The frontier town of Castelo Branco was built at the base of a 13th-century Templar castle. War has been a way of life for hundreds of years, and the town was attacked several times in the 17th and 18th centuries. Castel Blanco is the seat of a parish, and the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens are two of the city’s biggest attractions.
The baroque gardens feature elegant fountains, tiles and statues of apostles, kings and beasts. The palace is the town’s museum and showcases local craftsmanship, such as the colcha quilts with delicate silk embroidery made in Castel Blanco since the 1600s. To the south flows the Tagus River, which crosses the mountain ridges of Ródão, leaving a magnificent gorge that provides habitat for birds of prey.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Castel Blanco:
1. Jardim do Paço
The gardens of Castelo Branco’s palace are a must-see in the city.
It was planned in the 18th century by then Bishop João de Mendoza.
Hidden within the network of boxwood hedges are fountains and statues representing apostles and lions, while the walls feature figurative tile panels.
Guarding the balustrade are statues of the kings who ruled Portugal during this period.
You might notice that something was wrong with the unpopular Spanish kings who ruled Portugal during the Philippine period, as they were a few centimeters shorter than the Portuguese monarchs!
2. Museu Francisco Tavares Proença Júnior
The Bishop’s Palace next door, dating from the end of the 16th century, will introduce you to the city’s history and some of its traditions.
Castelo Branco is famous for its silk embroidery, and there are many linen quilts (colchas) in beautiful and colorful patterns, sewn by artisans over hundreds of years.
The vaulted basement contains a gemstone inscribed with Iron Age and Roman era stones, and further up there are 16th-century Flemish tapestries and portraits of the bishops who once lived in the building.
3. Parque da Cidade
In front of the Bishop’s Palace is another green space that once belonged to the Bishop of Castel Blanco.
The plot closest to the palace used to be their vegetable garden, and the town still grows herbs on square plots as a reminder of the park’s old role.
Apart from that, it is a great place to rest for a few minutes, next to Covento da Graça and the palace, with fountains, reflecting pools and large circular pergola.
4. Sacra Art Museum
Just a stone’s throw from the Episcopal Palace and the edge of the park, Covento da Graça is another must-see in Castel Blanco.
Originally built in the 16th century, this refined Mannerist complex houses the Museum of Sacred Art in the monastery’s treasury.
An early set of statues in the monastery depicts St. Matthew, St. John the Baptist and a poor man, a virgin with a child, and Isabella of Portugal, Holy Roman Empress from 1530 to 1539.
5. Old Town
The medieval center of Castelo Branco is a dizzying network of narrow streets that cut through ravines of whitewashed houses in various states of restoration.
One such artery is the steep Rua dos Peleteiros, whose name “fur street” evokes the ancient commerce established here hundreds of years ago.
You will arrive at squares like Praça de Camões, undoubtedly the prettiest part of the city and featuring the former town hall with its carved coat of arms and beautiful arcades.
Opposite is Solar dos Motas, a mansion built in the 17th century for the Guilherme da Cunha family, now a municipal building.
6. Castelo e Muralhas
If you stick to the slopes of Rua dos Peleteiros, you will eventually reach the medieval castle named after Castelo Branco.
This is the highest point in the city, and the silhouette of the single tower can be seen from a distance.
The castle was a Templar fortification and was built in the early 13th century.
It suffered major damage during the Portuguese Restoration War in the 17th century, and was subsequently devastated by the War of the Spanish Succession and Napoleon’s Peninsular War.
By the 1800s, its stones were being mined for the city’s houses.
But nonetheless, you get a good idea of what the castle used to look like and above all have a perfect view of the city.
7. Calgalero Museum
The 18th-century Solar dos Cavaleiros is another cultural mansion in the historic center of Castelo Branco, home to the Museu Cargaleiro.
Combined with a modern wing, this hotel houses a museum dedicated to Manuel Cargaleiro, a famous artist whose career spanned nearly 80 years.
Born in 1927 in a village near Castel Blanco, Cargaleiro is best known for his glazed tiles, painted in a traditional way but with modern abstract imagery.
There are also rooms dedicated to his lithography, traditional paintings and fine ceramic bowls.
8. Miradouro de São Gens
On the windowsill next to the castle is another view, landscaped in the early 1940s.
It’s just as worth the effort as the castle itself, with a lovely little garden.
You reach the viewing platform via stairs flanked by trees that join together overhead.
On the terrace, the garden has a fountain and walls covered with blue tiles.
As for the views, from here you can admire the hedges of Jardim do Paço, as well as the olive trees in the countryside surrounding the city.
9. Centro de Cultura Contemporânea de Castelo Branco
In 2013, Castelo Branco received a new cultural center and a new postcard image of the city.
It is a spectacular building with large cantilevered sections overhanging the front and rear ramps.
The centre has an auditorium with a capacity of 275 spectators and features high-quality acoustics designed by Catalan specialist Higini Arau.
Performances in the hall tend to be high profile, booking classical soloists and small ensembles.
If you want to come and see the building, the center’s two galleries host temporary art exhibitions featuring regional paintings, photography, sculpture, and other installations.
10. Sao Joao Cruzeiro
In Largo de São João is a granite cross erected in front of the church in the early 16th century.
The church is long gone, but the cross remains and is a national monument because of its Manuel decoration.
It has benches around it where you can sit for a minute or two to see the intricate designs.
The spiral column is typical of the Manueline style, supporting a bed of plant design, which itself holds the cross.
On the octagonal base of the monument there used to be a human figure in chains, a symbol of temptation.
11. Piscina Praia
Summers can be brutal in this interior part of Portugal, with temperatures in the 30s in June, July and August.
This recreational water park on the edge of town features relaxing turquoise pools and green spaces for relaxation.
There are no slides or sinks, as Piscina Praia is better for slowing down for a few hours.
At the center is the largest swimming pool in Portugal, covering 8 hectares.
Most of them are only 50cm deep and never more than 160cm, perfect for young children.
It is equipped with games and things to climb and organizes activities to keep the kids entertained.
12. River Beach
Another way to cool off is to track down a river beach (praias fluviais) in the area.
These come in different forms, but almost all are located in picturesque countryside.
Both Sesmo and Almaceda are more like outdoor pools because they are formed by river locks.
No electricity; just a natural pool to swim in.
Taberna Seca is even closer, just 10 km west of the city, on a bend in the river Ocreza.
It is a fantastic natural place folded between the high walls of the river valley.
13. Portas de Ródão
About 20 minutes south of Castel Blanco, the Tagus River cuts through the rocks of the Serra das Talhadas Mountains, forming an epic gorge 170 meters high.
These double blocks look like huge gates, which explains the name “Portas”, a landmark that has become a natural monument in Portugal.
Departing from Castelo Branco, you’ll arrive at the northern “gate”, topped by a modest-looking tower that is said to be the seat of the castle of the 6th-century Visigoth king Wamba.
As for the gates, they are both peaceful and dramatic.
If you stop for a moment, you might see red kites, vultures and black storks swooping around the canyon.
14. Tejo International Natural Park
In Castel Blanco, you are just 10 km from the official boundaries of this nature reserve, which straddles the Spanish border and protects the magnificent banks of the Tagus River.
If peace is your thing, this is Portugal’s least populated region, with majestic landscapes that are desert-like in some places and astonishing natural abundance in others.
There are cork and wild herbs such as holm oak, rosemary and heather decorated heathland.
Deer, foxes and wild boars roam the park, which has Neolithic and Roman remains, as well as the eerie ruins of the village of Arares, abandoned in the 1920s.
15. Local Food
Castelo Branco is known for its high-quality olive oil and honey, both great gifts to take home.
Traditional meals in this rural part of Portugal are simple, meaty and filling, drawn from local farming rather than long-distance trade.
If you’re eating out and want something authentic, there’s empadas de Castelo Branco, a pie with pork and onion stuffing, soup made with local cheese, roast lamb, roasted partridge, stuffed with bacon and herbs and served with Roasted goat, or sauteed liver with onion, tomato and chili sauce.
Among the many sweets and desserts made in Brancoburg, only a few are rice pudding flavored with cinnamon, tigelada similar to creme brulee, and biscuits made with honey and almonds (broas de mel).
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Castel Blanco, Portugal
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