Santarém is known as the country’s bullfighting capital, and surrounding the town are rich pastures grazing bulls and horses.
In June there is a huge agricultural fair, when it is the best time to catch a bullfight and horse races. Other bullfighting festivals take place nearby in Vila Franca de Xira, known as “the Pamplona of Portugal,” where there’s the running of the bulls during the first weeks of July and October.
Santarém’s main square, Praça Sá da Bandeira, was the scene of the gruesome execution of Inês de Castro’s murderers in 1357.
Today it is the site of a palatial baroque 17th-century Jesuit seminary, now serving as the town’s cathedral, with gilded carved altars and a painted ceiling.
Marvila Church is also of note, with a Manueline doorway, some outstanding diamond-patterned 17th century tiles, three chapels with Manueline features, and a baroque gilded wood altar.
To the south is the town’s most impressive building, Graça Church, featuring a magnificent rose window carved from one single stone and a beautiful nave. It also houses the tomb of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the discoverer of Brazil, and the elaborate sarcophagus of Pedro de Menezes, the first governor of Ceuta.
Nearby is the 14th century Santissimo Milagre Church, with a Renaissance interior and known for a small crystal flask in the sacristy that is said to contain the blood of Christ. According to a 13th century legend, a holy wafer intended to help persuade a husband to stop beating his wife was miraculously transformed into blood.
In the town’s little archeological museum, housed in the 12th century Romanesque-Gothic Church of São João de Alporão, are stone carvings and other archeological finds, and an elaborately carved tomb containing just one single tooth of a nobleman, Dom Duarte de Menezes, who died in the 15th century battling the Moors in North Africa.
Facing the museum is a tower, Torre das Cabaças, probably originally a minaret, that provides a good overall view of the town from the top.
Not far from there is the Portas do Sol Park, commanding views over the Tagus River and the plains of the Ribatejo province.
In late October there’s a great 10-day national gastronomic fair, where visitors can wander around sampling regional foods from all over Portugal.
In the nearby town of Alpiarça is a striking manor house (“Casa dos Patudos”) that belonged to Jose Relvas, one of Portugal’s wealthiest politicians who was also an art collector. It is now a museum housing his personal collection of fine and decorative art.
It includes paintings by Delacroix, Zurbarán, Leonardo da Vinci (“Virgin with Child and St. John”), and Albrecht Dürer (Christ in the Tomb), and the country’s foremost collection of Arraiolos carpets, including a particularly fine one embroidered in silk dating from 1762.
Santarém is named after Santa Iria, a young nun who was accused of being unchaste and martyred near Tomar in 653 A.D. Her body was thrown into the river and washed ashore in present-day Santarém. The king of the Visigoths, who had recently been converted to Christianity, gave the town the name of Santa Iria to commemorate the event.