The Convento de Cristo (Convent of Christ) in Tomar is one of the architectural highlights of Portugal, and should be on the itinerary of anyone with even a passing interest in the culture and history of the country.
While the biggest draw is the stunning Manueline nave and Round Church, the rest of the hilltop complex is impressive in its own right, as are the well-kept grounds that give striking views over the surrounding town and countryside.
Easy to get to and with plenty to explore, the convent is surprisingly free of large crowds much of the time. If you're planning a visit, we've got everything you need to know, from ticket prices and opening hours to history, transport details and more.
For millennia, various tribes and communities have inhabited the hill where the convent now sits. Construction started in the 12th century and the castle-like appearance betrays the military background of the Knights Templar, its original builders and inhabitants.
Those fortifications were tested as early as 1190, when the Knights saw off an attack from the Moorish forces of Abu Yusuf al-Mansur. The convent became the headquarters of the Templars in the 13th century, and a key part of the defenses against the Moorish armies that controlled large areas of southern Portugal at the time.
The power of the Templar movement waned after the end of the Crusades, and when the group was abolished across Europe in the early 1400s, its Portuguese members gave up their weapons and became a purely religious order soon after. They continued to grow and expand the convent all the way through until 1834, when monasteries were closed across the country as part of the Liberal Revolution.
The Convento de Cristo has belonged to the government ever since, and is now a popular destination for both Portuguese and international visitors. It received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983.
What to Do There
Exploring the gardens of the Convento de Cristo is free of charge, and can be done before or after visiting the rest of the complex. The interior contains seven cloisters, including areas for religious processions and washing of clothes. Even in these utilitarian areas, though, there are plenty of beautiful blue tiles and intricately-decorated ceilings to admire.
The sumptuously-decorated Round Church sits further inside, with the brightly-colored paintings, statues, gold leaf and elegant stonework a dramatic contrast to the relatively austere stone buildings you walk through beforehand. The nave behind contains the famous Manueline window, one of the best remaining examples of this architectural style.
The final area of the complex contains the dramatic two-story main cloister, with stairs letting visitors explore the rooms on both floors, as well as the rooftop. That's where you'll get the best views over the castle and city below, as well as enjoying a different perspective of the outside of the Manueline window.
Before leaving, be sure to contrast the luxurious decorations of the church and nave with the spartan dormitories, kitchen, refectory, and other functional areas. Despite the simple conditions, there was the occasional luxury, including an ingenious heating system to make the living quarters tolerable in winter.
If you have your own transport, it's worth finishing your time in the area with a drive to the nearby Pegoes aqueduct. Built to supply the convent with water in the early 17th century, you can climb to the top of some of the support towers, and walk along the narrow stone channel between them for great views over the valleys and countryside.
How to Visit
Depending on how much time and interest you have, you could speed around the Convento de Cristo in under an hour, or spend half a day there just as easily. Wear comfortable shoes, as you'll be climbing a few flights of stairs and walking on tiles and cobblestones most of the time. Much of the site isn't wheelchair-accessible.
Ticket prices are very reasonable, given the quality of what's on offer inside. Adults pay 6 euros, with disabled visitors and children under 12 entering for free. Seniors (over 65), students and youth card holders, and families get half off the standard price.
During the summer months (June to September), the Convento de Cristo is open daily from 9 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., with last entry half an hour before closing. The complex closes an hour earlier, at 5:30 p.m., the rest of the year.
There is no entry on certain public holidays, including New Year's Day, March 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.
Metered car parking is available just outside the complex, for a small fee. A small cafe serves snacks and drinks, and there's a gift shop selling memorabilia of your visit. The toilets are free and clean, which isn't always the case in some parts of Europe!
How to Get There
The Convento de Cristo sits just outside Tomar, accessible via a short but steep walk up the hill. If you can't manage the walk, tuk-tuks and taxis will happily take you to the entrance for a few euros.
Located in the center of the country, Tomar is well served by road and rail from elsewhere in Portugal. It takes around 90 minutes to drive the 85 miles from Lisbon, or two hours from Porto. Once you're in Tomar, the convent is clearly signposted, and often clearly visible on the hilltop.
Trains run regularly from Lisbon, via Entroncamento. They take around two hours, making a long day trip a possibility if you don't plan to stay in Tomar. It's possible to take the train from Porto to Tomar as well, but the longer journey time (at least three hours each way) make it impractical as a day trip.
Direct buses also run from Lisbon a few times a day, taking slightly less time than the trains. Again, the extra distance and connections required from Porto make the journey take considerably longer going in that direction. Allow up to four hours if you're planning to do so.