Portugal is a country of history, great wine and slippery, yet beautiful and photogenic, cobblestone streets. All of this sounds about right, assuming you have already experienced the splendour of Portuguese culture in the popular cities of Lisbon and Porto. Nonetheless, right between these two great urban centres lies the magic and magnificence of Central Portugal. This region holds the magic of breath-taking natural landscapes, mediaeval castles, savoury wines and ancient villages, which we are sure will make you want to go off the beaten path and uncover a new side of Portugal!
Today we invite you on a road trip like no other, from the historical city of Coimbra all the way to the imperious Estrela Mountain and the splendorous Batalha Monastery. Let us put our explorer’s hat on, it is time to start our journey!
Explore Coimbra’s History
Music, students and saudade are some of the words most associated with Coimbra, a city of great historical background, cultural heritage and architectural value waiting to be unveiled. For that, this destination is the perfect first stop on your road trip across central Portugal.
Located right between the cosmopolitan Lisbon and Porto, Coimbra is easily accessible by car (through the A1 motorway), train and bus from these cities. The options are endless, and we can help you decide which best fits your interests and preferences!
From the Moorish rule to the subsequent monarchy, there are plenty of historical sites to explore. However, we recommend you start with the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest in Europe and declared, in 2013, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This institution was first created in 1290 by King Dinis in Lisbon and later transferred to Coimbra in 1537. The university grew as an important site for the exchange of knowledge and culture. Such attracted the particular attention of monarchs King João V and King José I, who ordered the construction of new buildings in the Baroque and Neoclassical styles. Do not miss a glance at the fascinating Biblioteca Joanina, one of Europe’s most original and outstanding Baroque libraries.
Beyond the university, another big attraction in Coimbra is Quinta das Lágrimas, a site that witnessed one of the most romanticized stories of forbidden love between the monarch Pedro I and Inês de Castro. This 14th-century tale is often compared to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, for its tragic ending and romantic nature. He, the heir to the throne, her, a maid. Both escaped the scrutinizing eyes of the court and settled in Coimbra, living in Quinta das Lágrimas, where the couple grew their family. One of the most iconic constructions on this site is the Fountain of Love, which is believed to be the place where the falling tears of Inês fell when she was assassinated. Just look for the Fonte dos Amores sign to find it. While here, take in the energy of this peaceful atmosphere and the natural beauty of the ancient trees and species scattered around.
Coimbra is the right place for you to further explore the history of Portugal and its culture, which still today are very much characterized by tales and love stories such as those lived in his city. Enjoy a day surrounded by fine opulent architecture, romance and natural beauty!
Discover a wine region on the outskirts of Viseu
Our next stop is Viseu, about 1h15 minutes north of Coimbra. This garden city and wider district, considered one of the best places to live in Portugal, is also home to the rural Dão Wine region. Near the countryside and the Dão River you will find a dreamy pine forest landscape and vine plantations, which have been cultivated in this location for over 2000 years. So, here you are at the right place to taste some full-bodied, delicious red wines.
On the outskirts of Viseu, you will find a wide variety of different villages and wineries to visit. For an immersive, unique wine experience, you can visit the Paço dos Cunhas Santar, a Dão winery built on a 17th-century-transformed manor house. You can opt for just a wine-tasting experience or apply for the workshops and tours of the vineyards (which are, for sure, worth seeing).
Do bear in mind that these types of activities are quite popular since Portugal is particularly known for its wine production industry. With that in mind, we advise you to book these in advance. We can help you make arrangements for your preferred times.
Soak in the natural beauty of Estrela Mountain
Also known as Serra da Estrela, this natural landscape is a marvellous location to continue your journey across central Portugal. Whether in the Christmas time adorned with the white of the fluffy snow or in the Summer, the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela is definitely a site to visit all-year-around!
With an altitude of approximately 1993m, the Estrela Mountain is the highest mountain range in continental Portugal together with the Serra da Lousã. You can drive all the way up to the top, the Tower (Torre), and marvel at the idyllic, breathtaking view over the village and its surrounding area. Alternatively, this is the ideal spot to close your eyes and take in the silence of the heights!
To explore on foot, the Estrela Mountain natural park is equally excellent for trekking. Along the way, you can find marked trails (to an extension of 375km) with different degrees of difficulty according to your experience in the practice. Alternatively, you can opt for unique horse-riding and mountain biking experiences.
Either type of activity you decide to pursue when visiting this location, you will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be surrounded by a mesmerising landscape where the most diverse range of species, such as foxes, the common toad, holm and Pyrenean oak live in harmony. So, take a breath in, and enjoy the natural beauty of rural Portugal!
Go back in time in Monsanto
Set atop a steep hill overlooking the horizon is the quaint historical village of Monsanto. Presenting a singular natural beauty, this hamlet was recognized in 1938 as the most Portuguese village of Portugal. Stepping foot in Monsanto is to go back in time into the distant Paleolithic time and the Middle Ages.
One of the most striking features of this village that deserves a close watch are the massive granite rock formations scattered around. These have forced the population to build homes under and around these boulders. Such has conferred Monsanto a unique landscape that is like no other. Also known as the ‘Holy Mountain’, the village’s setting has not changed much from 500 years ago. So, walking along its cobblestone streets feels like you are travelling back in time!
When visiting Monsanto, we recommend you walk, as the streets are too steep and narrow, making it difficult to drive. This way, you can see the village, feet on the ground, taking in the atmosphere. Its history is unparalleled, as a location coveted by rulers from the Roman Empire to the Visigoths, the Arabs, and even the Templars, who built a 12th-century castle over the village (which we recommend you visit, as well).
At dusk, walk up to São João chapel, a rocky corner near the castle where you can find the ruins of this construction. From it, little remains. However, the view you will get up there is the perfect way to end your day in this dreamy Portuguese historical village!
Unveil the Templars Heritage at Tomar
Following the footsteps of the Templars, we find ourselves in Tomar, a town marked by the heritage of this religious order. This location once served as the ‘headquarters’ of the Templars. Thus, the Convent of Christ is one of the most important sites to visit from the Renaissance period.
Inside, pay attention to symbols depicted on the Janela Manuelina, a window built in the 16th-century Manueline artistic movement inspired by the Discoveries that marked the reign of King Manuel I. Look for more naturalistic and “vegetal” imagery. Apart from this, it is also worth observing in detail the main cloister’s architecture.
Constructed in the 12th century, the Convent of Christ, which served as a stronghold for the Knights Templar, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that you must visit.
Walking down from the castle, you can find the city of Tomar and its centre structurally organized in the shape of a cross. Here, you can visit a church dedicated to São João Baptista and explore other sites characteristic of this period and the influence of the Knights Templar.
Admire the splendour of Batalha Monastery
To expand your knowledge of the Manueline movement, the Batalha Monastery is an obligatory stop on your trip to Portugal. Less known as Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, this monument started to be built in 1386, having suffered renovation work after that, especially after the earthquake of 1755. This construction was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by King João upon winning the Aljubarrota Battle against the Castilian army.
Some details to pay attention to are the nucleus of Portuguese medieval stained-glass windows. You can admire these from the Chapel and the Chapter Hall. You also have the opportunity to visit the monastery’s dormitory, dining room and kitchen, which will enrich your visit to the monument and turn it into a more immersive experience.
Outside, note the square where once was erected the Cloister of King João III before being burned down during the Napoleonic wars.
If you are looking particularly for the Manueline details, then pay attention to the ornate portal with Virgin Mary and Child on top. This feature is carved with maritime symbols, such as ropes, knots, shells and anchors.
Due to its grandiosity, dazzling architecture and combination of both the Manueline and Gothic styles, the Batalha Monastery is considered one of the most beautiful religious buildings in Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula. It was further declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Eat fresh fish and seafood in Nazaré
Now, it is time for some gastronomical delight in Nazaré. The city of the record-breaking big waves is also the perfect location to indulge in some mouth-watering fresh fish and seafood dishes that will leave you craving more!
Charcoal grilled fish can be your go-to when visiting Nazaré, especially if you want to try the delicious sardines. However, Nazaré is known for its dried fish tradition, a practice you will only see in this Portuguese city. It was mainly used in the past as a method to conserve the fish and guarantee that there was something for locals to sell in the markets. The species used in this tradition are mainly sardines, mackerel and octopus. Today, you can see exposed on the beach a banner with a net where the fish is placed to dry. Here, you can buy this delicacy to take with you to taste.
For something less unusual, we recommend you try the small-spotted catshark. This is a common species in this region and is used in a variety of dishes. Though, you will mostly see it being served with bell peppers and onions with toasted bread in a terracotta pot. This is one of the most typical dishes of the region, therefore you must definitely try it!
Climb the walls of Óbidos for majestic views
The last stop in our tour through central Portugal is the sublime village of Óbidos, a hidden gem with ravishing views that will make your jaw drop. About 85km north of Lisbon, this town, its mediaeval castle and imposing walls may just be everything you have been looking for!
The imposing, well-preserved castle is characterized by a stone-based construction typical of the 12th century. The main building was once occupied by royals and used as a palace, yet today it functions as a hotel that has retained the presence and recognition of the past. You can admire the castle from the outside, however, its walls are the real star of the show! You can walk along them and have a fantastic view of the village and the surrounding valleys dotted by the white houses. Of course, with such a sight, sunset is the ideal time of day to experience the magnificence of this setting to the fullest!
Still, in Óbidos, we recommend you visit the village’s historic centre made of narrow, cobblestone streets, staircases and local shops where you can buy a souvenir to take home with you!
An off-the-beaten-path adventure
Central Portugal assemblies everything one could ever want: delightful food, breathtaking landscapes, and an ever-present, deeply-rooted historical heritage. Getting to know this region during your visit to Portugal will deepen your connection with the country’s culture and allow you to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore places that will provide you with a different point of view of the country’s real hidden treasures. Each of these locations will surely leave a bit of its charm and beauty in your heart and memory!