There are several cute towns and villages in Central Portugal that have become known for something very specific, like their medieval style streets, an important monument or an old castle. Caldas da Rainha, however, has flourished mostly because of its history as a spa town and its hyperrealistic ceramics, whether they represent cabbage leaves, animals or… penises!
But don’t worry; there are plenty of things to do in Caldas da Rainha including one of my favourite museums, a beautiful park, old churches, an amazingly old market and, of course, Portuguese cakes. It also makes a good base for exploring other parts of the Silver Coast, including Óbidos.
For those of you who may be considering relocating to Portugal, this is a town worth checking out.
1. Visit the Ceramics Museum (Museu da Cerâmica)
In a town where ceramics play such an important role, it’s no surprise to find a museum dedicated to it. Inside an old brick house that’s decorated with ceramics created by its former owner, you’ll find collections of local ceramics from the 17th to the 20th centuries, as well as local sculptures and miniatures from the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum also hosts a selection of Hispanic-Moorish and Dutch ceramic tiles.
Important names in Portuguese art, like Bordallo Pinheiro, Júlio Pomar and Manuel Cargaleiro have some of their ceramics on display in this museum so you get a fairly extensive insight into the range of Portuguese ceramics. Closed Monday. Otherwise open from 10 to 12:30 and 2 to 5:30.
2. Shop for quirky ceramics at the Bordallo Pinheiro shop / Casa Museu San Rafael
While in Portugal you’re likely to come across ceramic tableware shaped like cabbages, tomatoes or animals, for example. Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro, who lived in the 19th century, was the creative mind behind this and the ceramics that still bears his name has become synonymous with superior quality.
These are very practical Portuguese souvenirs so if you want to buy some, the factory shop is a good place to go. You’ll see some examples of his work in the streets of Caldas, too.
Next to the Bordallo Pinheiro shop there’s the Casa Museu San Rafael, which used to be Bordallo Pinheiro’s workshop and where you can admire a collection of both originals and copies of many of his works. This museum requires advance planning to visit as you need to prebook (minimum 4 people). Open Monday to Friday, entry €2.
3. Take a stroll around Parque Dom Carlos I
One of the most famous, and my favourite, parts of Caldas da Rainha is this romantic 19th century garden, which was created as a complement to the thermal hospital. King Carlos I’s namesake park has a boating lake, tennis court, café with outdoor seating and several sculptures, besides the quintessential bandstand that you can find in many such Portuguese gardens and parks.
There’s also a picnic area under the shade of a cluster of trees, opposite the Bordallo Pinheiro shop.
4. Admire paintings and sculptures at the José Malhoa Museum
Located by the lake in the Dom Carlos I park you’ll find this museum dedicated to the pioneer of Naturalism in Portugal. Opened in 1933, it was the first time in the country that a building was projected from scratch to become a museum.
Besides works by José Malhoa, it also includes an extensive collection of sculptures and paintings from both the 19th and 20th centuries, besides a section dedicated to local ceramics. This museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and several cultural events. Closed Monday and at lunchtimes.
5. Shop for fresh produce at the Caldas da Rainha fruit and flower market
This colourful and aromatic market has been going on since the 15th century, which is a pretty amazing feat in itself. This is the only daily outdoor market in Portugal and is without doubt one of the main attractions of Caldas da Rainha.
Held in Praça da República, also known as Praça da Fruta (meaning “fruit market”), you can expect to find not just fruit, as the name suggests (and that includes the famous local variety of pear called pêra rocha), but also vegetables, flowers, nuts, ceramics and cakes. You might even be lucky enough to get a pine nut necklace to nibble on while you browse.
The market is open from 7 am to 3 pm (4 pm on Saturdays) and is only closed on December 25th and January 1st.
6. Get a sugar rush from Beijinhos das Caldas
Most Portuguese towns and cities will have at least one typical dish or sweet. Caldas da Rainha has one of the sweetest ‘cakes’ I’ve ever come across.
Beijinhos das Caldas are small, light, round cakes covered in a sugar syrup – the kind of thing that’ll make your dentist have a small nervous breakdown. If you can’t find beijinhos (which means little kisses) ask for cavacas as they’re essentially the same, the latter being bigger and irregular in shape (see photo).
You can also find them in good supermarkets or gourmet shops across the country.
7. Step back in time at a traditional Portuguese grocery store
Supermarkets have taken their toll on independent shops but traditional grocery stores are still loved and appreciated in most towns and cities.
Caldas da Rainha is no exception and one of its longest-running establishments is Mercearia Pena, which has been in business since 1909. You’ll find gourmet produce, a deli counter, coffee beans that they will grind for you and locally made biscuits and other treats.
8. Indulge cycle enthusiasts at the Museu do Ciclismo
Before Portugal became obssessed with 22 men running after a ball, one of the most famous sports in the country, and one which actually gathered crowds, was cycling.
Caldas da Rainha’s small Cycling Museum exhibits several old bicycles including a very peculiar tandem bike, old photographs, stamps and several other objects connected to the country’s love for cycling. The building that houses this museum is in itself worth a visit as an example of local Art Noveau.
Opening times: Tues-Fri 10 am-12.30. 2pm-5.30. Sat and Sun 10 am-12.30. 2.30pm-5. Closed Mondays.
9. Spot the architecture and ceramics around town
As you explore the streets around Praça da República and the park, you’ll encounter lots of lovely architecture, especailly Art Nouveau, and several more examples of fine ceramics on display, be they street signs, decorative features on buildings or sculptures.
10. See the tiles at Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Pópulo
Built in 1500, this neo-Manueline church was, originally, a sort of private chapel belonging to the hospital. This church still celebrates mass, which means it’s not difficult to get inside for a sneak peek of the 17th century tiles and Gothic arches above the altar and surrounding area.
11. Get a treatment at Termas das Caldas
The name Caldas da Rainha means, literally, “the queen’s [thermal] baths”. These sulphuric hot springs are 35ºC degrees Celsius and they’re particularly good for respiratory problems and musculoskeletal disorders.
The spa hospital in Caldas da Rainha was founded in 1485 by Queen Leonor, who had experienced first hand the medicinal qualities of the waters of the region. Her spa hospital is the oldest in the world and still operating after 500 years.
The thermal baths were closed down in 2009 and reopened 10 years later to offer medical and therapeutic spa treatments.
12. Gawp at the ubiquitous ceramic (or edible) penises
Saving the best for last? Well, depends on your approach to risqué ornaments. As mentioned before, Caldas da Rainha has a centuries-old tradition of ceramic production but if you hear the expression louça das Caldas (literally, “tableware from Caldas”) followed by a cheeky smile, beware because that is a euphemism for ceramic penises!
You’ll find them virtually everywhere in this town: big (sometimes, very big!) or small, amazingly realistic or plain funny, in mugs or fridge magnets – the options are endless. You can even munch on a meringue if you fancy!
The origin of this local tradition is uncertain but it is known to date back to, at least, the 19th century.
Best hotels in Caldas da Rainha
Until the Montebelo opens, the highest category of hotel in Caldas is currently the 4-star SANA Silver Coast Hotel near the Dom Carlos I park, which has all the ameneties and comfort you’d expect from this standard of accommodation and a really nice outdoor seating area.
For something truly unique, creative and delightful, 19 Tile Boutique House is a renovated 19th century mansion, custom decorated by local ceramic artists. They also run workshops and studio tours so if you’re into ceramics, this is the place for you!
If you’ve never slept in a windmill and are travelling by car, you might want to use the opportunity to stay at Moinho das Carrascas, which, aside from the novelty factor, features a seasonal outdoor pool and free parking.
How to get to Caldas da Rainha
You can get to Caldas da Rainha from Lisbon by bus (Rede Expressos from Sete Rios terminal or Rodoviara do Oeste Rápida Verde #788 from Campo Grande) – it takes about 1 1/4 hours. From here, a 6-minute train journey gets you to Óbidos, a delightful medieval town.
By car, it’s about 1 hour from Lisbon – compare rental prices on Rentalcars.com.
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