15 best things to do in Portalegre (Portugal)

In the northern Alentejo, just a short distance from the Spanish border, Portalegre is a highland town at the tip of the Serra de São Mamede mountain range. The place has a long tradition of weaving and began weaving tapestries to the highest European standards in the 1940s.

Earlier, in the 1920s, the famous Portuguese writer José Régio moved to Portalegre, where he stayed for the next 34 years. Also, as the seat of the parish, the monastery and church are ten pence and you should visit as much as you can. The Natural Park of Saint Mamede is your go-to place for hiking in the highlands, with the jaw-droppingly fortified town of Marvão.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Portalegre:

1. Museu da Tapeçaria de Portalegre

Portalegre Tape Museum

Weaving has been a local craft in Portalegre since the Middle Ages, but in the 1940s entrepreneur Guy Fino and weaver Manuel do Celestino Peixeiro invented a new tapestry-making technique.

This is called the Ponto de Portalegre, and although it is partly inspired by the Roubaix tapestry, it has a style of its own.

A reputation for arts and crafts soon transformed Portalegre into a tapestry town that rivaled those in Flanders and France.

All this background is overlaid on the ground floor of this museum, revealing the early days of the Portalegre Manufacture and its technology.

There are examples of this art form upstairs, featuring some of the skilled weavers who have traded in the town for the past 70 years.

2. Portalegre Cathedral

Portalegre Cathedral

The town’s cathedral is a national monument, built by King John III in the 16th century, where an old medieval church once stood.

It rules Portalegre from the highest point in the town, and together with its episcopal palace forms an imposing Mannerist ensemble.

The current interior look is from the end of the 18th century with a neoclassical refit, but there are still some things to see from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Most notable are the white marble pulpit and 96 painted panels dating from the 1500s and 1600s.

3. Museu Municipal de Portalegre

Portalegre Municipal Museum

The town’s municipal museum has a beautiful home in a 16th-century building that was once the parish seminary.

In the 18th century, it was taken over by local nobles and converted into luxury residences, which still use the layout today.

Many of the museum’s collections are liturgical art assembled from the town’s two defunct monasteries: Santa Clara and San Bernardo, and some of the objects are quite special.

There is an Indian-Portuguese ivory statue of Mary, a 1500s Japanese Mass bookshelf and an altarpiece from the same period with biblical passages in polychrome.

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As for the rest of the collection, you can peruse silver snuff bottles, fine faience and furniture.

4. Jose Reggio House Museum

Jose Reggio House Museum

From 1929 to 1961, the famous 20th century writer José Régio spent most of his adult life in this large house in town, becoming “Portoalegrense” through adoption.

His house is in the annex of the San Blas Monastery, and some remains can be found, such as the old church.

At first, Régio only rented one room here, but he was keen to collect anything from paintings to sculptures, textiles, pottery and furniture, and over time his hoard took over the entire property.

He donated the collection to the town, which bought his house and turned it into a museum.

The house is the same as when he lived, and there is a research center for people to study his work.

5. Convento de São Francisco-Fábrica de Cortiça Robinson

Convento de São Francisco-Fábrica de Cortiça Robinson

In one package you’ll find a 13th century monastery and a newer cork factory.

The abbey church is decorated in every movement since the Middle Ages and features a Renaissance altar and sarcophagus, Mannerist frescoes covering the nave chapel and Baroque tiles and gilded wood trim the chancel.

In 1848, British industrialist George Robinson established his cork factory in a wing of the abbey, and two chimneys still occupy the site.

You can take a guided tour and peruse the factory’s cork products that brought Portalegre economic growth in the 19th century.

6. Convent of San Bernardo

Convent of San Bernardo

Perhaps the most photogenic image of Portalegre is the abbey’s ochre and white walls and the cobblestone plaza and fountain in front.

The monastery was built in the 1500s to house “maidens without dowries”. There is a mix of buildings from different eras, but the standout is mostly from the 1500s, by the French sculptor Nicolas de Chantereine.

He produced the grotesque marble pulpit and the lofty tomb of Jorge de Melo, the bishop who founded the monastery.

There is also a quiet cloister and arcade covered in blue and white panels.

The building has been managed by the Republican National Guard since the 1980s, but tours are permitted.

7. Santa Clara Monastery

Santa Clara Abbey

Another lineup of Portalegre’s national monuments is this 14th-century monastery, now used by the city’s library.

That doesn’t detract from its value, as you have to go in and marvel at the Gothic monastery.

It was completed during the 16-year reign of King Fernando I (1367-1383) and is considered the only surviving monastery in Portugal at the time.

It is surrounded by two floors of galleries, while the tranquil garden in the middle has a marble fountain from the 1500s.

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The library occasionally hosts art and history exhibitions, which can also take a few minutes.

8. Platano do Rossio

Platano do Rossio

When the midsummer sun slams down, there’s only one place to go in the streets of Portalegre.

That was Rossio, as the giant plantain trees cast shadows over much of the square.

This was planted in 1838 by Dr. Botanist.

José Maria Grande has survived to this day through luck and care.

The canopy is huge, with a diameter of 30 meters. The branches can no longer support their own weight, so they are supported by pillars.

9. Miraduros

san luzia miladuro

Portalegre has high ground in three directions, and there are several places to get off and admire the city from a distance.

The best of these is Miradouro de Santa Luzia (not to be confused with the one in Lisbon), which is on its way to the village of Salão Frio.

At an altitude of 679 meters, a complete panorama of Portalegre and its monuments can be seen.

Another great viewpoint is on the slopes of Serra da Penha to the west, where you can stand on the steps of the 17th century Chapel de Nossa Senhora da Penha and see the outline of Portalegre on the other side of the valley.

10. Attractions around town

Castle in Portalegre

The castle of Portalegre is located in the oldest part of Portalegre, on a network of narrow streets.

It was besieged several times during dynastic crises and civil wars in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Not much remains, save for a castle that retains a modern wood and glass frame to help you get around.

The surrounding streets are low key, but their elegantly shabby whitewashed walls and colourful decor are worth a visit.

Five of the original seven gates have survived, the most photographed being the 13th-century Porta de Alegrete.

On the Republic Square, visit the Achaioli, an 18th-century palace converted into a university building where Jose Reggio gave lectures.

11. Amaya Roman Ruins

Roman ruins of Amaya

In the São Mamede Natural Park, bordering Portalegre, lies the ruins of a Roman city with 2,000 inhabitants in its heyday.

There is a lot to see outside, such as the gateway to the city, the remains of a forum and temple, a large villa (known as Quinta do Deão) and thermal baths.

Since the site was first excavated in the 1990s, many of these remains have only recently come to light.

Numerous artifacts were unearthed, especially around the baths, many of which were eventually sent to the National Archaeological Museum in Lisbon.

But the site also has a neat little museum with video demos and displays of jewelry, utensils, ceramics and blown glass.

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12. Serra de São Mamede Natural Park

Serra de São Mamede Natural Park

Brave souls will be keen to conquer the Quartzite Mountains to the north and west of the city.

This range is one of the most inhospitable places in Western Europe and is home to rare species such as Gene, Iberian lynx and Iberian wolves, as well as bats, wild boar and thousands of deer.

There are forests of cork oaks, eucalyptus, pine and sweet chestnuts for hiking or biking, and there are signs of prehistoric culture in boulders and petroglyphs.

You might notice the Serra de São Mamede (name of the highest peak), whose summit is just over 1,000 meters.

From the summit you can see Spain and Portugal’s Serra da Estrela, 150 km north.

13. Marwan

Marwan

In the clouds is the border town of Marwan, an amazing place by any measure.

It is crammed into a narrow 800-meter-high cliff at the top of a massive quartzite cliff and surrounded by walls.

These defenses testify to centuries of conflict between Portugal and Spain, which were not strengthened until the 1800s.

Entering the town is an adventure: after climbing the slope, you pass a stately gate guarded by jagged turrets and mechanisms.

The walls contain tightly tangled cobblestone alleys, sheltered under arched passages, leading you to ledges where the mountain views leave you speechless.

14. Piscina Fluvial da Portagem

Piscina Fluvial da Portagem

Summers in eastern Portugal are often brutal, with few bodies of water to breathe, and the nearby town of Marwan is creative.

Here, a section of the Sever River was dammed to trap an open-air swimming pool, attracting swimmers from both sides of the border in hot weather.

A tall wood on the river bank provides ample shade for picnic tables, and a few steps away is a Roman bridge, which was used by the citizens of Ammaia 2,000 years ago.

15. Food and drink

Lampreia de Portalegre

In Portugal, sweets were originally made in monasteries that used eggs donated to these communities by married couples for good luck.

Portalegre is often referred to as the “Cidade dos Sete Conventos” (City of Seven Monasteries), and holds the value of an entire book, with its sweet and simple recipes.

Toucinho do céu is a moist sponge cake made with almonds, manjar branco is a blancmange of eggs and almonds, and rebuçados de ovos is egg yolk sugar with sticky syrup.

Finally, although there are many more recipes, Lampreia de Portalegre is a soft cake made with eggs, sugar and almonds, baked in the shape of a lamprey, with candied fruit in the eyes!

Where to stay: The best hotels in Portalegre, Portugal
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