This Alentejo town is located on the left bank of the Sado River, just before it widens into a huge estuary. The low-lying countryside is a patchwork of paddy fields and coniferous forests where pine nuts are harvested.
Alcácer do Sal still consists of a medieval castle with a superb museum in the basement, revealing 2,700 years of history. At the estuary you may see resident dolphin pods, and if you trace the river down to the coast, the Troia Peninsula has immaculate white beaches that need to be seen to be believed.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Alcácer do Sal:
1. Castelo de Alcácer do Sal
This rocky promontory on the Sado River has been inhabited since ancient times.
During the Moorish occupation, it was a complete provincial stronghold with a formidable fortress and 20 towers that were over 25 meters high.
But by the 16th century, the castle was outdated and turned into a monastery.
Negligence and earthquakes left the site dilapidated until a Pousada (heritage hotel) opened in the 1990s.
Wander upstream for a while, admiring the vast, flat plains with rice paddies lining the river.
2. Cripta Arqueológica do Castelo
The underground galleries below the castle are 27 centuries old, and every few meters you will find yourself in the midst of a new civilization.
The foundations, streets and forgotten buildings were discovered during the renovation of the castle in the 90s.
The earliest traces here come from the Iron Age around 700 BC, and since then a series of cultures have left their mark, ending with the medieval Moors.
Artifacts such as busts, pottery and figurines from each overlapping era are displayed in the showcases.
3. Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo
Within the walls of the castle, the church was built in 1217 and awarded by the Order of Santiago after King Alfonso II reconquered the city.
The building has Gothic, Manuel and Baroque designs.
The most striking work inside is from the 1700s, when the decorative stone podium was completed (see the carving of the archangel supporting it). At this time, the walls of the nave were covered with tiles, and the chapel was richly decorated with gilded wood carvings.
Finally, like many of the taller buildings around the estuary, this church has a stork’s nest, visible in the converted Gothic spire.
4. Reserva Natural do Estuário do Sado
The Sado River originates near the city of Beha and winds for 180 kilometers from east to west.
After the Alcácer do Sal, the river flows into this huge estuary, protected as a nature reserve, and still supports a fishing community – although the fishermen have to compete with a pod of dolphins that live happily in these tranquil salt waters.
Rice fields run along the water’s edge, with pines and cork oaks in the drier areas.
You can see the remains of ancient salt pans, take a peaceful walk under the wide sky, and see birds nesting like storks on roofs and electrical pylons.
5. Cais Palafítico da Carrasqueira
On the south side of the Sado Estuary, you’ll see a series of wooden piers attached to drunken stakes.
These quaint structures extend a long way into the water, pieced together by fishermen so they can launch at low tide.
Some have rustic log cabins and boats moored on stakes.
Others have completely fallen apart, leaving only a row of skeletal piles sticking out of the water.
The pier was built in the 1950s and 60s, and the open skies, rickety piles, glassy water and swampy greenery will make for some stunning photos.
6. Riverside Promenade
The Largo Luís de Camões Tourist Office in Alcácer do Sal is a good starting point for a leisurely stroll along the Sado River.
From the office you can look up at the castle on the top of the hill, then back to the 1945 metal drawbridge that can be raised and lowered to let sailboats pass.
The townhouses and apartment blocks on the waterfront are all painted white, with bars, restaurants and cafes on the ground floor.
There are benches in front of the water and old wooden sailboats moored on the opposite bank for hiking in summer.
7. Playa da Comporta
If you’re used to the rough waves on Portugal’s west coast, you might be caught off guard by the beaches of the Troia Peninsula.
The main headland to the west of Setúbal, Cabo Espichel, blocks the ocean currents and is in the distance when you rest at Praia da Comporta.
The water is clear and shallow, and on calm days the waves only reach knee height.
“Unspoilt” is a cliché that really applies to this long, wide beach trimmed by dunes.
You are far from any big cities or resorts, so there isn’t much tourism until you reach the northern tip of the peninsula.
8. Espaço Museológico “Museu do Arroz”
One way to gain insight into the culture of Sado Estuary is to learn about its rice-growing traditions.
In Comporta, a former rice husk station adjoining a sea of rice paddies has been converted into a museum and restaurant.
In addition to the sheller in the former factory center, the museum reveals how this remote area is self-sustaining: it has a blacksmith to make harvesting tools and a farrier to shoe the workhorses of the fields.
There is also a bakery, barber shop, canteen, mechanic and church all in one place.
9. Barragem do Pego do Altar
A major project in the 1930s and 1940s on the Alcáçovas River, a tributary of Sado, also boosted the rice industry in Alcácer do Sal.
The dam stored 94,000,000 cubic meters of water to irrigate the rice fields and is still an integral part of agriculture today.
The dam and reservoir are located in a bucolic, bucolic setting surrounded by orchards and mixed woodland.
People go down to the water to fish or glide around the water in kayaks or canoes.
10. Igreja da Misericórdia
According to an inscription on the lintel of one of the portals, the Mannerist church was consecrated in 1547. Unusually, the altar and nave are integrated into the same space, not separated by a choir or an arch.
The lower half of the interior wall is decorated with glazes painted in the 1600s, while the upper part is decorated with fine stucco from the end of the 18th century.
In 1895, the esteemed painter Francisco Flamenco was commissioned to create a ceiling fresco depicting the three virtues of hope, faith and charity.
11. Santuário do Senhor dos Mártires
Continuing past the western suburbs of Alcácer do Sal, you will come to this chapel built in the 1200s for the knights of the Order of Santiago.
This is a pantheon or funeral chapel, and it’s not hard to see the Gothic influence of buttresses, vaults, and tracery windows.
The land has an interesting past, as it has been a burial place since the Iron Age, and was an early Christian retreat in the Roman era.
12. Troia Peninsula
If Praia da Comporta has piqued your appetite for its desolate white-sand beaches, you can continue driving down the peninsula for miles until you finally reach the tourist resort at the northwest tip.
By the sea, the beaches never seem to stop, but human settlements are few and far between.
If you’re lucky enough to see the sun set behind Serra da Arrábida, it’s a scene you won’t soon forget.
All beaches are suitable for bathing, but the beach at the tip of the peninsula is a cut above.
Pointing towards the estuary, the sugar-white Praia de Tróia may be located on a tropical island.
The water may be a little cold, but it is peaceful, safe and completely transparent.
13. Herdade de Montalvo Riding Centre
Herdade de Montalvo is a resort at the southern end of the nature reserve.
In addition to swimming pools, taiga and sports facilities, there is a horse riding center with Lusitano horses.
If you have a young horse fanatic in your family, you can spend a day at this center.
In the “Entre Amigos” program, first-time riders will be introduced to their mounts and gear, followed by lessons from the experts.
They will have leisurely hacks around the woods and lakes, and experienced riders can test their skills on the obstacle course.
14. Sado River Trip
Keep an eye on the city government’s website as there is a schedule for cruises along Sado in summer.
These are on Pinto Luisa or Amendoeira sailing boats and can be full or half day excursions.
On a one-day cruise, you’ll cross the mouth of the Sado River, anchored at Setubal or the sacred beaches at the tip of the Troia peninsula.
Along the way, you’ll learn about the history and bird life of this wonderful environment.
If you’re lucky, you’ll come across dolphins, the scourge of estuary fishing boats as they chew their nets to steal fish!
15. Local Food
Any food lover from northern Europe knows that pine nuts can be expensive.
But Alcácer do Sal is Portugal’s leading producer of pine nuts, and you can buy big bags for just a few euros.
Along with the local honey, pine nuts are the main ingredient in the town’s pine cone sweets.
Estuaries and seas provide Alcácer do Sal with plenty of fish and seafood, which are arroz de lingueirão (razor clam rice) stewed in rice. The city of Torrán is located in the east of the city, among rolling wheat and olive groves, and is known for its hard breads and high-quality olive oil.
Where to Stay: The best hotels in Alcacer do Sal, Portugal
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