Located only 30 km to the north of Lisbon, Mafra is strategically positioned to be either a perfect day trip from Lisbon or a nice stop on a Portuguese road trip itinerary. Mafra is mostly famous for its UNESCO heritage site, the royal buildings of Mafra, which includes the Palace, Basilica, and convent, Cerco gardens, and the hunting park (Tapada).
The royal building would be enough for a visit and will take a full day to visit, but there are a few other interesting landmarks and activities. Here we will explore the best things to do in Mafra and surroundings and where to stay in Mafra.
Best things to do in Mafra
#1 Mafra Palace
The National Palace of Mafra (sometimes also referred to as Mafra Convent) is a baroque and neoclassic building with Roman and Germanic influence built in the 18th century. The works started in 1717, ordered by D. João V as a promise made to Queen Maria Ana. Occupying about 4 acres, it has 1200 rooms, more than 4 700 doors and windows, 156 staircases, and 29 patios.
Located close to the royal hunting preserves (Tapada de Mafra), it was usually the secondary residence of the royal family. With a façade with more than 220 meters long and a square tower with a bulbous dome at each end, the Palace-convent of Mafra is an extraordinary imposing building. In the center of the main façace, we find the wonderful basilica, symmetrically flanked on both sides by the bell towers and the royal palace.
It’s an obviously impressive palace from the outside, but we strongly suggest you take the time to visit the interior too. A tour to the palace will take you to the noblest rooms of the palace, including the throne room, the guards’ room, Peter the VI room, the hunting room, the dining room, the south turret with the private room of the queen, and obviously the library.
Located on the second floor and occupying the largest and most prestigious room in the building, the library is the highlight of the royal palace and considered one of the grandest in the world. With 88 meters long, 9.5 meters wide, and 13 meters high, a magnificent floor with grey, rose and white marble tiles, it’s an impressive room. Furthermore, the wooden bookshelves in Rococo style contain over 36 000 leather-bound volumes attesting the knowledge from the 14th to the 19th century.
Though, it’s not only a question of the quantity of the works but also their importance. To this day, there are some rare books, like the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1495, the Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm by Ortelius (1595), and the first encyclopedia – known as Diderot et d’Alembert. But also, the nucleus of scores from musicians such as João de Sousa Carvalho or Marcos Portugal, composed expressly to be played on the Basilica’s organs.
In 1745 Pope Benedictus XIV allowed the library to shelter the Index of prohibited books and even forbids an excommunication “to anyone of any state or condition, in any time or in any way, to take, remove or lend from the Library without the permission of the Portuguese King, any printed books or manuscripts inhere stored”, proving the extraordinary relevance of the library to the western world.
Finally, two curiosities about this library: it’s known for homing bats to protect the books from insect damage; it was used in Gulliver’s travels as the “great chamber of war” of the Liliput’s emperor.
#3 Mafra’s Basilica
As we mentioned earlier, the Basilica is located in the center of the façade of the palace, but visiting the basilica is a completely different tour. It’s a completely different entrance and free. The basilica is 58.5 m long and 43 m wide, built with the format of a Latin cross. The dome of the basilica was the first built in Portugal and it’s 65 meters high with a diameter of 13 meters.
Some of the other high points of the Basilica include the 58 marble statues in the side aisles commissioned from the best sculptors of their time, the six historical organs of the 18th century, and the two carillons with 98 bells (the largest of their time).
For all these reasons, visiting the interior of the basilica is well worth the time.
#4 Cerco Gardens
Also part of the Royal building of Mafra, the Cerco gardens are located behind the palace-convent and a free to enter and explore. They have two clear parts, the botanic gardens which include the lake, and the woods which are more rustic.
Despite being an idyllic baroque garden, with wonderful water features and an excellent place for a picnic and resting a bit, in our opinion it’s the least interesting of the world heritage sites in Mafra. Nevertheless, it’s well worth spending an hour exploring.
#5 Tapada de Mafra
Created by king João V the national hunting grounds of Mafra (Tapada de Mafra) covers over 8 square kilometers. Following the construction of Mafra National Park, the park was a favorite ground for royal and court recreation.
Today the park still holds a variety of species like deers, wild boars, foxes, and several kinds of birds including birds of prey. It’s an unusually rich natural habitat and one of the best places to see wildlife in Portugal. Besides the huge attraction of having wild animals, we need to mention that the park is wonderful on its own. The woods are beautiful with rolling hills and dense forests.
You can visit Tapada in several different ways. You can walk, mountain bike, horse ride, or take the small tourist train. There are several hiking and bike trails for you to follow, with different sizes and levels of difficulty.
We believe that Tapada de Mafra is an attraction for the whole family. Children will love to see the animals, teens and more adventurous travelers can cycle, couples will enjoy the enchanted forests, and even the elderly and people with mobility problems can visit it easily using the tourist train.
A ticket to Tapada de Mafra is rather cheap, costing only 4 Euros per person. If you want, you can rent a bike and it will cost you 15 Euros, which includes the bicycle and the ticket.
#6 Beaches and Surfing in Ericeira
We have talked extensively about the UNESCO world heritage sites of Mafra, but there are a few other things to do in Mafra. Ericeira is just a few minutes away from Mafra and it’s world-renown for its beautiful beaches and world-class surfing spots. In fact, Ericeira is home to the only existing surfing reserve in Europe, with 7 great waves in only 4 km of coast.
Besides the waves and surf, some of Ericeira’s beaches are among the best in Portugal, with soft sand, beautiful cliffs, and wonderful (but cold) water. In this article, we explore extensively the best beaches in Ericeira and its waves.
#7 Explore the village of Ericeira
Ericeira is a true beach resort town, but it’s also a historical village. The center is wonderful, with whitewashed old houses, narrow cobbled streets, and lots of character.
Besides the mentioned beaches and surfing spots, Ericeira also has plenty of nice seafood restaurants, pleasant bars, and even the oldest disco in Portugal. Ericeira is a very nice destination for active and young travelers.
In fact, if you are planning to stay in the area, we believe that it’s a much better option to stay in Ericeira by the sea and go to Mafra, than the opposite. We will explore that below.
#8 José Franco typical village
One of Mafra’s most quirky attractions is the typical village of José Franco. This is not an actual village, but a village-museum created by the pottery artist José Franco. More than 50 years ago, José Franco started building this village from the memories of his childhood.
In this village, you will find human-scale castle walls, windmills, replicas of shops and workshops, and even a wine house and a bakery. On the other hand, the village also has miniatures of houses and inhabitants portraying the activities of the time: agriculture, carpentry, windmills, chapels, grocery stores, schools, wineries, peasants.
You should also take some time to explore the pottery shop with many traditional Portuguese products. It’s one of the best places in Portugal to buy typical souvenirs. The village is free to visit and great entertainment for children of all ages.
#9 Iberian Wolf Recovery Centre
Created in 1987 by an independent, non-profit organization, the Iberian Wolf Recovery Centre is possibly your best option to see the Iberian wolf in Portugal. There are more than 300 wolves in the wild, mainly in Peneda Gerês National Park, but they are very elusive animals and thus improbable to see in the wild.
Occupying an area of 17 acres in Picão, Mafra, it has spacious enclosures allowing the wolves to have good natural conditions with a wide variety of vegetation and landscapes. The main goals of the park are to provide the best possible conditions for wolves that cannot live in the wild as victims of trapping, abuse, and illegal activities, or even those that come from zoos and parks.
To visit the park, you should contact the rescue center, as it’s not always open to the public.
#10 Mafra Bread
Besides all of these interesting things to visit em Mafra, there’s one last thing you need to do in Mafra, and that’s trying its famous bread. Mafra bread has a crusty exterior and a light interior with large air bubbles. It’s delicious as breakfast or accompanying a meal.
To be considered a Mafra bread it needs to be made with ingredients from the region, baked on a wooden oven, and have hydration above 80%. You really should take the opportunity of trying this typical bread when in Mafra, as it’s truly delicious.
Here, you can learn more about Mafra bread and other Traditional Portuguese Breads.
Where to stay in Mafra
When visiting Mafra you basically have two options, staying in Mafra or staying by the sea in Ericeira. Mafra is a calm but very pleasant small town marked by its world heritage sites, making it a very nice place to stay, while Ericeira is a typical Portuguese beach town with very strong surf vibes. Between the two, we tend to prefer spending the night in Ericeira, but during high season it may be cheaper and less crowded to stay in Mafra.
In Mafra we suggest Hotel Mafra as a nice value for money option, located in the center, and relatively close to the Palace. A more upscale close to the palace option is Pousada de Mafra – Palácio dos Marqueses. It’s a historic building, but with all the comfort you’ll need to spend a few great days in Mafra.
In Ericeira, there are options for everyone, but we need to mention two. Vila Galé Ericeira is possibly the best hotel in Ericeira, located right next to the best urban beach. It’s the perfect beach hotel. On the other hand, Selina Ericeira is the hostel to stay for youngsters and active travelers. It’s much more budget-friendly and a nice option for surfers and groups of younger travelers.
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