Central Portugal is a region that attracts thousands of tourists every year, thanks to its breathtaking natural landscapes and its millenary past, with traditions dating back to the Roman period – not to mention the gastronomic delicacies, ranging from convent sweets to wines from demarcated regions!
And of course, I couldn’t fail to mention its historical and cultural heritage, which includes border castles, religious temples, historical and Schist villages, and four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Convent of Christ in Tomar, the Monastery of Alcobaça, the Monastery of Batalha, and the University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia.
The truth is that most travelers end up visiting one of these monuments, as they are among the most important in the country. However, this article will show you how it’s possible to explore “The ‘Other Side’ of the World Heritage Sites in Central Portugal” with a range of alternative activities to do in the region!
So, do you want to know more about the 10 Best Alternative Activities To Do In Central Portugal? Keep reading!
P.S.: I was invited by the Center of Portugal to do these ten alternative activities on a paid blog trip. Nevertheless, all opinions mentioned here are mine.
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- 1. Take a scenic route around Reguengo do Fetal
- 2. Discover the Monastery of Saint Mary of Coz
- 3. Participate in the Coz Baskets Workshop
- 4. Explore the Wine Museum of Alcobaça
- 5. Take a walking tour through the National Forest of the Seven Hills
- 6. Get to know “A Moagem – Fábrica das Artes”
- 7. Go on a night visit to the Convent of Christ
- 8. Visit the exhibition “Jews of Coimbra | From Tolerance to Persecution | Memories and Materialities”
- 9. Visit the exhibition “Aeminium | Coimbra, City for 2000-Years”
- 10. Taste a craft beer at Praxis – Restaurant, Factory, and Beer Museum of Coimbra
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1. Take a scenic route around Reguengo do Fetal
Reguengo do Fetal is one of the four parishes that make up the municipality of Batalha, in Central Portugal. And the truth is that this place has a very special connection with the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory (popularly known as the Monastery of Batalha).
For example, did you know that its Parish Church has two Gothic arches? This architectural element, so rare in a modest construction, reveals the heritage of the Monastery of Batalha! The Catholic church dates back to 1512 (the year in which the parish and parish were created) and its official name is the Church of Our Lady of Remedies.
At about 800 meters, there is the Hermitage of Our Lady of Fetal, associated with a medieval miracle. Legend has it that Our Lady appeared to a hungry shepherd girl and filled her ark with bread. For this reason, a hermitage was built in his honor, which was rebuilt in 1585 and has altars and tiles from the 17th-18th centuries.
I also took part in a hiking trail with Danilo Guimarães (tour guide of the Grutas da Moeda), which starts in the center of Reguengo do Fetal and goes up through the Serra de Aire e Candeeiros. And, even though the trail has a total length of 6 km, we did only the initial part, which includes the visit to the Cave of the Buraco Roto.
In this cave (and others nearby), the limestone is from the Jurassic period and hides dinosaur fossils! And in the 1980s-90s, it was also discovered that these caves were used as shelters and for funeral rites by Bronze Age populations, thanks to the bones and urns that were excavated.
Speaking of “limestone”, there’s nothing like visiting the Quarry of Valinho do Rei, the most important of all the historical quarries in the Monastery of Batalha! It was from here that the raw material for its construction and subsequent restoration came out – after the damage caused by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.
2. Discover the Monastery of Saint Mary of Coz
The Union of Parishes of Coz, Alpedriz, and Montes is one of the thirteen parishes in the municipality of Alcobaça and is mainly known for its Monastery of Saint Mary of Coz, the second-largest female monastery in Portugal (after the Monastery of Saint Mary of Lorvão, in Penacova – also in Central Portugal).
It’s known that there was a community of “Pious Widows” since the 13th century, who helped manage the former Coz Farm, but this community became religious in the 16th century. Therefore, the current monastery was built in the 17th century, belonging to the Cistercian Order (similar to the Monastery of Alcobaça).
The Monastery of Coz had 106 cells and 2 cloisters, one for nuns and the other for novices and servants. Its Church was a parish church, which is why it has a bell tower. However, the nuns had their own area to attend mass, consisting of a Portuguese wooden bench and Dutch tile walls.
The 80 wooden panels that cover the roof of the temple portray saints and saints of the Cistercian and Benedictine orders. The upper tribune gives access to a large window, which was placed so that the nuns could watch the procession to the Chapel of Bom Jesus of the Calvary (or Chapel of Saint Rita).
3. Participate in the Coz Baskets Workshop
The Espaço Coz’Art is located in front of the Monastery of Saint Mary of Coz and occupies a small building that served as the Nuns’ Cellar when the monastery was inhabited. Supported by the Municipality of Alcobaça, the program was launched by the Social Welfare Center of the Parish of Coz, at the end of 2015.
In this Coz Baskets Workshop, reed baskets are handcrafted, one of the oldest traditional arts in Central Portugal! However, it’s an art in danger of extinction, because the vast majority of artists are already of a certain age, unfortunately.
4. Explore the Wine Museum of Alcobaça
One of the best alternative activities to do in Central Portugal is to explore the Wine Museum of Alcoçaba (formerly known as the National Wine Museum), the largest wine museum in Portugal in terms of architectural space and collections, with over 10,000 pieces on display!
As you can see from the name, this is a museum dedicated to the national wine and wine culture throughout the country. Inaugurated in 1986, it operated as a wine cellar before being a museum and was called Quinta dos Raposo de Magalhães since the end of the 19th century.
Surprisingly, this wine cellar had a capacity for 11 million liters of wine and brandy! In fact, from the museum’s collection, there’s an impressive number of labels and bottles (there are more than 7000 and 3000, respectively), ranging from the 19th century to 1996, when the owner donated the museum to the municipality.
The Wine Museum of Alcobaça is open from Tuesday to Sunday (including holidays) and requires a guided tour – which takes place every hour between 10 am and 5 pm. The ticket costs €4, but there are discounts for groups depending on their size. Besides, admission is free on Sunday mornings!
5. Take a walking tour through the National Forest of the Seven Hills
After four alternative activities in the municipalities of Batalha and Alcobaça (in the Leiria district), it’s time to travel to Tomar, in the Santarém district. This Templar city is visited mainly because of the Convent of Christ, but not everyone knows the National Forest of the Seven Hills, its old convent fence!
Projected in the 16th century during the reign of King João III, the National Forest of the Seven Hills had an area of 40 hectares and used to serve as a retreat and enclosure for the monks living in the Convent of Christ, the most important convent in Central Portugal.
After the extinction of all religious orders in 1834 (except the Order of Christ), the convent fence was converted into a large olive grove and agricultural space by António Bernardo da Costa Cabral (the most influential minister in the reign of Queen Maria II). In 1932, it was eventually sold at public auction to the “Estado Novo”.
We took a relaxed guided tour with João Fiandeiro (tour guide of Caminhos da História) and discovered the most hidden attractions of this green space, such as the “Charolinha”, the Countess’s Tower, and the Swing of the National Forest of the Seven Hills!
Read my complete guide to the National Forest of the Seven Hills, one of the best alternative activities to do in Central Portugal!
6. Get to know “A Moagem – Fábrica das Artes”
The building that houses “A Moagem – Fábrica das Artes” (ie, “The Grind – Arts Factory”) began by belonging to the Order of Christ. However, in 1909, the industrialist Manuel Mendes Godinho bought the concession for the use of water from the Levada de Tomar (the city’s power station), to build a grind here.
The grind was inaugurated in 1912 and operated until 1987 when it went into insolvency. After being acquired by the City Council of Tomar, it was transformed into a show of traditional arts (such as pottery, jewelry, basketry, tinsmithing, etc.), with the goal of revitalizing and safeguarding these traditions from Central Portugal.
The space is waiting to be turned into a museum, as it still retains many of the original equipment from Switzerland. In the meantime, it’s open to creative workshops and the promotion of traditions such as the Festa dos Tabuleiros (ie, “Festival of Trays”), one of the most popular events in Central Portugal.
Currently, the first floor is dedicated to textile art, the second to painting, and the third to raku, a Japanese ceramic technique. The fourth and top floor is empty, but it has already had a jewelry show. I also recommend an additional visit to the Electric Power Station, which is also part of the Levada de Tomar Cultural Complex.
7. Go on a night visit to the Convent of Christ
Visiting the Convent of Christ may not be an alternative activity to do in Central Portugal (quite the opposite), but… what if it’s a night visit? Can you imagine going through the Cloister of King João III (or the Main Cloister) without tourists? Or photographing the Manueline Window during the so-called golden hour?
The Convent of Christ in Tomar was one of the first monuments in Portugal to be part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, having been inscribed in 1983. The oldest part of the architectural complex (that is, the Templar Castle) began to be built in 1160, but the works spanned five centuries!
8. Visit the exhibition “Jews of Coimbra | From Tolerance to Persecution | Memories and Materialities”
The last destination of this blog trip was Coimbra, the capital of Central Portugal, also known as the “Students City”. In fact, the University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia is not only the oldest university in Portugal but also one of the few universities declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
With over 30 buildings that make up this UNESCO inscription (mostly colleges, faculties, and departments), some are obviously more visited than others. This is the case with the University Palace (which includes the Faculty of Law and the famous Joanine Library) and the Machado de Castro National Museum.
But one of the “alternative” buildings is the Former College of Arts, located in the Inquisition Courtyard and where the exhibition “Jews of Coimbra | From Tolerance to Persecution | Memories and Materialities” was inaugurated on July 2nd, 2021. And we had the opportunity to take a guided tour with its curator Berta Duarte.
As the name implies, the exhibition aims to recover and enhance the memory of the Jewish communities that inhabited the city of Coimbra, through various explanatory panels (in Portuguese and English). Admission is free and opening hours are from Tuesday to Saturday, from 1 pm to 6 pm.
9. Visit the exhibition “Aeminium | Coimbra, City for 2000-Years”
Another alternative place to visit in Coimbra and directly related to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Central Portugal is the Sala da Cidade (ie, “City Room”), one of the rooms in the City Hall. In fact, this now rehabilitated space corresponds to the former refectory of the Santa Cruz Monastery!
On this blog trip, we visited the exhibition “Aeminium | Coimbra, City for 2000 Years” with Pedro Carvalho (archaeologist and professor at the Faculty of Letters) even before its inauguration on September 8th, 2021. And it’s important to emphasize that we did it after a guided tour of the Machado de Castro National Museum!
I say this because it’s really worth knowing the history of Aeminium (the ancient Roman city of Coimbra) after visiting the Cryptoportico galleries, on the two underground floors of the museum. And more than history, this temporary exhibition reveals the cultural heritage left by the Romans in this region.
10. Taste a craft beer at Praxis – Restaurant, Factory, and Beer Museum of Coimbra
Last but not least of the best alternative activities to do in Central Portugal is to taste a craft beer at Praxis – Restaurant, Factory, and Beer Museum of Coimbra. Praxis started producing in 2007, recovering two historic beer brands: Topázio and Onyx.
In the small museum space that was created between the Restaurant and the Factory, it’s possible to see that the first Praxis machine was electric, came from the United States, and generated 400 liters at a time! And I also discovered that, when it opened, Praxis was the only artisanal microbrewery in Portugal!
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