West of Braga, Barcelos is a cute medieval town with a strong cultural identity. This comes from artisan traditions like pottery, as well as the Galo de Barcelo, the ornamental rooster that became an emblem for Portugal. The weekly market on Thursdays is one of Portugal’s largest, and together with the usual fresh produce it’s a souvenir hunter’s dream, with traditional, handmade “figurados”, painted galos, reed baskets and much more.
For sightseeing there’s a medieval tower, a clutch of churches from medieval to Baroque, and the solemn ruins of a palace where the Dukes of Braganza once lived.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Barcelos:
1. Torre do Cimo da Vila
In medieval times, because of the road system and lie of the land anyone travelling this region from North to South had to pass through this gate.
Barcelos never had its own castle, but in the 1400s the Count of Barcelos reinforced the town’s walls with three square towers made with powerful granite stones.
This one is last still here, and after the tower outlived its use as a defence it was used as a prison until the 1930s, and now has a centre for local artisan crafts.
Access if free and there’s even an elevator to the top to see the centre of Barcelos and the mountains in the background.
2. Museu de Olaria
Barcelos has always been known for its pottery, particularly “figurado”, which are comical figurines with accentuated features, representing traditional farmers, folk musicians and also the characters from nativity scenes.
There’s a hoard of figurado at this museum, many by the creations of the beloved ceramicist Rosa Ramalho, who lived in Barcelos all her life until 1977. But there’s also a host of other pottery styles to browse, not just from other regions of Portugal but also former Portuguese colonies like Cape Verde, Angola and Timor.
You can also see a video of how the local potters turn clay into art.
3. Paço dos Condes de Barcelos
Afonso I, the Duke of Braganza ordered this Gothic fortified palace in the 15th century, and it was the richest building in the town.
Standing over the Cávado, this was a lavish residence for the Braganza line.
That was until the 18th century when it was damaged by the earthquake in 1755 and left to decay until its tower and roof collapsed in 1801. Today it’s a shell, with a few walls, pointed archways, mullioned windows and a tall tubular chimney (like those at the famous Braganza Palace in Guimarães), but good fun to explore.
The site’s crucifix has a famous story, which we’ll talk about a little later.
These ruins are a National Monument, and a glimpse of the power wielded by the Dukes of Braganza.
4. Igreja Matriz de Barcelos
A few metres from the palace ruins is Barcelos’ main church, begun in the 1200s at the transition from Romanesque to Gothic.
Harking back to the 13th century is the portal, which has an ogival arch framed by archivolts with fleurs de lys and rosettes.
Above this is a rose window with beautiful stained glass depicting Jesus and the twelve apostles.
There’s unmistakable 18th century decoration in the naves, which are festooned with blue and white azulejos showing historical scenes and episodes from the Bible.
5. Barcelos’ Weekly Market
The town of Barcelos may not be very big, but its weekly open air market sure is, and it’s an event that pulls in shoppers from miles around.
Scores of stalls fill the Campo da República every Thursday for one of the largest and most typical markets in Portugal, with a history going back to medieval times.
If you’re coming in summer be sure to get there early and beat the crowds.
There’s lots of fresh produce here, but it’s best to think of the market as a giant souvenir shop: All the traditional Minho region crafts are here, like pottery, hand-woven baskets and bags, not to forget the Rooster of Barcelos, which we’ll come to next.
6. Galo de Barcelos
This story of the Rooster of Barcelos, known the world over as a symbol for Portugal, goes a little something like this: It’s about a Galician who is falsely accused of stealing and condemned to hang.
He protests his innocence, requesting an audience with the judge who meets him while he is eating roast rooster.
The Galician tells the judge that it is certain he is innocent “as it is certain that this rooster will crow when they hang me”. The rooster crows when he is hanged, and the Galician survives and is set free, returning much later to the Paço dos Condes to sculpt the crucifix that you can still see now.
So if ever there were a place to buy this rooster as a souvenir, it’s Barcelos!
7. Ponte de Barcelos
At the old southern entrance to Barcelos the medieval bridge rounds off a picturesque scene beneath the ruins of the Paço dos Condes and links with Barcelinhos on the left bank.
The bridge was initiated in the 1320s by the third Count of Barcelos, Pedro Afonso and became an important landmark for pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia on the Way of St James.
When the palace’s tower collapsed in 1801 it took out a section of the bridge with it, requiring a big reconstruction on the right bank.
8. Igreja de Vilar de Frades
Another of Barcelos’ lineup of national monuments is this sublime church in the parish of Areais de Vilar.
It was joined to a Benedictine monastery, founded in the 6th century, destroyed by the Moors and rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 1000s.
There are still some elements from the 11th century, but it’s the later Gothic and Manueline workmanship that makes the headlines.
You’ll spend most of your visit with your head tilted back, gazing in awe at the masterful ribbed vaulting in the nave, main chapel and side chapels.
And the main portal need a moment just to appreciate the impossible detail of the masonry in its pillars and archivolts, sculpted with plant motifs and grotesques around the 1520s.
9. Pelourinho de Barcelos
Also by the river and near the ruins of the palace is Barcelo’s pillory.
These monuments are a mainstay of all historic Portuguese towns as a vestigial symbol of order, and Barcelo’s is one of the finest.
It sits in a geometric riverside garden and was made at the very end of the Gothic period around the late 1400s.
The pillar is hexagonal and is capped by a very ornate lantern, with ribbonwork on the capital below and a pinnacle on the top.
10. Monte da Franqueira
This hill near Barcelos is crowned with a 16th-century hermitage that is setting for a pilgrimage in August: Hundreds of the town’s residents climb the stairway and pay their respects at the shrine of Nossa Senhora da Franqueira.
The location needs to be seen at any time of year, mainly for the exhilarating views of coast from Esponsende to Póvoa de Varzim, the final bends of the Cávado River, Barcelos and east towards Braga and its iconic Bom Jesus do Monte sanctuary.
You can pop inside the hermitage to check out the shrine, and wander around the hillsides which are strewn with historic ruins.
11. Castelo de Faria
Cloaked in thick pine forest on a promontory at Monte Franqueira are the haunting ruins of a medieval castle.
The site is only a short walk from the top of the hill and its hermitage, and have ties with Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques.
The castle was also an important stronghold in the many conflicts with Galicia and Spain before falling into disuse in the 1500s.
But after all this time you can still identify the Romanesque keep and three lines of walls.
Around 300 years before the Romans arrived this site as a Celtic castro, as the telltale circular foundations show.
12. Igreja do Bom Jesus da Cruz
Newer than the other churches we’ve looked at so far, this 18th-century building is a standout example of Baroque architecture.
One of the foremost Portuguese architects of the era, João Antunes was hired for the job and the church was completed in just five years from 1705 to 1710. All of the telltale signs the Portuguese baroque are here, like the blend of whitewashing and bare granite on the facade, and the campanile above the portal.
The nave has the classic blue and white azulejos with vegetal motifs and conveying scenes from the Passion.
There’s dainty gilded woodwork around an older life-sized oak statue of Christ sculpted in Flanders in the 1500s.
13. Horseback Riding
The Centro Hípico Ir Pedro Coelho was unveiled in Vilar de Frades in 2009 and is a huge facility that caters to all equestrianism disciplines.
Every May and September it hosts an international show-jumping tournament at its arena, with more than 150 competitors.
There’s also a smaller national competition to catch in April.
But the rest of the time you could book a horseback riding experience.
The school here organises short trips into the idyllic countryside east of Barcelos, and this is something open to almost all ages and can be done without any prior experience.
14. Days Out
The countryside around Barcelos has a lot to love: As well as the Monte da Franqueira there are three other hilltops in the municipality with panoramic terraces (Monte de Facho, Monte de São Gonçalo and Monte de Airó), all ready to be conquered on foot or by bike.
Winding past these hills, the Cávado River is clean, wide and abounds with birdlife and otters.
There are river beaches on its course and around Areias de Vilar you can hire a kayak.
If you’re up for a day at the beach Esposende has a lagoon and wild Atlantic shoreline fringed by dines.
In the opposite direction is Braga, adored for its Baroque palaces and sanctuaries in the clouds.
15. Food and Drink
If you’d like to try some traditional local food you’ll be pleased to know that it’s unpretentious and accessible.
You aren’t far from the coast so fish and seafood are staples: There’s deep-fried cod, grilled sardines, baked cod, lamprey rice and roasted octopus.
Cozido à portuguesa is a slow-cooked stew with almost any kind of vegetable, be it turnip, cabbage, beans, carrot, along with various cuts of pork, chicken and cured sausage like Portuguese chorizo and blood sausage.
There’s also caldo verde, a vegetable soup, roasted kid, barbecued entrecote steak, roasted rabbit, chicken with rice, among many others.
The seafood and lighter dishes pair perfectly with the Minho region’s fresh vinho verde.