Leiria is another of those cities that I put off visiting for a long time for no good reason. I’d heard nothing that made me want to go out of my way to visit Leiria so when I finally got around to it, I was pleasantly surprised.
This small city in Central Portugal lies just off the motorway between Lisbon and Porto. If you love old cities rich in history with visible traits of their medieval past then you’ll find several things to do in Leiria that make it worthy of a stop if you’re in the area and enjoy non-touristy places.
Visit Leiria Castle
Probably the most iconic spot in Leiria, the castle sits on top of a hill which archaeological traces show has been occupied for over 5,000 years.
The original fortress was built by order of Portugal’s first king, Dom Afonso Henriques. Over time, and as Leiria grew in importance, the castle slowly changed from military fortress to royal palace, undergoing several improvements. The balcony, probably the most famous part of Leiria Castle, offers an amazing view of Leiria and the surrounding area.
Centuries later, however, castles had become obsolete and in the 19th century French invasions caused immense damage to the fortress.
Several restoration projects later, the castle retains a very much medieval look, although much is still in ruins, hence the current restoration project which is due to be completed in 2021. This means that for the time being, you’ll only be able to admire it from the outside but once it’s reopened, it’s definitely worth going inside.
When Mike and I visited, it had just been the venue for a Goth festival, Entremuralhas – it’s hard to think of a more fitting space for such an event.
To make the walk uphill more interesting, there were pictures of the castle in its heyday on the walls.
Delve into the work of cinematography at the Moving Image Museum
Very close to Leiria Castle, and therefore making a walk up the hill worthwhile, is the Moving Image Museum (Museu da Imagem em Movimento). This unique museum was created in 1996 on the 100th anniversary of Portuguese cinema and houses multiple collections on the evolution of cinematography and photography.
We stumbled across it on our way to the castle and were most impressed. Parts of the permanent exhibition are interactive for both children and adults so we found ourselves peering through lenses and experimenting with very basic forms of moving images.
Learn about water-powered mills at Leiria’s Paper Mill Museum
Built in 1411, this was the first Portuguese paper factory and one of the first of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula. The manufacturing of paper was most likely connected to the creation of one of the country’s first printing workshops, which belonged to the family of a Jewish typesetter who moved to Leiria in 1492.
The watermill was restored in the early 21st century by renowned Portuguese architect, Siza Vieira, and is now a small but interesting museum, Museu do Moinho de Papel. When we visited, they were preparing for an art exhibition so we were only able to see part of the collection and enjoy the delightful outdoor space overlooking the river, where you can watch the massive mill wheels turning.
As well as gaining an understanding of the anciient art of paper-making, some of the watermills are still active so you can see the cereal grinding process and even buy flour produced in the mill.
See the part Neanderthal Lapedo Child at Leiria Museum
On my list for our next trip to Leiria is the Leiria Museum, located in a former convent. This museum is divided into two exhibition rooms: one features temporary exhibitions; the other has a permanent exhibition, which includes a recap of the history of the region, with the use of several objects, from dinosaur remains to religious art, and through the lens of different events and myths.
I’m most intrigued by the so-called Menino do Lapedo (Lapedo Child), which is the skeleton of a child, found in the Leiria district, that is thought to be have had both a Neanderthal and an anatomically modern human parent.
Explore Leiria old town through its Jewish history
Some parts of Leiria’s historical centre have remained more or less intact to this day and as you wander around the old town it’s not difficult to get a glimpse of what it would have looked like in the Middle Ages.
An interesting way of exploring the older part of the city while also visiting some of its more important sights is by following the Jewish Quarter of Leiria route (Roteiro da Judiaria de Leiria).
The Jewish presence in the city started at the beginning of the 13th century and reached its peak in influence two centuries later, when the Almanach Perpetuum, by Jewish author Abraão Zacuto, was printed here in 1496. He was a rabi, astronomer, mathematician and historian who worked for Portuguese King João II. His work would prove fundamental in the Portuguese Discoveries.
Some of the most noteworthy stops along the Jewish Quarter trail include:
Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy)
This church used to be the city’s synagogue and the Jewish community established itself around it.
Casa dos Pintores (Painters’ House)
This tall, narrow building dates back to medieval times and is an example of the oldest residential architecture in the city centre. Mike and I popped in and learned much about the family who lived there and their influence on modern printing.
Sé de Leiria (Leiria Cathedral)
Built in the 16th century in Mannerist style, although there are some Gothic and Baroque trace influences in its architecture. It’s one of the few churches in the country where you’ll still find a fully functioning church organ. If you’re in luck you might just have the possibility of enjoying a concert there.
Hang out with locals at Praça Rodrigues Lobo
Also on the Jewish route, Leiria’s main square is named after Francisco Rodrigues Lobo, a Jewish poet who converted to Christianity. His family was persecuted by the Inquisition when Jews and Muslims were expelled by royal decree in 1496.
Praça Rodrigues Lobo is also one of the best spots to get a feeling of the city’s daily life while enjoying a meal or a drink. It’s lined with restaurants and cafés that have outdoor seating and local families bring their kids to play in the square while the adults spend time together. It also offers great views of the castle up on the hill.
We had a very pleasant lunch at Mata Bicho, on the corner of the square.
Eat yummy cheese at LisQueijo
While wandering around Leiria during the Arts Festival, we spotted a cheese shop that beckoned us in with its tempting display. Better still, we discovered that you can choose which cheeses to include on your cheese board to enjoy in house with a glass of red Portuguese wine.
Tip: If they have any of the Spanish blue Savel cheese, try some – it’s divine! Or some Portuguese Serra da Estrela cheese.
Rua Dom António da Costa n°12. Open Tuesday to Saturday.
Check out the cultural space at Mercado de Sant’Ana
Built where the former church and convent of Sant’ Ana used to stand, alongside Praça Rodrigues Lobo, you’ll find the colourful Mercado de Sant’ Ana, built in the late 1920’s following the architectural plans of Ernesto Korrodi, a name connected to several of the most well-known buildings in Leiria.
There’s no longer a functioning market here – the space has been turned into a cultural centre of sorts, housing several temporary exhibitions as well as small fairs and events throughout the year.
Check out the street art in Leiria
As you wander around the old town, you will undoubtedly spot some fine examples of street art and public art.
Some of the public art depicts scenes from the novel The Crime of Father Amaro by Portuguese author, Eça de Queiros, painted by the Portuguese artist Sílvia Patrício. I see distinct echos of Paula Rego in her work.
Relax in Luís de Camões Gardens
Near this central part of Leiria you’ll find a cute smaller square with a very Instagrammable fountain, which has coloured lights that make it great for night shots. From there you can enjoy the shade in the Luís de Camões garden and go for a quiet stroll along the banks of the River Lis.
Indulge your sweet tooth with a Brisa do Lis
If you’re tired of so much history and feel like trying a local Portuguese cake, maybe you could try the local sweet specialty: Brisas do Lis. The name is a reference to the River Lis, which flows across the city. This sweet is a sort of small pudding made with eggs, sugar and almonds and is the father of a Brazilian sweet, very similar to it, called quindim.
Have lunch in an old millhouse near Leiria (or stay overnight!)
The last time we visited Leiria, there was an arts festival going on and I was concerned that we would arrive too late to get a table for lunch so I started looking for ‘somewhere nice’ with easy parking nearby.
We struck gold with Casa da Nora in the village of Cortes. Not only was the food delicious and inspired, the building is a renovated millhouse with beautiful stained glass windows and you can still see the wooden wheel on the outside of the riverside building.
It also offers accommodation so we had a look at some of the rooms and the delightful garden with a small pool. See Hotel Casa da Nora on Booking.com.
Other places to stay in Leiria
If you’d rather stay in Leiria city centre, Porta 20 Boutique Guesthouse would be my first choice. The 15 rooms inside this beautifully restored 1940s buidling are gorgeous, featuring exposed stone and wood and tasteful modern decor. There’s free parking, too. See photos and current prices.
Search for alternative Leiria accommodation:
How to get to Leiria
There are several Rede Expressos buses a day from Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra to Leiria, taking around 2 hours, and much quicker than going by train.
Otherwise, your best bet is to drive there.
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