Portugal’s central region is vast and has a variety of landscapes and cultural differences. The things to see are too long to list here, but there is a wide variety, including several World Heritage Sites and many fortified towns.
A walled city of Óbidos is the medieval home of the Portuguese royal family, while to the east, the town is hewn from granite and schist and looks stunning against the green terrain. As you pass through the central region, be sure to see the royal monasteries of Batalha and Alcobaça, or the historic university buildings of Coimbra. Surfers are sure to learn about Nazaré and its record-breaking waves. But did you know that the Serra da Estrela in the east of the region gets snow in winter?
Let’s explore the best things to do in Central Portugal:
1. Batalha Monastery
In the Leiria district, the Batalha Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of Portugal’s cultural treasures and the pinnacle of late Gothic art.
This style incorporates highly decorative Manuel elements of the 16th century.
If you love architecture, or you’re obsessed with Portugal’s late medieval history, you’ll be in awe of the church’s sculptures and vaults.
The Royal Abbey is also stunning, with its incredibly delicate tracery on its arches, supported by slender columns with various patterns carved into them.
The unfinished chapel is also stunning, and you can see the solitary tomb of King Edward in the 15th century, open to the elements.
2. University of Coimbra
Founded in the 1200s, this institution is one of the oldest universities on the Iberian Peninsula. Originally located in Lisbon, it moved to Coimbra in the 14th century, eventually occupying the former Alcásova Palace building.
Take a good look at the beautiful palace gates, chapels, academic prisons, halls and armouries.
But what everyone will catch a glimpse of is the Biblioteca Joanina, a sensational Baroque library housing more than 300,000 books from the 1500s to the 1700s on gilded shelves.
There are also 5,000 manuscripts here, and in the outside courtyard you can enjoy an aerial view of Coimbra.
3. Berengas Islands
About 10 kilometers from Peniche is a group of uninhabited islands, protected as a nature reserve and connected to the mainland by regular transit.
The biggest is where you’ll spend your time, and for a small place, it’s a lot of use.
This huge rock has a very uneven coastline full of caves that you can take a boat tour of.
There is also an old fortress, built on the ruins of a monastery that later became a place of exile.
The summer appeal is obvious, as there is an east-facing beach, shielded from the Atlantic Ocean, and pristine, calm waters for swimming.
4. Christ Monastery
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this magnificent monastery in Tomar documents five centuries of Portuguese art and architecture.
It was originally a stronghold of the Knights Templar, as the defensive walls are still here, in an exquisite boxwood garden.
Inside, the rotunda is Romanesque, with a lot left from when it was built, such as the 12th-century capital with leaf and animal motifs.
But the title is the Church Window, designed in the Manueline style and carved by Diogo de Arruda at the beginning of the 16th century.
Look around and admire the majesty of the carvings here, as well as the dazzling foliage and nautical details.
On high ground a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean, Óbidos is often considered one of the best-preserved towns in Portugal.
There was a settlement long before the arrival of the Romans, but Obidos really began to gain favor with the Portuguese royal family in the 12th century.
Medieval walls continue to protect the town, which has a tight network of streets and squares that wind its way to what is now the castle of the Pousada (a luxury heritage hotel). These old streets are lined with whitewashed houses with bougainvillea open in their corners, striped in bright colors.
Óbidos is a summer tourist route and fills up quickly, but still needs to be seen!
6. Schist Village
In the area of Açor and Lousã, east of Coimbra, are mostly 27 villages with rustic houses made of schist.
It’s a beautiful material because rocks come in different colors, so you’ll often see several different shades on the same dry stone wall.
These are sleepy, remote places teetering on the hillsides, often visited on walks and boating vacations.
Figueira and Martim Branco still have community ovens for baking bread, while Sarzedas dates back to the reign of King Sancho I in the 1100s and is located near the ruins of the then castle.
7. Alcobaça Monastery
Another huge monastery, which is also a UNESCO site, was the first Gothic monument built in Portugal.
Founded in 1153 by King Afonso Henriques, it is considered by most to be the most beautiful Cistercian monastery in the country.
Church and monastery buildings are wrapped in 18th-century facades, so it’s always a shock to walk through the gates and see the almost ethereal Gothic vaults in the nave.
The transept is the mausoleum of King Pedro I and his mistress Ines de Castro, carved in the 14th century with amazing craftsmanship and detail.
8. Mata Nacional do Buçaco
In Lusso, north of Coimbra, there is a forest of 400 hectares, within the Serra do Buçaco.
The reason this forest is essential is that it was created by the Carmelites in the 17th century.
They planted a variety of trees (250 species in total) imported from the New World, such as Mexican white cedar, so walking through these woods was a strange and wonderful experience.
The convent was replaced in the late 1800s by the Palácio Hotel do Buçaco with its exaggerated Neo-Manueline style.
There are also delightful hideaways scattered among the forests, as well as various panoramic sights with far-reaching views across central Portugal.
9. Mount Estrela
In a country known for its beaches and whitewashed towns, Mount Estrela is worth a visit to show you more of what’s behind the stereotype.
This range includes Torre, the highest point in mainland Portugal at 2,000 meters above sea level.
In winter, it’s a place to add insult to injury, attracting skiers and snowboarders to Vodafone Resorts.
But summer is a wonderful time, when huge granite rock formations are exposed, many of which have weathered into strange shapes.
Venture into canyons, mountain rivers and mysterious birch forests, which radiate eerie light.
Sortelha is the low-key and remote answer to Óbidos, a lovely walled town that most people love at first sight.
It was built on a granite ridge, the stone used for walls and houses.
The upper part of the village also has huge granite boulders against the defensive wall.
You can climb up stairs cut directly from the rock along part of the city walls.
See what you can find among the granite houses; a small monument to look for is a 16th-century pillory, carved in the Manuel style.
11. Corning Briga
The most complete Roman ruins in the country are located a few kilometers south of Coimbra.
The settlement was first occupied by the Romans in the 2nd century BC, and over the next 100 years it developed into a city with baths, an amphitheater and a forum.
All of them, including a cathedral, have been excavated.
But it’s the lodgings that really get historians’ hearts pumping, including reefs (for ordinary citizens) and posh abodes.
One of the latter, Casa dos Repuxos, has been partially housed under a glass canopy to preserve the fine peristyle and mosaics.
The gardens have also been replanted and the fountains are filled with water, just like they were 2000 years ago.
12. Almoror Castle
The castle is picturesque, standing on a craggy island on the Tagus River, reflected in the water.
You can only reach the castle by boat, which makes it even more special in a way.
Built by the Knights Templar in 1171, it played a vital role in the reconquest of Portugal and Spain from the Moors.
It has since lost its strategic position and fell into ruins before being reassembled in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The interior is clear, but the appeal of a fort like this is the ability to walk along the parapet and climb up the main tower for panoramic views.
As you can see now, Almeida dates back to the 1640s, when King John IV set out to strengthen border defenses.
Almeida was transformed into a star-shaped castle with an intricate system of ditches, walls and forts.
Within a few years it was under attack, and the next 150 years saw almost constant fighting.
A major event was the siege of 1810, when the town fell into French hands after a magazine bombing.
The village overlooks Spain, but its low profile makes it less vulnerable to shelling.
Despite the clashes, much remains: the dried-up moat remains intact, as is the baroque main gate, which requires you to drive or go through a small winding tunnel to get into town.
“Centro” got the best waves in mainland Portugal.
The two main attractions are Ericeira and Peniche, packed with schools and shops to get you started.
If you’re learning the basics, Peniche’s beach leisure activities are for you.
If you have a few years, you can walk up and down the coast, where there are kilometers of deserted beaches.
Nazaré is something else entirely. In summer it is a charming resort with a wide sandy beach.
But on certain days in the fall and winter, the northern headland is home to the biggest waves ever recorded.
Nearly all of these monsters broke records, and people gathered around the lighthouse to watch.
15. Jardim do Antigo Paço Episcopal
In Castro Blanco, the gardens of the former Bishop’s Palace are beautiful and have maintained the same pattern since the 1700s.
They are in Baroque style and were commissioned by Bishop João de Mendonza Furtado.
Dazzling boxwood hedges lead you to hidden fountains.
Decorating the path are numerous statues depicting saints, apostles and lions.
On the steps leading to the garden, a statue of the king guards the balustrade.
Now, it’s easy to see which kings are from 60 years of Spanish occupation, because the sculptures of these unwelcome guys are intentionally smaller!
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Portugal, Central Portugal
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