last time. Ribatejo wines are some of the best in the country and make a wonderful souvenir of your trip. Vineyards stripe the rolling hillsides around Santarém and vineyards such as Quinta da Ribeirinha and Quinta da Arrobe will be happy to welcome you. Alternatively taste the sunshine with a bottle of local organic olive oil. Or even some pastries, like the legendary Celeste cakes from Bijou.