Things to Do in Northern Portugal
Watching over the city from its hilltop spot, the imposing fort-like Porto Cathedral (Sé Catedral do Porto)is a reminder of Porto’s diverse history. Featuring Romanesque, Gothic, and baroque architecture, this is Porto’s oldest and largest church, a must-visit for architecture and history aficionados.
Located in city of Braga in northern Portugal, the Braga Cathedral (Sé de Braga) is the oldest surviving church in Portugal and one of the most important monuments in the country. Built in a Burgundian Romanesque style between the 11th and 13th centuries, the cathedral provided architectural inspiration for many other churches and monasteries built in Portugal around the same time. Due to numerous modifications over the centuries, the cathedral today features a mix of styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Baroque.
The cathedral consists of several chapels built at different times. The parents of the first Portuguese were buried in the Chapel of the Kings in 1374 and the Chapel of the Glory was built in the mid-14th century as the final resting place of Archbishop Goncalo Pereira. Looks for the tomb guarded by siz life size stone lions and the painted Moorish geometrical designs. Also of note for visitors is the choir with sculptured gilt wood stalls built in the late 1730s and two gilt wood organs carved around the same time.
Don’t miss the Cathedral Museum, which includes elaborately carved 18th century choir stalls, the 10th century chalice of Saint Gerald, a 14th century statue of the Virgin Mary and an 11th century Arab ivory box.
Standing atop a hill overlooking Porto, Portugal, are the Igreja dos Clérigos, an 18th-century church and one of the city’s architectural symbols, and the Toree dos Clérigos, its bell tower. Intricately carved baroque shells and garlands on the church reflect Porto’s seaside location, and the bell tower offers panoramic views of the city.
A major river on the Iberian Peninsula, the Douro River (Rio Douro) flows from Duruelo de la Sierra in northern Spain all the way to Porto in Portugal, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. More than just the region’s lifeline, it’s also the centerpiece of the Douro Valley, Portugal’s most famous wine region and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The imperious, double-decker metal spans of Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luís I) stretch across the Douro River from Porto to Villa Nova de Gaia, and were designed by Téophile Seyrig, the student of Gustave Eiffel who also drew up the plans for the nearby Donna Maria Pia Bridge. WhenDom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luís I) was finished in 1886, it was the longest single-span bridge in the world at 564 feet, and it supported 3,045 tons of steel in weight.
The bridge marked a significant step forward in Porto’s economic growth, as before it existed, the only passages across the river were boats lashed together. Today the lower deck of the bridge carries cars while the upper level is utilized by metro Line D and has a pedestrian walkway offering views across the river. Since the late 19th century, four other bridges have joined the bridge of Dom Luís I and Donna Maria Pia in reaching across the Douro; they are all best seen by river cruise in a traditional wooden rabelo.
Set on the banks of the River Douro, Ribeira is Porto’s oldest quarter. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the district’s maze of alleyways and pastel-colored houses rises up on a hill above the bay. The Ribeira’s modern waterfront—lined with restaurants, bars, and cafés—is a popular leisure hub and nightlife destination.
Behind its comparatively stark Gothic facade, the Church of São Francisco(Igreja de São Francisco) harbors a trove of baroque finery: The interior has marble columns, intricate wooden carvings, and gold-covered walls. Highlights include the magnificent Tree of Jesse altarpiece, a 13th-century statue of Saint Francis, and eerily beautiful catacombs.
Casa da Música is one of the top attractions in Porto for music and architecture fans alike. Modern and eye-catching from the outside, inside it houses a vast 1,300-seat concert hall used by the Porto National Orchestra. The rooftop restaurant offers drinks and dinner options that are as delightful as the views.
Allegedly established by a Roman centurion named Amarantus, Amarante is situated between the steep sides of Serra do Marão and the curves of the river Tâmega, the longest tributary of the river Douro. Modern Amarante is actually rooted in the 13th century, when the Benedictine monk St. Gonçalo settled in the area after completing a pilgrimage to Italy and Jerusalem. He is said to have commissioned the original bridge over the river Tâmega, located in the same spot as modern times.
In addition to its centurion, saint and bridge, Amarante is known for its sweets and cakes, and these are easy to find in many of the region's cake-shops and cafés. However, during the Feast of Sao Gonçalo, Amarante’s baked goods become famous for a different reason: they’re baked in the shape of phalluses, Sao Gonçalo is the patron saint of marriage and lovers. As suggestively shaped confections are not the norm for a Catholic Saint’s day, the tradition is likely rooted in a pagan fertility ritual.
Visitors to Amarante will want to take advantage of the region’s natural beauty and outdoor activities. Not to miss: hiking up to Serra do Marão in order to admire its breathtaking landscape. Near this mountain is Ansiães Valley. Here you will find trout farms on the right bank of the Ovelha River, as well as gorgeous sylvan scenery.
Porto’s former stock exchange building, the Palace of the Stock Exchange (Palácio da Bolsa), is a magnificent 19th-century mansion at the heart of the city’s UNESCO-listed historic center. A marvel of neoclassical architecture and steeped in history, its grand ballrooms have played host to royals like Queen Elizabeth II over the years.
Today, the Palacio da Bolsa is open to the public by guided tour only and visitors can explore a number of its opulent rooms. Highlights include the Nations’ Room, with its collection of international flags; the exquisite parquet floors and the monumental grand staircase with its glittering bronze chandeliers. The undisputed star attraction is the dazzling Arabian Room, where the arabesque décor and gilded pillars are inspired by the famous Alhambra Palace in Granada, and music concerts are held throughout the year.
More Things to Do in Northern Portugal
Lying at the southern end of Porto’s majestic Avenida dos Aliados is Liberdade Square (Praça da Liberdade), which started its life in the late 18th century when the city began to expand beyond its medieval walls. If you stand in the centre of the square, you’ll get spectacular views of some of Porto’s architectural symbols, which include the Baroque City Hall (Câmara Municipal).
Founded in 1859 by António Alves Cálem, Porto CalemWine Cellars are one of the most celebrated wineries in the Porto region. Located at the heart of the Douro Valley, the family-run winery produces some of Portugal’s finest port wines, using centuries-old production methods and offering a completely unique tasting experience for wine lovers.
With its canal-lined streets and pastel-colored buildings, Aveiro—known as the Venice of Portugal—never fails to charm visitors. From gliding around town on abarco moliceiro and marveling at art nouveau villas, to hiking sand dunes and catching some waves, there’s plenty to see and do.
The buzzing heart of Porto, running from Praça do Marquês de Pombal in the north to Praça da Batalha in the south, Rua Santa Catarina is Porto’s principal shopping street. The pedestrianized thoroughfare stretches for some 1.5km and is lined with beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, plus a huge selection of shops, restaurants, patisseries and cafés. This is the spot to find big name brands like Nike, Bellissima and Prof, while the Via Catarina shopping mall offers international stores like H&M and Zara, as well as a sizable food court.
Rua Santa Catarina is also home to the magnificent Capela das Almas, a striking blue chapel decorated with ornate azulejo tilework; the famous Café Majestic, renowned for its opulent Belle-Epoque style décor; and the lively Mercado de Bolao, Porto’s largest open-air market, where stalls are laden with fresh produce, fragrant spices and exquisite handicrafts.
Built in the 10th century to defend the city of Guimarães against attacks from the Moors and Normans, Guimarães Castle is a perfectly preserved example of military architecture. The castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features turrets and towers reminiscent of fairy-tale castles.
With its stone-brick façade and crenelated clock tower looming over the lively plaza of Largo da Oliveira, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira appears more like a castle than a church. Inside, the church is notable for its ornate 18th-century altarpiece, the striking silver altar of the Capela do Santíssimo Sacramento and the exquisite neo classical choir stalls, but it’s biggest claim to fame is its unique history.
Founded in the 10th century, the church takes its name, which means ‘Church of Our Lady of the Olive Branch’ from an ancient legend in which Wamba, the elected King of the Visigoths, refused to accept his royal title. Angry, he threw an olive branch to the ground and declared that he would accept the crown only if the stick began to sprout. Naturally, an olive tree bloomed and today the Padrão do Salado monument, located just in front of the church, marks the spot - a grand Gothic arch, sheltering a lone cross.
Situated in a magnificent garden just west of downtown Porto, the Serralves Museum(Fundação de Serralves) has become a top city highlight and one of the most influential modern art museums in Portugal. Its permanent collection spans from the 1960s to the present day, with large sculptural pieces scattered throughout the grounds.
Guimarães is considered the birthplace of Portugal, because the country’s first king—Afonso Henriques—was born there. An authentic example of the evolution of a medieval town into a modern city, Guimarães’ historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that makes for a fascinating day trip from Porto.
One of Porto’s top attractions for families of all ages, the SEA LIFE® Porto aquarium is home to dazzling displays of marine life. Visitors can enjoy up-close encounters with some of the sea’s most colorful inhabitants, including octopus, rays, sea turtles, and sharks.
Completed in 1963, Arrábida Bridge spans Portugal’s Douro River to connect Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Measuring 890 feet (270 meters), it was the largest concrete-arch bridge at the time of its completion. Today its big draw for tourists is the chance to "climb" the arch by walking up a granite staircase—with a harness.
On Portugal’s Atlantic coast, Matosinhos Beach (Praia de Matosinhos) is the city of Porto’s closest strand. With broad sands and a scenic promenade lined with fish restaurants, it’s a lively destination and a favorite among local families, as well as a notable surf spot.
A modern town with ancient roots, Viana do Castelo is in the very north of Portugal, crushed between the estuary of the River Lima and the wild surf of the Atlantic Sea. The Praça da República, its beautiful fountains and the Church of the Misericórdia –a three-story melange of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture – form the medieval heart of the city. Along with the 15th-century cathedral, the ancient piazzas and Manueline mansions all contrast neatly with the area’s modern-day seafront marina. But Viana is best known for its Santuario de Santa Luzia, a church perched on a hilltop overlooking the Atlantic rollers. It is accessible by funicular from the town center, which will climb the 820-foot hill.
The construction of this elaborate Neo-Byzantine church began in 1903 based on a design by Miguel Ventura Terra, who was inspired by the Sacré Coeur in Paris. The church’s ornate façades are adorned with delicate rose windows, double-domed twin spires, a rounded apse and a grand central dome. Take the elevator to the top of the dome for panoramas across Viana do Castelo to the Atlantic.
The Douro region in Northeast Portugal is near the border with Spain. Even with the advent of modern civilization, this area is characterized by a sort of frontier spirit that tenaciously preserves a traditional way of life handed down through many, many years.
Thinly populated and remote, the Douro is not unlike Galicia in Spain in that its people speak a dialect that is markedly different than the rest of the country; in the Douro, it is closer to Latin vulgate than Portuguese. Along with speaking a traditional language, pottery and weaving are still important cottage industries. Long-held folk practices include a dance with wooden staves called the Dance of the Pauliteiros, which takes place on the third Sunday of August, during the Feast of Saint Barbara. Curiously, this dance is less related to Saint Barbara than it is to Roman martial pomp – the Dance of the Pauliteiros is an outgrowth of the old Roman sword dances.
Notable ruins in the town of Miranda do Douro include the watchtower of the Miranda do Douro castle and the Baroque courtyard left behind from the long-since-destroyed Archbishop’s palace. The city’s cathedral is also of interest; it features a magnificent marble high altar as well as a 19th century ex-voto centered around a piece called “Infant Jesus in a Top Hat.”
Spanning the Douro River, Porto’s Arrábida Bridge was the largest concrete-arch bridge in the world when it was completed in 1963. Today, pedestrians can walk up the span’s archway with Porto Bridge Climb, the only bridge-climb experience in Europe. It’s a rare opportunity to enjoy a unique perspective on the city and river below.
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