How to make the most of central Portugal

Kirsten Henton

Kirsten Henton

You've been to Lisbon, sampled the best of Porto and hit the beaches of the Algarve* - maybe you're ready to experience a very different Portugal? We have just the region for you.

'Centro Portugal' is often overlooked by holidaymakers but those in the know are well aware of its beguiling qualities. There's everything you could possibly wish for in this under-developed area that prides itself on its sweeping beaches, natural attractions, UNESCO sites and burgeoning arts and festival scenes. It's the place to enjoy laid-back Portugal at its finest.

Portugal's wild Atlantic coast
Portugal's wild Atlantic coast © Alex Reshnya - Adobe Stock Image

Where to stay in Portugal: there's no denying that central Portugal is best discovered with a hire car and your own schedule. A great way to make this happen is by booking a private holiday rental with VRBO*, which has a huge selection of houses, villas and apartments to choose from, all at competitive rates.

Get trekking

Much of central Portugal's outdoor appeal focuses on its wild Atlantic coast. It attracts everyone from surfers to hikers, and rightly so. Wide, open beaches at the likes of Figueira da Foz, Nazaré and Peniche are very inviting, while the Foz de Arelho boardwalk offers splendid vantage points out to sea, best experienced at sunset or sunrise.

Beaches to the south of Peniche
Beaches to the south of Peniche © Fw42 - Flickr CC BY 2.0

However, it's not all about the shoreline: a wonderful day out can be had in the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park. Much under-visited, you'll find a network of walking trails from 2 km to more than 15 km in length that will take you past old wooden shepherds' huts, medieval castles, salt pans and impressive limestone formations.

Other sights here include the Dinosaur Footprints Monument and underground caves such as Mira de Aires.

Become a surf pro

Lapped by the lively waves of the Atlantic Ocean is a 279 km stretch of central Portugal that has cemented the country's place in the top rankings of world surf destinations.

There are beaches for every ability from low-rolling waves for beginners all the way up to Nazaré, home to the internationally-recognised biggest wave in the world for the pros.

Nazaré - a world-renowned surfing destination
Nazaré - a world-renowned surfing destination © João Calheiros/Wirestock - Adobe Stock Image

The region hosts a number of tournaments including no fewer than five surfing competitions close to Santa Cruz and MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal each autumn. The latter is a hugely popular surfing contest held at Supertubos (meaning Super Tubes, so-called as the waves here curl into elongated tubes) near the coastal town of Peniche.

You won't struggle to find a surf school along the coast but for lessons with experienced, patient and super-friendly teachers, you can't beat booking with the team at Noah Beach House.

Lessons include a wetsuit, board, full instruction and in-water tuition. What's more, you'll return nice and hungry to the perfect spot for a post-surf feast including freshly grilled fish of the day.

Take a boat trip

Surfing may be the number one sport in these parts but there are plenty of other ways to strike out onto the water from SUP sessions and kayaking to boat tours. The Natural Reserve of Berlengas is good for a day trip, with boats setting off on the short 15 km-journey to the main island of the small archipelago, Berlengas Grande.

The 17th-century São João Baptista Fort, Berlengas
The 17th-century São João Baptista Fort, Berlengas © Nikolai Sorokin - Adobe Stock Image

The island is known for its striking São João Baptista Fort, or Fort of the Berlengas. Construction began in earnest from the middle of the 17th century and today it is still regarded as one of the country's most impressive military fortifications.

Top tip: if you're susceptible to seasickness, pack travel sickness pills as the Atlantic can deliver a bumpy ride.

On a trip to Berlengas Grande, you can take in this historic spectacle and learn about the island's history as a hazardous point for ships, hike inland, swim and snorkel off its coast or settle in for some bird watching on this rock much-loved by migratory seabirds.

A more sedate boat trip can be found on Óbidos Lagoon, the largest saltwater lagoon in Portugal. Here, Miguel Azevedo e Castro of InterTidal runs expert cruises - among other activites - in a compact, dog-friendly boat.

The still waters of Óbidos Lagoon
The still waters of Óbidos Lagoon © Miguel A Castro - Adobe Stock Image

Tours can be tailored to include a stop for a hike, picnic or bike ride. It's also worth checking to see if there's an option for wine-tasting onboard. This is held in conjunction with young, local winery Quinta Várzea da Pedra, and there's nowhere better to sample these fine wines than out on the lagoon with the wind in your hair and flamingoes looking on.

Discover historic towns

The centre of Portugal cradles some of the country's most important historical and spiritual sites. Firstly, there's the renowned literary town of Óbidos*, perched high on a hill and ringed by a fortified wall.

Go for the countless bookshops, bougainvillaea wrapped buildings and cobbled streets; stay for the many annual festivals and sheer charm of this delightful - if not entirely secret - town.

Then there's Caldas da Rainha, home to sulphur-rich waters that led to the creation of the oldest purpose-built thermal spa in the world, dating from the 15th century. Caldas da Rainha is also where sculptor Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro set up his factory in the 19th-century producing life-like ceramics that remain familiar today.

Grab a map from the local tourist office and take on the short Rota Bordallo (or, Bordallo Route), which weaves you past many glazed creations on the pavements, up the side of buildings and even hanging from the trees.

Top tip: for a detailed guide to the history of Caldas da Rainha, get in touch with Silver Coast Travelling, whose English speaking experts will happily oblige with a short but succinct town tour.

A former royal palace, now the University of Coimbra
A former royal palace, now the University of Coimbra © Nicola - Adobe Stock Image

Sitting almost smack in the middle is the nation's fourth-largest city, Coimbra*. Here you'll find a wealth of historic attractions and pretty streets to explore. Just don't miss the UNESCO World Heritage site of the University of Coimbra including its 12th-century cathedral, 16th-century colleges and enviable hilltop position.

And we have to mention the town of Fátima, which takes its name from a former-Moorish occupant, a princess no less. Later recaptured by Christian knights, it became internationally famous after being recognised by the Catholic church for three alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917.

Today, these are celebrated with a series of candle-lit processions that attract hundreds of thousands of people each 13 May and 13 October.

Find out more: if you're considering a trip to the heart of the country, do visit the official Center of Portugal website for even more inspiration and planning tips.

Dine on fabulously fresh food

Happily, provenance is a big deal in the central region and it could be said that you'll dine on the finest food in Portugal here.

Given its proximity to the coast, seafood features heavily with dishes such as freshly grilled fish and shrimps, fish soup and stews and, of course, cod bakes, all menu staples. Then there's seasonal vegetables, fruit, local cheeses plus countless cakes and pastries for the sweet-toothed.

What's more, you can eat out any which way: for a laidback beachside lunch, Xakra Beach Bar close to Peniche is where it's at. Sit back with a glass of expertly recommended wine while you wait for your catch of the day and watch surfers bobbing patiently for the next wave.

Enjoy lunch with a sea view at Xakra Beach Bar
Enjoy lunch with a sea view at Xakra Beach Bar - photo courtesy of Xakra Beach Bar

For a sophisticated yet equally easy-going meal, make for The Literary Man in Óbidos. Bedecked in books of every subject, this quirky hotel boasts a brilliant restaurant serving simple and delicious fare. Make sure you leave time to choose from the extensive gin selection and browse the stuffed bookshelves.

For something a bit special in a seriously stylish environment, make for Areis do Seixo. Using all things seasonal and its own cottage garden organic veggies, the restaurant concocts creative dishes that are as much a treat for the eye as the mouth; grilled cuttlefish with samphire and vegetable tagine with couscous both excellent examples.

Got a nose for a grape? Head for the sunny yellow walls of Quinta do Gradil winery for a short tour of the estate's production process before diving into a fabulous paired meal at the onsite restaurant, all flanked by row-upon-row of rolling vines.

Weather in Portugal

The below is a guide to the weather in Coimbra, the largest city in the central region. As you can see, summers are hot with plenty of sunshine, winters are cooler, and spring and autumn are very pleasant with lots to offer any explorer to the region.

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall

Find out more about the weather in Portugal and remember to see when we think is the very best time to go for the ultimate conditions to enjoy this fascinating central region.

Planning your perfect escape to Portugal? Book your stay at a private residence with VRBO, one of the world's leading property rental sites. Hire a car and prepare to explore central Portugal at your own pace.

VRBO: Book holiday rentals for less worldwide

More about Portugal

Portugal by month

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Kirsten Henton

Kirsten Henton

Kirsten Henton is's editor. Kirsten writes, commissions and edits our travel features, liaising with our contributors and ensuring copy is spick-and-span. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Kirsten also freelances writing articles on travel, history and the outdoors for titles such as Scotland Magazine and BBC Travel.

Article updated on Monday 29th January 2024 in: Adventure Beach City Europe Excursions Nature Summer

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