Regional Capital and Medieval Castle
Originally a small hilltop village, it was overrun by the Moors in the 12th century. Portugal´s king Dom Afonso Henriques reconquered it in 1142, after which date he and his successor Dom Sancho 1 rebuilt the settlement´s fortified walls to prevent further incursions and encourage the village to grow.
During the Middle Ages Leiria became one of Portugal´s most important towns, and was the setting for several early cortes (feudal parliaments), the first of which was held in 1245, under Dom Afonso II.
In the early 14th century, Dom Dinis I restored the keep tower of the castle´s citadel, as seen in an inscription in the castle´s tower today, and he also lived for long periods in the town.
In those days, Leiria was surrounded by thousands of barren acres of sandy and windswept soil, and the forward-thinking Dom Dinis ordered the planting of extensive pine forests between the town and the coast. These are still thriving today and are known as the Pine Forests of Leiria (Pinhal de Leiria). Later, the wood from these trees went to build the ships used by the Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the late 15th century, Dom Joao I built a royal palace within the walls of the castle of Leiria (partially rebuilt in the 20th century) and from then on the town continued to grow, spreading from the castle hill down to the river Lis.
In 1545 Leiria was granted city status and the Cathedral of Leiria was built in the second half of the 16th century in a mix of late Manueline and Mannerist styles.
Today the city of Leiria is the centre of Portugal´s plastics and injection moulding industries and is also home to a famous annual music festival, held in the Igreja de Sao Pedro. There is also a monthly antiques market.
Near Leiria, at Pedrógão beach, you can still see the returning fishing boats heavy with their catch being winched up the sand, a tradition that is dying out elsewhere in the region, and at the Polvoeira beach, near Sao Pedro de Moel, you can see colonies of octopus gathered on the rocks, which are much used in local cooking.
Restaurants in and around Leiria specialize in fish and seafood dishes – the small beach town of Vieira de Leiria is well known for its arroz de marisco, or seafood rice, for example.