Top 10 reasons to visit Central Portugal.
Mainland Portugal is an amazing country, with the some of the best golf in the Algarve, the best wines in the Alentejo, Lisbon and its vibrant city life and of course Porto!
But what about the middle? Central Portugal is often overlooked and I am in 2 minds as to whether to keep it that way (very selfish of me!) or to show you some of the amazing places you will find.
There is culture, amazing food, stunning architecture, incredible monuments and castles and so much more.
Here are our top 10 reasons to visit central Portugal
12 historic villages of Portugal
Portugal has so many historical villages, towns and cities so when you hear of the 12 historic villages of Portugal, you will be forgiven for feeling a little confused, surely there are far more than 12 in the entire country?
Yes, there are and we will see many of them in this article.
But back to the 12 historic villages of Portugal, this is a very particular set of villages close to the Spanish border (Beira interior) they were classified under a 1991 government program called The Historic Villages Program.
All of these villages played an important part in the history of Portugal and the aim of this program was to restore and promote them.
It was with the help of these villages that the Portuguese border was agreed with Spain and is the oldest border in Europe.
The villages were developed over many generations of kings, who granted privileges and charters to those who established themselves in the area, by populating the area, the enemies of Portugal were prevented from advancing into Portugal.
Nowadays there is little chance of observing a battle, you are more likely to see the many tourists that visit these villages, or the residents that still populate them.
There are 12 different villages and all are amazing in their own way.
Linhares da Beira
Castelo Novo cobbled street
Castelo Novo Castle
Top tips for visiting the 12 historic villages:
If you intend to visit all 12, you really need 2 or 3 days.
Some of the villages can be quite isolated and not large, ensure you have bottled water in the car.
It may be a good idea to wear comfortable walking shoes, some of the hills are quite steep.
Coimbra was once the capital city of Portugal and still retains much of its grandeur, though not as big as Lisbon or Porto, there is so much to do and see and no visit to Portugal is complete without a visit to this beautiful city.
The city is small enough to be able to walk around, but be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes as it is built on a hill, so, while easy walking down, walking back to your hotel or car can be quite tiring.
Coimbra offers something for everybody, from excellent restaurants through to pizza slices and a beer for just 1 euro each.
The city is situated on the Rio Mondego and you can see the buildings rising to the top of the city on narrow streets, the view is as good from the river as it is overlooking the city.
The university of Coimbra is one of the oldest in the world and the buildings are magnificent, it is a UNESCO world heritage site, you can take a tour of the inside (fee payable) but you are able to stroll around the outside and take in the views free of charge.
The old part of the town dates back to the moors and you can still see the ancient architecture.
There are a number of parks in the city with beautiful relaxing gardens but if you want a little more life, a stroll through the narrow streets and town squares full of cafes and restaurants are perfect.
Each town square has its own attractions, for example the church and monastery of Santa Cruz
Coimbra. Photo Source: Portogal.co
Top tips for visiting Coimbra:
Wear comfortable shoes.
Look down the little side streets you will find some amazing restaurants and cafes.
The city is serviced by a train station with direct routes to Lisbon.
Coimbra can be visited in a day, but to truly appreciate all it has to offer, try to spend at least one night.
Fátima is a central Portuguese town that's home to the Sanctuary of Fátima, a Catholic pilgrimage site. Though it is a massive site in the catholic religion, we can honestly say you do not need to be religious at all to be awed by the beauty and splendour of Fatima.
The town is chock a block with shops and cafes and most of these shops will sell plastic rosemary beads and candles, the candles may take you by surprise as they literally come in all shapes and sizes, including legs, hearts (not the valentine types!) and every other body part you can think of. The point of these candles is that there is a place inside where you can light a candle and pray, or just light a candle. Though inside the basilica you can buy candles for a fraction of the cost and the money goes towards the upkeep
Throughout the area there are a number of attractions, such as where the children saw the vision of the Virgin Mary.
If you are feeling very energetic there is a pilgrimage that goes from Santiago toFátima, the Camino de Santiago, this can be walked and if you do the walk there are a number of B&Bs along the way where you can stay a night for free.
But if you have just a holiday booked, Fátimais a fantastic option for an afternoon.
Top tips for visiting Fátima:
The candles are available inside the basilica.
The cost of cafes and restaurants are much higher next to the main tourist sites, if you go back one street the cost is less.
There is plenty of parking available, some may be a little further away but a small tourist train takes you to the main attractions.
If arriving by train, Fatima train station is NOT in Fatima, it is approx. 20 kms away.
Be aware of when you are visiting, if it is a holy day, there may be very large crowds.
Tomar is an exceptional town, mostly famed for the Templar knights and the Convento do Cristo. Don’t get us wrong, the Convento is amazing and was originally a Roman Catholic convent built in the 12th century and a Templar stronghold, in the 14th century the order was dissolved and became the knights of the order of Christ and was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983.
You can park just outside the convent and castle (fees payable) entrance to the grounds is free, though there is a charge to enter inside the building.
The walk around the outside of the building is spectacular as are the views and you are able to walk along the castle walls.
But as we said, this may be the most famous part of Tomar but the town has so much more to offer. If you go to the town square you will find the Church of Saint John the Baptist (Igreja de São João Baptista). This is a 15th century catholic church, entrance is free and it can be a refreshingly cool place to visit on a hot sunny day. On the opposite side of the town square is the municipality, which is 17th century and behind this on the top of the Hill is the Convento do Cristo. Around the square are a selection of restaurants and cafes.
Just off the square are numerous cobbled streets with authentic restaurants and little shops.
In the square you can hire a tuc tuc tour that will offer many different tours of Tomar (for different prices.
If you stroll to the river Nabão, you will find Mouchão Park with its working water wheel, this is a perfect place to sit in the shade of the trees.
The Aqueduto dos Pegões Altos is just outside of Tomar and stretches for approx. 6 kms, the highest part reaching almost 30 metres. There is a car park near the steps to access the aqueduct and both car park and entrance are free of charge.
There are other places and sites to visit in Tomar, a day trip is sufficient to see and experience most of what Tomar has to offer, but if you are able spend a couple of nights here, you won’t be disappointed.
Aqueduto dos Pegões
Cobbled streets in Tomar Historic centre
Convento de Cristo
Top tips for visiting Tomar:
If you walk to the Convento do Cristo, you have to walk along the road, walking through the park does not give you access.
Try the restaurants on the small cobbled streets.
There is a train station with direct trains to Lisbon.
Óbidos could be considered one of the prettiest cities in Portugal.The city is full of cobbled streets and white washed houses, shops and cafes, all leading to the imposing castle which once guarded the region.
The little streets and the buildings can only be described as a living museum; the historic area has been so well preserved.
You enter the city walls via the main gate, which from the exterior seems quite plain, but once inside is a stunning small chapel with the wall completely covered in blue and white tiles. But (and this may just be my sense of humour) one of the best bits is watching vehicles trying to navigate the dual gates which are staggered, it really is a work of art watching these drivers.
A must do in Óbidos is to try the Ginjer. Ginja de Óbidos is a natural handmade sour cherry liqueur that is served in small chocolate cups (you have a choice of white or dark chocolate) can you think of anything better, than a traditional drink, where the cup is made of chocolate? and maybe this is at least one reason why it may be good to stay the night.
An afternoon is long enough to see the walled city, but if you would like to take your time and really enjoy the views and ambience, a night is highly recommended, you can even book a night in the castle which has been converted to a hotel.
There is a large selection of restaurants, but be aware you are in a tourist area and the prices do reflect this.
There is a large car park just outside the walled city, this is either free of charge or not, depending on the time of year that you visit.
View over Obidos
Top tips for visiting Óbidos:
Try to visit when one of the many festivals are on.
Check that the castle is open prior to visiting, there are occasions when it is not open to the public.
If you are brave climb the steps to the top of the castle wall, the view is extraordinary.
Alcobaça is a small town in Central Portugal and the main feature of the town is the imposing monastery, but take the time to explore (it doesn’t take much time). There are little cobbled streets with shops selling traditional goods and souvenirs, where you will find some fantastic cafes and souvenirs and see some wonderful buildings.
Or sit in one of the many pavement cafes in front of the monastery and just relax.
The Monastery and church were founded in 1153 and were one of the first Gothic buildings in Portugal. It was granted world heritage status by UNESCO in 1989.
There is a car park by the monastery, but we have found this very busy, alternatively, there is a very large car park just outside the historical centre and it is a short walk to the area.
You also get to see a little more of the buildings, but beware, this bit may look pedestrianised, it is not.
Gothic tomb at Alcobaca Monastery
Top tips for visiting Alcobaça
Park outside the historical centre, it really does make life much easier.
Take time to explore the little cobbled streets.
Bacalhôa Buddha Eden
Found at the Quinta dos Loridos, is an attraction you really wouldn’t expect to find in Portugal - The Buddha Eden – which is the largest oriental garden in Europe.
On the 35-acre estate you will find Buddha’s, pagodas, terracotta statues and various sculptures throughout the gardens.
A ticket can be bought for the little tourist train that will take you on a tour of the grounds, this is a hop on and hop off train, so you can spend time exploring the different aspects on foot, or stop to enjoy a drink and ice cream.
Before you leave be sure to visit the shop and purchase some wine, there is even a blue sangria, which we can say tastes very nice!
There is an entrance fee to this attraction and for the train.
Bacalhôa Buddha Eden
Buddhas at Bacalhôa Buddha Eden
Bacalhôa Buddha Eden
Top tips for visiting Bacalhôa Buddha Eden:
Buy a ticket for the little train.
Get off when ever you want to, you are able to walk up to the sculptures and see them close up.
No trip to Central Portugal is complete without visiting at least one coastal resort on the Silver Coast.
Nazaré is one such resort, it also has the largest wave ever surfed. You can watch the waves and times are posted for when they expect a large wave.
This is a perfect family resort with a beautiful beach, but be aware the ocean does have waves and currents.
Nazaré is split into three main districts – Praia (beach), Pederneira and Sitio. Located on a rocky promontory over 100m above the main part of the town, Sitio provides wonderful views over the bay and beach of Nazaré.
You are able to take the funicular lift from Nazaré beach up to (Sitio) the views from this lift are far reaching. In the main square in Sitio is a large church and small chapel clinging to the edge of the sheer drop, the Ermida da Memória.
Along the seafront of Nazaré main beach, you can still see fish drying in the sun and fishermen mending their boats and nets alongside sunbathing holidaymakers.
There is a promenade with shops and cafes that stretches the length of the seafront, there are many restaurants along here, but if you walk to the streets behind you will find little squares surrounded by restaurants and cafes selling traditional foods (though most menus are in a number of languages.
Fishing boats at Nazaré. Photo Source: Tipping Point Nazaré.
Top tips for visiting Nazaré:Car parking is available along the sea front, but the streets behind have more spaces and there are car parks available.
Try some local caught sea food at the restaurants.
Be careful if swimming in the ocean.
Though there is the Silver Coast along one side of Central Portugal, the region stretches in to the mountain range. So if a beach is essential to your holiday, you may think this is not the region for you.
But you will be surprised by the amount of river beaches all over central Portugal. If you have never heard of river beaches these come in so many varieties and sizes from the completely natural pool, that you will stumble across on a walk, through to the beaches that have been developed, you will still see the original river, but there may be a section that has been developed to provide a more man made structure.
On the developed sites you will also tend to find restaurants, cafes and shops. You would be forgiven for not believing you are at the beach.
Praia das Rocas has the largest man made wave machine, and is surrounded by sun loungers, perfect for a day out and is located in Castanheira da Pera.
A Praia Fluvial Agroal is located in the Ourem region and has a selection of amenities including cafes, changing facilities, toilets, shops and a restaurant.
Or you could go completely natural and end up at a small natural pool where you will find nature and solitude.
Praia Fluvial Agroal
Natural swimming pool Portugal
Top tips for visiting river beaches:
Please do not leave any rubbish behind if you are visiting a natural pool.
It may be an idea to arrive early if visiting a river beach with amenities to obtain a good spot.
Be aware that there may be no staff on duty or safety equipment nearby.
Always take care near any water, there may be currents or deep spots and the water will be cold.
Aveiro is one of the prettiest towns in central Portugal and has often been referred to as the Venice of Portugal.
This is due to the network of canals in the town (not to the extent of Italy) and the array of moliceiros.
The Moliceiros used to play an important part in the towns life, in relation to seaweed harvesting, now they are more of a tourist attraction (still an important part of the towns life).
They are small and colourful boats that look similar to the Italian Gondolas. They are painted on the bow and stern, the paintings can vary but are usually historical representations.
Aveiro is not just the river and Moliceiros, venture into the town and you will find a fantastic selection of restaurants and cafes selling local delicacies and traditional food, but another beautiful aspect of Aveiro is the Art Nouveau houses, these colourful and attractive houses are an attraction on their own and decorate the town.
Photo Source: Héctor Martínez on Unsplash
Moliceiro Aveiro. Photo Source: beyondlisbon.wordpress.com
Top tips for visiting Aveiro.
Take a ride on the Moliceiros.
Visit the Aveiro Museum in the Convent of Jesus.
Try some of the local seafood dishes and the sweet made with eggs and sugar - the “ovos moles"