This mountain town is only a few kilometres from the highest point in mainland Portugal. People come in winter for one of Portugal’s only ski resorts, and in summer to marvel at the granite peaks, lakes and hike in forest.
In Covilhã it’s fun to see how the town has adapted to its impossible terrain to help you get around on foot, equipping it with a panoramic elevator, funicular trains and the incredible Ponte da Ribeira da Carpinteira pedestrian bridge. It’s a town anchored in tradition, and there’s a first-rate museum documenting the wool industry, which supported Covilhã for almost 300 years up to the 190s.
Lets explore the best things to do in Covilhã:
1. Museu de Lanifícios
Covilhã has made a living from wool spinning and weaving since the 1680s,and this heritage is proudly displayed at two former factories in the town: Fábrica de Panos da Covilhã and the Fábrica Real Veiga.
The first location deals with the industry in the 18th century, while the latter focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries.
Beginning at the Fábrica de Panos there’s an informative video explaining the ins and outs of Covilhã’s wool trade.
On show at the two locations are old looms, both manual and mechanical, utensils from different eras and an array of textile products made in the town, including yarn, clothing and fabric samples.
2. Funicular de Santo André
Before this funicular train was installed in 2013, navigating the slope in the southern part of Covilhã was a bit of a chore.
The only way up to the centre of town was along zigzagging streets by car.
In the last decade the town has invested in a lift and two funiculars to encourage people to visit the centre of town on foot instead of driving.
This free funicular lifts you 90 metres up the slope and has a stairway parallel to it, the Escada de Santo André with 162 steps.
3. Elevador do Parque da Goldra
Unveiled in September 2013 as part of Covilhã mobility plan this elevator is another minor attraction worth checking out thanks to the views from its panoramic cabin.
The lift links the Parque da Goldra with Rua Avila and Bulama, making it easier to get to the university on foot.
The course is only 40 metres long, but has an incline of 32 degrees, and you can fit 11 passengers into it.
There’s a belvedere on the upper platform with benches to gaze at the mountain scenery.
4. Ponte da Ribeira da Carpinteira
This jaw-dropping bridge connects the town centre with eastern Penedos Altos area.
It was begun in 2003 and took another six years and €3m to complete.
The designer is Lisbon-based minimalist João Luis Carrilho da Graça and the structure is a thing of beauty, zigzagging 50 metres over the Carpinteira Valley for more than 200 metres.
It’s a walk to take by day for the vistas of Covilhã, the Serra da Estrela and the Cova da Beira, and at night when the bridge is illuminated by two long strips of light flanking the walkway.
5. Igreja de Santa Maria
It seems like all roads in Covilhã lead to this emblematic 16th-century church.
And it could compete with the prettiest in Portugal, even though a lot of what you see now is quite recent.
The church was reworked in a historical Baroque style in the 19th century when it was given its alcove with the Virgin Mary and the dignified pediments above its windows.
The newest change is the one that makes the church special; covering the rest of the facade are blue azulejo panels, added no more than 20 years ago and recounting the life of the Virgin.
6. Museu de Arte Sacra
Covilhã’s newest museum opened its doors in 2011 at this mansion in the middle of town.
Here the Guarda Diocese and Covilhã municipality have put together more than 600 religious artefacts from dissolved monasteries and churches in the region.
There are vestments, crucifixes, statues, books, rare manuscripts, altars, furniture, paintings and a lot more, in a collection that runs from the 12th to the 20th century.
If you’ve ever wondered what all the images in Catholic churches mean there’s a reproduction of a church on the top floor, with panels helping to decode the arcane symbols.
7. Museu do Queijo
In the village of Pêraboa, only a few kilometres from Covilhã you can find out all you need to know about Serra da Estrela cheese.
No stone is left unturned, as you’re introduced to the sheep breed and how it found its way across Spain and Portugal to be here, and also the shepherds and Estrela mountain dogs that have herded them since time immemorial.
Serra da Estrela cheese has an interesting quirk as the sheep’s milk that it’s made from is curdled by using a special local thistle instead of rennet (enzymes from the sheep’s stomach). And after learning how it’s made you’ll be invited to taste a piece or two.
8. Portas do Sol
Until the 18th century Covilhã sat in the shadow of an immense castle, built in the 11th century and facing attacks from Moors and Spanish forces over the next few centuries.
The walls were partly demolished by building works and then almost entirely brought down by the 1755 earthquake.
But there’s still evidence in the elevated Portas do Sol area in the west of the town.
In this picturesque old neighbourhood you can still make out the buttresses supporting dwellings, which are built on the bare rock of the hillside.
There are several places to stop and admire the mountain views, while some of the newer buildings are adorned with stylish murals commissioned by the town and labelled with plaques.
9. Praça do Município
The town’s central square is where you can get to know Pêro da Covilhã.
He was a 15th and 16th-century explorer, diplomat and spy in the Age of Discovery, whose career took him to India (before Vasco da Gama) and Ethiopia.
Pêro is remembered with a statue, set in front of the town hall, and there’s also a large polished granite panel showing his voyages.
The older buildings on the square are arcaded, and it’s a good idea to explore the adjoining streets, which were once home to Covilhã Jewish quarter and are decorated with yet more pieces of imaginative street art.
10. Igreja da Misericórdia
Deserving a few minutes of your attention if you’re passing by is this church from the beginning of the 17th century.
In its Mannerist style it’s a little more demure than the Church of Santa Maria, but also went through big alterations on the 19th century.
In the facade look for the sculptures of the Three Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity.
Inside the decoration is rather understated.
There are pretty patterned tiles on the lower part of the walls, but the highlight is the fresco covering the entirety of the barrel vault in the ceiling.
11. Senhora da Boa Estrela
If the traditional cheese and wool trades have caught your imagination, you might be moved by this shrine at 1,850 metres and close to the highest point in the Serra da Estrela.
This image of Mary, carved from a mammoth granite boulder, represents the Senhora da Boa Estrela who is the patron saint of Estrela’s shepherds.
The relief is eight metres high and was sculpted in 1946. You can reach it via the spectacular N339 road, which winds into the Serra da Estrela Natural Park to west of Covilhã.
12. Centro Interpretativo da Cereja
You know all about Covilhã’s wool and cheese traditions, but there’s one more local industry to uncover.
If you’ve taken a walk around the outskirts of the town in spring when the blossom is heavenly you’ll be aware of the profusion of cherry orchards.
This small museum to the southeast of the town is dedicated to the cherry, and has multimedia displays and interactive games teaching you about the fruit and its local applications.
You can taste some of local products, including a cherry liqueur, cherry wine, cherry jam and candy, and of course there’s a store to buy anything that tickles your taste buds.
The N339 will also take you to the highest point in mainland Portugal, 20 kilometres west of Covilhã and just shy of 2,000 metres above sea level.
The unusual thing about such an elevated spot is that you won’t have to leave your car to get to the summit, as the road leads you straight there.
If you come on a clear summer day you can expect to see all the way to the Atlantic and the resort of Figueira da Foz.
The highest point is marked by the Torre, a triangulation pillar, while there’s also a weather station and a ski lift.
14. Vila do Paul
An obligatory day-trip from Covilhã is this small town about 20 kilometres to the southwest, which has much to win you over.
First the views of the Serra da Estrela are just breathtaking, especially in the winter and early spring when it’s capped with snow.
In summer there are loads of beauty spots around the town, like a natural waterfall feeding a crystal clear pool just five minutes from the centre.
The townscape is also lovely, with a rich Baroque church and traditional granite houses that have an interesting feature; few have chimneys as the attics were used as smokehouses for cured sausage.
15. Winter Sport
Portugal may be one of the last European countries you think of for snow sports.
But the high altitude of the Estância de Ski Serra da Estrela gives it good snow coverage for four or five months of the year until mid April.
There are nine marked pistes here, mostly weighted towards experienced skiers, but with a handful of green and blue runs.
You’ll also have lots of options if you want to go off-piste, with eight challenging red runs.
All the usual facilities are on hand, including a ski and snowboard school, three snowparks and equipment rental for activities like tubing and snowshoeing.