One of Portugal’s oldest cities, Braga was also an ancient seat of religious power with an archdiocese anchored in the 4th century. The cathedral is mandatory, as are several of the old churches, chapels and monasteries in the area.
There’s also the lofty Bom Jesus do Monte sanctuary that you can reach via a splendid Baroque stairway with allegorical sculpture, or on a 19th century funicular. You have to see the imposing old mansions around the city, festooned with azulejos and taking you back to aristocratic life in Braga in days gone by.
Lets explore the best things to do in Braga:
1. Bom Jesus do Monte
The city’s most visited tourist attraction high on a hilltop to the east.
This sanctuary is a pilgrimage site and has been attracting religious devotees since at least the 14th century.
And devoted is what you need to be to make it up the stairway, which rises more than 100 metres and has 640 steps.
These stairs zigzag up the slope and are adorned with Baroque sculpture to inspire you as you climb.
On the way up look out for the fountains, which are themed on the five senses.
Your goal is a Neoclassical church completed in 1834, but the real appeal lies in the journey and then the exhilarating views of Braga at the top.
2. Bom Jesus do Monte Funicular
You could always take the funicular railway, which shuttles up and down the side of the hill.
This system was installed in the early 1880s, under the direction of the Swiss engineer Nikolaus Riggenbach.
Before that there had been horsecars, vehicles on rails hauled up the hill by horses.
The replacement system is ingenious and is the oldest funicular in the world to use water counterbalancing.
The cars run at the same time in opposite directions; the one coming down the hill is weighed down with water, powering the lighter one up the track.
3. Braga Cathedral
If you’re an architecture student there’s a little bit of every architectural movement at the city’s cathedral.
The building has been modified many times, furnishing it Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance and Baroque elements and decoration.
The Romanesque triple nave is still easy to identify, but what will distract you right away are the two Baroque organs from 1737 and 1739, with cases covered with exuberant gilded wood.
Track down the baptismal font, which has a Manueline design and see the stunning 15th century recumbent tomb of King John I’s son Afonso.
This is made from wood coated with gold and silver-plated copper.
4. Praça da República
In the middle of historic Braga, this plaza is known locally as “Arcada”. The name refers to the 18th-century arcaded building on the west side of the square.
The square itself was plotted in the 1800s and is long and grand, and walled by tall apartment buildings.
It makes sense to begin your visit to Braga from this point, partly because the tourist office is here but also because of amount of sights on the square (Igreja da Lapa and the beautiful fountain)and the radiating streets.
By day it’s also somewhere to find some shade and a cold drink, and at night you could come for a meal at this stately setting.
5. Garden of Santa Barbara
This exquisite formal garden is next to Braga’s medieval episcopal palace and bounded by the palace’s beautiful north walls, which is topped by typical pointed merlons.
The garden is strict and ordered, with geometric lines and manicured boxwood hedges and topiaries.
But inside the borders is a riot of colourful flowers in the summer, attracting lots of birds.
Back towards the palace there are the remnants of a Gothic arcade delineating the palace’s patio, and in the stonework on the walls you can make out fragments of sculpture and coats of arms.
6. Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sameiro
Just south of Bom Jesus do Monte is another hilltop sanctuary, set even higher at 566 metres above sea level.
And even though it’s still one of Portugal’s most frequented pilgrimage sites, it feels relatively quiet compared to its neighbour to the north.
The church up here is rather new, dating to the 1860s, but has an important Marian shrine that receives lots of devotees on Sundays between June 1 and August 31. For everyone else it’s all about the view.
There’s an immense terrace in front where you’ll want to meditate over the Cávado countryside and Braga in the distance to the northwest.
You’ll need as long as you can get if you hiked up the hill!
7. Biscainhos Museum
Set on its namesake square is a house museum in a resplendent 17th and 18th century aristocratic palace with sumptuous gardens.
It’s a window on the lives of Portugal’s nobility, and there’s no lack of refined decoration inside.
You’ll see some magnificent azulejos (Iberian painted tiles) and masterful stucco mouldings, along with collections of glassware, furniture, jewellery, ceramics and musical instruments.
The one-hectare grounds outside are enriched with fountains and sculpture and were landscaped in 1750. There’s an orchard area arranged on a parterre and a formal garden with labyrinthine boxwood sculptures.
These are considered among the finest 18th-century gardens in Portugal.
8. Raio Palace
In the centre of Braga, this divine palace from the 1750s was commissioned by João Duarte de Faria, a wealthy merchant and knight of the Order of Christ.
It will stop you in your tracks as its walls are clad with blue azulejos, which contrast with the graceful granite carvings on the doorways and window frames.
If you’ve been to Barcelona you might see a similarity between his work and exaggerated, organic fittings on the facade of this building.
The palace is next to Braga’s hospital and inside there’s a free museum with some old medical artefacts as well as information about the building and its recent restoration.
9. Chapel of São Frutuoso
There’s something very ancient partially hidden in this church in the Real area.
It’s a Pre-Romanesque chapel founded by the Visigoths in the 7th century.
Damage sustained during the Islamic period was repaired in the 9th and 10th centuries, but apart from that the building has had the same Greek cross layout since it was built.
In the 18th century it was incorporated into a Baroque church, and you can access the chapel on the right hand side of the nave.
Inside there are triple horseshoe arches, and on the exterior you can study the blind arcades and the portico with pediment that was the main entrance before the chapel was attached to the church.
10. S. C. Braga
The city’s football team plays in the Primeira Liga.
As a rule of thumb they’re the next best side in the division after the Big Three of Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon.
Braga play in the Europa League almost every season, so there’s a high standard on show.
But, truth be told, your motive for coming is to glimpse the marvellous Estádio Municipal, which is embedded in a former quarry.
This was designed by Pritzer prize-winner Eduardo Souto de Moura and was built in for Euro 2004 when Portugal was the host country.
The stadium seats 30,000 but there are only stands on the sidelines, and on the byline to the southeast there’s nothing but a hulking wall of granite.
11. Arco da Porta Nova
At the eastern entrance to the historic centre of Braga, this triumphal arch is a real head turner.
It was crafted by the Braga-based sculptor André Soares in the middle of the 18th century, and his name comes up often in the city as he contributed several fountains and sculptures here.
This arch replaced an old gateway, and has a very different character depending on the side you approach it from . The east side is understated, with an niche with a Marian sculpture (Nossa Senhora da Nazaré), while the west side is far bolder, featuring a stone coat of arms and pyramidal pinnacles above a baroque arch.
12. Monastery of São Martinho de Tibães
Moments outside Braga to the west is a Benedictine monastery that has some unbelievably rich decoration.
There’s an interesting reason for this as from the 16th to the 18th century São Martinho de Tibães was the mother house for the Benedictine order in all of Brazil.
The riches that this generated is clear to see in the opulent Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo furnishings in the church and cloister.
The jaw-dropping decoration is the gilded altarpiece and the exceptionally intricate woodwork on the triumphal arch midway along the nave.
13. Misericórdia Church
Part of the same complex as the cathedral, this church by the episcopal palace is one of the few Renaissance monuments in Braga.
It was erected at the start of the 1560s when Bartholomew of Braga was bishop (he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001). The facades are in the Mannerist style, while the interior got a Baroque makeover in the 17th century and is festooned with gold.
The reredos (decoration behind the altar) is almost absurdly ornate with paintings and gilding from floor to ceiling.
14. Festa de São João
The night of the June 23 is probably the most fun and colourful of the year in Braga.
This is São João, celebrating the birth of St John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint The city spends two weeks getting ready, decorating the parade route along Avenida da Liberdade, on the way to Parque da Ponte.
During the day there are percussion bands, traditional musicians playing accordions and parades with traditional Minho dress.
And that night people come back out onto the streets to bash each other with garlic (if they’re traditional) or toy plastic hammers that make a squeak.
Restaurants on this night serve caldo verde, a typical vegetable broth, and grilled sardines.
15. Vinho Verde
The big regional beverage in the Minho region is vinho verde, literally “green wine”. This doesn’t refer to the colour of the drink, but the young age, as it’s best enjoyed soon after bottling.
Famously they are crisp and light and often come with a little sparkle.
In the past this as caused by secondary fermentation inside the bottle, but is now usually made with carbonation instead.
Reds and rosés are made in this region, but far the most common is white, made with the albariño grape.
And being fresh vinho verde is great with bacalhau à Braga, which is deep fried cod with sautéed potatoes, fried onions and a kind of pickle with carrots, cauliflower and olives.