If you want incredible scenery, fresh mountain air and a taste of traditional Portugal, head inland to the the Beiras region. Relatively untouched by tourism, this glacial area is stunningly beautiful. The Serra da Estrela mountains are the highest in Portugal, with the peaks reaching up to 2000m, and the mighty Mondego River flows down through the valley. It's a haven for climbing and hiking, with trails leading past natural lagoons, through pine-scented forests and up, to give stupendous panoramic views of Spain and Portugal. In winter, it's where the Portugese come to ski.
It's roughly divided into two areas - Beira Alta (upper) and Beira Baixa (lower). The higher region is more verdant with vineyards, fruit orchards and pine forests, and this is home to the medieval hilltop towns, such as Guarda, Viseu, Covilhã and Almeida. Many were strongholds in Portugal's wars of independence and now feature crumbling ancient ruins and 18th-century fortresses and castles. Their livelihood is principally farming and agriculture, with markets selling pungent cheeses (the quejo de serra), spicy sausages, wool textiles and Dao wine. Locals are friendly and if you're lucky enough to visit during their fiestas (of which there are many), you'll be encouraged to take part - in Celuricoda this includes a competition where people climb a greasy pole to retrieve a flagon of wines!
The lower Beira Baixa region is more remote and unexplored. Based on the valley floor of the Serra da Estrella, its dusty landscape is strewn with vast granite boulders and tiny basic villages. Their agricultural lifestyle is harsh and poor by European standards, yet its charm lies in its simplicity. It seems almost untouched by the 21st century: donkeys work in the fields and lines of seeds lie drying in the sun. Whilst places to stay are few and far between, driving through the area is fascinating, and there's heaps to see.
This is also home to bigger towns that are worth a proper visit: Monsanto is Portugal's most ancient settlement, with its houses and roads carved out of huge rocks; the capital of the province, Castelo Branco, boasts 12-century walls and the atmospheric Idanha-a-Velha is brimming with Roman relics.
Avoid the tourists and visit the rock art sites of Côa Archaeological Park at night. Hugely atmospheric, and you’ll see hundreds of tiny engravings that aren’t visible with direct sunlight. If you stay at Casa da Cisterna, owner Ana will take you herself; she’s a qualified guide.
Photo by Henrique Matos
This region is home to beautiful freshwater fluvial beaches, that originate from mountain springs. Swimming in the pure crystal waters is a delight in the summer, though pretty bracing in winter. Our favourites are Vale do Rossim Lake (a beautiful hike away from Casa Penhas Douradas) and Loriga, just outside Seia.
We were enchanted by the antique Toy Museum in Seia (Museo do Brinquedo), with different rooms depicting various decades in Portuguese and world history, and 8,000+ toys that were popular during those times. Close by, the Bread Museum (Quinta Fonte do Marrão ) is also great for families, with puppet scenes depicting the bread-making process and an antique bakery. Don't miss the market section for scrummy rolls made with chocolate.
For centuries, small hilltop villages in this region were built of crystalline metamorphic stone, which is easily split in half to create flat surfaces, allowing for weatherproof construction. A few are still standing and lived in today; you can hike or bike between them and try traditional delicacies - roast kid, maranhos (lamb sausage), chafana veal and tigeladas (an oven baked egg dessert) - in tiny local shops.
Photograph by visitportugal.com
Aqui Base Tango is a quirky place for an afternoon beer, that somehow slides into evening and beyond... (it's open until 6am). Housed in a former police station, every room is completely different, decorated with contemporary installations by local artists. There's an actual tree and coffee-table books in a tea lounge, old loveseats in the garden, and a motorbike alongside a gin bar. Play ping pong and table football during the day, then listen to live music as the hours fly past. Super cool.
Local company Trans Serrano is highly recommended for adrenaline watersports in the Gois valley. Kayak down rapids on the Mondego River then go canyoning up steep cliffs and waterfalls, before jumping into deep natural lagoons. Not for the faint-hearted.
Moldura do Fado is a chic venue to listen to fado (Largo Nossa Sra da Conceição, 37, Viseu). The traditional form of music is both melancholic and beautiful; live performances are mesmerising. Petiscos (tapas) and Portuguese wine are served as part of your ticket.