Portugal is a fairly small country in Europe, but it packs a big punch when it comes to picturesque travel destinations, especially for those looking to leisurely stroll around charming villages. Guest contributor, David Johnston from Travelsewhere, is taking us to beautiful Braga, Portugal, in the northern part of the country. While most travelers head to Lisbon or Oporto, we’re going off-the-beaten-path in Portugal with some wonderful tips on things to do in Braga!
In recent years, Portugal has seen resurgence in popularity among visitors to Europe. Tourists are uncovering for themselves the many things that make this country such a delight, but often only doing so in main destinations like Lisbon and Porto. Always keen to venture off the beaten path, when I returned to Portugal last year I spent time exploring more of the northern region. Only an hour train ride from Porto, the city of Braga felt like it offered something a little different to the big cities, which was exactly what I wanted.
Things to do in Braga
Despite being a relatively large city for Portugal with well over 100,000 people, the center of Braga is quite compact. This means it can be comfortably explored on foot, particularly the various pedestrian streets that make up the city’s old town. With a history dating back to the Romans, Braga has long been a key player in the region now known as northern Portugal.
Braga Old Town
The fairly flat and circular shape of Braga Old Town is a far cry from the hilly and sprawling nature of both Porto and Lisbon. From the moment you enter the Arco da Porta Nova gate near the train station, the city has a more humble feel to it. Gone are the high buildings stacked on top of each other adorned in glamorous tiles that have you immediately reaching for the camera.
Instead, Braga mixes simpler tiled homes with the white and grey palette found quite frequently through inland Portugal. As you walk its cobblestone streets, it’s easier to see the gentler nature Braga has compared to its big brothers. Not every destination has to smack you over the head with their awe-inspiring cityscapes. Sometimes, it’s nice to embrace the more ordinary side of a country and Braga lets you do that.
A City of Churches
When considering what to do in Braga, a self-guided walking tour is a pleasurable way to explore Braga Old Town. As I walked around the old town, one thing that quickly struck me was the volume of churches I found myself passing. I know it’s not uncommon to pass a few churches when in Europe, but it was feeling a little like overkill in Braga. It starts to make sense though when you learn that Braga is home of the archbishop for the whole northern section of the country.
Historically, the Catholic Church played a big part in Braga’s importance during the Middle Ages. After the Moors were driven out in the late 11th century, Braga Cathedral began rebuilding and not long after was the seat of the archbishop. As it took almost 200 years to finish and underwent later additions, its architectural style is all over the place.
Only a block away, the Largo Carlos Amarante square is lined by two dramatic churches, the Igreja de Santa Cruz and the Igreja de São Marcos. That’s not to mention the other churches and chapels you pass within that one block. What’s truly impressive is how vastly different each is and yet not a single one is decked out in Portuguese tiles like many of the churches of Porto.
Gardens of Santa Barbara
One of the benefits on visiting in spring was that everything was in bloom during my time there. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the Garden of Santa Barbara. This vibrant courtyard was full of color and quite the sight, although likely a nightmare for those with allergies. What’s more, the gardens are set before the wonderfully medieval Episcopal Palace. In fact the arches of a wing of the palace, burned down in 1834, have been incorporated into the gardens.
The palace itself originally dates from the 14th century, which is the medieval section visible from the Garden of Santa Barbara. Extensions added later on come with their own equally charming architectural styles. The palace is open to the public free of charge and houses various municipal and university facilities. With such a central spot within the old town, both the gardens and palace are must-see items on any Braga itinerary.
Praça da República
On the outer edge of the old town lies the main square, Praca da Republica. Around the square’s central fountain sits important buildings including the Braga Tourism Office and the arcade that surrounds Braga Tower. The tower, along with several other scattered remnants mentioned above, is all that’s left of Braga’s old city walls. For those looking to meet up or orient themselves, this square is a great place to do so.
Running off the square is the Central Avenue Garden, a great long park lined with several convents. Heading downhill from the square you’ll find Avenida da Liberdade, one of Braga’s main shopping streets. Although not something I was particularly interested in, the shopping areas seemed to be the busiest part in the whole of Braga.
Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary
Probably the most stunning attraction of Braga though, lies well outside the city center. Portugal has an unusual fixation with monumental staircases that lead their way up to hilltop monasteries. In the case of Braga, the Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary is reachable by one such staircase.
Although it’s possible to drive your way up to the hilltop sanctuary, the far more scenic approach is by taking the grand Escadatório do Bom Jesus staircase all the way up. There’s also the small Bom Jesus Funicular that runs from the viewpoint halfway up, to the top. A good compromise may be to take the funicular up and the stairs back down. It’s worth noting the staircase can seem deceptively shorter than it actually is from the bottom. By the time I reached the top, it’s fair to say I was pretty exhausted.
Regardless of how you reach the top, the sanctuary itself is worth your time. For starters there’s the numerous viewpoints that allow you to see all of Braga below. Then there are the courtly gardens that were bursting with life thanks to the early spring. At the center of the 18th century sanctuary is the Bom Jesus Church, which is naturally beautiful and the main destination for pilgrimages there. As if the sanctuary wasn’t idyllic enough, behind the church is a cute lake and several small grottos.
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The biggest challenge with visiting the sanctuary though is how far it is from the city center. It’s really too far to sensibly walk there and back, and taking a taxi is a bit of a pain as it will likely have to wait for you. Your best bet is to take a local bus out there and I saw that the No. 2 bus heads that way. I recommend asking the tourism office for the most reliable information.
More Braga, Portugal Points of Interest
Even though I spent two days exploring Braga, the city would make an exceptional day trip from Porto for those wanting to get a little further afield. As you can see, there are enough sights and things to do to keep you more than entertained. Then there’s the added benefit that the city is relatively different to neighboring Porto. Clearly, a visit to Braga is an opportunity worth taking on your next trip to Portugal.
If you enjoy traveling off-the-beaten-path in Portugal, Lamego is another charming town in northern Portugal for a boomer travel adventure.
Braga looks like a charming place to visit, doesn’t it? Have any more ideas for going off the beaten path in Portugal? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.