The small but charming town of Tomar in Central Portugal was one of the first day trips I made when I first moved here many moons ago and I’ve enjoyed every subsequent visit. Fast forward 13 years or so and there are more things to do in Tomar than ever before.
With a UNESCO World Heritage monument, unique and quirky museums and an attractive old town centre, Tomar is a highlight on any Portugal itinerary yet still often overlooked by many visitors.
It’s a 2-hour train ride from Lisbon and there are several organised tours you can take if you want to learn more about the unique history and culture of Tomar.
That said, Tomar makes a really nice overnight stop, as mentioned in this Portugal road trip itinerary, or even a base for exploring this part of Central Portugal.
While my list of things to do in Tomar is not in any special order, the top spot has to go to the Convento de Cristo, which presides over the small town from its hilltop position.
1. Visit Tomar’s top sight: The Convent of Christ (Tomar Castle)
As you’ll notice from the battlements, the Convent of Christ (Convento de Cristo) began life as a military castle in the late 12th century. It was actually built as the headquarters of the Knights Templar by the Master of the Order of the Temple, Gualdim Pais, with the blessing of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques.
At that point in time, the Christian knights were busy pushing the Islamic occupants of the lands that we now know as Portugal ever further south so Tomar’s castle was an important strategic stronghold from which to launch their attacks in the name of the king and Christianity. It also has one of the oldest keeps in Portugal.
The original circular church, the Charola, is a melding of Romanesque and byzantine architectural styles. Built in the late 12th century as an oratorium for the Knights Templar, its lavish embellishments of paintings and sculptures are thanks to King Manuel I’s stylised late Gothic interventions.
It was during his reign that the magnificent Manueline window and doorway were added to the by then much extended complex.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Convent of Christ in Tomar is a must see. If you’re into UNESCO monuments, there are four other World Heritage sites in Central Portugal you can explore.
To visit this one, you’ll need at least two hours to explore the multiple cloisters, chapels and other key spaces.
Tip: If you’re walking up to the castle from the town centre, wear comfortable, sensible shoes as the path is uneven.
Open from 9 am to 5:30 pm October to May and until 6:30 pm in summer months. Official website
2. Walk along Pegões Aqueduct
The Convent of Christ’s impressive 6 km aqueduct was completed in 1614 to bring water to the complex. Apparently you can walk along the top of it, which would offer stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
If you’re not so keen on heights, it’s possible to follow the structure along the base instead, which would allow you to admire the 30-metre arches.
Practicalities: It’s a 5-minute drive from the convent to the aqueduct. Follow the brown signs for Aqueduto dos Pegões. There’s a small car park next to the access tower if you want to walk along the top.
3. Take a stroll around Mata Nacional dos Sete Montes
Next to the convent lies the city’s best green space, the Seven Hills National Forest. This is an understandably popular spot for walking, jogging and picnics, or a leisurely stroll.
The ornamental gardens near the entrance to the park are flanked by trees and footpaths, with the castle walls on the hill above.
There are a couple of marked walking and fitness trails you can follow through the small forest to the Charolina fountain, a small circular fountain that was built as a place for retreat and meditation by the convent.
Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm October to May and 8:30 am to 7:30 pm June to September.
4. Explore Tomar’s attractive old town
The heart of the historical centre is Rua Serpa Pinto, which connects the Nabão River with the city hall. It’s a really pretty street, especially as you head away from the river, with the convent on the hill above. At the right time of year, the pink blossom of the olaia trees makes it even more picturesque.
Pay attention to the tile work on the buildings and the azulejo panels on this street.
You’ll find lots of quirky shops and plenty of cafés and bakeries in this and neighbouring streets. Go for a wander and see what you find, Tomar’s old town is small enough that you won’t get lost.
5. Hang out in Praça da República
The patterned paving stones around this square are tributes to the Knights Templar, which is only fitting since it’s home to the statue of Guladim Pais, Grand Master of the Knights Templar and the city’s founder.
Tomar’s main square is dominated by the imposing city hall building but the most attractive feature is the intricately sculpted stone Manueline doorway to the church of St. John the Baptist, on the opposite side.
6. Go duck-spotting in Parque do Mochão
Tomar’s pretty riverside park is draped with weeping willows, some of which overhang the Mouchão water wheel, an example of the wheels that were essential for irrigating the fields in times gone by. There’s an attractive bandstand and plenty of benches should you need a rest.
7. Take a quick peek at the Chapel of Saint Gregório
At the far end of the park, near the entrance to the Hotel dos Templários, lies the tiny but unusually-shaped 16th century Chapel of São Gregório. It wasn’t open when I visited last but its octagonal floorplan is evident even from the outside.
8. Pick your favourite matchbox at the Museu dos Fósforos
This quirky little museum is one of my favourite Tomar attractions. Housed in a series of rooms within the former Convent of São Francisco lies a delightfully colourful collection of 43,000 matchboxes from around the world.
The collector, a Tomar local named Aquiles de Mota Lima, was inspired to build his collection after visiting London for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, where he met an American matchbox collector.
Images range from serious political leaders and historical figures to cartoons.
Note that there are some fairly risqué matchboxes so I imagine school trips are fun!
Open Tuesday to Sunday 10-1 and 3-6. Closed Mondays.
9. Watch azulejo artists at work at Oficina de Olaria e Azulejaria, Tomar
In the opposite corner of the convent courtyard is a wonderful ceramics workshop where you can watch the two female ceramicists painting, glazing and shaping their pieces.
Hundreds of finished products are on display and available to buy. I expect they would take custom orders, too.
Open Monday to Friday from 2-6 pm.
10. Marvel at the presses, mills and power station in Levada D’el Rei
This cultural complex is a relatively recent addition to Tomar’s sights and a worthy one at that. The former millhouses that lined the water channels have been converted into a mix of musem and exhibition space.
The water from the river was used to power the mills and olive presses, some of which have been painstakingly restored. There’s also an interesting exhibition about how Tomar got electricity, along with some of the machinery involved in the process.
When Mike and I visited the Levada de Tomar, there were a couple of exhibitions in one of the old factory buildings and we roamed floor after floor filled with original old machinery, chutes and mysterious contraptions.
11. Visit the Synagogue-Museum of Tomar
This 15th century synagogue is the only remaining one of its kind in Portugal. It’s had a busy and varied existence.
Built as a predominantly religious space, it also serviced the local Jewish community as a school, meeting hall and court. When King Manuel I decided to expel Jews from Portugal in 1496, it was used as a prison. In the 19th century, the former synagogue was a storage space for hay, wine, grain and other goods.
Bought in 1923 by a Polish mining engineer, the building was carefully restored and now acts as a museum of Jewish artefacts.
Open 10–12 and 2-5 pm in winter, 10 am to 1 pm and 2-6 pm in summer months. Closed on Mondays.
12. Admire the Church of Santa Maria do Olival
This beautiful old church was originally built in the late 12th century by Gualdim Pais to serve as a final resting place for the Knights Templar and subsequently the Order of the Temple. The great man himself is entombed here. The Gothic rose window and façade are part of a 13th century reconstruction and additional chapels were created in the 16th century.
Open Tuesday to Sunday 10-1 and 2-6. Closed Mondays.
Bonus thing to do in Tomar: Witness staggering feats of endurance at the Festa dos Tabuleiros
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