15 Best Things to Do in Rio Maior (Portugal)

On the southern hills of the Serra de Candeeiros mountain range, Rio Maior is a town known for the strange natural phenomena that occur nearby. These are salt flats, farther from the ocean than you might think, and have been used by locals since the 12th century.

Natural parks should be featured in your plans, whether you’re walking, cycling or horseback riding through its arid and vast valleys, or venturing into epic caves beneath the surface. From prehistoric dolmens integrated into churches to Roman villas with mosaics in almost pristine condition, local attractions are also a good help.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Rio Mayor:

1. Salinas Naturais de Rio Maior

Salinas Naturais De Rio Maior

Strangely enough, the salt flats outside Rio Maio don’t really belong in such a place.

Located 30 kilometers from the ocean, they are the only inland salt flats in Europe large enough for industrial-scale salt production.

Seven times the salinity of sea water, the sea is a relic of an ancient ocean, pierced through subterranean layers of rock salt.

It is a strange thing to see salt growing in the countryside of green farming and vineyards, and you can come and visit if this unusual scene piques your curiosity.

Just for the photo of the Salt Pyramid, it’s not to be missed.

2. Villa Romana de Rio Maior

Villa Romana De Rio Maior

Rio Maior’s Roman villa appeared by the river in the 80s and was not excavated until 1995. Built at the turn of the 4th century, the house offers a glimpse into the luxury and splendor of the building through its highly intricate mosaics.

Equally exciting is that the villa is just one element of a site that has yet to be fully excavated.

Baths, temples and service areas are still to be discovered.

Call Rio Maior’s tourist office to arrange a tour.

3. Casa Senhorial d’El Rei D. Miguel

Casa Senhorial D'El Rei D. Miguel

This farming townhouse in the heart of Rio Maior is named after the 19th century King Miguel I, who lived here during the Portuguese Freedom Wars.

The house dates back hundreds of years, but in the 1700s takes on the present Baroque style.

The reason you have to come is to see some of the loot recovered from the Roman villa.

The standout piece is the Marble Fairy.

This was supposed to be part of the fountain, and you could figure out where the water would flow under her left hand.

There are also scale models of the villa, as well as local art exhibits.

4. Dólmen de Alcobertas

Dólmen De Alcobertas

In nearby Albertas, you can’t miss this monolith, which was later converted by the parish church of the village.

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One of the ten largest such monuments on the Iberian Peninsula, the dolmens are at least 4,000 years old and consist of a chamber accessed through a granite stone corridor.

In the 1400s, the church incorporated the dolmens into a side chapel, on which a small altar was installed, and the structure was covered with a terracotta roof.

The feeling of entering a prehistoric pagan monument through a church is rather strange! As for the church, take a moment to look at the baptismal and holy water fonts from the 1500s, and the fine glazing from the 1600s.

5. Jardim Municipal de Rio Maior

Jardim Municipal De Rio Maior

Rio Maior’s Municipal Park has 3 hectares of lawns and trees in the southeast of the city center for a breath of fresh air and greenery.

Parents can take younger kids to the playground, and if you’re looking for a place to run in the morning, plenty of foliage will give you lots of shade.

You can also visit some of the more interesting buildings: one is the courthouse, in the middle of the park, with a very bold 1960s design.

The same goes for the parish church, which also has asymmetrical avant-garde lines.

6. Igreja da Misericórdia de Rio Maior

Igreja Da Misericórdia De Rio Maior

The town has a modern parish church, as the original church fell into ruins in the early 1700s.

Thus, from then until the 1960s, the temple became the town’s main place of worship.

It is also the finest Baroque work in the area, with 17th and 18th century improvements based on the 16th century Renaissance.

In the altar you can take a closer look at the central altar, which has gilded wood from the 1700s and is full of religious symbolism in its seraphs, vines, doves, lambs and seraphs.

Other highlights include two 16th-century polychrome statues of Mary (the Virgin of Sorrows) and St. John the Baptist.

7. Gruta de Alcobertas

gruta de alcobetas

Serra dos Candeeiros is full of caves, with an important one in Alcobertas in the city of Rio Mayor.

The site is notable for its human history and geology, as it has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years, and human remains have been found since the end of the Neolithic period, some 4,000 years ago.

There are four rooms over 200 meters with ceilings as high as 9 meters.

As early as the 1870s, these caves have become a modern curiosity, and the large number of tourists has led to them being closed and restricted to access.

Cooperativa Terra Chã is in charge today and you can contact them for details on your next trip.

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8. Parque Natural de las Sierras de Aire y Candeeiros

Parque Natural De Las Sierras De Aire Y Candeeiros

If you want more caves, you don’t have to go further.

The fact that the bat was chosen as the mascot of this natural park tells you that there are a lot of interesting things going on beneath the surface.

The calcareous rocks beneath your feet are carried and shaped by underground rivers, hollowing out cave systems full of strange nodules.

Alvados, Mira de Aire, Moeda and Santo Antonio are all noteworthy.

During the day, these barren mountains exude a raw majesty, with deep white rocky valleys dotted with pine bushes, juniper and olive trees.

9. Forno Medieval de Alcobertas

Labeled Núcleo Arqueológico de Alcobertas, this medieval archaeological site has been transformed into an interpretive center.

Unearthed in the 1950s, it was a community kiln where the whole village would bake ceramics.

The walls are made of raw clay and are ten centimeters thick, and from the platform above a sump, pipes, furnace and chamber can be seen.

The walls of new buildings around it have information signs telling you how the oven works and who will use it.

10. Museu Didático do Automóvel em Miniatura

Museu Didático Do Automóvel Em Miniatura

In Assentiz, near Rio Maior, a one-of-a-kind museum is housed in the former kindergarten building.

There are about 1,000 miniature cars from various periods in the glass case, and another 500 in the museum archives.

The director, Rui Teixeira, opened up his caring labor to the public, giving Rio Maior a little more tourist interest and creating a space for locals of all ages.

The museum has a workshop for repairing miniatures, as well as a library and a screening room, where you can watch a 60-minute video about the collection if you’re really interested.

11. Alcobetas Silo

Silos de Alcobetas

Another medieval wonder of Alcoertas is a series of medieval storerooms cut from the rock.

Found in the village’s gravel quarry, these small caves have been documented dating back to the 1400s, although they may have been used long before that.

They are used to store places where animals, water or moisture cannot reach; the hole is either sealed with sand or covered with limestone slabs.

In some cases, the stone was still at the entrance to the silo when it was unearthed.

12. The villages of Chãos and Terra Chã

Terra Chaos National Park

On a small plateau on the stony southern slopes of Serra dos Candeeiros is the lovely little village of Chãos.

Among the olive groves, the neat thing about this place is that you can still make out the dry stone walls of houses that date back to antiquity.

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These buildings, called “eiras”, are circular in shape, broken up by a small entrance, and the floors are covered with mortar or slate.

Water scarcity at this height forced its inhabitants to get creative, and instead of wells (useless due to the chalk bedrock), dozens of historic cisterns were dug to collect and store rainwater.

13. Outdoor recreation

lusitano horse

On the borders of one of Portugal’s largest natural parks, you won’t be short of inspiration for activities.

If you want to dive into underground caves that are rarely visited by tourists, you can connect with cavers through the tourist office for a proper underground expedition.

There are also stables nearby, hacks and hikes organized on pony or Lusitano horses in the park, and while the terrain is easy to navigate on two wheels, you can rent a mountain bike for a day of fun.

Alternatively, you can use just your two feet to head to viewpoints, ruins, abandoned mine shafts or smaller caves on 16 different walking trails.

14. Day Trips

Obidos

Rio Maior is located in an ancient hub on an ancient Roman road, and even today it is a very convenient town.

Less than half an hour from the coast, Foz do Arelho is one of the best beaches in Portugal, with Atlantic waves on one side and the crystalline Óbidos Lagoon on the other.

Óbidos is a fortified medieval village and the traditional residence of the Queen of Portugal, with a haunting network of alleys guarded by walls.

Caldas da Rainha is a suave spa town known for its finely crafted ceramics.

Then there’s Santarem, a city known for its Gothic architecture 20 minutes east of the Tagus River Plain.

15. Food and drink

Bakarhao

The cuisine at Rio Maior is simple and full of flavour: there are also Mediterranean flavours, partly because people from further south come to the area to work in agriculture or mining.

Olive oil, olives, wine and bread are staples, most importantly cornbread (broa de milho), which is the basis of migas: bread, soaked in water and deep-fried with garlic and pork.

Lapardana is simultaneously pork or salted cod (bacalhau), baked with potatoes and bread, seasoned with olive oil and garlic.

You can also order rooster roasted with walnuts.

Needless to say, you have to take home some flor do sal from the store in the Rio Maior saltworks, this salt is infused with herbs.

Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Rio Mayor, Portugal
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