The city of Tomar was founded in the 12th century by the Knights Templar on land granted by the first king of Portugal. The order established a monastery on a hill and planned the last Templar town in the world by the river. Christ’s Abbey is a World Heritage Site with magnificent buildings that have been perfected over 300 years.
When the Order of Christ took over from the Knights Templar, Tomar was the destination of many Portuguese sailing plans during the Age of Navigation. As governor of the Order, world-changing explorer and navigator Henry lived in Tomar and was responsible for its expansion in the 15th century.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tomar:
1. Christ Monastery
In the 12th century, King Alfonso Henrique donated the area around Tomar to the Knights Templar, who established a monastery famous for its circular church.
This UNESCO site is indispensable for what you see and what it stands for.
It is separated from modern Tomar, far above the town and the Nabão River, on a promontory protected by a castle and ramparts.
Churches, chapels and cloisters will fascinate you with Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance architecture.
When the Knights Templar disbanded in the 14th century, the Knights of Christ took their place and used their vast wealth to finance voyages in the Age of Navigation.
2. Tomar Castle
In the same compound is the Templar Castle, which protects the monastery.
This has a curtain of walls and towers still adorned with the Maltese cross and other more mystical symbols.
At the time of the Reconquista in the 12th century, the castle was located in Linha do Tejo, a horizontal fortress between the future Portuguese in the north and the Moors in the south.
It’s hard not to be struck by the scale and preservation of the building, despite the damage Napoleon’s troops were stationed here during the Peninsular War.
There are Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance ruins, and each attraction is marked with signs.
3. Aqueduto dos Pegões
Christ’s Abbey needed water, and the answer was the construction of this magnificent 6-kilometer aqueduct that would draw water from four springs in Pegões.
The project began in the 1590s and was planned by Filipe Terzio, an Italian military architect employed by the Portuguese royal family.
The work will last 21 years, and Terzio won’t live to see it finished.
The most impressive thing about the aqueduct is that it cuts through the steep Vale da Ribeira dos Pegões, with two levels of arches (circular below and circular at the top), with a maximum height of 30 meters.
If you’re brave enough, you can even walk along the conduit at the top.
4. Tomar Synagogue
Walk down the cobblestone streets of Dr. Joaquim Jacinto and you wouldn’t know the synagogue is here unless it’s a discreet Star of David.
Inside there are high vaulted vaults supported by corbels and four columns with leaf-like patterns.
The masonry is symbolic, as the pillars represent the four matriarchs and the corbels represent the twelve tribes of Israel.
The synagogue was built in the mid-15th century, but was not used for more than 50 years due to the expulsion or forced conversion of the Jews by King Manuel I in the late 1400s.
Since 1939 it has been restored and is home to the Jewish Museum of Tomar.
5. Igreja de São João Batista
This church raised the spiritual and material center of old Tomar during the reign of Manuel I at the end of the 15th century. The era is known for its exuberant sculpture, the church is equipped with a glorious portal, and its stonework is extremely intricate by an unknown French artist.
You must also check out the tiles inside, which have a 16th-century pattern of “ponta de diamante” (diamond tips) with a trompe l’oeil effect.
There are also special paintings, such as The Last Supper by Portuguese Renaissance master Gregorio Lopez.
6. Old Town
One of the many cool things about Tomar is that it is a planned city.
The oldest blocks follow a strict grid system drawn by the Knight Templar in the 12th century.
More interestingly, it is in the shape of a four-armed cross, each arm pointing to a monastery in the city.
But this is not the only example of sacred geometry. The Igreja de São João Batista is at the center of a perfect circle, lining up several churches and monasteries that form the “sacred space” where Tomar is located.
7. Republic Square
If you need a place to dive in and start exploring the city, build on this square in front of Igreja de São João Batista.
Opposite the church, the Mannerist Town Hall, built in the 16th century, is very photogenic, with a Portuguese sidewalk and a statue of Templar and Tomar founder Gualdim Pais in the foreground, against the walls of the castle.
If you look closely at the facade of the town hall, you will see some traces of Manuel decoration in the armillary sphere, the personal coat of arms of King Manuel I.
8. Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Conceição
The monastery was built on a highland near Christ’s Abbey in the mid-16th century.
Despite its modest size, it is regarded as one of the purest examples of Portuguese Renaissance architecture.
The chapel was actually intended to be the pantheon of King John III, but that purpose was never fulfilled.
Without the extravagant decoration of later Portuguese churches, it was planned like a classical church, with a barrel vault supported by Corinthian columns and ionic pilasters on the walls.
There are many openings that allow ample light to enter the chapel, through crescents above the portal and lead windows in the walls, topped by a palatial pediment.
9. Mata Nacional dos Sete Montes
This park is a watershed between Christ’s Abbey and Old Tomar.
It’s a delightful way to walk to the monastery, and you’ll have a stiff but very nice climb through oak and cedar woods.
Downstream is the large patio with carefully tended geometric hedges, trims, fountains and classical stone vases.
In the days of the Knights Templar and the Knights of Christ, the park held initiation ceremonies, and the hillside was lined with orchards and vegetable gardens.
Try to find Charolinha, a delightful miniature replica of a monastery designed in the 16th century by João de Castilho, the greatest architect of the time.
10. Igreja de Santa Maria dos Olivais
Another must-see attraction for the Knights Templar is this 12th-century church, home to the Portuguese Order of the Knights and the Pantheon of the Masters of the Order.
Over the course of the 13th century, 22 masters were buried here, and you can see their names on a memorial board.
Although the building is very low-key, it has a mysterious meaning: the number 8, which was important to the Knights Templar, appears several times in the number of windows, the steps of the stairs and the number of columns in the nave.
The church is just a short distance from the centre of Tomar on the other side of the Nabão River.
11. Castelo do Bode
There is a dam on the Zêzere River, about 15 minutes south of Tomar, which forms a lake of 3300 hectares.
The structure itself is massive, climbing to 115 meters and powering a 138 MW hydroelectric power plant.
A road crosses the top of the dam and there is a parking spot overlooking the valley.
As for that lake, it’s Lisbon’s cistern, and it’s also a calm environment if you need to cool off in the summer.
There is a campground on the South Shore, in a pine forest, with a small beach and swimming area.
Or you can take a woodland trail for a better view of the dam from its base.
12. Anta do Vale da Laje
If you’re taking a detour while visiting Castelo do Bode, you can follow the lakeshore to this megalithic site.
It has been declared the oldest funerary monument north of the Tagus River, at over 7,500 years old.
There is a room of five granite slabs that you can reach along a narrow corridor with small stones.
There is a courtyard outside, believed to be a circular altar.
The site has recently become more accessible, with some encroached woodlands being cleared and new interpretive boards installed.
13. Museu dos Fósforos
Tomar has a very quirky and flammable museum at the Convent of San Francisco.
This is for matches, matchboxes and matchboxes, which come from all over the world and come in every imaginable size.
A Belgian example has a 40 cm long match.
The attraction has a nostalgic flavor, with most of the exhibits dating back to the mid-20th century, when smoking was the norm.
There are special books to commemorate events like Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation or the Soviet Union’s launch of Yuri Gagarin into space.
Amazingly, all these pieces were collected by one man, Aquiles da Mota Lima, who donated it to the town in 1980.
14. Room and Board Festival
The festival is only held every four years, the last one being in 2015. People go to great lengths for this festival, which seems to have no other public celebration in Portugal.
Festa dos Tabuleiros takes place around the first few weeks of July, and the parade is the most high-profile event.
Here, young girls wear columnar headdresses called tabuleiros.
They were ridiculously tall, tied together piles of bread, made garlands of flowers, and covered them with doves or armillary spheres and Templar crosses.
This tradition dates back to the 1200s and is full of religious significance.
In a Covent town like Tomar, there are several egg-based sweet treats.
In the Middle Ages, monasteries had surplus eggs because people would donate them for good luck when they were about to get married.
Fatias de Tomar (Tomar Slices) are made with only egg yolks and sugar, cooked in special pans sold only in the town.
It is a pudding that is sliced and flavored with cinnamon, anise or lemon.
You can buy this treat in beautifully decorated pots to take home.
Beija-me depressa (kiss-me-quicks) are also melting egg candies, dusted with powdered sugar, and sold in retro 60s-style boxes of 12.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Tomar, Portugal
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