A gorgeous old city in two parts, Bragança’s high ground is ruled by the citadel and castle, while on the banks of the Fervença River below is the new town. Truth be told, the new town isn’t very new either, as the former cathedral here is from the 1500s.
The medieval citadel and castle above are in great shape, with original details and a sleepy neighbourhood of cobblestone streets defended by the walls. The countryside should figure in your plans, whether you tour the granite villages in the Montesinho Natural Park or head south to the Blue Flag beach at the Azibo Reservoir.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bragança:
1. Castle of Bragança
Climbing above Bragança’s citadel and visible for miles around is the 15th-century keep.
This is 17 metres wide and 33 metres tall, ordered by King John I and constructed over an earlier stronghold from the 12th century.
What’s special about this building is that it hasn’t needed much restoration, so what you see has changed little since the 15th century.
There are small Gothic flourishes like the traceried windows and the coat of arms of King John’s Royal House of Avis.
You can see the interior by visiting the Military Museum, which we’ll come to shortly, and get to the roof, which has epic views of the town and the wooded hills of the Montesinho Natural Park.
2. Domus Municipalis
This pentagonal granite building in the centre of the citadel has been puzzling historians for more than a century now.
Nobody is too sure exactly what it was meant for, or even when it was built.
Most estimates put it in the 13th or 14th centuries.
It may have been intended as a cistern or public meeting hall.
Either way it remains one of the only examples of Romanesque civic architecture to be found in Portugal, and you’re free to go in and make your own conclusion.
A sequence of semicircular arch windows let the light in, and there’s a stone bench around the first floor interior.
Encircled by crenellated walls and commanded by the castle, the medieval citadel is at the top of a hill to the east of the new town.
To enter you have to pass through stone gateways, and once you’re inside the walls you can find stairways to get up to battlements so you can man the defences like a medieval guard.
The citadel is older than the present castle, dating from the 1130s and with a lattice of straight cobblestone lanes.
It’s a peaceful, sleepy sort of place with artisan workshops and a few bars and restaurants.
For a peek at local traditions drop by the Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje, which has the ritualistic masks and costumes donned for festivals in the region.
4. Museu do Abade de Baçal
Outside the citadel walls in the lower town is Bragança’s former episcopal palace.
At the start of the 20th century the building was turned into a museum for the whole Northeast Trasmontano region, with caches of art, archaeological artefacts and coins donated by local writers and military figures.
There are also some splendid religious treasures like a wooden ark for holy anointing oils, a triptych of the martyrdom of St Ignatius and several Baroque polychrome statues.
As a testament to Bragança’s importance in past times the museum has the Manueline (16th-century) standard measures for liquids and weights, while from the distant past are hand-axes, arrowheads, funerary steles, coins, milestones and ceramics.
5. Sé Velha de Bragança
In 2001 Bragança got a brand new, purpose-built cathedral.
It replaced this pretty church in the new town, which never quite had the right dimensions.
All the same the old cathedral is a terrific monument, built as a convent church in the 1560s and then turned into a Jesuit college.
When the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal in the 18th century it became the cathedral.
Some of the many things worth your attention are the Renaissance portal, the triumphal arch bearing the city’s emblem and the altar, glowing gold-painted woodwork from the 1700s.
6. Museu Militar De Bragança
Taking up all four floors of the keep is a military museum first created in 1929 when the Portuguese 10th Infantry Regiment was quartered here.
When the army finally departed the citadel the museum left with it, to be reinstated in 1983 with all of the original collection.
These are light arms like daggers, swords, rifles and pistols from the 1200s to the First World War.
Many of the most engaging pieces are from Portugal’s African campaigns in the late 19th century.
Among them are the personal items of Gungunhana, a tribal king who rebelled against the Portuguese empire and lived out his days in exile in the Azores.
7. Igreja Santa Maria
Within the citadel, next to the Domus Municipalis, is the oldest church in Bragança, although all that remains of its the original Romanesque building is the floor-plan.
The rest was given a succession of makeovers between the 1500s and 1700s when the Renaissance and Baroque side-chapels were also added.
Before heading in, check out the Baroque portal, which is flanked by two bold Solomonic columns decorated with vine patterns.
The things that hit you inside are the painted barrel vault ceiling that portrays the Assumption of Mary, and lavish Baroque altar in the main chapel.
8. Igreja de Castro de Avelãs
The Benedictine monastery three kilometres from the centre of Bragança was once a rich and powerful institution, offering lodgings and a place to worship for pilgrims on the Way of St James.
It was built in the 12th and 13th centuries but went into decline in the 1500s after it was absorbed by the Miranda do Douro diocese.
The outstanding feature is the Romanesque chevet on the church, with its three radiating apse chapels.
These have three tiers of slender, semi-circular blind arches, a design that can’t be found anywhere else in the country.
9. Centro de Arte Contemporânea Graça Morais
The acclaimed contemporary painter, Graça Morais has close links with Bragança, having come to school here in the 1960s.
This museum, founded in 2008 has a space reserved for her art, with exhibitions that are updated every few months.
These run alongside temporary exhibitions for all manner of disciplines.
Whether you’re an art-lover or not, the building merits a few minutes: The centre was the work of Eduardo Souto de Moura, who designed a modern annex to a 17th-century hall that had previously been occupied by the Banco de Portual.
10. Centro Ciência Viva de Bragança
In 2007 a historic water mill and its neighbouring hydroelectric plant on the Fervença River were converted into an interactive science centre and museum for kids.
Adults will be impressed by the architecture of the modern glass shell and a riverside terrace with cafe seating.
Kids can get stuck into some subtly educational games and experiments on topics wind energy, the environment and recycling.
The exhibits in the old mill (Casa da Seda) are about traditional silk production in the Trás-os-Montes region.
11. Montesinho Natural Park
To leave civilisation behind for a few hours you can venture in to this natural park that begins directly north of the town.
The park has only a few isolated villages couched in some 74,000 hectares of granite peaks, verdant meadows, moors and oak woodland.
Wildlife abounds in this unpopulated part of the country, and around 70% of all species recorded in Portugal make a habitat here.
That goes for the Iberian wolf, which can be a menace for farmers, who have bred the hardy Transmontano cattle dog to guard their herds.
Walkers and mountain-bikers can trace the Sabor, Maçãs and Baceiro rivers, passing Roman bridges, hamlets and old watermills that are still in working order.
12. Aldeia de Montesinho
Woven into the woodland and pastures of the natural park is the namesake village.
Montesinho is as quaint as they get, with well looked-after rustic stone houses that have slate roofs and wooden balconies.
On the cobblestone streets you’ll turn a corner and be met with mountain vistas that take the breath away.
In one of the traditional houses there’s an interpretation for the natural park, revealing its geology and native species, as well as the trades and customs of the people who live here.
Not far away there’s 1,500-metre-long Serra Serrada hydroelectric dam, while the eerie ruins of the once nation-leading Portelo mining complex are also nearby.
13. Rio de Onor
In the natural park, right on the border with Spain, is this pastoral frontier village that looks like it could be an outdoor museum.
The remote setting and harshness of the local environment helped give rise to a distinctive way of doing things, described as an “aldeia comunitária” or community village.
Almost everything needed to survive, including livestock, farmland, tools and bread ovens, is shared by the villagers, and everyone is expected to contribute.
As well as a self-governing system, Rio de Onor even developed its own dialect, although this is now dying out.
14. Albufeira do Azibo
A protected landscape has been designated around this water reservoir a short drive south of Bragança.
The fresh greenery around it provides a habitat for eagles, great-crested grebes, herons, storks and harriers.
There are information signs telling you what you can see on the trails around the shore.
And the reservoir will look especially alluring in summer: The north shore has the Fraga da Pegada, a beach that is commended with the Blue Flag every year.
If you need somewhere to unwind for a few hours there’s a restaurant with an outdoor terrace and a playground for kids.
15. Local Cuisine
The food in Bragança is simple, filling and never has to travel far to your table.
In a place where winters can be bitter, meat is a staple and appears in most dishes.
Try Mirandesa veal steak, which comes from cattle that graze in lime groves, or Montsinho goat kid, which feeds on wild herbs in the hills.
There are many aromatic and warming stews, normally for game like rabbit but containing almost anything to hand, while sausages and cured meats are never far from the table.
One, chouriço de mel is made with honey and is often eaten as a dessert!