Over the years, I’ve written about some of my favourite traditional villages in Portugal, most of which are actually part of a network called Aldeias Históricas de Portugal. Under this official umbrella, there are 12 villages, all within the Centro region of Portugal.
Most of them used to be border towns with a clear defensive role and therefore have the remains of medieval castles and fortresses to explore. They are all steeped in history and legends with local crafts and produce to boot.
These villages are so fascinating that a video called ‘Heart and Soul’ has won World’s Best Tourism Film by People’s Vote in the CIFFT “People’s Choice” Award 2021.
Until very recently, I had only been to 9 of the 12 villages but the International Cultural Sustainable Destinations Without Borders summit took me to Idanha-a-Velha, my 10th. It seemed only right to make a point of visiting the remaining two before returning home.
During this summit, the Historical Villages of Portugal became the first Portuguese destination to receive Biosphere Destination certification from the Responsible Tourism Institute, accredited by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). This means that you can be confident that each of the 12 villages has embraced sustainable tourism so that local people benefit and the environment doesn’t suffer.
Given the unique features of these villages, it’s not that easy to pick favourites, although I do get asked about this. To that end, I have ranked them in order of personal preference based on my interests. If you have a strong desire to learn about local Jewish or military history, you would no doubt order these differently.
1. Monsanto, the village of boulders
While Monsanto is not the only Portuguese village to feature gigantic boulders as part of the architecture, it is the most impressive in that respect. The remains of its hilltop castle and Romanesque chapel are also worth exploring and the views are amazing.
Amid the maze of cobbled streets, you’ll find a handful of restaurants and craft shops as well as the basics for daily life. If you are at all interested in musical instruments, check out the square Adufe drums.
There are walking trails nearby and the surrounding landscape is encompassed within the Naturtejo Geopark.
Where to stay in Monsanto
More information in this article: Marvelling At Monsanto, A Very Special Village In Central Portugal
If you don’t want to drive in Portugal but wish to visit some of these beautiful villages, check out my 3-day Historical Villages Tour (from Coimbra).
Top tip: If you can make your own way to this area (Monsanto, Sortelha, Penha Garcia) but want to learn more on a guided tour, you can arrange a customised tour from a local tour operator by completing the form on this page.
2. Sortelha, a legendary village
Like Monsanto, Sortelha enjoys remarkable views over a boulder-strewn landscape from its hilltop location. The castle and citadel are contained within the medieval stone walls so you’ll have lots of fun exploring battlements and finding the different gates to the village.
Stone cottages are sprinkled over the rocky area and some contain a couple of good restaurants and cafés as well as shops where you can sample local liqueurs or purchase handwoven baskets or mats.
Where to stay in Sortelha
More information in this article: Sortelha, One Of The Best Historical Villages In Portugal
3. Piodão, a picture perfect schist village
To my mind, Piodão belongs within the schist villages network but I suspect that this didn’t exist at the time when the 12 Aldeias Históricas were being chosen. Nestled in the Açor Mountain range to the west of the Serra da Estrela, the slopes surrounding this cluster of schist stone cottages have been manipulated into tiny terraced fields. The village itself spreads upwards across one of these slopes and is the stuff of postcards.
Piodão is particularly atmospheric around Christmas time but the river beach adds to its appeal in the summer months. Spring and autumn are ideal for venturing out on one of the walking trails that emanate from the village centre – I suggest walking to Foz d’Egua to see the bridges.
If you get hungry, you’ll find opportunities to fill up on local sheep’s cheese and presunto as well as heartier meals. Woollen clothing, slippers and toys as well as other local crafts are easy to find.
Where to stay in Piodão
More information: Picturesque Piodão, A Historical Schist Village In Central Portugal
4. Marialva for medieval charm
Marialva is the northernmost village in the network and the closest to the prehistoric rock art in Foz Côa. The village itself is quaint, and full of cottages and houses built from chunky granite stones. Some, like Casa do Leão, have interesting sculptures, too.
The castle is the most significant feature, with medieval patterns in the footpaths and a largely intact watchtower. The village’s Jewish heritage is evident in the building that houses the tourist information centre.
Where to stay in Marialva
The Casas do Côro complex of restored cottages is the place to stay if you want luxury and relaxation in a beautiful setting. If this is beyond your budget or too fancy for your tastes, try the more rustic yet cosy Casas das Freiras
5. Belmonte, for Jewish and Portuguese history
The historical centre of Belmonte merges with more modern accommodation, unlike most of the walled historical villages. That said, it has more to offer than the others in terms of museums. I haven’t yet been to the Jewish Museum, although I have been for a wander around the medieval Jewish Quarter.
While little remains of Belmonte castle beyond its walls, it’s still worth a visit so you can peer over the battlements. I particularly enjoyed the small church of St. James, which has been turned into a mini museum and contains beautiful stone capitals and 15th century frescoes. It also houses the remains of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the Portuguese explorer who ‘discovered’ Brazil.
You can learn more about his exploits in the interactive Discoveries Museum. The nearby Olive Oil Museum would be more interesting if there were information in English to explain how the spruced up machinery worked, although there are some diagrams. You can sample and buy locally produced olive oil here.
Where to stay in Belmonte
6. Idanha-a-Velha for Roman epigraphs and artefacts
When I visited Idanha-a-Velha, there was a summit being hosted in the old cathedral, Santa Maria church so it was livelier than usual. Even so, it’s clear that this is not a ghost town and there’s a pleasant café in the village centre and a few interesting monuments worth checking out. It also benefits from having information plaques and signage in English and Portuguese so you can get a better understanding of local history.
The Lagar de Varas is an impressive community olive press with entire tree trunks used as levers to press the olives. Idanha-a-Velha also has an impressive collection of Roman epigraphs both scattered around the cathedral and in a supposedly interactive display that wasn’t working at the time. Archaeological investigations have revealed much about the Romans and subsequent occupants and are still ongoing.
Also of note is the Roman bridge, the stepping stones across the River Pônsul and a massive holm oak tree growing out of the citadel walls.
Where to stay in Idanha-a-Velha
There aren’t currently any accommodations in the village although in a few years that will change. For now, look to Monsanto for nearest lodgings.
7. Castelo Rodrigo, small but charming
There’s not much left of Castelo Rodrigo’s castle, although you can still clamber around its ruins. The pillory has weathered well and there are lots of cute streets and stone cottages. There’s at least one café serving and selling local produce.
The medieval cistern was possibly also used in part as a Mikveh before King Manuel I ordered the expulsion of Jews. You’ll spot other traces of Jewish heritage around the village, such as Hebrew inscriptions in some of the lintels and stonework.
Where to stay in Castelo Rodrigo
Casa da Cisterna is a delightful set of stone cottages with access to an infinity pool overlooking the countryside. Ana can also take you to see the rock art site at Foz Côa and provide dinner if you arrange it in advance.
8. Linhares da Beira, huge rocks and swallows
Mike and I made a slight detour to visit this charming little village on our way to Spain. If you can’t make it to Monsanto, this comes a close second in terms of finding buildings with massive boulders as part of the structure. Just take a stroll around the village streets and you’ll spot several examples.
As with many of these historical villages, the key attraction is the castle. Linhares da Beira Castle is built onto a gigantic rocky outcrop and when we visited in June, swarms of swallows kept zooming in and out of holes in the keep. They weren’t alone in the sky – this is a popular spot for paragliding, too.
Within the castle walls, there are some interesting sculptures and walkways to help you fully appreciate the views over the plains below and the Serra da Estrela Mountains behind.
There are a couple of decent restaurants here and some cafés plus a picnic area near the castle. We didn’t have time to try the walking trail that leaves from here but it looks interesting.
Where to stay in Linhares da Beira
By far the largest hotel in the village is the INATEL Rural Hotel, which is in a beautiful historical building with tennis courts, gardens and an outdoor pool.
If you prefer cosy cottage style accommodation, try Casa Pissara.
9. Castelo Mendo for great views and walls
Castelo Mendo is the last of the 12 villages that I visited and I was debating whether to make the detour or save it for another day. As soon as I spotted it in the distance, I knew I’d made the right choice. I just wish I’d had time (and company) to do the walking trail down to the Côa River and back – the scenery here is just my cup of tea and was full of autumn colours.
The village is still enclosed by its medieval walls and as I wandered around, I found several gates to the citadel as well as charming cottages. The main square contains a pillory, parish church and a 16th century house with a pillared balcony. Sadly, there’s no information in English unless you check the Aldeias Históricas website.
The highlight is the ruins of Santa Maria do Castelo church, which are open for exploration. Follow the path through the Castelinho gate for expansive views over the countryside.
Where to stay in Castelo Mendo
At the time of writing, I could only find one accommodation in the village itself, namely a cute self-catering cottage called Casa da Cidadela.
Alternatives would be the attractive cottage complex with pool at Carya Tallaya or somewhere in Almeida (see #10 below).
10. Almeida fortress town
If you’re interested in military history and architecture, Almeida is the village for you. Within an underground defence space, you’ll find the military museum with interactive displays to get you up to speed with Portuguese history as far back as the middle ages. The Peninsular War and the invasion and siege of Almeida get a special focus.
The rest of the village is a mixture of cottages, cobbled streets, manor houses with coats of arms of important families, churches and chapels and the walls and gates of the 17th century fortress. If you’re into horses, you might want to check out the Picadeiro riding arena and stables that was once an artillery store.
You’ll find cafés, a few restaurants, grocery stores and the normal day to day services.
Where to stay in Almeida
The best hotel in Almeida is the 4-star Hotel Fortaleza de Almeida.
11. Castelo Novo in the Serra da Gardunha
Originally under the auspices of the Knights Templar during the 13th century, Castelo Novo was further embellished in the Manueline and Baroque periods to produce an attractive village with lots of interesting features. It’s backed by the rugged mountains of the Serra da Gardunha which, before the fires, would have been absolutely stunning. They will be again, but it will take time.
The village is undamaged so you can explore that at will. I found the various route markers a little confusing and in the end, I just roamed around randomly. I think I managed to see all there is to see, including the pillory and town hall, the hangman’s stone, castle, Bica fountain and the 7th century Lusitanian wine press (lagariça).
At the entrance to the village, you’ll see signs for a river beach (praia fluvial) which would be good in summer months.
O Lagarto is a good, typically Portuguese restaurant for a hearty meal.
Where to stay in Castelo Novo
12. Trancoso, castle, Jewish history and more
To me, Trancoso seemed to be more of a town than a village, although its historical heart is still a labyrinth of cobbled streets, including the Jewish quarter. The castle dates back to Moorish occupation in the 10th century and was taken over by the first Portuguese king in the 12th century.
Mike and I found a pleasant place for lunch in a colonnaded street just within the citadel walls but I’m afraid I can’t recall the name. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés to choose from though.
The statue outside the town hall is Gonçalo Anes Bandarra, a famous 16th century poet, prophet and cobbler from Trancoso. His lyrics, based on the Old Testament, could be interpreted in both a Christian and Jewish sense and were used by both faiths. Because of this, he ended up facing the Inquisition in Lisbon.
A less well-loved Trancoso character is Reverend Francisco da Costa, who was such a sex addict that he fathered either 244 or 275 children, depending on the source, and even impregnated his own mother, aunt and sisters. Sentenced to be dragged through the streets before being dismembered, he was given a last minute reprieve by King João II as thanks for increasing the local population in a low density area!
Where to stay in Trancoso
Solar Sampaio e Melo is a beautifully renovated manor house within the old walls.
Practicalities for visiting the historical villages of Portugal
Given the remote location of most of these villages, the best way to get to and between them is by car – see my tips for renting a car in Portugal – but only if you are comfortable with driving on narrow winding roads.
It’s possible to visit a few nearby villages in one day but they’re quite spread out so consult the map and check driving times before deciding which ones you can reasonably fit into your itinerary.
Some of these villages make a great base for exploring the other attractions in the surrounding area so you might like to plan for overnight stays.
That said, if you are a keen cyclist or hiker, you could visit some or all of them over an extended period by following the Grande Rota trail that links them. Let me know if you want me to connect you with a local tour operator that offers self-guided or guided walking and cycling holidays in this area.