Portugal’s Centro region is massive and takes in a whole spectrum of landscapes and cultural nuances. The amount of things to see is far too long to list here, but is very diverse, counting several World Heritage Sites and many fortified towns.
One walled city, Óbidos, was the medieval home of Portuguese royalty, while in the east the towns are hewn from granite and schist, and look amazing against the green terrain. Don’t pass through the Centro region without seeing the royal monasteries at Batalha and Alcobaça, or the historic university buildings in Coimbra. Surfers will surely know all about Nazaré and its record-breaking waves. But did you know that there’s snow in winter, at Serra da Estrela in the east of the region?
Lets explore the best things to do in Central Portugal:
1. Monastery of Batalha
In the district of Leiria the UNESCO-inscribed Monastery of Batalha is one of Portugal’s cultural treasures and the pinnacle of late Gothic art.
This style blends with the highly ornamental Manueline elements from the 16th century.
If architecture is your thing, or you’re absorbed by Portugal’s late medieval history, you’ll be in awe of the church’s sculpture and vaults.
The Royal Cloister is amazing too, with unbelievably delicate traceries on its arches supported by slender columns with all kinds of motifs carved into them.
The unfinished chapels are also astounding, and you can view the lone tomb of the 15th-century King Edward, open to the elements.
2. University of Coimbra
This institution was founded right back in the 1200s,putting it among the oldest universities on the Iberian peninsula,. It was originally in Lisbon and moved to Coimbra in the 14th century, eventually occupying the former Alcaçova royal palace buildings.
Get a good look at the beautiful Palace Gate, chapel, academic prison, great hall and armoury.
But the thing everyone comes to glimpse is the Biblioteca Joanina, the sensational baroque library, with more than 300,000 books from the 1500s to 1700s stored on gilded shelves.
There are also 5,000 manuscripts here, while on the courtyard outside you can contemplate an aerial view Coimbra.
3. Berlengas Archipelago
About ten kilometres off Peniche is an uninhabited set of islands, safeguarded as a natural reserve and linked to the mainland with regular crossings.
The largest is where you’ll spend your time, and for a small place it has a lot going for it.
This large mass of rock has a very indented shoreline riddled with caves that you can enter on boat trips.
There’s also an old fort, built over the ruins of a monastery and which later became a penal colony.
In summer the appeal is obvious, as there’s an east-facing beach, protected from the Atlantic and with pristine, calm water to swim in.
4. Convento de Cristo
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this sublime monastery in Tomar documents five centuries of Portuguese art and architecture.
It started out as a Knights Templar stronghold, as the defensive walls are still here, in dainty boxwood gardens.
Inside, the circular church is Romanesque, and there’s a lot remaining from the time it was built, like the 12th-century capitals with foliate and animal motifs.
But the headline is the Window of the Chapterhouse, which has a Manueline design and was sculpted by Diogo de Arruda in the early 16th century.
Step round to appreciate the majesty of the carving here and its bewildering array of foliate and nautical details.
On high land a few kilometres from the Atlantic, Óbidos is often put forward as one of the best preserved towns in Portugal.
There was a settlement a long time before the Romans arrived, but Óbidos really came into its own from the 12th century when it was favoured by the Portuguese royalty.
The medieval walls continue to protect the town, which has a compact web of streets and squares twisting up to the castle that is now a pousada (luxury heritage hotel). These old streets are flanked by whitewashed houses that have bougainvillea blossoms and brightly-painted strips on their corners.
Óbidos is firmly on the tourist trail in summer and fills up quickly, but needs to be seen all the same!
6. Schist Villages
Mostly east of Coimbra in the Açor and Lousã ranges are 27 villages with rustic houses made from schist.
It’s a beautiful material as the rock comes in different colours, so you’ll often see several different tones in the same dry stone wall.
These are sleepy, remote places crammed precariosuly onto hillsides, and often visited on walking and boating holidays.
Figueira and Martim Branco still have community ovens for baking bread, while Sarzedas has a history that can be traced back to the reign of King Sancho I in the 1100s and sits near the ruins of a castle from that time.
7. Alcobaça Monastery
Another stupendous monastery, this is also a UNESCO site, and was the first Gothic monument constructed in Portugal.
It was established by King Afonso Henriques in 1153 and most agree it’s the most beautiful Cistercian monastery in the country.
The church and monastic buildings are wrapped in an 18th-century facade, so it’s always a shock to step through the gates and be met with almost ethereal Gothic vaults in the nave of the church.
At the transept are the tombs of King Pedro I and Inês de Castro, his mistress, carved in the 14th century with astonishing workmanship and detail.
8. Mata Nacional do Buçaco
In Luso to the north of Coimbra is a 400-hectare forest within the Serra do Buçaco.
The reason this forest essential is that it was created in the 17th century by the Carmelites.
They planted all kinds of trees (250 species in total) imported from the New World, like Mexican white cedars, so a walk in these woods is a strange and wonderful experience.
The convent was replaced in the late 1800s by the Palácio Hotel do Buçaco , which has an exaggerated Neo-Manueline style.
There are also delightful hermitages scattered in the forest, and various panoramic viewpoints where you can see far and wide across Central Portugal.
9. Serra da Estrela
In a country better known for its beaches and whitewashed towns, the Serra da Estrela merits a trip to show you there’s more behind the stereotypes.
This range includes Torre, the highest point on continental Portugal at just shy of 2,000 metres.
In winter it’s a snow sure kind of place, attracting skiers and snowboarders to the Vodafone Resort.
But summer is a fabulous time to come, when the mighty granite rock formations are exposed, many of which have been weathered into strange shapes.
You can set off on adventures into gorges, along mountain rivers and through mysterious birch forests, which have an eerie light.
A low-key and more remote answer to Óbidos, Sortelha is a cute walled town that most people fall in love with at first sight.
It was constructed on a granite ridge, and this stone was used for the walls and houses.
There are also massive granite boulders in the upper part of the village against the defensive walls.
You can climb along portions of the ramparts and up stairways that have been cut directly from the rock.
See what you can find hiding between the granite houses; one little monument to seek out is the 16th century pillory, sculpted in the Manueline style.
The most complete Roman site in the country is a few kilometres south of Coimbra.
The settlement was first occupied by the Romans in the 2nd century BC and over the next 100 years it blossomed into a city with baths, an amphitheatre and forum.
All of this, including a basilica has been excavated.
But what really sets historians’ pulses racing is the accommodation, including insulae (for everyday citizens) and luxurious domus.
One of the latter, the Casa dos Repuxos has been partially housed under a glass canopy to preserve the exquisite peristyle and mosaics.
The gardens have also been replanted and the fountains filled with water, as they would have been 2,000 years ago.
12. Castle of Almourol
This castle is achingly picturesque, cresting a craggy island on the Tagus River and reflected in its waters.
You can only reach the castle by boat, which somehow makes it more special.
It was built in 1171 by the Knights Templar, and had a crucial role during the Reconquista, when Portugal and Spain were retaken from the Moors.
After that it lost its strategic role and became a ruin before being put back together in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The interiors are clear, but the draw of a fortress like this is to be able to walk along the parapet and to climb the main tower for panoramas to savour.
As you see it now, Almeida dates to the 1640s, when King John IV set about stiffening his border defences.
Almeida became a star-shaped citadel with a complex system of ditches, walls and bastions.
Within years it was under attack and witnessed almost constant fighting over the next 150 years.
One momentous event was the Siege in 1810, when the town fell to the French after the magazine exploded.
The village commands views into Spain, but has a low profile to make it less vulnerable to artillery.
A great deal remains despite the conflict: The dry moat is still intact, as is the main Baroque gate, which requires you to drive or walk through a small, winding tunnel just to get into the town.
“Centro” gets the best waves in mainland Portugal.
The two prime spots are Ericeira and Peniche, which are packed with schools and shops to get you started.
If you’re learning the basics Peniche’s forgiving beach breaks will be right for you.
And if you’ve got a few years under your belt you could head up and down the coast where there are many kilometres of deserted beaches.
Nazaré is another story entirely; in summer it’s a charming resort with a spacious sandy beach.
But on certain days in autumn and winter the headland to the north is the site of the largest waves ever ridden.
Records are broken with almost every one of these monsters, and people gather at the lighthouse to watch.
15. Jardim do Antigo Paço Episcopal
In Castelo Blanco the gardens of the former episcopal palace are fabulous, and have kept the same pattern since the 1700s.
They are Baroque in style and were commissioned by the Bishop João de Mendonça Furtado.
There’s a dazzling arrangement of boxwood hedges conveying you to hidden fountains.
Decorating the paths are scores of statues, depicting saints, apostles and lions.
And there are statues of kings Guarding the balustrade on the steps down to the garden.
Now, it’s easy to see which kings were from the 60-year Spanish occupation, because sculptures of these unpopular guys are purposefully smaller!