A frontier town of Castelo Branco was founded at the base of a Templar castle in the 13th century. War was a way of life for hundreds of years and the town was attacked repeatedly in the 17th and 18th centuries. Castelo Branco was the seat of a diocese, and the bishops’ palace and garden are two of the biggest sights in the city.
The Baroque garden has elegant fountains, tilework and statues of apostles, kings and beasts. The palace is the town’s museum, showing off local savoir-faire like the colcha quilts with intricate silk embroidery, made in Castelo Branco since the 1600s. To the south flows the Tagus River, which cuts through a mountain range ridge at Ródão leaving a heroic canyon that gives a habitat to birds of prey.
Lets explore the best things to do in Castelo Branco:
1. Jardim do Paço
The garden of Castelo Branco’s episcopal palace is the city’s unmissable sight.
This was plotted in the 18th century by the bishop at the time, João de Mendonça.
Tucked into this network of boxwood hedges are fountains and statues representing apostles and lions, while the walls sport figurative tile panels.
Guarding the balustrade are statues of the kings to rule in Portugal during this period.
You might notice something amiss about the unpopular Spanish Kings who ruled Portugal in the Philippine period, as they’re a few centimetres shorter than the Portuguese monarchs!
2. Museu Francisco Tavares Proença Júnior
The episcopal palace next door dates to the end of the 16th century and will introduce you to the history of the city and some of its traditions.
Castelo Branco has made a name for its silk embroidery, and there are many linen quilts (colchas) with dainty and colourful patterns, sewn by artisans across several hundred years.
There’s a lapidary in the vaulted basement, with inscribed stones from the Iron Age and Roman era, and further up you can see Flemish tapestries from the 16th century and portraits of the bishops who once lived in this building.
3. Parque da Cidade
Fronting the episcopal palace is another green space that used to belong to the Bishops of Castelo Branco.
The plots closest to the palace used to be their kitchen garden, and the town still grows herbs in square plots as a reminder of the park’s old role.
Beyond that it’s a refined spot for a few minutes of repose, edged by the Covento da Graça and the palace, and laid with fountains and reflecting pools, and a large, circular pergola.
4. Museu de Arte Sacra
The Covento da Graça a stone’s throw from the episcopal palace and fringing the park, is another of Castelo Branco’s musts.
This exquisite Mannerist complex is from the 16th century and features the sacred art museum, which is set in the convent’s treasury.
There’s a set of statues from the earliest years of the convent, depicting St Matthew, St John the Baptist with a poor man, a Virgin with Child and one of Isabella of Portugal who was Holy Roman Empress from 1530 to 1539.
5. Old Town
The medieval centre of Castelo Branco is a bewildering web of narrow streets through ravines of whitewashed houses in various states of repair.
One such artery is the steep Rua dos Peleteiros, whose name “street of the furriers” evokes the old-time businesses set here hundreds of years ago.
You’ll arrive at squares like the Praça de Camões, surely the prettiest in the city, and featuring the former town hall, which has a carved coat of arms and a handsome arcade.
Opposite is the Solar dos Motas, a mansion from the 17th century for the Guilherme da Cunha family and now a municipal building.
6. Castelo e Muralhas
If you persist against the slope on Rua dos Peleteiros you’ll eventually reach the medieval castle that gave Castelo Branco its name.
This is the highest point of the city, and the outline of the single tower can be seen from quite a distance.
The castle was a Templar fortification, raised at the beginning of the 13th century.
It took big damage in the Portuguese Restoration War in the 17th century, and then again in the War of the Spanish Succession and Napoleon’s Peninsular Wars.
By the 1800s its stone was quarried for houses in the city.
But despite all this you get a good sense of how the castle used to be, and more than anything can savour the perfect view of the city.
7. Museu Cargaleiro
The 18th-century Solar dos Cavaleiros, another cultured mansion in Castelo Branco’s historic centre, hosts the Museu Cargaleiro.
Combined with a modern wing, this property houses a museum dedicated to Manuel Cargaleiro, a renowned artist whose career has spanned almost 80 years.
Cargaleiro was born in a village close to Castelo Branco in 1927 and is best known for his glazed tiles, painted in the traditional way, but with modern, abstract images.
There are also rooms devoted to his lithography, conventional paintings and exquisite ceramic bowls.
8. Miradouro de São Gens
On the ledge just along from the castle is another viewpoint, landscaped in the early 1940s.
It warrants the effort as much as the castle itself, because there’s a sweet little garden up here.
You reach the belvedere via stairway that is flanked by trees that join together overhead.
And on the terrace the garden has a fountain and walls covered with blue tiles.
As for the view, there’s a memorable perspective of the hedges in the Jardim do Paço from up here, as well as the olive groves out in the countryside around the city.
9. Centro de Cultura Contemporânea de Castelo Branco
In 2013 Castelo Branco got a brand new cultural centre and a new postcard image for the city.
It’s a spectacular building, with big cantilevered sections overhanging the ramps to the front and rear.
The centre has an auditorium for 275 spectators and with high-quality acoustics devised by the Catalan expert Higini Arau.
Performances in the hall tend to be high-brow, booking classical soloists and small ensembles.
If you’d like to come just to take a peek at the building there are temporary art exhibitions at the centre’s two galleries, showing regional painting, photography, sculpture and other installations.
10. Cruzeiro de São João
On Largo de São João is a granite cross that was erected in front of a church at the very start of the 16th century.
The church has long since disappeared but the cross remains and has become a national monument for its Manueline decoration.
There are benches around it, and you could take a seat for a minute or two to check out the intricate design.
The spiral column is typical of the Manueline style and supports a bed with a vegetal design, holding the cross itself.
At the octagonal base of the monument there were once chained human figures, symbolising temptation.
11. Piscina Praia
Summers can be brutal in this landlocked region of Portugal, with temperatures well into the 30s in June, July and August.
This relaxed water park on the edge of town offers some relief, with its welcoming turquoise pools and green spaces.
There are no slides or flumes, as Piscina Praia is more of place to slow down for a couple of hours.
The centrepiece is the largest pool in Portuga, taking up a vast 8 hectares.
Most of this is only 50 cm deep and never more than 160 cm, so fine for younger children.
It’s equipped with games and things to climb over, and activities are organised to keep little ones entertained.
12. River Beaches
Another way to beat the summer heat is to track down one of the river beaches (praias fluviais) in the area.
These come in different forms, but almost all are in picturesque countryside.
Sesmo and Almaceda are both more like outdoor swimming pools, as they have been created by locks in the river.
There’s no current; just a pool of natural water to swim in.
Taberna Seca is closer, at only ten kilometres west of the city on a bend in the River Ocreza.
It’s a dreamy, natural place folded between the high walls of the river valley.
13. Portas de Ródão
About 20 minutes south of Castelo Branco the Tagus River has sliced through the rock in the Serra das Talhadas range to fashion an epic canyon with walls 170 metres high.
These twin bulks look like gigantic gates, which explains the name “Portas”, and the landmark has become a Portuguese natural monument.
Coming from Castelo Branco you’ll arrive at the north “gate”, capped with a modest-looking tower claimed to be the site of a castle for the 6th-century Visigothic King Wamba.
As for the gate, they’re as serene as they are dramatic.
And if you pause for a while you may catch sight of red kites, griffon vultures and black storks swooping around the canyon.
14. Tejo International Natural Park
At Castelo Branco you’re only 10 kilometres from the official boundary of this natural reserve, crossing the Spanish border and protecting the magnificent banks of the Tagus River.
If peace is what you need, this is the least populated region in Portugal, with majestic landscapes that are desert-like in places, while in others containing amazing natural abundance.
There are cork and holm oaks, wild herbs like rosemary and moorland decked with heather.
Deer, foxes and wild boar roam the park, and there are Neolithic and Roman vestiges, but also the eerie ruins of the village of Alares, abandoned in the 1920s.
15. Local Gastronomy
Castelo Branco is known for its high-quality olive oil and honey, and both are very giftable things to take home.
Traditional meals in this rural part of Portugal are simple, meaty and filling, drawing on local agricultural rather than long-distance trade.
If you’re dining out and want to go for something authentic, there’s empadas de Castelo Branco, a pie with a pork and onion filling, soup made with local cheese, roast lamb, roast partridge, goat stuffed with bacon and herbs and roasted, or fried liver in an onion, tomato and paprika sauce.
And just some of the many sweets and dessert made in Castelo Branco are rice pudding, flavoured with cinnamon, tigelada, which is similar to crème brûlée and cookies made with honey and almond (broas de mel).