Last Updated on January 3, 2024
Portugal seems to be growing more and more popular as a tourist destination. My daughter and her husband have taken two vacations there in the past three years. Of course, Lisbon and Porto are popular.
This year, my California neighbor of Portuguese Roman Catholic descent made a trip back to explore family roots. His specific destination? Braga, in the country’s northwest corner.
This third-largest metropolitan area in Portugal is often overlooked as a tourist spot, but its rich religious heritage and natural beauty make it a destination well worth visiting.
A beacon for young people, it was designated as the European Youth Capital in 2012.
History of Braga
The area around Braga has been occupied for thousands of years with remnants of monumental structures starting in the Megalithic era. The Iberian Celtic culture gradually developed, characterized by the Bracari peoples who occupied the high ground in fortified settlements.
The Romans eventually conquered the area and established Bracara Augusta as their capital of the Roman province of Gallaecia. Centuries later, the city would become the capital of the Kingdom of the Suebi, established by an invading Germanic tribe, making the region one of the first territories to separate from the Roman Empire in the 5th century.
In the years that followed, Vandals and the arrival of the Visigoths brought a new instability to the region. For hundreds of years, power changed hands among various groups, including petty local kingdoms, Moors, Christianized barbarians, and Spanish elements. It seemed the only constant was the growing strength and lasting presence of the church.
During the Reconquista of Iberia from the Muslims, Braga eventually became the peninsula’s main center of Christianity, at least until the emergence of Santiago de Compostela and the 1085 conquest of Toledo by the Muslims. This enabled Braga to play a prominent role in medieval politics, serving as a major contributor to the Independence of Portugal in 1179.
The Roman Catholic Church has continued to play a major role in the region in the ensuing years and is paramount in the many sites and monuments of Braga.
What to See and Do in Braga
History, religion, and nature blend beautifully in Braga providing a host of activities to enjoy and sites to visit. Here are some of the most memorable according to its many visitors.
Cathedral of Bom Jesus Do Monte
No matter your religious inclination, this popularly visited church is a must-see. Even though this stunning pilgrimage site is a bit outside of the city center, you should definitely plan a visit to this iconic sanctuary.
Perched on a hilltop, the Cathedral of Bom Jesus Do Monte has attracted pious Catholics from the beginning of the 14th century. The Baroque staircase leading up to the sanctuary is adorned with fountains, sculptures and chapels, making it a picturesque and spiritual experience.
Visiting the cathedral was once a sign of devotion given the number of stairs to reach it. Visitors today still have to take the same way up – 640 steps to reach the lovely Neoclassical church at the top.
Not only is the view of Braga from the sanctuary stunning, but the climb itself is a delight, passing through a lush forest and various grottoes. You may even want to bring some food and have a picnic on the hill, surrounded by natural beauty and with a wonderful view.
If you don’t feel like walking up to the site, don’t despair, there is also a funicular railway you can take.
Biscainhos Museum is set inside a beautiful 17th-century palace of a wealthy local family whose money came from Brazilian tobacco and coffee plantations. The museum showcases decorative arts, furniture, and daily life artifacts, providing a glimpse into the region’s history.
Guided tours provide even more insight into the lives of these wealthy families with azulejos, jewelry, glassware and musical instruments of the era on display. The entrance to the museum also includes the gardens, all carefully maintained and adorned with impressive sculptures and fountains.
The main cathedral in Braga is the oldest in the city, characterized by a mix of several different architectural styles including Baroque, Gothic, Manueline and Romanesque. Elements of each style are present resulting in a fascinating, beautifully decorated structure.
If you so desire, you can visit the chapels, the upper choir and a small museum for an additional entry fee. The cathedral is located in the historic city center and is surrounded by charming narrow streets.
Jardim de Santa Bárbara (Garden of Santa Barbara)
Just behind the ancient palace of the archbishop in the heart of Braga is a beautiful garden admired by visitors and locals every day. The Garden of Santa Barbara is a peaceful spot with a bandstand, a pond, and sculptures, providing a pleasant escape from the urban hustle.
The garden can also be visited in the evening, making it a romantic spot for strolls or to just end the day on a good note. During the spring and summer, the garden attracts songbirds, making it a little slice of natural paradise inside the city.
The gardens are surrounded by historical buildings like the Archiepiscopal Palace, the University of Minho and the square of Largo do Paco.
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sameiro
Bom Jesus do Monte is not the only sanctuary on top of a hill in the city of Braga. There is another – Our Lady of Sameiro. The church is newer and known for its impressive Neo-Gothic basilica and beautiful gardens.
The hike up provides a different perspective of the city from above and the panoramic view is likewise stunning.
Even without going inside, the exterior of this palace is a sight to behold. Conveniently located in the center of Braga and dating back to the mid-18th century, Raio Palace’s exterior showcases the beautiful ornamental blue azulejos ceramic tiles that decorate Portuguese and Spanish churches, palaces, houses, schools, restaurants, bars and other public buildings.
The result is immensely eye-catching, making a wonderful contrast with the granite of the building’s Rococo architecture. Inside, you can admire finely decorated ceilings and staircases.
Built by one of the most important merchants of the city, the palace was later sold to an aristocrat and now houses the Carlos Nunes Ferreira Lopes Museum.
Arco Da Porta Nova
When walking around the city, make sure to pass through the eastern entrance to the old town of Braga. The iconic archway leading to the historic center dates back to the mid-18th century and was crafted by a local artist and sculptor.
As one of the premier landmarks of the city, tourists gather here to creatively capture the beauty of the arch from various camera angles.
Nogueira da Silva Museum
This museum appears unimpressive from the outside, but contains a treasure trove within. Nogueira da Silva Museum offers a rare collection of ceramics, modernist interior architecture and paintings that would be a shame to miss.
The collection of art is impressive, but don’t miss its beautiful gardens. Fountains and sculptures abound providing a lovely relaxing stroll surrounded by culture and natural beauty.
Praca da Republica
Most city tours start from this beautiful square also known as “Arcada” by the locals. Praca da Republica is a lovely long square sporting many historic buildings such as the Church da Lapa and a wonderful fountain.
From here you can explore the Old Town, wandering through the charming streets of Braga’s historic center, filled with traditional houses, shops and cafes.
Vinho Verde and Local Cuisine
No trip to the Minho region where Braga resides would be complete without sampling its classic Vinho Verde “green wine.” Famous around the country, this unique wine is green by age rather than color since it’s meant to be consumed young, soon after the bottling process.
Vinho Verde is not a grape variety, but rather a region-identifying documentation for the production of wine. While mostly white, Vinho Verde’s can also be red or rosé. Older practices produced a slight effervesce from malolactic fermentation taking place in the bottle.
Today, many producers add a slight sparkle via artificial carbonation. The white wine is light and sparkly and an ideal accompaniment with Bacalhau a Braga, a traditional cod dish with potatoes, olives, red peppers and tomato.
Along with the wine, enjoy traditional Portuguese dishes in local restaurants such as rojões (pork cubes) and frigideiras, puff pastries with minced meat, cooked with margarine and lard. The best are found at Frigideiras do Cantinho, located in an old house dating back to 1796 where this simple delicacy is made following the same original recipe.
While Braga is not the most common tourist destination in Portugal, it’s a wonderful city with a long history, rich in traditions that are yours for discovery.