Santarém – The Portuguese Gothic Capital


Area – 552.54 km2

Population – 63,563

Parishes – 18

Region – Ribatejo

President – Ricardo Gonçalves (Social Democratic Party)

Municipal Holiday – 19th March





Santarém has 3 000 years of History embedded in its hills.

The town has had various names through the ages, such as: Scallabis, when it was founded, Presidium Julium, under the Roman domination, Sancta Irene (or Iria), with Receswinto and the Visigoths, Shantarin, during the Muslim occupation, finally becoming Santarém, following the reconquest of the town by the Portuguese.  But it has always, however, maintained its prominence and strategic importance, both in the period in which the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences were predominant (1st – 13th centuries) and when it came under Atlantic influences (14th – 19th centuries).

The town’s importance can be seen from the fact that it became an administrative centre of one of the provinces of Roman Hispania (Conventus Escalabitanus), a trading post of the Phoenicians, one of the most flourishing cities of the Muslim al-Andaluz, the burial site of Santa Iria, the martyr of Nabância (today Tomar), and finally one of the main centres of the medieval Kingdom of Portugal, when it acquired the title of “forever Noble and Loyal”.

During the 16th century, great figures of the  Nautical Sciences, Arts and Letters such as Pedro Álvares Cabral (discoverer of Brazil), Luis de Camões (Lyrical Poet), Fernão Lopes Castanheda (Historian of the Discoveries), Martim Afonso de Melo (1st European that arrived in China by sea) were closely linked to Santarém.

Santarém was involved in some of the most important events in Portuguese History in the 19th century.  It was one of the main stages for the Peninsula wars (it was the headquarters of the III French Invasions led by General Massena) and was besieged by the Duke of Wellington in 1810-11, the event being related in “Santarém or Sketches of manners and customs in the interior of Portugal”, the narrative of the travels of a Scottish doctor and British army officer, John Gordon Smith.  The town was also in the forefront of the Liberal struggles. Sá da Bandeira (Statesman and Military), Passos Manuel (Statesman and Military) and Braamcamp Freire (Politician) being leading liberals that were either born in or linked to Santarém.

The strong support given by the people of Santarém to the Liberation Movement of 25th April 1974, led by the troops of Captain Salgueiro Maia, that restored democracy to Portugal must be mentioned.

Due to its role in History, Santarém is, in the words of Almeida Garrett, “a stone book in which the most interesting and most poetic of our chronicles is written”.  This is why the town of Santarém is at this moment preparing its candidature to be considered World Heritage.


Before road and rail networks crisscrossed the virgin lands of our country, the rivers, especially the ones that were easily navigable, were the main means of communications and the union of two styles of life that have always characterized our nation – the agricultural interior and the coast.

Seen in this perspective, it is easy to understand the importance the River Tejo had for Santarém.  Its great length and easy navigability were crucial to the foundation and development of the city as it was the most important outlet to the sea from the middle reaches of the Tejo for the Romans, Muslims and Christians.  When Lisbon became the capital of the Kingdom (16th century) and acquired greater economic prominence, the riverside communities of Santarém enjoyed rapid growth, living in perfect communion with the Tejo and its vast resources.

The river played a crucial role in the economic and social development of the city from the very beginning.  The wealth of the Tejo, which was frequently mentioned by classical authors, led to the growth of the socioprofessional groups, such as fishermen, rope makers, boatmen and coopers, that exploited it and the appearance of riverside and port quarters. Salt, sea fish and fabrics were transported to the fluvial ports upstream, while manufactured goods, minerals, agricultural products (timber, wine, cereals, honey and beeswax) and river fish (shad, flounder, lamprey) went downstream to the capital in an unending stream of vessels.

The political, military and cultural relationships between Santarém and the Tejo were no less important.

During their journeys around the country in the exercise of the rule, the monarchs and their respective retinues chose the boat as their chief means of transport and the Tejo was their main artery.  Up to the 16th century, Santarém was one of the most favoured destinations of the Corte during its frequent journeys, which demonstrates the political role played by the riverside city. Beside this, the Tejo, being the longest river of the Iberian Peninsula, played a leading role in Luso-Spanish political relations, especially during the Philippine dynasty (1580-1640), when the two kingdoms were united under one crown.

A large part of the material and human logistic support that supplied the means for the Portuguese Discoveries and Overseas Expansion reached Lisboa, from Santarém, by way of the Tejo.  A considerable number of merchants, nobles, clergymen, poets, troubadours, slaves and adventurers from all over the world also found their way to Santarém.


The importance and prominence that Santarém has always enjoyed has made it one of Portugal ‘s leading cities and one that has been closely involved in some of the most crucial events in the country’s history.

The Royal Residence and Capital of the Kingdom in the reign of King Afonso IV (14th century), was located in Santarém.  Its significance is well documented by the innumerable privileges that are written into its charters and by its:

  • Sixteen convents and monasteries,
  • About thirty hospices and hospitals,
  • More than forty hermitages,
  • Royal palaces such as Alcáçova and Terreiro da Piedade,
  • Palaces and manor-houses of the realm’s highest nobility.

The number and importance of its monuments are a testimony to its sui generis artistic and cultural opulence at a national level.

The compounding of different political, economical, social and cultural situations in the 13th and 14th centuries gave rise to the building of Gothic style monuments of mendicant (unelaborate) features in Santarém and their unparalleled quality and homogeneity have led to the city receiving the epithet of Portugal ‘s Capital of Gothic.

Despite the damage caused to its medieval buildings by violent natural and human causes and the destruction and alterations that were wrought during the 19th and 20th centuries, some monuments of this period still stand in Santarém, the most outstanding being the Church of São João de Alporão (13th century), the Church of Graça (14th century), the Churh of Marvila (Manueline reconstruction), the Church of the Convent of Santa Clara (1260), the Convent of São Francisco (1242), the Church of Santa Cruz da Ribeira (14th century), the Figueiras Fountain (13th century), the Fortified Square of the Alcáçova and the Gates of Santiago and do Sol, among others.

Even when the tragic accident that ended the life of Prince D. Afonso at the Mouchão de Alfange, by the end of the 15th century, cooled the former liking of the Portuguese monarchs for Santarém, the city lived in a stage of great favor during the first centuries of the Modern Era (between the 16th and the 18th centuries) and great figures of Science, Arts, Letters and War graced it with their presence.

This is why Mannerism facades in the Portuguese “Chão” style (with very simple and straight lines) and the erudite Renaissance planning give the city as one of the most interesting urban layouts in Portugal.


The Historical Centre of Santarém is one of the largest ancient nucleus in Portugal, occupying an area of 1,42 Km2, almost all of which is built-up urban area.  Within its perimeter, the city took shape with the juxtaposing of private buildings and private green spaces with the different urban structures and buildings and their facades.

This nucleus occupies a well-defined topographical location, with its urban area laid out according to a polynuclear logic, which is characterized by a functional articulation between the upper and lower parts of the city and by the building of several nuclei in places where geological stability offers greater security.  The urban structure, however, is coherent and forms a historical, aesthetic and landscape unity.

Santarém’s urban morphology follows a linear and organic urban growth that is a witness to the different peoples that have occupied the city throughout its three thousand years of history.

From Roman times is the perpendicular layout of the city’s two main arteries and the rectilinear structure of the secondary roads of the Bairro do Pereiro, probably a vestige of the cardus and the decumanus.

The urban influence of the Muslims can be seen both in the subsoil and in some sinuous streets, alleys and interior patios, spaces of urban “decompression” where the public and the private rub shoulders with no defined barriers.

The squares, in turn, are a Christian legacy, being the nerve centres of the city, evoking the realities of both the Medieval and Modern city, as they are the meeting point of people, goods and beliefs, places where both national and local political, economic, social and religious meetings are held.

The stairways (also dating from this period) that can be seen everywhere in the Historical Centre testify to the need the citizens had to overcome the fact that the city was built at different levels.

The urban structure of Santarém is complemented by the variety and quality of the aesthetic beauty of its facades and the originality of balconies, roofs, doors, windows and the unparalleled glazed tiles lining walls.

(Video created by Francisca Silva and Daniel Pinto, students from the Secondary School Doutor Ginestal Machado)

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