Serra da Estrela, meaning ‘Mountain of the Stars’, lies at the heart of central Portugal.
This picturesque mountain range contains Continental Portugal’s highest peak, its largest and oldest nature conservation area – covering 1000 square kilometres – and the country’s only ski resort.
The region is made up of 14 counties, each with their own distinct landscapes and character.
Serra da Estrela is roughly:
• 1.5 hours from Coimbra
• 2 Hours from Porto
• 3 Hours from Lisbon
• 40 Minutes from the Spanish border (on the Eastern side of the mountain range)
The major roads are relatively direct, traffic-free and well maintained, with plenty of interesting stop-overs en route. There are also public transport options available.
The easiest way to get around in the mountains themselves is by car. The villages are accessible by winding roads – often with spectacular views – many can be walked, hiked or biked to for lunch and some have public transport access for those without a car.
Serra da Estrela’s relatively mild climate is influenced by the Atlantic ocean, which is only 66 km away. The air is extremely pure. In the late 1800s it was considered an ideal recovery destination for those suffering from lung complaints (primarily tuberculosis).
Summer: Serra da Estrela enjoys hot, sunny summers with temperatures averaging in the mid-30°s, occasionally reaching highs of 40°. Cool breezes often blow, making ideal weather for walking, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Rain is relatively infrequent.
From July to September, the weather is at its best and the natural pools, lakes and rivers are at their warmest, making it the best time of year for mountain swimming, kayaking, canyoning and lake sailing.
Winter: Like most mountainous regions, winters here are colder than in the lowlands. At this time of year, while there are still bright sunny days, a mist often creeps up the valleys, wrapping the mountain villages in mystery.
January to March is the coldest time of year, with the heaviest snowfall, making it ideal for winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, ice skating and sledding. Serra da Estrela is the only region in Portugal where these activities are possible!
Serra da Estrela is a landscape carved by ancient ice, formed 300 million years ago by the shifting of continental plates. The stone is mostly weathered granite and the mountain slopes are strewn with incredible boulders and Palaeozoic rock formations, hewn over millennia.
Its geological significance has made it a UNESCO recognised Geopark.
The Serra contains over 400 km of marked trails – with many more unmarked – varying from comfortable day hikes that end at a restaurant, to more intensive peak-climbs and expeditions.
The mountains are the source of the rivers Mondego, Zêzere and Alva, which rush and tumble through rocky, wooded valleys.
There is no shortage of beautiful streams, springs, waterfalls and swimmable natural pools – all crystal clear and hubs for wildlife.
Serra da Estrela contains 25 lakes – some glacial in origin, others reservoirs. The largest is Lagoa Comprida.
Fauna & Flora
Serra da Estrela possesses incredible floral diversity – with well over 1000 species of plant distributed throughout 32 habitat types.
The mountains are cultivated to the height of 900m, above which you will find Pyrenean Oak forests. Higher than 1600m you will encounter mainly heath and grasslands.
The mountain has many thickly forested areas, despite being affected by wildfires in recent years. The native woodlands contain wild chestnuts, European oak and juniper. Birch and willow grow by rivers and streams and, higher up the slopes, alpine conifer forests cloak the mountains’ flanks.
Serra da Estrela also shelters groves of rare sub-tropical cloud forest known as laurissilva – this being one of only two places in continental Portugal where it can be found.
In addition to a plethora of reptile and insect life, large mammals include wild boar, otter, genet, roe deer, wild cats, foxes, badgers and the occasional roaming wolf. The Serra is a national bat reserve.
Furthermore, over 150 bird species call these mountains home, making it an excellent bird-watching destination. Some spectacular residents include the Eurasian eagle-owl, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, griffon vulture and black stork.
Villages & Towns
Serra da Estrela is home to 40,000 people who mainly subsist on small-scale agriculture and herding.
The mountains contain many picturesque historic mountain villages, each with its own unique character and sights to see.
Some of the most best known include:
Linhares de Beira – a 12th century medieval village with a castle to climb over and explore, as well as nearby neolithic carvings. It is considered one of the best paragliding spot in Portugal!
Folgosinho – a small village known internationally for its remarkable food. Boasting a Medieval castle, natural swimming pool and spectacular views both up and down the mountain.
Loriga – often referred to as ‘Portuguese Switzerland’ due to its panoramic location in a glacial valley, surrounded by terraced alpine pastures. It is the closest town to the ski slopes.
Gouveia – a pretty town on the western slopes of the mountain. Here one finds many shops selling traditional products while enjoying the beautiful granite architecture and cobbled streets.
Manteigas – meaning ‘Butters’. Situated in the Zêzere valley. Here you can visit a local wool workshop where ‘burel’ wool – one of the warmest in the world – is woven from the fleeces of native sheep.
Sabugueiro – a 13th settlement, one of the highest in the mountains. Its name means ‘elderberry’. A tempting destination for walkers, it offers a prime example of the traditional regional way of life.
The region capital is the city of Guarda, located in the northeast corner of the mountain range. It is the highest city in Portugal at 1,056m altitude and is home to a spectacular, fortress-like cathedral.
Culture & Gastronomy
Serra da Estrela, unlike many parts of Portugal, is a region still thriving on its local products, heritage crafts and traditional ways of life – not to mention its famous gastronomy.
Shepherd Culture – The Serra is known throughout Portugal for its shepherds, who still accompany the native Serrana goats and Bordaleira sheep into the rich mountain pastures. The sheep’s milk is combined with mountain thistles to create the famous and delicious, melt-in-your-mouth Serra da Estrela cheese.
Accompanying the flocks you may also encounter the legendary Serra da Estrela dog. These handsome, amber-eyed mastiffs – treasured throughout Portugal – once protected the livestock from wolves and bears. They are now used by Portuguese military and police for patrol work, as well as continuing to accompany shepherds in their native mountains.
Food – Local cuisine is largely based around meat of extremely high quality. It is simple fare – regional staples eaten in much the same way for thousands of years – but always extremely flavourful and filling.
The meat is often stewed with wild mountain herbs and berries, served with seasonal vegetables and other typical side dishes, and accompanied by fresh sourdough or rye bread, olives and a jug of wine – some of which is produced locally on the southeast slopes of the mountain range.
A typical menu may include sumptuous steaks, roasted lamb or kid goat, smoked pork sausages and carnes de caça (hunted meat) including boar, venison, rabbit and various fowl.
You will also find fish dishes containing either sea-caught or local river fish. Vegetarian options are available in some restaurants, though not all (something to be aware of for visitors following a meat-free diet).
There are hundreds of cafés and restaurants in the area – not all of them traditional – catering to every clientele.
Festivities – This area is alive with seasonal goings-on throughout the year, all of which you are can be part of. These include concerts and music festivals, a cheese festival (among other cultural events), an eco-cinema festival, sporting events (including walking, running and mountain biking), and religious celebrations.
Heritage – The area’s rich heritage is interpreted at various museums and cultural centres throughout the mountains. Some must-see highlights are the bread museum in Seia, the wool museum in Manteigas and the cheese museum in Peraboa.
History – The region has much historical interest, ranging from neolithic structures, Roman ruins, Moorish and Medieval castles and fortifications, to several centuries’ worth of churches and even modern art.
Interestingly, Serra da Estrela is also something of a Jewish cultural centre in Portugal – many fled to the mountains to hide after 1536, when Portugal’s church joined the Spanish Inquisition. You can still find Jewish influences throughout the region, both in architecture and cuisine, and a small community of Sephardi Jews persists here to this day.
Follow any of the links in this text to learn more about the region.