What to do in Central Portugal

Aveiro

Central Portugal is one of the most visited areas on day-trips from Lisbon, but it deserves much more than a cursory eight hour tour in just one day.  History and church lovers will delight in visiting the monasteries, cathedrals, and castles that abound in this lush, beautiful area.  If you’re interested in the history of the Knights Templar (and their Portuguese successors, the Order of Christ), this area is rife with locations built by/for the Templars – your imagination will sure to be inspired!  I’ve visited this area more times than I can count, and there’s still something new to be discovered each time.

Spending the night will allow you to stroll their streets after the day-trippers rush home.  For example, Obidos is extremely popular during High Season, but in the late afternoon as the tour buses leave and a magical sunset glow descends over it, spending the night in its castle-hotel and waking up to explore the cobbled pathways alone is a delight. (One of my favorite memories with my sister was staying at the castle hotel!)

The Central Region isn’t all history and cathedrals, though.  Plenty of outdoor opportunities abound for nature lovers including a national forest, a surfer’s paradise, and hiking on broad river pathways.  There’s also a significant amount of sites important to Portuguese Jewish history as well. Here are some highlights of this important region in Portugal, including some off-the-beaten path recommendations.

The standard tourist route through the Central Region is listed in the first paragraph below. I’ve written a tiny highlight of this route, and I must emphasize that these sites are popular for good reason and I would still include them in your itinerary – but I wanted to leave room to introduce you to some off the beaten path experiences you may not know about Central Portugal! Read on to find out more.

Batalha Central Portugal

The route of monasteries: a typical tourist route in Central Portugal

  • Batalha, Tomar, Alcobaça:  These are three of my favorite monasteries and cathedrals in all of Portugal, and worth adding to any itinerary.  Don’t miss the tombs of Ines and Pedro at Alcobaça, Portugal’s real-life medieval “Romeo and Juliet” who met with a tragic ending because of their love-story.
  • Nazare:  This surfer’s paradise sees waves from 70-100 high. It’s a charming place to get a coffee or have freshly-caught fish for lunch on the beach before driving onwards – or stay the night in the area if you’d like!  Nazare, Alcobaça, and Batalha, are all very close to each other so many people visit them in the same day if you are not spending the night. 
  • Fatima: A popular day-tripper destination, but one that holds a lot of reverence for those interested in a pilgrimage to one of the important Catholic sites in Europe. 
  • Obidos: This medieval town is still circled entirely by its fortification walls, of which you can walk the entire circumference (be wary of the sections with no handrails). It’s an extremely picturesque town, and being an hour from Lisbon allows you to head there directly after landing at the airport if you wish.  Or spend your last night in Portugal here if you have an afternoon flight the next day.
Nazare in Central Portugal

But if you want something beyond the typical tourist route…

Paiva Waterways

You can visit the Paiva Waterways in either a Central- and Northern- based itinerary.  One of the most beautiful rivers in all of Portugal, this area is a series of steps, rope bridges, and hiking trails along the riverbanks. These outdoor staircases take you past waterfalls and panoramic vistas overlooking the river. 

Paiva Waterways Portugal

It’s a very unique and special area – be sure to consult a map, or take a guided daytrip out there, so that you know if you’re hiking in the “hard” or “easy” direction!  Many tours will also visit Aveiro on the same day, a charming town fondly known as the “Venice of Portugal” due to its canals and gondolas. 

Serra da Estrela

The highest mountain range in continental Portugal, the name means “Star Mountain”.  This area has scenic drives and fantastic hiking, and even skiing in the winter.  It also has some of Portugal’s most popular cheeses and honey and other local cuisines.  It’s best to visit during late spring, summer, and early fall for the best driving conditions. 

Central Portugal Serra da Estrela

Coimbra 

“Portugal’s third city” is small yet vibrant with a growing tourist scene and a highly educated population, thanks to the University of Coimbra which proudly holds its titles as one of the oldest universities in Europe.  The library at the university is consistently rated “one of the most beautiful in the world” and is open to the public with timed entry slots. 

The music style Fado is also omnipresent here, but very different from the fado you’ll hear in Lisbon.  Here in Coimbra, fado is sung by male university students, and often was originally used to serenade girls at their windows or to declare hopes and dreams for the future especially upon graduating from university.  Ask your hotel about the best places to listen to fado, as many venues will include English explanations and discussions before the performance.  Don’t tell the Lisbon residents but I personally feel Coimbra fado is much more upbeat and inspiring!

Coimbra is also home to the romantic hotel known as Quinta das Lagrimas (Palace of Tears), built on the site of Portugal’s very own Romeo and Juliet – except this Romeo and Juliet is a true story, the story of Pedro and Ines, whose forbidden love ignited a war between a prince and his father.  Visit the fountain where Ines was murdered on the grounds of the Quinta das Lagrimas, and see the secret spot where she’s rumored to have left her love letter for Pedro. (I’ve stayed here – it’s a true highlight for any hopeless romantic.)

Buçaco Palace in the mountains of central Portugal is also a wonderful hotel to either stop for lunch or stay overnight in Central Portugal.

As you can see, a trip to the Central Region could take up your entire itinerary in Portugal!  You’re also able to easily combine several spots here with itineraries based in Lisbon or on your way to the North.  I hope this has inspired you to take a greater look at this beautiful region. If you’re interested in an itinerary that combines Lisbon, Central Portugal, and Northern Portugal, here’s a sample one.

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