Guarda is located at the northern end of the Serra da Estrela mountain range and is built around a medieval castle.
Guarda has remnants of these walls and two towers, as well as a Jewish quarter where Hebrew inscriptions have been around since the 1100s.
The dominant Gothic cathedral is the star attraction, allowing you to step on its roof to observe the city.
The rest of the visit will be spent spending time in the streets of the old town, marveling at the 17th-century palaces and medieval mansions still wearing their family’s coat of arms.
You can venture into the Serra da Estrela for inspiring mountain views, or spend a few days in picturesque highland villages or beaches where you can bathe in the cool river waters.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Guarda:
1. Guarda Cathedral
Definitely the top monument in Guarda, this cathedral is gothic with some Manueline influences.
Work began in 1390 and continued until the mid-16th century, when some more dramatic stonework was added.
This can be seen in the portals, the spikes on each outer wall and the twisted columns inside.
Being built in the Middle Ages, the church lacks the rich ornamentation found in Portuguese Baroque architecture; its appeal comes from its vaults, its magnificent reredos carved from limestone in 1553, and its sense of scale.
You can take the stairs to the roof and see the flying buttresses and spires overlooking Guarda and its countryside.
2. The defensive wall of Guarda
As you wander through Guarda’s old town, you’ll pass through stone passages and even discover that the city’s borders are still marked by medieval walls.
These were built during the reign of Sancho I at the turn of the 13th century and were supported by subsequent monarchs for the next 200 years.
One of the best remaining fragments is the Torre dos Ferreiros from the reign of King Denis, which protects a gate that houses a lecture hall with an image of the crucified Christ, “Senhor dos Aflitos”.
3. Guarda Castle
Guarda Castle or Torre de Menagem is basically a part of the city wall, a tower at the highest point of the highest city in Portugal.
It has an irregular pentagonal floor plan and stands alone on a granite outcrop.
There is a staircase leading from the city, and it is worthwhile to have a bird’s-eye view of Guarda from this vantage point.
There’s also a small museum inside about the city’s history, which is open for limited hours.
4. Plaza Luis de Cammons
Guarda’s central square, just in front of the cathedral, is a lovely, almost car-free space filled with historic houses painted white or exposed granite.
A few things give you a better understanding of the city: one is the statue of Sancho I, who reigned from 1185 to 1211 and who in 1199 granted the city charter of Guarda. In a fine old house with a loggia are the Tourist Office and Loja da Guarda.
Authentic regional products and handicrafts such as yarn, jewellery, soap and chocolate are sold here.
5. Guarda Museum
Located in Episcopal Seminary, the Guarda Museum takes you through the history of the area in chronological order.
Founded in 1940, it has more than 4,800 artifacts in its archives.
You’ll browse pre-Roman archaeology, sculptures and sacred paintings from religious institutions, antique guns and Portuguese paintings from the 1800s.
Folk traditions are also displayed around Guarda, including archival photographs, ceramics and traditional games.
The seminary is worth mentioning because it is a fine Mannerist building built in 1601, with a noble portico decorated with columns, arches and gargoyles.
6. The old center
After walking around Praça Luís de Camões and its connected streets (Largo da Sé or Dom Miguel de Alarcão), you might notice that some stately houses are cool because of the family coat of arms carved on their façades.
Meanwhile, just inside the walls next to the gate of Porta d’El Rei, is where the Jewish quarter of Guarda used to be in the 1200s, and there are inscriptions in Hebrew if you know where to find them.
Behind the cathedral, you can see Solar do Alarcão, a mansion built in 1686 with an attached chapel.
If you want to stay stylish somewhere, this wonderful building is now a Pousada (heritage hotel).
7. Igreja de São Vicente
This church is located in Rua Direita, one of the main arteries of the old town, connecting Porta d’El Rei and Porta da Erva.
It originated in the Middle Ages, but was completely rebuilt in the 1790s with plans by the Italian-trained António Fernandes Rodrigues.
This is a monument you need to see as the nave walls are covered with tiles.
If you know your biblical story, you’ll recognize the images in these panels showing the Annunciation, Visitation, Passion, Flight to Egypt and the Tower of David, and more.
8. Capela de Nossa Senhora do Mileu
Outside the city walls, a short walk from the centre of Guarda, is one of the oldest monuments in the city.
The exact date of the founding of this Romanesque chapel is unknown, but it is believed to have been a Moorish Christian place of worship, established well before the 1100s.
It is a small, modest and sturdy building, a place of pilgrimage since the 1300s, on a route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
The place is also mysterious, thanks to the ruins next to the church, which were discovered in 1953 and probably date back to Roman times.
9. Guarda Municipal Theater
If something cultural happens at Guarda, you can bet the venue will be this minimalist building with two massive concrete and glass cubes.
The larger of these has two auditoriums (the larger of which can hold 600 people), while the smaller cube has a live music stage and a gallery.
Opened in 2005, the theatre has become a modern landmark in the city.
For a mid-sized city, the programme is artsy and surprisingly rich, with theatre, orchestral concerts, fado, theatre, dance and independent film screenings as well as contemporary art and photography exhibitions.
10. Parque Urbano do Rio Diz
A few kilometers from the old core is a park that almost needs another shot.
This is a free public space with some of the most creative climbing frames you’ll ever see, and smaller visitors will love it.
There’s a tower with slides, various climbing frames, seesaws and roundabouts, a bizarre contraption that looks a bit like a space station, and a ring of metal tunnels for kids to crawl.
You can also rent pedal karts for the kids to ride on the winding paths.
11. Castelo de Linhares da Beira
Like Guarda, this western castle was ordered by Sancho I and would become an important fortress high up in the Estrela Mountains.
After the “reconquest” of Portugal from the Moors in the mid-13th century, attention turned to modern Spain in the East.
This epic fort is equipped with two walled enclosures, two cisterns (for drinking water) and four gates.
The castle and its striking rectangular towers are a must, but take some time to wander around the lovely old village next to it, with its winding cobblestone streets.
12. Centum Cellas Tower
It is easy to drive south and there is a mysterious ruin on the top of the hill with far-reaching views from all directions.
It dates back to Roman times and for many years most people thought it was some sort of defensive structure.
But the truth is more exciting as it belongs to a gorgeous villa built around the 1st century.
The owner was Lucius Casilius, who made a fortune in the tin trade.
During medieval times, a chapel was installed in the building, which was also used as a watchtower.
Sortelha has been vying for the most beautiful village in Portugal like a giant time capsule.
At the top of the hill, there is a small stone house, protected by a 13th-century wall and controlled from above by a castle.
If it looks powerful, it’s because it’s a frontier village that was under constant threat from eastern Castile and Leon during the Middle Ages.
Later, the city walls and beautiful granite streets were preserved, as its inhabitants all moved to the more fertile land in the suburbs in the 19th century.
14. Mount Estrela
Guarda is within easy reach of the highest mountain in mainland Portugal.
This is a huge granite ridge with glacial valleys, revered for its dense forests of pine, chestnut and holm oaks, as well as bizarre granite rock formations.
In winter, this is the only place in Portugal where you can ski or snowboard.
The ski station is on the south side of the park, while on the north side, you can drive along the scenic drive or track some natural wonders, such as the Poço do Inferno waterfall.
If adventure is your thing, there are nearly 400 kilometers of marked trails for hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking.
15. River Beach
Hundreds of kilometers with no ocean and hot summers you may need to find somewhere to cool off.
In this part of the country, the answer is river beaches (praias fluviais). In Valhelhas, the Serra da Estrela Natural Park is a great place to bathe. There is a dyke in the river, creating clear, sparkling pools in the expansive mountain scenery.
There is another in Aldeia Viçosa, where there is another clear pool surrounded by a pine forest, where you can have a picnic and rest in the shade.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Guarda, Portugal
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