On the northern cusp of the Serra da Estrela mountain range, Guarda is built around a medieval castle.
There are remnants of these walls and two towers in Guarda, as well as a Jewish quarter where Hebrew inscriptions have lasted since the 1100s.
The dominant Gothic cathedral is the star attraction and allows you to step onto its roof to survey the city.
The rest of your visit will be whiled away on the old town streets, in awe of the 17th-century palaces and medieval mansions still sporting their families’ coats of arms.
And you can venture into the Serra da Estrela for exhilarating mountain scenery or take days out to picturesque upland villages or beaches where you can bathe in the cool river waters.
Lets explore the best things to do in Guarda:
1. Guarda Cathedral
Definitely Guarda’s top monument, the cathedral is Gothic with some Manueline influences.
Work began in 1390 and continued until the middle of the 16th century, when some of the more theatrical stonework was added.
This can be seen on the portal, the pinnacles that crown every exterior walls and on the twisting columns inside.
As it was built in medieval times, the church has less of the rich decoration you get in Portuguese Baroque architecture; the appeal comes from its vaults, a magnificent reredos carved from limestone in 1553, and its sense of scale.
You can take the stairs to the roof to see the flying buttresses and pinnacles and to look over Guarda and its countryside.
2. Guarda’s Defensive Walls
Idling around Guarda’s old town you’ll pass under stone passageways or even discover the urban limits are still marked by the medieval walls.
These were erected in the reign of Sancho I at the turn of the 13th century and were bolstered by subsequent monarchs over the next 200 years.
One of the best remaining fragments is the Torre dos Ferreiros, from the reign of King Denis, which protected a gate and has an oratory inside with an image of a crucified Christ, “Senhor dos Aflitos”.
3. Guarda Castle
Essentially a part of the walls, Guarda Castle, or Torre de Menagem, is a tower at the highest point of the highest city in Portugal.
It has an irregular pentagonal plan and rests alone on a granite outcrop.
There’s a stairway leading up from the city, and it’s worth the strain for the bird’s eye view of Guarda from this commanding spot.
Inside there’s also a small museum about the history of the city, with limited opening times.
4. Praça Luís de Camões
Guarda’s central square is right in front of the cathedral and is a lovely, mostly carless space contained by historic houses painted white or with bare granite.
There are a few things that will give you deeper insight into the city: One is the statue of Sancho I, who reigned from 1185 to 1211 and granted Guarda its city charter in 1199. In a refined old house with a loggia is the tourist office and Loja da Guarda.
This sells authentic regional products and handicrafts like yarn, jewellery, soap and chocolate.
5. Museu da Guarda
Housed in the episcopal seminary, Guarda’s museum takes you on a chronological trip through the history of the region.
It was founded in 1940 and has more than 4,800 artefacts in its archive.
You’ll browse archaeology from before the Romans arrived, sculpture and sacred painting from religious institutions, antique guns and Portuguese painting from the 1800s.
There are also displays for the folk traditions around Guarda, with archive photographs, ceramics and traditional games.
The seminary deserves a mention as it’s a fine Mannerist building from 1601 with a noble porch decorated with columns, arches and gargoyles.
6. Old Centre
After pottering around Praça Luís de Camões and its connecting streets (Largo da Sé or Dom Miguel de Alarcão) you might notice something cool about a few of the statelier houses as they have the family coat of arms sculpted in their facades.
Meanwhile just inside the walls by the gate Porta d’El Rei is where Guarda’s Jewish quarter used to be in the 1200s, and there are Hebrew inscriptions if you know where to find them.
To the rear of the cathedral check out the Solar do Alarcão, a mansion from 1686, with an annexed chapel.
This wonderful building is now a pousada (heritage hotel) if you want somewhere to stay in style.
7. Igreja de São Vicente
This church is on Rua Direita, one of the old town’s main arteries linking the Porta d’El Rei with the Porta da Erva.
It has medieval origins, but was completely rebuilt in the 1790s, with plans drawn up by Italian-trained António Fernandes Rodrigues.
It’s a monument you need to see because of the tiles coating the walls of the nave.
If you know your Bible stories you’ll recognise the images in these panels, showing the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Passion, flight to Egypt and the Tower of David among others.
8. Capela de Nossa Senhora do Mileu
Outside the walls a short walk from the centre of Guarda is one of the city’s oldest monuments.
The exact date that this Romanesque chapel was founded is unknown, but it is believed to have been a Christian place of worship during the Moorish era, founded well before the 1100s.
It’s a modest and sturdy little building that became the a pilgrimage site from the 1300s onwards and is on one of the routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
There’s a mystery about the place too, thanks to the ruins next to the chapel, which were discovered in 1953 and may go back to Roman times.
9. Teatro Municipal da Guarda
If there’s something cultural going on in Guarda you can bet that the venue will be this minimalist building with two massive cubes of concrete and glass.
The larger of these has two auditoriums (the bigger of which houses 600), while the smaller cube has a live music stage and a gallery.
The theatre was opened in 2005 and has become a modern landmark for the city.
The programme is arty and surprisingly rich for a mid-sized city, with plays, orchestral concerts, fado, theatre, dance and screenings of independent movies and exhibitions of contemporary art and photography.
10. Parque Urbano do Rio Diz
A couple of kilometres from the old core is a park that almost needs a second take.
It’s a free public space with some of the most inventive climbing frames you’ll have seen, and littler visitors are sure to love it.
There’s a tower with slides, all sorts of climbing frames , see-saws and roundabouts, and a bizarre installation that looks a bit like a space station, and has a ring of metallic tunnels for kids to crawl through.
You can also rent pedal karts for children to ride around the meandering paths here.
11. Castelo de Linhares da Beira
Like Guarda this castle to the west was ordered by Sancho I and would be an instrumental fortress high in the Serra da Estrela.
After Portugal had been “reconquered” from the Moors in the middle of the 13th century attention turned to modern day Spain in the east.
And this epic fortress was equipped with two walled enclosures, two cisterns (for drinking water) and four gates.
The castle and its dramatic rectangular towers is a must, but also spare some time to poke around the lovely old village beside it, where there’s a web of winding cobblestone streets.
12. Tower of Centum Cellas
An easy drive to the south there’ s an enigmatic ruin at the crest of a hill with distant views in every direction.
It dates to Roman times, and for many years most people assumed that it was some sort of defensive structure.
But the truth is more exciting, as it belonged to a splendid villa, built around the 1st century.
The owner was Lucius Caecilius, who made his fortune in the tin trade.
In medieval times a chapel was installed in the building, and it was also put to use as a watchtower.
Always in the running for the most beautiful village in Portugal, Sortelha is a like a giant time capsule.
At the summit of a hill there’s a little settlement of stone houses protected by 13th-century walls and controlled from above by a castle.
If it looks formidable that’s because this was a frontier village under constant threat from Castile and Leon to the east in medieval times.
Later, the walls and beautiful granite streets were all preserved because its residents all moved out in the 19th century to more fertile lands around the suburbs.
14. Serra da Estrela
Guarda is within touching distance of the highest mountain range on mainland Portugal.
It’s a huge granite ridge, creased with glacial valleys and prized for its dense pine, chestnut and holm oak forest, as well as bizarre granite rock formations.
In winter this is the only place in Portugal where you can ski or snowboard.
The ski station is towards the south of the park, while here in the north you can go on scenic drives or track down some natural spectacles like the Poço do Inferno waterfall.
And if you’re itching for adventure there are almost 400 kilometres of marked trails for hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking.
15. River Beaches
With no ocean for hundreds of kilometres and searing heat in the summer months, you might need somewhere to cool off.
In this part of the country the answer is river beaches (praias fluviais). At Valhelhas there’s a wonderful place to bathe in the Serra da Estrela Natural Park; there’s a dyke in the river creating a pool of clear, shimmering water in a vast mountain landscape.
There’s another in Aldeia Viçosa, where there’s another clear pool, this one wrapped in pine forest where you can picnic and lounge in the shade.