No matter if you are an outdoor enthusiast, adventurer, foodie or more culturally interested, the Serra da Estrela Natural Park has plenty to offer to make anyone’s heart beat a little bit faster. A hidden gem on mainland Portugal, the Serra da Estrela temps you with more than 300 km of trails set in roughly 100.000 hectares of natural park with diverse flora and fauna. Here, you can find hidden lagoons, lakes and waterfalls, can climb lofty peaks, wander through thick forests as well as discover cultural landmarks and indulge in local specialities.
In this blog post, you will learn more about the unique location and what it has to offer in terms of nature and attractions. We also cover when is the best time to experience the Serra da Estrela as well as travel options.
The Serra da Estrela is Portugal’s oldest natural park. It is also the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal and located in the middle of the country where it can be easily accessed via several routes (more on that later on). It spreads across six municipalities and includes twelve historic villages. In the stoned houses of their narrow streets, you will find some of the best restaurants in the country. Local specialities include but are not limited to wine, cheese (Queijo Serra da Estrela, a gooey and rich cheese based on a recipe that dates back to the 16th century) and hand-made rye bread. Some of the villages look like film sets with stone cottages amidst granite rock formations or a church (Igreja de Santa Maria) clad entirely in hand-painted blue and white tiles.
During the colder months, the Serra da Estrela invites winter sports enthusiasts to try their skills on Portugal’s only ski course. If you explore the Serra da Estrela during spring, summer or autumn, you may encounter or be able to spot otters, foxes, wolves, wild boars, stags, the famous mountain lizard or several of the 150 bird species that live there – among them Eurasian eagle-owls, buzzards, golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
The magnificent scenery of several valleys was created by glaciers and offers outstanding and unique natural beauty. It is also the birthplace of two rivers: the Zêzere and the Mondego. You can become one with nature while meditating in a mountain retreat centre or explore the riches of the region – like the Golden Cliffs, pink quartz, granite-strewn plateaus and an abundance of flowers, herbs and trees – by foot, bicycle or kayak. The Serra da Estrela offers paths and trails which are suitable for any age group and fitness level and can range from one to eight hours. Extreme sports are an option, too.
If you plan on travelling to the Serra da Estrela from abroad, the nearest airport is Porto which is about 80 miles/130 km North-West of the natural park. It makes sense to rent a car to explore the scenic routes of this spectacular plateau with its breathtaking valleys. One of the most beautiful routes is a drive along the winding roads from Covilhã to Manteigas and from there to Piódão through the glacial valley of the Zêzere River.
If you come to the Serra da Estrela for skiing, it’s best to visit between December and March. The roads can get icy in winter and temperatures continue to drop quite significantly during the night until well into spring, therefore the best months for travelling the natural park are from June to September.
For the culturally interested travellers there are several museums within the Serra da Estrela natural park:
- Centro de Interpretacão da Serra da Estrela: This museum is a fantastic starting point when you are visiting the natural park. It provides a great overview of not only the history of the Serra da Estrela but also what you can expect when exploring the region. An informative short film that takes you flying around the highlights of the region and an interactive scale model of the natural park will provide helpful information for your travels.
- Bread museum: The Museu do Pão is the largest bread museum in the world and celebrates Portugal’s rich history and pure tradition of bread making. To this day, there are parts of the country in which bread is still baked with only flour, water, yeast and salt – no added ingredients or preservatives. Portuguese people are rightfully proud of their bread which plays a central role in their cuisine. The museum offers a multi-sensory experience to its visitors which includes getting your hands dirty if you wish to do so and/or tasting the museum’s own artisan bread of the month.
- Toy museum: If you are after unique souvenirs and true rarities you should visit the shop of the Museu do Brinquedo, a toy museum across the medieval bridge from Ponte de Lima. There you can dive deep into the history of Portuguese toy manufacturing with over 8000 toys from the 19th century until the 1980s on display and a toy workshop as well as a playroom to explore.
- Wool Museum: The former royal textile factory of Covilhã houses a wool museum. The region was once one of Europe’s biggest wool producers but now its mills stand empty. The museum explains the history behind it.
- Burel Factory: Burel is a fabric similar to felt and the most traditional wool fabric of the region. It is very dense, waterproof, high quality and still produced by hand on machines that date back as far as the 19th century. The factory experienced its golden years in the 1960s when it employed roundabout 1000 people. After having to close for several years, the Burel Factory was able to open and take up business again. You can take a tour and learn about its history before buying Burel products in the adjacent shop.
- Modern Art Museum: The Museum Museu Municipal de Arte Moderna Abel Manta is housed in a 17th-century building and pays homage to Abel Manta and other well-known Portuguese artists.
Further attractions include – just to name a few – the aforementioned Igreja de Santa Maria, a church that depicts the life of the Virgin Mary and features eleven altars; exploring the highest peak of mainland Portugal, Torre (1993); the magnificent waterfall Poço do Inferno; the 52m-high footbridge Ponte Pedonal Penedos Altos; and the local shepherd dog “cão de Serra da Estrela” that is assumedly one of the oldest breeds on the Iberian Peninsula.