Alas, bathing is not one of them – unless you’re a frog.
At least, not in the mineral waters that led to the city’s founding by Queen Leonor of Portugal in the 15th century. But there’s lots more to see. Aside from its waters, the city is also known for ceramics – as you’ll soon find out when you walk around.
The hot springs of Caldas da Rainha had been enjoyed by locals since Roman times, long before Queen Leonor discovered their powers. Convinced that they had cleared up some of her persistent health problems, she gave orders for a hospital to be built by the springs so that others could benefit. A settlement grew around the hospital which became known as the Queen’s springs, las caldas da rainha.
The clay-rich soils in the area led to the production of green and brown pottery and kitchenware. In the 1820s, a ceramicist called Maria dos Cacos developed the unique style of pottery that was to become the town’s hallmark. Other 19th century potters such as Manuel Mafra and Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro developed their own versions.
Caldas da Rainha’s heyday was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when spa resorts were fashionable, attracting nobles and aristocrats as well as royals. During the Boer War and World War 2, the city was known as a place of respite for refugees and wounded soldiers.
Caldas today – internationally recognized creative city
Caldas da Rainha was added to the UNESCO Creative City Network for crafts and folk art in 2019. This was largely due to 500 years of heritage in the ceramics industry, with ongoing commitment to education, research and development. There are 2 major ceramics factories operating in the city – Bordallo Pinheiro and Molde – and around 17 artist workshops.
The School of Arts and Design aims to secure the future of this heritage by teaching relevant design skills but also industrial knowledge. Local council initiatives include a major biennial exhibition to showcase the city’s achievements and future plans.
City status was granted to Caldas da Rainha in 1927, but the population at the last census was still only 51,729. We found this to be a plus, as it makes the city very accessible and easy to get to know. It’s also a friendly, authentic place, very un-touristy. Here are some of our top recommendations.
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1. If it’s an option for you, go by train
We love going by train as you get to see so much more, including the less salubrious parts of towns and cities that tourists are usually directed away from.
Caldas da Rainha is located in the Leiria district of the Oeste region of Portugal, around 90k north of Lisbon and 10k inland from the Silver Coast. The line from Lisbon to Caldas runs a slow local chugger or comboio that stops everywhere – just the kind of line we like.
We boarded at Sete Rios station, which is in Campolide, the financial district of Lisbon and not too far from the airport. The nearby Corinthia Hotel* is excellent and we would highly recommend it if you need an overnight stay. The service was superb, food delicious and the beds seriously comfortable. Definitely a great option if you’re just passing through and not wanting to spend time in Lisbon.
The journey to Caldas da Rainha takes around 2 hours 10 minutes, which is crazy really – considering that the same trip by bus takes just over an hour! But you’ll be rewarded with sights like Mafra station, with its lovely azulejo tiles. You might also be have the luxury of a whole carriage to yourself, as we did. As you can see, it had awesome stained glass windows – courtesy of graffiti artists.
2. Walk the Bordallo Pinheiro ceramic trail
Caldas da Rainha’s best known potter is Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro, who made a distinctive majolica style of ceramics. The frogs, lizards and caricatures dotted around town are a tribute to his legacy. It might not be to everyone’s taste – mine included – but it does grow on you. I loved the humour of it, which is quite ribald at times!
The first encounter that people are likely to have with louça das Caldas is outside the railway station, where there’s a crazy fountain filed with ceramic frogs and lily pads (see also feature photo at the top of this post).
Bordallo Pinheiro’s pottery is internationally renowned (there’s a shop in Paris) and is often known as cabbage ware in the English-speaking world, as the most famous pieces are shaped like cabbage leaves. Other, less well-known, ranges include fish ware, tomato ware and leaf ware. His caricatures poked fun at politicians, officials and professional stereotypes (clergymen, fishermen, farmers etc.)
The fountain marks the start of the Rota Bordaliana ceramic trail. The long version takes around 2 hours, whereas the shorter one takes about 1 hour. Both routes finish at the Bordallo Pinheiro factory.
Along the way you can enjoy up to 22 different ceramic works designed as tributes to the artist, mostly featuring nature (animals, birds, insects etc.) but also caricatures of people including Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro’s nanny. It’s a great way to orient yourself with Caldas da Rainha. You can find a map of the trail here on Routeyou.
3. Visit the hospital museum and the pavilions
The main buildings associated with the thermal waters are the hospital, church of Nossa Senhora de Pópulo, royal palace and the 19th century extensions known as the pavilions. The thermal hospital was the first one to be built anywhere in the world.
The pavilions, which were used for the internment of German soldiers during World War 1, are abandoned and in a poor state of repair. It seems incredible that this has been allowed to happen to such stunning buildings on such a historical site. In some ways their dilapidation gives them an almost mystical appeal, rather like a ruined castle.
Things are about to change, however. On 8 June 2021 the local newspaper, Jornal das Caldas, reported that an agreement to turn the pavilions into a 5-star hotel was about to be finalized. Completion is expected by summer 2023. This decision is not without its opponents.
The buildings will certainly make a fabulous luxury hotel. But what about the thermal springs? It surely wouldn’t take too much vision for Caldas da Rainha to become the Bath (England) of Portugal. Meanwhile, a visit to the hospital museum, located in the former royal palace, is as close as you can get. There are some interesting historical pieces and old photos of treatment rooms.
Optional extras include a visit to the ‘Queen’s pool’ within the old thermal hospital itself, and the chapel of St Sebastian. Going to all three will cost €5.50.
4. Stroll around Parque Dom Carlos I
This beautiful park, with its mature trees, pretty gardens, majestic black swans and boating lake, surrounds the thermal hospital complex and gives the best view of the pavilions (see photo above).
Afternoons can be rather hot, depending on the time of year you visit, so the park is a lovely place to find some shade and relax with a picnic lunch. There’s a children’s playground, tennis court and a couple of cafes too. There seems to be always something going on there – live music is often played on the first Sunday of the month.
5. Go shopping
What I loved about shopping in Caldas da Rainha was the individuality of the shops, but also the prices. You get great value here. Ceramics and leatherwork are particularly good. I bought a gorgeous quality leather handbag for half the price I would have paid in Lisbon or the tourist towns.
The same is true when it comes to food and drink. I couldn’t believe how good the cafes were – superb coffee, cake, pastries and delicious lunches at fantastic prices. One of our favourites was a bakery called Calé – ‘Confeitaria Com Tradição’. We visited for coffee and pastries as they were so good – worthy of a top pastry chef yet costing just over a euro.
The coffee was the best we’d tried yet in Portugal, as we like ours quite strong with a dash of hot milk – the equivalent of a decent Antipodean flat white. We found this here, it was called an abatinado pingado and cost a mere 70 cents! The salads also looked great – 4 ingredients plus a dressing for 4 euros 50.
Had we been self-catering we would have bought our food at the daily Farmers’ market in Praça da Republica, known locally as the Praça de Fruta. Here you can find a wide range of fruit, vegetables and local specialities at great prices. There are some very good restaurants in the Praça and while this is probably the more expensive part of town, they are still great value.
6. Join the ‘Festas da Cidade’ on 15 May
If you’re lucky enough to visit in May, as we did, you might coincide with the city’s municipal holiday. Music, fireworks, parades and events take place during the day and also throughout the month. We watched a mock bullfight and a display of Lusitano horseriding in the park and parades of volunteer fireman and brass bands. Even the Prime Minister dropped by for the occasion. It’s a good chance to soak up local customs and culture.
Speaking of which, we couldn’t help noticing how groups of workers repairing the lovely calçada portuguesa mosaic pavements, always attracted a fascinated crowd of onlookers. We wondered how the craftsman felt about having this audience every day. Their work is certainly worthy of the admiration however!
7. Visit the museums
There are several museums in Caldas – including the Arts Centre which incorporates a number of smaller museums – but if your time is limited, our recommended Big Four are:
Museu do Hospital e das Caldas, Rua Rodrigo Berquó. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00 – 12.30 and 14.00 – 17.00; Sundays 09.00 – 12.00.
Museu de Cerâmica, Rua Dr. Ilídio Amado. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00 – 12.30 and 14.00 – 17.30.
Museu José Malhoa, Parque Dom Carlos I. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00 – 12.30 and 14.00 – 17.30.
Museu do Ciclismo, Rua de Camðes. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00 – 12.30 and 14.00 – 17.30.
We’ve already talked about the hospital museum in (3) above. If you’ve fallen in love with cabbage ware and want to see more, you can visit the Bordallo Pinheiro factory outlet shop, which is one of the landmarks on the Bordallo Pinheiro trail along with the ceramics museum. The former is located on the ground floor of the factory, while the latter is housed in a 19th century mansion with a lovely garden. Pick up a unique gift for a friend or a memento for yourself that you will not find anywhere else! If you don’t have room in your baggage allowance, the good news is that there’s an online shop also.
Other museums of note, other than those already mentioned are the Museu José Malhoa and the Museu do Ciclismo. The former, which is located within the Parque Dom Carlos I, houses a major collection of art works by the 19th century naturalist painter and sculptor. Although Joseé Malhoa is known for his rural scenes of Portuguese life, my favourite canvas was his portrait of Queen Leonor. I’m not sure how close a likeness he achieved, since he was known to use a particular model, but I really like the twinkle of humour he has captured in her eyes.
You can see the work of other painters from the same period, along with sculptures, drawings and ceramics – including another collection from our main man Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro.
The cycling museum is housed in a gorgeous tiled Art Nouveau building and is curated by fans of the sport, who organize regularly-changing exhibitions on the ground floor. Their permanent collection of cycles is housed on the first floor. You can spend a pleasant hour or two here, looking at the old cycles and trikes and learning about the role of the bicycle in Portuguese life – including during wartime – and some of the heroes of racing. There are also some memorabilia such as posters, medals and awards, life stories and jerseys. Entry is free.
Museums are closed on Mondays. Entry is free for children aged up to 14 years.
If you happen to pass through Lisbon either before or after your visit to Caldas da Rainha, there’s a Bordallo Pinheiro museum located in the Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias at Campo Grande 382. The museum has a collection of more than 13,000 objects associated with the artist and his son.
8. Spend a day in Obidos
There’s a small central bus station in Caldas da Rainha which has services to various local towns including Nazaré and Obidos. We found it easy to navigate, with electronic departure boards and a decent seated waiting area.
We took the lunchtime service to Obidos, having heard great things about it, and spent a pleasant afternoon there. It’s a pretty medieval walled town with a castle, winding cobbled streets and whitewashed houses.
We enjoyed visiting the castle and strolling around the shops, of which our favourite was the Sao Tiago bookshop, located in a former church. We also tasted the local liqueur known as ginjinha, a cherry concoction served in an edible chocolate cup (the best bit, in my opinion).
Traditionally, Obidos was ‘presented’ to the queens of Portugal as a gift on their wedding day. Beats a toaster or a dinner set, eh ladies?
Whilst Obidos is definitely gorgeous and well worth a visit, it’s very touristy and we were a little undecided about whether we would go again. Next time we will go to one of the seaside towns such Nazaré – known for its big surf – or Foz do Arelho, which looks beautiful on photos.
Where to stay
We booked a park view room in the Sana Silver Coast* – a modest but really lovely hotel which turned out to be one of our favourite stays. Well located in a typical Portuguese building opposite the Parque Dom Carlos I, it’s walkable to everywhere and there’s an indoor shopping mall nearby for any snacks or supplies you might need. We loved the food, the bar, and the friendliness of the staff – who were exceptional. The hotel made it to no. 9 in my top 18 bucket list hotels.
This Leiria/Oeste region of Portugal is captivating and is well worth a stopover if you’re on your way from Lisbon to Porto or vice versa. It’s friendly, unstuffy, real-life Portugal, a little run-down and rough at the edges but attractive and charming at the same time. In many ways it sums up our overall impression of Portugal itself – full of so much unrealized talent, creativity and potential. Sometimes the apparent slow progress of the country feels frustrating, but we have to remember that in western European terms, Portugal is a young democracy. It’s amazing to think that it was mostly ruled by absolute monarchs and military dictators until as recently as 1974.
If the busy sunseeker resorts of the Algarve are a little too over-developed for your taste, then Caldas da Rainha and the rest of Leiria may well be your kind of place.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about Ericeira which is also on the west coast of Portugal.
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