Mainland Portugal’s highest mountain, at 1993 metres altitude, is called the Estrela, which means Star. I’m fortunate that the Serra da Estrela mountain range is only an hour and a half drive from where I live in central Portugal but it’s about 3 hours from Lisbon and 2.5 from Porto.
Dotted with remote villages, river beaches and patches of forest, the dramatically beautiful landscape is strewn with granite boulders that form interesting shapes like devil’s horns and an old man’s head.
This magnificent mountain range is the largest protected area in the country and Portugal’s only ski resort.
Not being a fan of the cold or getting stuck on icy roads, I have no strong desire to drive up there in the winter, although people often do it just to see the snow. I did accidentally go snow hiking in the Serra da Estrela, which was other-worldly.
If you do fancy a snow experience you can enjoy the area fully on this excursion from some of the major cities.
It’s also where the famous Serra da Estrela sheep’s cheese comes from so it’s not uncommon to hear the muted clanging of sheep and goat bells near the villages.
You can sample some cheese and wonderful landscapes on this half day off road tour.
As well as cheese, you’ll also find woolen socks and sheepskin slippers and rugs for sale in local shops. Even it’s not practical for you to buy a whole cheese, I recommend having a sandwich while you’re there.
Hiking in the Serra da Estrela
Sadly, as in much of Portugal, hiking independently in the Serra da Estrela is still a rather hit and miss affair. The Visit Portugal website claims that there are 375 km of marked trails but it can be a challenge to track them down and follow a whole one from start to finish.
If you’re on holiday, I recommend going with a guide if possible to make sure you don’t get lost, like I’ve done on several occasions.
At the very least, make sure you’ve got a trail route downloaded onto your phone but it’s best to check with your accommodation or the Serra da Estrela Interpretation Centre (CISE) to find out about the status of local routes before setting off.
Here are some of my experiences of walking in these mountains:
Lapa dos Dinheiros Rota da Caniça trail
I did this marked 7 km circular trail with Helen from Espirito da Liberdade, who also drove me there from a town near Coimbra, as part of the service that she offers to clients who want to explore the trails in central Portugal on foot.
Starting in the village of Lapa dos Dinheiros, we followed the hiking trail through an ancient forest to reach the river beach. Even though it was out of season, the water is crystal clear and inviting.
We took a slight detour to see some waterfalls then enjoyed the views on the way to the irrigation channels that lead to a quirky rock formation called Cornos do Diabo. The return to the village was through a pine forest and offered amazing views of the surrounding landscape.
The PR10 (SEI) Rota da Caniça walk was challenging in parts, so it was comforting to go with someone who knows the route and to have the back up of a support vehicle waiting nearby. It is quite well marked so in theory you could do it independently but make sure you are adequately equipped and reasonably fit – it’s not suitable for everyone.
If you want to stay overnight in lapa dos Dinheiros, there’s actually a beautiful, modern 5-star hotel in the village with 3 pools and a spa, called Casas da Lapa Nature & Spa Hotel.
A botched attempt at walking the Shepherd’s Path
In the part of the mountain range known as Penhas da Saude (Crags of Health), the fresh mountain air was found to be beneficial for people suffering from tuberculosis and a sanitorium was built here in 1944, along with private houses.
Nowadays, a motley collection of houses, hotels and cafés mildly mars the natural beauty of the landscape but you only need to walk a short distance to be well away from manmade structures.
My friend and I set off confidently from our hotel, map in hand, intending to walk the Senda dos Pastores (Shepherd’s Path). It wasn’t long before we started to wonder how useful the route leaflet would prove to be. The short answer is not very!
Unless things have improved in the last couple of years, there are no trail markers and, although the landscape is spectacular, it was impossible to follow the trail.
We did have an adventure trying to work out where to go, and met some goats and a giant sheepdog, but in the end, we abandoned hope and followed the road back to our hotel rather than risk getting lost in the mountains. Next time, I want a guide!
Walking to “the naval” at Covão dos Conchas
You may have seen mysterious photos of a magical-looking sink hole in a lake in Portugal and it’s nickname is the naval, as in belly button. It’s actually an overflow pipe that drains from the small Covão dos Conchas lake into the Lagoa Comprida reservoir.
I’ve done this easy linear walk (approx 10 km in total there and back) several times now and felt confident enough to try it without a guide the last time I went as it’s quite straightforward and also a popular route so there are other walkers around should you need help.
I still haven’t seen it at its photogenic best – it’s either been covered in ice or the water level has been so low that you can see the rim of the concrete pipe, which removes the mystery and magic somewhat. But it’s still a nice walk and you can swim in Lagoa Comprida when you make your way back to the car park.
Practicalities: If doing this without a guide, park at Lagoa Comprida and follow the trail behind the café/gift shop, passing the lake on your right. When you reach a house overlooking the lake, keep left at the fork to stay on the main trail and follow it around to the smaller lake. When you’re done, retrace your steps.
Panoramic Walking Route of the Loriga Valley
We asked in the local tourist information office about hiking trails near Loriga and chose the easiest one, a circular route that took around 2 hours.
This was a largely successful walk with good views and a reasonably well-marked trail, at the time. You can read more about our experience of the walk and river beach in my article about Loriga.
Other things to see and do in the Serra da Estrela
Look out for rock formations
Although the landscape varies considerably within the Serra da Estrela, there’s no escaping the mounds of rounded granite boulders that litter it.
Much like cloud formations, only more permanent, some of these clusters resemble animals or humans. One of the most famous is the Cabeça do Velho (Old Man’s Head) on the N232 between the villages of Gouveias and Manteigas.
Visit Manteigas to see a traditional wool factory/museum with a twist
Once you start the descent into Manteigas, however, the road meanders through mature pine forest before reaching the glacial valley in which the village sits. If you don’t like hairpin bends, this is not for you!
For me, the highlight of the village is the Burel factory, which used the original machinery to process wool then turn it into colourful, modern pieces. You can read more about the Burel fabric and factory in this article.
In theory, there is a walking trail through the village but, even armed with maps, we were unable to successfully follow the Village Route so I suggest you do what we did and just pick streets that look interesting.
Poço do Inferno waterfall
In English, Poço do Inferno means Hell’s Well, which is a strange name for such a pretty spot. I’m sure it’s much scarier in winter when the full force of the waterfall is surging through the rocks but in summer there’s barely a trickle pouring into the pool of clear water.
Just make sure you’re wearing non-slip shoes because you’ll need to negotiate some awkward steps around the rocks to get to a rickety wooden bridge to fully appreciate the waterfall.
There is, in theory, another hiking trail that incorporates Poço do Inferno but either I’m simply incompetent when it comes to using these leaflets or they just aren’t as practical as they need to be.
Whatever the case, we got a bit lost, scrambled through a forest and made it back to the car in one piece. Eventually.
River beaches in the Serra da Estrela
Loriga river beach
This idyllic spot was voted one of the 7 Wonders of Portugal and I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. The icy water was a shock to the system but the setting was perfect. Read more about about Loriga and it’s lovely river beach.
Not sure what river beaches in Portugal are all about? Read this article.
Lapa dos Dinheiros river beach
I haven’t been there when it’s operational between July and August but it’s an inviting spot. The water won’t be deep enough to swim in until they put the boards in to dam the river and create a pool but its crystal clear and surrounded by granite boulders and trees.
Unhais da Serra
Unhais da Serra is a picturesque village to the south of the Serra da Estrela mountains with a river running through it. Just outside the village, there is a recreational area and again, although it wasn’t the season for river beaches when I visited, it’s clear that this is used as one in the summer and it is a gorgeous spot.
If you want to stay overnight, there are several options including a 4-star hotel with spa, indoor and outdoor pools and a hydrotherapy circuit. For a more traditional country house type accommodation with pool, try Quinta da Vargem.
Lagoa do Vale do Rossim
You can swim in the lake at Vale do Rossim and there’s a café/restaurant as well as an Eco Resort on site if you want to stay overnight. In the summer months, you can also kayak or go out on the lake on pedaloes.
Where to stay in the Serra da Estrela
As well as the places I’ve mentioned for individual villages, there are several other options, including these:
I’ve stayed at Casas das Penhas Douradas near Manteigas which I would happily recommend. It’s run by the same people responsible for reviving Burel, the traditional woollen material that’s recently become fashionable. You’ll see plenty of examples of Burel in its many colours and applications in the stylish design hotel that fits in well with its surroundings. It also has a heated indoor pool and a lovely spa. You can hire bikes and they provide free kayaks for use at the nearby lake plus information about local walks.
If you’re less fussy about sympathetic architecture, the yellow and black Hotel Serra da Estrela in Penhas da Saude may look quite garish but it’s a reasonably comfortable base and good value for money.
For cosy stone cottages that are pet and family-friendly and clustered around a natural swimming pool, Chão do Rio near Seia is an excellent option.
If you like farm stays with style and charm, Madre de Água Hote Rural de Charme near Gouveia is ideal. They produce wine, cheese and olive oil and have plenty of animals – you can even participate in farming activities if you wish. There’s also a pool and it’s pet-friendly.
If you want to stay in Covilhã, where there’s a train station, Puralã – Wool Valley Hotel & SPA is a good option with a pool.
Getting to Serra da Estrela
Public transport is extremely limited and may be non-existent at the weekend so you’re much better off exploring with a car, if possible, or using a tour operator to get you there.
There are trains to Covilhã but you’d need a car or taxi from there to get into the mountains.
Here are my Tips For Hiring A Car In Portugal.
BEFORE YOU GO...
If you're interested in visiting or moving to Portugal, why not get my free insider tips and resources?
These emails include new blog posts and relevant products, services and special offers.