Estremadura and Ribatejo, the religious area of Portugal

Estremadura and Ribatejo, the religious area of PortugalEstremadura is an area with rolling hills, vineyards, wheat fields and forests between the Tagus and the coast. Estremadura has several important religious sites and monuments. Medieval monasteries and churches bear witness to the eventful, illustrious history of this region. Ribatejo, on the other hand, is a vast plain along the banks of the Tagus. Beautiful horses and fighting bulls graze on the fertile plain. In this bullfighting center there are some places to see a bullfight. The most important religious site is Fátima, a modern sanctuary and the scene of Marian apparitions.


  • General
  • History
  • Top locations
  • Top hotel in Estremadura and Ribatejo
  • climate
  • Food and drink
  • Party and event
  • Entertainment
  • Sports activities
  • Travel to Estremadura and Ribatejo
  • Traveling in Estremadura and Ribatejo

Estremadura and Ribatejo: Leiria, Santarém and the northern part of Lisbon / Source: Hqfngawz, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-4.0)The former provinces of Estremadura and Ribatejo / Source: Gazilion, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)


Estremadura and Ribatejo is not an administrative unit, it is more of a tourist area. Until 1976, Portugal was divided into eleven provinces. Both Estremadura and Ribatejo were provinces. The former province of Estremadura is located along the Atlantic coast in central Portugal. The Lisbon urban area is also located in this province. The former province of Ribatejo borders the province of Estremadura and is located in the center of the country. Ribatejo is crossed by the Tagus River.
In 1976, the division of the Portuguese mainland into 11 provinces was replaced by a division into 18 districts. Present-day Estremadura and Ribatejo now consist of at least the districts of Leiria and Santarém. Part (the north) of the Lisbon district is also part of the area. The former Estremadura roughly corresponds to the district of Leiria, the district of Lisbon and part of the district of Setúbal. The former Ribatejo roughly corresponds to the Santarém district. Estremadura and Ribatejo now largely consist of the districts of Leiria and Santarém. This area is also where most of the tourist attractions of Estremadura and Ribatejo are located.
Estremadura and Ribatejo has an area of approximately 11,000 km² and has approximately 980,000 inhabitants (2015). The capital of Leiria is the city of Leiria with 123,000 inhabitants (2015). The capital of Santarém is the city of Santarém with 65,000 inhabitants (2015). The area is bordered to the north by the Centro region, to the east by the Alentejo region and to the south by the Lisbon region. The west borders the Atlantic Ocean.
The region is home to some of the country’s most important monuments, such as the Abbey of Batalha, the Church of Alcobaça and the Monastery of Tomar. The walled town of Óbidos is particularly picturesque. The characterful fishing villages of Nazaré and Peniche are located along the Atlantic coast. On the other side of the Tagus, fighting bulls and the beautiful horses of Portugal graze on the fertile pasture. Santarém and Vila Franca de Xira are good places to see a bullfight.


At least 30,000 years ago, people already lived in Estremadura and Ribatejo. From about 2,000 B.C. the prehistoric communities were displaced by the Iberians. Between about 900 B.C. and 600 B.C. the Phoenicians and later the Celts settled in the area. They were soon followed by the Greeks and the Carthaginians. In 139 B.C. the Romans invaded and brought five centuries of stability and prosperity. Santarém became an important administrative center. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, the region was invaded by the Suevi and later the Visigoths.
In 711 Estremadura and Ribatejo, like the rest of Portugal, were conquered by the Moors. In the 11th century, Christian kingdoms from the north began the reconquista (reconquest). In 1139, Afonso Henriques proclaimed himself king of Portugal. He conquered the Moorish stronghold of Santarém in 1147. The abbey in Alcobaça commemorates the conquest of Santarém. In the 12th century, Portugal expanded further south. During this period, the land conquered from the Moors was donated to religious orders. The Monastery of Tomar, built in 1162 by the Knights Templar, is the best example of this. At the beginning of the 13th century the reconquista was completed in Estremadura and Ribatejo. However, its sovereignty was disputed by Castile. Castile invaded Portugal in 1384, but in 1385 a Castilian army was defeated at the battle of Aljubarrota. This victory led to the construction of the beautiful church of Batalha.
There was also fighting with France. In 1807, French troops invaded and plundered towns in the area. To protect Lisbon from attack, the Duke of Wellington’s Torres Line was built. This line was built between 1809 and 1810 and stretched from the coast to the Tagus. The defense line of trenches, fortifications and cannons was impregnable. The French withdrew, ending a total of three French invasions.
Today Estremadura is an area with a growing economy. It is partly industrialized, but vineyards, market gardens and wheat fields also thrive. In Ribatejo, the floodplains provide fertile soil for agriculture and pasture. This area is now known for its bulls and horses. Industry is flourishing in the area around Tomar. Tourism is important on the Atlantic coast, the fishing villages of Nazaré and Peniche are popular destinations.
The castle seen from the square / Source: Michiel1972, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Top locations


The town of Leiria is beautifully situated on the Liz River. The compact center is wedged between the river and a hill with the castle on top. The ancient Roman city of Collippo was conquered from the Moors by Afonso Henriques in 1135. Afonso III held a cortes here in 1254 , the first parliament attended by ordinary citizens. The beautiful Castelo de Leiria was built shortly after the victory over the Moors. King Dinis I and his wife Isabella chose this castle as their residence in the 14th century. The king had the castle renovated and a few decades later João I expanded the palace on the south side with loggias, Gothic bay windows and a spacious hall. Within the walls there is a large courtyard with garden. Behind it are the castle tower, the keepes and the royal palace. Also here are the ruins of the Nossa Senhora da Pena , a church decorated with Gothic and Manueline elements. The Núcleo Museológico is located in the castle tower . The collection of this museum consists of medieval armor, with both original pieces and replicas. From the castle you have a magnificent view of the old town with its houses above gates and graceful arcades. In the heart of the historic center is the Praça Rodrigues Lobo . Above this square stands the . This 16th-century Renaissance cathedral has a vaulted nave and an altarpiece from 1605, painted by Simão Rodrigues.
The Church of Alcobaça / Source: Dynamosquito, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) Alcobaça
Alcobaça is best known for the largest church in Portugal, the Mosteiro de Santa Maria . The abbey with its sober medieval architecture has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1985. In 1147, King Afonso Henriques conquered the Moorish stronghold of Santarém. The abbey was founded in 1153 as a commemoration. The abbey for the Cistercians was completed in 1223. The complex has often been embellished by other kings, especially by King Dinis I who had the cloister built. In 1810, French troops plundered the abbey. After the government banned all religious orders in 1834, Alcobaça was abandoned.
The main entrance leads through a Gothic portal to the three-part nave . The vaulted roof and high columns give an impression of harmony and austere simplicity. The main altar consists of only one crucifix and a statue of Christ. The highlight is the two tombs of the ill-fated royal lovers Pedro I and Inês de Castro. The limestone tombs face each other on either side of the transept. Pedro I lives on mainly because of the murder of his mistress, Inês de Castro. Pedro was actually supposed to marry Constanza, although he was in love with lady-in-waiting Inês de Castro. After Constanza’s death, Pedro went to live in Coimbra with Inês. Afonso IV, Pedro’s father, believed that Inês’ family was dangerous. That is why he had her murdered in 1355. Next to the three-part nave is the Claustro do Silêncio (Cloister of Silence). King Dinis I ordered the construction of this cloister in 1308. The courtyard contains orange trees, box hedges and an octagonal water basin on the north side. The austere galleries and double arcades match the Cistercian’s desire for simplicity. You enter the chapter house via the cloister . This was the place where the monks elected the abbot and discussed matters in the monastery. Above this room is a large dormitory and on the north side is the monks’ hall . The large kitchen is next to the monks’ hall . It is tiled from top to bottom, has two large fireplaces and large stone tables. A diverted stream provided the water supply. The refectory next door contains a beautiful pulpit from which a monk read while others ate in silence.


Tomar was founded in 1157 by the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Portugal. The city is dominated by the 12th century castle with the Convento de Cristo. The lively shopping street Rua Serpa Pinto leads to the Praça da República . This square is home to the Gothic church of São João Baptista . This 15th-century church has an elegant Gothic portal and an octagonal tower. Inside you will see a carved pulpit. Paintings hang on the walls of the main nave, such as The Last Supper by Gregorio Lopes (1490-1550). Near the church is the oldest existing synagogue in Portugal. It was built in 1430, but lost its function in 1496, when the Jews had to convert or be expelled. Today it houses a small Jewish museum, the Museu Luso-Hebraico Abraão Zacuto . The collection consists of gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions and Jewish memorabilia.
The Claustro Principal / Source: Tmscblpz, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)The Convento de Cristo (Convent of Christ) was founded in 1160 by the Knights Templar. Construction of the Templar castle began and construction continued for four centuries. In 1834, all religious orders were banned and the castle became the residence of the Count of Tomar. Next to the castle is the Claustro da Lavagem . This Gothic 15th-century cloister contains two large water reservoirs in the middle. Right next to this cloister is the Claustro do Cemitério . This 15th-century Gothic cloister is the oldest in the monastery. Monks and knights are buried here. Through the cloisters you arrive at the Charola , the original Templar church. This 12th-century prayer chapel is the core of the monastery. The design is based on the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In the center of the sixteen-sided charola (rotunda) is an lavishly decorated octagonal oratorio. The Charola is connected to the Manueline style church . This 16th century church has a raised choir area. The richly decorated vault contains the insignia and initials of Manuel I. On the west side of the church is the Manueline style window . This carved stone masterpiece combines sea motifs with royal emblems. The early 16th century window is crowned with a cross of the Order of Christ. Next to the church is the Claustro Principal (Great Cloister). This Renaissance building with Manueline decorations dates from the 16th century. The typical Manueline cordage on the back wall is special.
Batalha Abbey / Source: Dynamosquito, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) Batalha
Batalha is best known for the Santa Maria da Vitória Abbey . It was built in honor of the victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. The abbey is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in Portugal. The construction of this monument took 145 years, from 1388 to 1533. Today the abbey is a symbol of Portuguese sovereignty. The portal of the church features religious motifs and statues of the apostles in late Gothic style. The large interior of the church is as imposing as it is austere. The only decorative elements are the stained glass windows depicting life and Christ. To the right of the church is the Capela do Fondador (Chapel of the Founder). This vaulted octagonal chapel contains the tombs of João I and his wife Filipa de Lencastre. Their son, Henry the Navigator, is also buried here. To the left of the church is the Claustro Real (Royal Monastery). The Gothic arches around the monastery courtyard are decorated with Manueline sculptures. On the east side is the Chapter House . The complex has a star vault that bears the coat of arms of João I in the center. In the hall is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers , which is under a permanent guard of honor. After leaving the chapter house you reach the adjacent Capelas Imperfeitas outside . This octagonal structure was built by order of Dom Duarte I (1391-1438). It was supposed to serve as a mausoleum for his family, but only the king and his wife are buried there. The chapel has an abundance of embellishments, such as the lace-like carvings of the doorway and the deeply carved columns. Most decorations date from the time of Manuel I (16th century).
Nazaré beach / Source: Sergei.gussev, Flickr (CC BY-2.0) Nazaré
Nazaré is the largest seaside resort on the Estremadura coast. Situated on a beautiful beach in a bay surrounded by high rocks, this fishing village has retained much of its traditional character. Nazaré is very busy in July and August, but out of season it is a pleasant and picturesque place. The name Nazaré reportedly comes from a statue of Mary that was brought from Nazareth by a monk in the 4th century. At the stand you can still see fishermen fixing nets and drying fish on racks. The brightly colored boats, which were once pulled from the sea by oxen, are still in use. The boats have left the beach, there is now a modern harbor south of the beach. The Sítio district is located on a cliff high above the village . It can be reached by stairs, a road and a funicular that goes up 110 m. On the edge of the rocks stands the Ermida da Memória . Legend has it that Mary prevented a local nobleman and his horse from jumping off the rocks in thick fog in 1182. The azulejos (painted tiles) added centuries later illustrate the incident in detail. On the main square of Sítio is the 18th-century Nossa Senhora da Nazaré . This Baroque church features 17th-century azulejos and a statue of Our Lady of Nazaré . In September this statue is carried to the sea in a colorful procession.
The white houses of Óbidos with the castle in the background / Source: Pedrosimoes7, Flickr (CC BY-2.0) Óbidos
Within 14th century walls lies the enchanting village of Óbidos. The fortified village consists of white houses, cobblestone streets, walled gardens and art shops. You enter the city through the southern Porta da Vila (city gate). This gate from 1380 is decorated on the inside with 18th-century azulejos . On the Praça de Santa Maria there is a pelourinho (pillar) in Manueline style. The 15th-century pole is decorated with a fishing net, the emblem of Dona Leonor, wife of João II. Opposite the pillory is the Igreja de Santa Maria . The future king Afonso V married his cousin Isabel here in 1441. This 12th-century Renaissance church has a simple interior. The walls are covered with 17th-century azulejos . To the right of the altar hang paintings by Josefa de Óbidos (1630-1684). She left her birthplace Seville to settle here permanently. Her work can also be seen in the Museu Municipal , near the church. The collection of this museum consists of painted woodwork from the 16th century by Quinten Massijs, among others. In addition to the work of Josefa de Óbidos, paintings by Belchior de Matos, Diogo Teixeira and André Reinoso can also be seen here. Óbidos is dominated by the former Moorish castle that was rebuilt in 1148. In 1282, King Dinis I gave the castle as a wedding gift to his bride Isabel of Aragon. The path along the battlements offers a panoramic view of the houses with red tiles and white facades.
The lighthouse on Cabo Carvoeiro / Source: Martin vmorris, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) Peniche
The former island of Peniche was connected to the mainland by alluvium in the 16th century. The peninsula is now completely dependent on the fishing port and canneries. You will find good fish restaurants around the harbor. Modern apartment buildings surround the harbor with old ramparts and the Fortaleza . This 16th-century fortress was used as a prison during the Salazar dictatorship (1932-1968). It now houses the Museu Municipal . You can take a guided tour here with a look at the old prison cells. The museum also highlights fishing, shipbuilding and local lace making. About 2 km west of Peniche lies the rocky peninsula of Cabo Carvoeiro . The lighthouse on the point offers a beautiful view of the ocean and the jagged rocks along the coast. A few hundred meters in front of this is the Nossa Senhora dos Remédios . The chapel was built after an image of Mary was discovered in a cave work here in the 12th century. A simple cross outside on the rocks marks the spot in question. About 2 km east of Peniche lies Baleal . This village has beautiful sandy beaches and an idyllic cove where you can fish.
The Nossa Senhora de Conceição / Source: Antonio Periago, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0) Santarém
The capital of Ribatejo has an illustrious past. It was an important administrative center for the Romans and an important fortress for the Moors. In 1147 the Moors were expelled from Santarém by the Christians. On the Praça Sá da Bandeira , in the center, is the Nossa Senhora de Conceição . This 19th-century church has a long azulejos frieze. The Igreja da Graça is located on the Largo Pedro Alvares Cabral . The lattice window of this Gothic church is carved in one piece. Inside is the tomb of Pedro Alvares Cabral, who claimed Brazil for Portugal in 1500. Just north of the church is the Igreja São João de Alporão . This church houses the Museu Arqueológico . The highlight of this museum is the tomb of Duarte de Meneses, a military commander who was killed by the Moors in Morocco in 1464. Opposite the museum you will find the 15th-century Torre das Cabaças . The 22 m high tower now houses a small museum about the time. The theme of time is shown with old sundials and clock mechanisms. Santarém is known for bullfights and the city has a modern bullring. On the first ten days of June, the Ribatejo annual fair is held in Santarém. This agricultural market is combined with bullfights, competitions between campinos (cattle herders) and folk dancing.

Top hotel in Estremadura and Ribatejo

Pousada do Castelo in Óbidos

In 1951, this was the first castle in Portugal to be converted into a pousada. The pousada is located in the castle tower of a beautifully restored 15th-century palace. A medieval atmosphere is combined here with modern comfort. This unique location has a stylish interior with a beautiful view from the restaurant. Architecturally interesting is the noble gallery that overlooks the palace. It has two windows in Manueline style and a door frame formed from intertwined trees.


Estremadura and Ribatejo have a Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and relatively mild winters. The average maximum temperature is 14 degrees in winter and 21 degrees in summer. The coldest months are January and February. In winter it can rain heavily in the coastal areas and the perceived temperature is often very low. The sea is cold and the Atlantic coast has a windy summer climate. The sea water temperature fluctuates between 14 and 19 degrees.

Food and drink

The cuisine of Estremadura and Ribatejo is sober and simple. The coast has a rich supply of fish and shellfish, inland meat is more common. In addition to meat and fish, the most commonly used ingredients are rice, beans, potatoes and tomatoes.
The local specialty feijoada / Source: Raphaelstrada, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)A well-known starter is sopa de pedra (soup with beans, smoked sausage and a vegetable mix). A classic main course is frango na púcara (stew with chicken, ham, tomatoes, onions, port, gin, white wine and herbs). Another local specialty is feijoada (stew with beans, smoked meat, tomatoes, onions and garlic). A dish that is prepared throughout Portugal, but nowhere better than along the coast, is caldeirada de peixe (stew with fish, shellfish, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers).
Portugal is best known for its fortified wines such as port and madeira, but the vinho da casa (house wine) deserves to be taken seriously. Some characterful wines come from Estremadura and Ribatejo. Estremadura produces some quality red and white wines from producers such as Quinta de Pancas and Bucelas . In Ribatejo , Quinta da Alorna produces mainly good red wines.
House wine is often an excellent choice with food. There are three brands of Portuguese beer: Sagres , Kristal and Super Bock . Mineral water is usually also drunk with food. Coffee is drunk after the meal.
Estremadura and Ribatejo also have a number of local delicacies. The seaside resort of Peniche is known for its roasted sardines. A local specialty is ròbalo à ilha da Berlenga (berlenga sea bass), named after the archipelago near Peniche. The famous chocolate filled with ginjinha (cherry liqueur) comes from Óbidos.

Party and event

Portugal is a religious country with respect for ancient traditions. This results in a rich cultural life, also in Estremadura and Ribatejo. This is reflected in the numerous festas (festivals) and romarias (pilgrimages). Twice a year, about 100,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary in Fátima. In Ribatejo the bullfighting season lasts from Easter to October. Bullfights are best attended in or around Santarém, where the bulls are bred.
The neoclassical Basilica of Fátima / Source: Mdoege, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0) Pilgrimage to Fátima
Fátima, 16 km southeast of Leiria, is the most important pilgrimage site in Portugal. This Portuguese Lourdes is visited by 4 million pilgrims every year. The neo-classical basilica, inaugurated in 1953, can accommodate 300,000 people. On May 13, 1917 and on the 13th of the following five months, Mary appeared here to three shepherd children. Maria told them the ‘secret of Fátima’. The first part of the secret was a vision of hell and the second was a war worse than the First World War. The third part, the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981, was revealed in 2000. Every year on May 13 and October 13, Fátima is visited by approximately 100,000 pilgrims from all over the world. Two of three children were canonized in 2000. A new basilica was opened in 2007.

Festa do Colete Encarnado

This festival is held the first weekend of July in Vila Franca de Xira. It is named after the red vests worn by campinos , the cattle herders of Ribatejo. Crowds of people thronged to take part in the bull run through the streets of the city. People also come to watch the tourada (bullfight) and traditional equestrian sports. The lively party also includes folk dancing, boat races on the Tagus and grilling sardines on the street. A similar celebration, the Feira de Outubro , takes place in October.
Bullfight in Santarém / Source: Stevendepolo, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)


Ribatejo is known for its bulls and horses, and hosts lively festivals. Vila Franca de Xira and Santarém are good places to see bullfights. Santarém is home to the region’s most important arena, the Praça de Touros. Not only bulls are bred in the region, but also horses. The agile and warm-blooded Lusitanian horse is especially highly regarded. In Ribatejo the bullfight is largely fought on horseback. A great opportunity to see the Lusitanian horse in action.
Ilhas Berlengas is a 40-minute boat ride from Peniche. All year round, motorboats depart daily from Peniche to this rocky archipelago. The boat companies that transport you also organize fishing excursions. On the largest island, Berlenga Grande, you can rent rowing boats to explore the caves in the sea.
More than 10 km south of Tomar there is a large dam ( barragem ) on the Zêzere river. On the lake, behind the dam, you can go to hotels for all kinds of activities. Hotel Estalagem Lago Azul organizes a boat trip to the sandy beaches and islets of the reservoir.

Sports activities

From water skiing on a reservoir to surfing, fishing, canoeing, diving and golf: anyone who wants to do some sport has come to the right place in Estremadura and Ribatejo.
Surfing at Peniche / Source: Bengt Nyman, Flickr (CC BY-2.0) High waves arise along the coastline that are excellent for surfing. The seaside resorts of Peniche and Nazaré are real hotspots for surfers, especially for the more experienced ones. The reservoir behind the dam south of Tomar is popular with water sports enthusiasts and fishermen. The dam is located on the Zêzere River, where you can canoe and fish. Surfing and water skiing is possible on the reservoir. All supplies can be rented from centers along the lake shores. Sports activities are also possible near the Ilhas Berlengas. The clear water, islands and caves are an ideal place for swimming, snorkeling and diving. A diving school in Peniche organizes diving excursions in the area of Peniche and the Ilhas Berlengas. Golfers have also been taken into account in the region. The Praia del Rey Golf Club is close to Óbidos. This 18 hole, par 73 course is considered one of the best in Europe. The course is accessible to players of all levels.

Travel to Estremadura and Ribatejo

Arrival by plane

Estremadura and Ribatejo can be reached quickly via Lisbon airport. Various airlines operate flights to Lisbon from Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Most flights are daily and the flight time is over 2.5 hours. Rental cars and taxis are available at the airport. The center of Lisbon can be reached by scheduled buses (Aerobus). From here you can travel further by train or bus.
The most important places can be reached with the directos intercidades (IC), fairly fast local trains. Santarém and Tomar can be reached directly from Lisbon with these trains. By bus you often travel faster and more comfortably than by train. The most comfortable and fastest are the espressos and the rápidos , with direct bus connections between the major cities.

By car

From the Netherlands or Belgium, first drive towards Paris and then to Bordeaux, Vitoria, Burgos and Salamanca. Via Salamanca you reach the border with Portugal at Vilar Formoso. After Vilar Formoso take the IP5/A25 towards Guarda. After Guarda follow the IP2/A23 all the way to Castelo Branco. Then go to Torres Novas via the IP2/A23 and IP6/A23. After Torres Novas take the IP1/A1 towards Santarém, the heart of the region. The distance from Utrecht to Santarém is approximately 2250 km.
The regional train semi-directos / Source: Nmorao, Flickr (CC BY-SA-2.0)

Traveling in Estremadura and Ribatejo

Most parts of Estremadura and Ribatejo are accessible by rail. With the directos intercidades (IC) you can reach Santarém, Tomar and Pombal. The semi-directos and semi-regionais are trains that connect smaller towns and villages. These regional trains stop in Leiria, Caldas da Rainha and Abrantes.
There are good local bus connections. The espressos and the rápidos connect the most important places. Leiria, Alcobaça, Tomar, Batalha, Nazaré, Óbidos, Peniche, Santarém and Fátima have a bus station.
To reach more remote areas, renting a car is the best option. Car rental companies can be found in all major locations. The most touristic places can be reached by highways, such as Leiria, Alcobaça, Óbidos and Santarém. The other important places can be reached by main roads.

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