Views, Serra da Estrela

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.

Road through the Serra da Estrela Mountains in Central Portugal
Road through the Serra da Estrela Mountains in Central Portugal

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.

Lagoa Comprida in the snow, Serra da Estrela, Portugal
Lagoa Comprida in the snow, Serra da Estrela

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.

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 

Views on the Lapa dos Dinheiros hike in Serra da Estrela, Portugal
Views on the Lapa dos Dinheiros walk in Serra da Estrela

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. 

Cornos do Diabo - Devil's Horns rock, Serra da Estrela
Cornos do Diabo – Devil’s Horns rock, Serra da Estrela

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!

Goats grazing with Torre in the background, Serra da Estrela
Goats grazing with Torre in the background, Serra da Estrela

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.

Naval, Serra da Estrela
Naval, Serra da Estrela

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.

Terraced fields, Loriga, Serra da Estrela
Terraced fields, Loriga, Serra da Estrela

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.

Cabeça do Velho, Serra da Estrela
Cabeça do Velho, Serra da Estrela

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.

Wool machine, Burel factory, Manteigas, Portugal
Wool machine, Burel factory, Manteigas
Burel cut outs ready for sticking and stitching
Burel cut outs ready for sticking and stitching

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. 

Encounter traditional architecture in the calm cobbled streets of mountain villages
Encounter traditional architecture in the calm cobbled streets of mountain villages

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.

Bridge, Poço do Inferno, Serra da Estrela
Bridge, Poço do Inferno, Serra da Estrela

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.

Infinity pool, Loriga river beach, Serra da Estrela
Infinity pool, Loriga river beach, Serra da Estrela

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.

Lapa dos Dinheiros river beach, out of season, Serra da Estrela
Lapa dos Dinheiros river beach, out of season

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.

Weir, Unhais da Serra, Serra da Estrela, Portugal
Weir, Unhais da Serra, Serra da Estrela, Portugal

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.

Pedaloes, Vale de Rossim river beach, Serra da Estrela, Portugal
Pedaloes, Vale de Rossim river beach, Serra da Estrela, Portugal

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.

Casa das Penhas Douradas
Casa das Penhas Douradas

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.

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12 Comments

  1. I’d like to visit Cabeca do Velho and other rock formations. I have short time to do this, and exact place is important me.
    How far are they from Manteigas route N232

    thanks
    Jul

  2. Hi Julie. thank you for the information. we are planing a trip to Serra da Estrela in the end of august.
    Have you been there in the summer?i am a bit concerned because of the heat.
    thank you
    Hagit

    1. Author

      Hi Hagit, yes. I went in August and because of the altitude, it was pleasant, rather than sweltering. Still hot but bearable unless you plan on doing strenuous trekking.

  3. Lovely post Julie and great photos. We used to live about 80km from Serra da Estrela and would go there usually once or twice in winter to take the kids to see the snow.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Sami. I am curious as to how it all looks in the winter but I hate driving in snow so I’m not sure how soon I’ll get around to it 🙂

    1. Author

      Hi Brid, Likewise, I’m ‘glad’ it’s not just me! Your trip sounds great, by the way. You managed to pack in quite a lot in two weeks!

  4. A beautifully descriptive piece, Julie, accompanied by wonderful photos! Most enjoyable!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Vivienne! Glad you enjoyed it. Have you been for a drive in the Serra yet? Even if you’re not up to walking far, there are plenty of viewpoints along the road and the scenery is fabulous.

    1. Author

      Hi Peter, they are the very ones I had such problems with. The pack looks fabulous and the map and leaflet really seemed promising but in practice, they fell short. I couldn’t identify the start of the walks or find signs to indicate where to go when necessary. Perhaps if you’re using them in conjunction with good GPS gadget, it might work but I found the GPS signal on my phone disappeared just when I was trying to work out where we had ended up to and establish how to get back to the car without simply retracing our steps.
      We tried two of the 10 walks in the pack.

      I got on much better with a leaflet I picked up in Loriga that described the walk in words, telling me when to turn left and right and what to look at at various points along the trail. Even though it would have been nice to have a route map, the descriptions helped me to know I was on the right track and provided interesting facts at the right times.

Over to you. Please share your thoughts in a comment.