To the north of Porto’s Metropolitan Area, Maia is a prosperous industrial city, close to the airport and with a few market-leading companies in its boundaries. If that doesn’t sound touristy there’s still enough to merit a stop, especially if you’re travelling with children. Zoo da Maia is the best in the Porto area, and you’re also a few minutes from the coast for wide open Atlantic beaches.
For heritage there are medieval and Baroque churches, and graceful old estates for 18th-century nobility. Plus, Porto is never far away and has grand avenues and labyrinthine old districts to navigate, as well as more museums and monuments than you can pack into a single day.
Lets explore the best things to do in Maia:
1. Zoo da Maia
Sure to get a thumbs up from youngsters, Maia’s zoo is what attracts most day-trippers to the city.
Although there are mammals as varied as tigers, brown bears, zebras, capybaras and wallabies, the zoo is best known for its cold-blooded animals: There are more species of reptile here than at any other attraction in the country.
You’ll spot all manner of turtles, tortoises, iguanas, geckos and snakes.
Another famous inhabitant is the sea lion, which puts on a feeding show three times a day.
There’s also a birds of prey demonstration with barn owls and Eurasian eagle-owls.
2. Santuário de Nossa Senhora do Bom Despacho
This dainty Baroque church dates to 1742 and is photo–worthy both inside and out.
It’s spectacular on a sunny day, as the facade is clad with blue and white tiles and looks amazing against a clear sky.
These tiles cover almost every surface, even the three-storey bell-tower, and are set off by stone pilasters and scrolls and two large blue painted doors.
The inside shines for that mid-18th-century gilded woodcarving that enriches many of the churches around Porto.
This takes over the entire altar, which is topped off by a splendid Maltese Cross.
3. Fórum da Maia
If something cultural is happening in Maia you can be sure that it will be at this immense concert hall, which was unveiled back in 1991. There are four auditoriums, with one outside, as well as five separate galleries, a cafe and a bar.
The Fórum has a very lively schedule, with touring rock and pop ensembles, folk musicians, dance and plays.
A few annual festivals are also staged at the venue, for disciplines as diverse as puppetry and comic theatre.
But the main event is the World Press Photo exhibition, every November and December.
4. Mosteiro de Leça do Balio
From afar you could easily mistake this medieval monastic church for a castle.
It has a square, crenellated tower with pointed merlons and arrow loops and only a few narrow openings in its walls.
This hardy appearance dates to the 14th century, in a period when Castilian forces attacked Lisbon and Porto.
It’s a building with mostly consistent Gothic architecture, with bare stone interiors and none of the Baroque gilding that you’ll find in other local churches.
The most eye-catching decoration was made by the 16th-century Manueline artist Diogo Pires, who sculpted the gisant tomb of Frei João Coelho and the baptismal font.
5. Quinta dos Cónegos
In Maia sits one of the finest mansions in the entire Porto area.
The Quinta dos Cónegos is from the 1700s and is wrapped in gardens that are worth a visit alone.
The most eye-catching part of the property is the double-tiered arcade, with a beautiful loggia on the first floor, hemmed by a granite balustrade.
Inside there’s a chapel that gleams with goldwork, and living spaces enriched with paintings, sculpture and furniture.
In the gardens, which are also traced by ceremonious balustrades track down the fountains with a sculpture of a dragon.
6. Museu de História e Etnologia da Terra da Maia
In the Vila do Castêlo da Maia, this history and ethnology museum is set in an 18th-century mansion that was the seat of the local government until 1902. It’s somewhere to connect with Maia’s rural past, in a place that was devoted to cereal and livestock farming until the 20th century.
There’s a display of traditional irrigation technology and tools for a variety of traditional professions.
In the historical galleries are ancient ceramics and a wonderful prehistoric megalith with enigmatic patterns.
7. Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Ó
This Romanesque church was built in the 1120s, when most of Portugal was still under Moorish control.
It was originally part of a monastery for the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Eagle-eyed visitors can find quite a few features that go back to the church’s foundation, at the rounded chapels in the apse and the capitals in the nave that have images of animals and foliage carved into them.
Carved above the side portal is a Templar cross, and in the churchyard are five stone sarcophagi, one also bearing that Templar insignia.
8. Torre do Lidador
Maia is easily recognised by the elliptical outline of this modern skyscraper, which was built in 2001 and is Portugal’s tallest building outside Lisbon.
It’s an obvious reference point when you’re visiting the city, but you can also go up on a guided tour on certain weekdays; it’s best to enquire at Maia’s tourist office to find out about opening times.
At the top of this 92-metre tower there’s an indoor viewpoint with 360° panoramas of Maia and views down to Porto in the south.
9. Estátua do Lidador
A minor sight, but an informative one all the same, this statue was sculpted by Lima do Carvalho and unveiled in 1984. It depicts Gonçalo Mendes da Maia, the city’s most famous personality.
He was born in 1079, before Portugal was even a country.
During his lifetime his nation gained independence, and he was a knight of its first king, Afonso Henriques.
But where he really won fame (and his “Lidador” epithet), was in his death, when at the age of 90 he supposedly led an attack against the Moors in Beja.
10. Pharmacy Museum
In the industrial area a couple of minutes down from Maia is a terrific museum that is mostly undiscovered by people visiting Porto.
It tracks man’s efforts to cure disease and relieve pain over the course of several millennia and numerous civilisations.
There are instruments and containers from China, Japan, Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome.
Also on show are items from Americas pre-Colombian cultures.
The show-stealers though are the reconstructed pharmacies, with original earthenware pots and wooden shelving.
One of these is from a 19th-century Ottoman Palace in Damascus, while another is the Estácio Pharmacy, moved piece by piece from its former home on Rua Sá da Bandeira.
11. Parque de Avioso
Unfurling over 30 hectares on the green banks of a tributary of the Leça River, this park is your go-to place in Maia for a jog or restorative walk.
There are meandering paths through groves of eucalyptus, oak, pine and cork oak trees adding up to more than 4.5 kilometres.
Also here is a lofty observation tower that you can scale to contemplate the park , as well as playgrounds for little ones, picnic areas, a cafe with a terrace and a large pond.
In between the Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport and the Atlantic Ocean is Maia’s industrial zone.
The shame about this is that the beaches continue alongside it almost unbroken and they’re broad, clean and otherwise beautiful except for the chimneys behind them.
Still, if you’d like a more picturesque place to unwind in the sun you could follow the coastline north, up to Praia da Memória, Praia do Marreco, Praia da Quebrada or Praia du Agudela.
These are all similar, with generous carpets of golden sand, dunes and vigorous Atlantic surf that crashes against the rocks along the shore.
13. Casa da Música
Just 20 minutes on Metro Line C is Porto’s acclaimed concert hall, the design of which was led by none other than Rem Koolhaas.
It has been compared to Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, and is such a beloved landmark, with such groundbreaking architecture that you can come in for a guided tour.
These take place twice a day, seven days a week.
There’s no lack of cool stuff to see inside like the two gargantuan glass walls (Casa da Música is the only concert hall in the world with two glass walls), or the VIP Hall, covered with traditional Portuguese azulejos.
14. Casa da Prelada
A diverting property to poke around in for an hour or so, the Casa da Prelada is an estate and garden designed by the Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni.
He was very active in the Porto area in the 18th century, and also worked on the Quinta dos Cónegos in Maia.
The highlight is definitely the garden, which has a stunning boxwood labyrinth, fountains and towering, gnarled trees from the 19th century.
The interiors were restored in the 20th century and are sparsely decorated and used as an occasional exhibition space.
At 25 minutes on the Metro, the city of Porto is an easy day out from Maia.
And in truth there’s a lot more than you could hope to cram into a single day, or even a weekend.
It’s a city of resplendent Baroque churches, like the iconic Torre dos Clérigos.
These were decorated when Porto was swimming in wealth and are all unrestrained.
The Ribeira quarter is Porto’s earthy riverside, with a bustling square where people gather for special occasions like São João.
Also make time for the cool coastal district, the Foz, the cultivated 18th-century architecture around, Praça da Liberdade, the port lodges on the south bank of the Douro and the river’s emblematic bridges, designed by the Eiffel Company.