Whether you’re after a fairy-tale palace, war museums, magnificent views, an old convent or a wander through Portugal’s finest collection of national and imported trees, Bussaco is the place to go. Which explains why this 250-acre forest is such a popular weekend picnic spot and worthy tourist destination.
Only 30 km from the pretty city of Coimbra and 3 km from the spa town of Luso, it’s an easy day trip from most places in central Portugal.
Bussaco palace hotel
The Portuguese royal family liked Bussaco forest so much they had a summer palace and hunting lodge built in the centre of the woods. The palace itself wasn’t completed until 1907, leaving the royal family very little time to enjoy it before the monarchy finally came to an end in 1910.
Luckily for wealthy tourists, the king’s chef got permission to turn the elaborate, neo-Manueline embellished building into a posh hotel which continues to provide luxury accommodation over 100 years later.
Even if you’re not staying at the Bussaco Palace Hotel, you can go inside for a nosy around the ground floor to take a peek at the azulejos and period furniture and decor.
Or for 35 or 40 Euros (not including drinks) you could treat yourself to lunch under the arches of the terrace restaurant overlooking the sculpted shrubbery and flowers of the well-tended gardens.
If the hotel’s restaurant is out of your price range, you could come prepared with a picnic and find a shady spot at one of the many picnic tables dotted around the forest. There is also a café next to the information centre for snacks and refreshments.
If you want salads and nice cakes, just outside Porta da Rainha, Casa Santos is a delightful coffee house and lounge with a spacious terrace that offers nice views.
Long before tourism brought people to Buçaco, an order of barefoot Carmelite monks took over the management of the forest from the Benedictine monks in 1628. They promptly built a wall around it, constructed a monastery and set about conserving and propagating the flora.
While this work was going on, two papal decrees were issued; women were banned from the forest so the monks would not be distracted and anyone daring to cut down a tree was to be excommunicated.
These measures, and the dedication of the monks, paid off and Buçaco is now Portugal’s most diverse forest. It’s home to over 400 native species of plants and 300 varieties brought home by Portuguese explorers from such far flung places as Mexico, Japan and Africa.
Carmelite convent in Bussaco
Although the Portuguese government took over the forest in 1834 when they abolished the monasteries, there are still plenty of monastic relics to experience.
Much of the original convent was destroyed to make room for the palace but there’s still enough left to warrant the nominal entrance fee. Namely stone floors, cork-lined doors, ceilings and walls, 16th century blue and yellow tiled altars with painted flower displays and enormous religious paintings on the walls.
Sadly, the rare and important painting of the Virgin Mary offering her breast to the baby Jesus by the renowned Portuguese artist, Josefa d’Obidos was seemingly destroyed in a mysterious fire a few years ago.
Military history and the Battle of Buçaco
As well as the azulejos painted with scenes from the Battle of Buçaco in 1810, one of the monks’ cells has been set aside for battle memorabilia.
Napoleon’s troops were defeated here, marking the turning point in his attempted invasion of Portugal. The Duke of Wellington slept in the convent at night during the conflict.
For those who want more military history, there’s a small museum just outside the ‘Portas da Rainha / Queen’s Gates’ and a memorial obelisk nearby with views of the Serra da Estrela mountains.
Walks through Buçaco forest
Otherwise, after admiring the striking patterns made by the monks in black, white and orange pebbles that cover the convent walls, why not go for a walk? There are plenty of routes to choose from and they are fairly well signposted but we found it impossible to follow any of the coloured trails marked on the map from the tourist information centre!
To discover more religious artifacts, head away from the convent along the Via Sacra (Way of the Cross) and discover the series of chapels that house life-sized terracotta figures representing Christ’s journey to the cross at Calvary.
If you’re feeling really fit, you can follow this path up to its conclusion, the enormous ‘Cruz Alta / High Cross’ that stands at an altitude of 551 metres. Those with less energy and a car can take the easy option and drive to the summit. Either way, the panoramic view across Coimbra to Aveiro makes it well worth the climb; on a clear day, you can see the Atlantic Ocean.
If you’re after a more gentle stroll, the Vale dos Fetos (Fern Valley) provides a magical experience shaded by giant ferns from New Zealand with trickling streams that lead to a lake. Wander around it to discover grottos and poems.
Alternatively, follow the water of the Fonte Fria (Cold Spring) as it makes its way down 144 steps to the lake, making sure you find a less grueling way through the forest back up the hill.
The spa town of Luso
Just a few kilometres down the hill from Bussaco is the small village of Luso, which is a bit like a mini Sintra. Its waters are famed throughout Portugal and you’ll find queues of people waiting to fill up their water bottles from the São João fountain.
The water here has curative properties and, coupled with an attractive setting, it became a spa resort, hence the somewhat surprising number of accommodations in the village. The main spa, Termas de Luso, is still in operation, with a menu of treatments that ranges from multi-day packages to half day beauty and relaxation therapies.
Luso is one of many interesting towns around Coimbra. If you’d like to find out about others, take a look at my Small Towns Near Coimbra You Should Visit post.
Where to stay near Bussaco or Luso
Sadly, the Palace Hotel bedrooms are in need of renovation so I would hesitate to stay overnight there.
A better option would be the modernised 4-star Art Deco Grande Hotel de Luso, which has a tunnel connecting it to the Termas de Luso spa facilities and a large outdoor pool. Check availability and prices
Practicalities for visiting Bussaco National Forest
Getting to Bussaco: It’s about a 30 minute drive from Coimbra. Alternatively, you can take the train to Luso and walk or a cab from there to the forest gates.
I’ve included a morning in this delightful spot in two of my fully managed Portugal itineraries.
Go Walks Portugal offer a 1 Day Bussaco Enchanted Forests and Palaces Tour from Coimbra or other hotels in the area. Get a 5% discount by using this code when you book: JULIE5
If you’re based in Coimbra you can take this half day tour of the palace, garden, forest and include a visit to Luso. Or you can explore just the forest on this half day tour.
If you’re in a group of 10 or more, contact the forest foundation to arrange a guided tour. The foundation organises a range of activities and events, although mostly in Portuguese, such as night walks, children’s adventures and Sundays in the Valley of Ferns. Check the website or contact them for more details.