Belmonte, situated in the heart of Central Portugal, is a town steeped in history and unique cultural traditions. Nestled in the beautiful slopes of the Serra da Estrela mountain range, Belmonte is most renowned for its rich Jewish heritage, as it became a safe haven for Jews during the Inquisition. The Jewish community in Belmonte is one of the few that has managed to preserve its traditions and practices over centuries, resulting in a captivating blend of cultures.
The town offers a glimpse into the medieval era with its well-preserved castle, traditional stone houses, and narrow winding streets. The scenic landscapes, with olive groves and vineyards, provide a tranquil backdrop to explore the rich cultural offerings of the town. From museums dedicated to its Jewish heritage to historical churches and monuments, Belmonte offers a unique experience for those looking to dive into the diverse tapestry of Portuguese history and culture. Whether you are a history enthusiast or a nature lover, Belmonte has something to offer, making it an essential stop in any journey through Central Portugal.
Nearby, there are other beautiful towns worth visiting – such as Guarda (30 km) and Monsanto (53 km) – while the very beautiful Serra da Estrela Natural Park is literally just up the road, roughly 15 km away.
In contrast to the historical town centre, the outskirts of Belmonte aren’t particularly attractive but don’t let that put you off: keep walking until you get into the heart of Belmonte before you form an opinion.
Here, you’ll be greeted with small, granite houses with terracotta roofs. While some of the houses have a slightly ramshackle look, for the most part, they’re all in great condition and it’s clear that people put a lot of care into the exterior of their homes here.
For such a small place, Belmonte has a very unique history: it’s the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the person credited with discovering Brazil.
It also has a strong Jewish population who managed to live in secret in Belmonte for hundreds of years before they too were “discovered.”
Useful Resources for Your Trip to Belmonte
Here’s our top tips and tricks for getting the best deals for your trip to Belmonte.
- Accommodation: Booking.com and Airbnb are the two most comprehensive websites for finding hotels, hostels, apartments, and other types of accommodation in Belmonte and nearby.
- Car Rental: Discover Cars and Rental Cars are the two most useful sites for booking car rental. There are normally cheaper deals at the airport and as you’ll likely need a car for exploring this part of Portugal, it’s recommended you rent a car at the airport.
- Airport transfers: There are taxis and Ubers at Lisbon and Porto Airport, but you can also pre-book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups.
- Tours & Things to Do: Both Get Your Guide and Viator list lots of local tours and activities in Belmonte and the surrounding Central Portugal region.
- Luggage Storage: Luggage Hero and Bounce are two great sites for finding places to store your luggage in Portugal, and are a good place to look for luggage storage in Belmonte.
- Public Transport: Cp.pt is the main website for trains in Portugal. For longer distance buses, see Rede Expressos. Flixbus.pt often has cheap tickets between cities in Portugal.
- Flights: Skyscanner and Google Flights are the two most useful websites for finding flights to Portugal. The nearest major airport to Belmonte is Porto Airport.
Belmonte’s Jewish Connection
Jewish history in Spain and Portugal normally gets dark very quickly: during the Inquisition period, Jews in Portugal were forced to convert to Christianity, and those that didn’t were deported and killed.
While many Jews fled to other countries like Amsterdam, London, or Livorno in Italy, others decided to continue living in Portugal but to practice their faith in secret. The “Belmonte Jews” or “Belmonte Marranos” are one of the best examples of this.
The Jewish community in Belmonte dates back hundreds of years, possibly as far as the 13th Century. During the time of the Inquisition, they were undercover and hid all external signs of their faith. They stopped speaking Hebrew, didn’t openly practice their religion, stopped circumcising their children, took on Christian names, and even attended the Catholic Church, but they maintained their bloodline by intermarrying.
Then in 1917, Samuel Schwarz, a Jewish engineer from Poland started working at a nearby tin mine and he observed (and documented) the unusual habits of the people living in this village.
On Yom Kippur, they would meet to publically play cards so they wouldn’t arouse any suspicion when, in reality, they would celebrate Jewish holidays a few days before. A Jew himself, he caught on – although it took a while to win over their trust.
Today, Belmonte’s Jewish community no longer lives so secretly. In the 70s, following the revolution, many residents began practicing their faith more publically and, in 1996, they opened a synagogue in the town: Bet Eliahu. The town also has its own Jewish internet radio station: Rádio Judaica Portuguesa.
To really see Belmonte’s Jewish community come to life, visit Belmonte during the annual Mercado Kosher. This normally takes place in September or October: see Visit Belmonte’s Facebook page for details and other upcoming events.
What to See and Do
Despite its small size, there are a good number of things to see and do in Belmonte.
Castle of Belmonte
Belmonte Castle stands as a majestic testament to Portugal’s rich medieval history. Perched atop a hill overlooking the town, the castle was originally built in the 13th century and has undergone various modifications over the years. Its robust walls and imposing keep tell a story of strategic importance and the need for defense in turbulent times. Like most castles in Portugal, little remains apart from the outer walls which are in excellent condition. Inside the walls, there’s a large amphitheater courtyard.
Visitors to Belmonte Castle are rewarded with breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, including the Serra da Estrela mountain range. Inside the castle, you can explore the historical exhibits that shed light on the local history and the castle’s role in it. The blend of Romanesque and Gothic architectural features is a visual treat for history and architecture enthusiasts. The castle not only symbolizes Belmonte’s storied past but also serves as a cultural hub, hosting various events and exhibitions throughout the year.
The climb to the top of the tower, or even just up the castle walls, is it worth it as it gives you fantastic views over the fields of fruit trees and grape vines in the surrounding countryside.
Note: Confusingly, there’s another Belmonte Castle in the province of Cuenca in Spain (around 2 hours’ drive south of Madrid). Don’t get the two mixed up.
There are several museums in Belmonte, which is surprising given the size of the town. Many of them are quite small and can be seen in less than half an hour, but together they give you an interesting insight into this part of Portugal.
Jewish Museum of Belmonte
The Jewish Museum of Belmonte, which opened in 2005, offers a poignant and fascinating insight into the rich Sephardic Jewish heritage that is unique to this region of Portugal. Located in the heart of Belmonte, the museum occupies a space that was once a synagogue and stands as a testament to a community that lived secretly as Crypto-Jews for centuries after the expulsion of Jews from Portugal in the late 15th century.
Visitors to the museum can explore various exhibits that showcase religious artifacts, documents, and personal narratives related to the Jewish community’s way of life, beliefs, traditions, and struggles. The museum also delves into the history of Belmonte’s Jewish community, their secretive practices, and their eventual reconnection with mainstream Judaism. Guided tours are often available, offering an in-depth understanding of a significant yet often overlooked chapter of Portuguese history.
Igreja de Santiago e Panteão dos Cabrais
The Igreja de Santiago e Panteão dos Cabrais is a remarkable religious structure in Belmonte, bearing witness to the town’s historical legacy and architectural beauty. Dating back to the 13th century, this church is also home to the Panteão dos Cabrais, the pantheon dedicated to the Cabral family, one of the most distinguished families in Portuguese history, including Pedro Álvares Cabral, the navigator credited with discovering Brazil.
The church’s Manueline architectural style showcases intricate stonework and decorative elements. Inside, visitors can explore the ornate chapels, including the Cabral family’s pantheon, where various family members are entombed. The tomb of Pedro Álvares Cabral, adorned with his coat of arms and inscriptions, stands out as a significant historical artifact. The Igreja de Santiago e Panteão dos Cabrais is not just a place of worship but also a symbolic connection to Portugal’s Age of Discovery, providing visitors with a glimpse into the nation’s proud maritime heritage.
Museu do Azeite
The Museu do Azeite, or Olive Oil Museum, in Belmonte offers a unique and engaging experience for those interested in learning about one of Portugal’s most cherished culinary staples: olive oil. This museum is dedicated to preserving and showcasing the traditional methods of olive oil production that have been part of the region’s culture for centuries. Through interactive exhibits and vintage equipment displays, visitors can explore the entire process of making olive oil, from the cultivation and harvesting of olives to the pressing and bottling. It’s a must-visit for food enthusiasts and those looking to connect with the rural traditions of Central Portugal.
Ecomuseu do Zêzere
The Ecomuseu do Zêzere, situated in Belmonte, Portugal, is a fascinating attraction that provides insight into the relationship between the local communities and the Zêzere River. The museum offers a multifaceted exploration of the natural, historical, and cultural elements of the region that have been shaped by the river. With a focus on ecology and sustainability, the museum aims to educate visitors about the importance of the river to the area’s past, present, and future. Through interactive displays, guided tours, and thoughtful exhibits, the Ecomuseu do Zêzere presents an engaging narrative about the interplay between people and the environment in this picturesque part of Central Portugal.
Museu dos Descobrimentos
This engaging museum is dedicated to the Age of Discoveries, a pivotal period in Portuguese history when explorers set sail to chart unknown territories across the globe. Visitors can delve into the life and journeys of Cabral through state-of-the-art multimedia exhibits that tell the story of his voyage to Brazil and the broader context of exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries. There are lots of museums dedicated to the Age of Discoveries in Portugal, but this one has particular significance as it’s located in the town where Pedro Álvares Cabral, discoverer of Brazil, was born.
With a focus on the cultural exchanges that arose from these voyages, the museum offers a rich and enlightening perspective on the Portuguese role in shaping the modern world. It’s an essential destination for history enthusiasts and anyone interested in understanding Portugal’s impact on global exploration and colonization.
Divided across two floors, and split into 16 rooms, the museum tells the story starting with Cabral and his team preparing to go to India and ending with their arrival in Brazil.
Tip: You have to pay to enter each of the museums and the castle, but you can get a combined ticket from any of the museums that gives you access to all of them.
The easiest way to get to explore this part of Portugal is by car. However, it’s also possible to get here by public transport as well.
- Flying: The nearest airport is Porto Airport, which is around 2 hours and 35 minutes by car from Belmonte. Lisbon Airport has roughly the same journey time at around 2 hours and 40 minutes.
- Train: The nearest train station is Belmonte-Manteigas, which is a 30-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride from the town centre. Train tickets can be purchased from cp.pt.
- Bus: Citi Express offers bus services from Lisbon and Porto, as well as from locations closer to Belmonte like Castelo Branco. CitiExpress tickets can be purchased at Covilha bus station. For bus tickets from longer distance locations like Lisbon or Porto, look at Rede Expressos or Flixbus.pt. It’s likely that you will have to change buses at least once.
- Driving: Renting a car is recommended as it’ll give you more freedom to explore the area surrounding Belmonte. While you can rent a car in nearby Castelo Branco, it probably makes more sense to rent one at the airport.