Serra da Estrela - a winter wonderland in the heart of Portugal
If you think that Portugal has only sunshine and beautiful beaches to offer, think again! In the heart of the country’s interior, between ancient glacial valleys and mountain peaks that paint themselves white during the cold winter months, Portugal holds a magical place: Serra da Estrela. A land warmed by sheep's wool and fresh from the rivers that wind through its valleys, flavoured with mountain cheese and sweetened with the warm honey eyes of its shepherd dogs... it is in this land of contrasts that Portugal shows itself in all its diversity!
Serra da Estrela is one of Portugal's most breathtaking places. During the summer, the green trails and waterfalls offer a cool refuge where time seems to have stopped and the lagoons at the foot of the waterfalls are the perfect place for a dip surrounded by a bucolic peace. But it is undoubtedly in winter that the mountain peaks and canyons gain an even greater appeal, especially as the altitude rises and the silence of the mountain is interrupted by the echoes of children laughing while sliding in the snow!
The best time of the year to get to know Portugal's most famous winter wonderland is between December and March, when many Portuguese families take advantage of the weekends or the Christmas and Carnival holidays to head to Serra da Estrela. Memories of snow ball fights are amongst the most cherished by Portuguese families, as the majority of the population does not regularly have the opportunity to witness this marvellous scenery.
Depending on where you are in Portugal you can even make the return trip on the same day, with several excellent roads that allow you to get there in no time at all. For example, if you travel from the south, the A23 motorway takes you directly to Covilhã, and from there you just have to follow the clouds upward... literally.
However, when there is so much to see, taste and experience... why rush? The Serra da Estrela mountain range is one of those places that should be appreciated with time. Take your camera, but don't forget to make a snowman. Buy the souvenir at the local handicraft shop, but also linger to chat with anyone who knows this land from the cradle. Warm up in the heat of a mountain chalet, but also let the mountain sun warm your soul. The temperature may be chilly outside, but with the sky so clear and blue it is impossible not to be enraptured by the spectacular beauty of our surroundings.
If you would like to discover this magical place during the winter, before making any travel plans it is always a good idea to confirm the weather conditions before, as roads to the top of the mountain are often closed when heavy snowfalls make driving risky. You can check road accesses on numerous social network groups and online pages that regularly post up to date information.
Enjoy an unforgettable mountain experience
Known as "a Torre", the Tower is undoubtedly one of the most popular places to visit in Serra da Estrela. Here you will find not only the highest point of mainland Portugal, at 1,993 metres, but also a restaurant and local shops where you can buy traditional regional items, such as wool products or the famous "Queijo da Serra da Estrela", one of Portugal's most famous cheeses.
Just the drive towards the Tower, and the breathtaking views of the valleys and huge rock formations at either side of the road, make the trip worthwhile. However, there are lots of other amazing places to see and things to do along the Serra da Estrela Natural Park:
Serra da Estrela Ski Resort - Located near the Tower, this ski resort is open all winter (with artificial snow when there is not enough natural snow). The resort has infrastructures for winter sports and modern chairlifts. Ski and snowboard equipment can also be rented there. The Serra da Estrela Ski Resort is the only ski resort in Portugal. In Sameiro (Manteigas), you can also ski or snowboard in the tracks of the Skiparque.
Poço do Inferno (Well of hell) - At 1,080 metres of altitude you will see one of Portugal’s most beautiful waterfalls. The water that falls here forms a lagoon where you can bathe… if the temperature allows!
Covão d'Ametade - Located near the village of Manteigas, here you will find another natural paradise and ideal place to rest, with picnic tables and the calm river Zêzere, which flows from Torre down the mountain and takes shape in a glacial valley surrounded by trees.
Covão dos Conchos - Although this s not a natural formation, it is still spectacular! This hole in the middle of a lagoon literally swallows its waters into a gigantic funnel, in what is truly an amazing feat of engineering built in the 50s to transport the waters collected from the Ribeira das Naves and direct them to Lagoa Comprida.
Lagoa Comprida (Long Lagoon) - The Lagoa Comprida is the best known and largest lake in the Serra da Estrela. From here you have a breathtaking view over the mountain. The dam of Lagoa Comprida, built from a natural lagoon, is the main water reservoir of the Serra da Estrela.
Vale Glaciar do Zêzere - The road between Manteigas and Torre offers one of the best sightseeing points in Serra da Estrela, with several opportunities to stop and enjoy the view of one of the largest glacier valleys in Europe. The road is narrow and winding, but the amazing scenery is very worth it, especially when the mountain chalets of the village of Penhas Douradas and surrounding pine trees are snow-kissed and the landscaped frosted with white.
Village of Sabugeiro - Known as “Portugal’s highest village", at an altitude of 1,100 metres, Sabugueiro is famous for its houses scattered between streams and waterfalls and its fabulous views. When visiting this small “aldeia” don’t miss the opportunity to dine in one of the traditional local restaurants, where dishes such as roast lamb, “chanfana” (goat and red wine casserole) and wild boar “feijoada” (bean stew) are amongst the traditional mountain delicacies. However, the most appreciated local product is undoubtedly Serra da Estrela cheese, usually served with bread, jam or “presunto” (traditional Portuguese dry-cured ham). At the local restaurants of Sabugueiro you will find a cosy atmosphere and a warm and friendly service... the perfect excuse to get away from the cold and enjoy delicious home-made simple food — not to mention large portions! In any one of these local restaurants you can enjoy an unforgettable local gastronomic experience:
O Mirante da Estrela
Grelhados da Serra
Restaurante Casa da Ponte
Varanda dos Carqueijais Viewpoint - Located halfway between the city of Covilhã and Penhas da Saúde, the wooden walkways of this viewpoint offer a breathtaking view over the unmistakable beauty of the Cova da Beira region.
Penhas da Saúde - In this village, at an altitude of 1,500 metres, lies one of the main tourism resorts of Serra da Estrela. Here you will find several accommodation options: a hotel, mountain chalets, a youth hostel and the Serra da Estrela Pousada.
Regardless of what you want to visit and do, to get to Serra da Estrela the best option is to go by car. Public transportation between the most remote places is practically non-existent and with a car you will be free to make your own itinerary and be able to enjoy each place at your own pace. After all, you want to take your time! Serra da Estrela is a perfect place to relax, connect with nature and enjoy Portugal’s simple pleasures…