Established by the Romans in 296 BCE, when it was named Bracara Augustus, Braga represents Portugal’s religious heart, as illustrated by the popular Portuguese saying, ‘Coimbra studies, Braga prays, Porto works, and Lisbon shows off.’ Although one of Portugal’s less well-known cities, there is a diverse range of things to do in Braga.
Located in the far north of the country, it is one of the oldest Christian cities in the world and was considered the centre of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula until Santiago de Compostela took over the mantle, after which Braga’s importance waned. As a result, grand churches and historic buildings are peppered throughout its old quarter.
Although still very much a religious centre, Braga is a vibrant, youthful, and attractive small city which, so far, has managed to remain absent from the itineraries of most foreign visitors to Portugal. It’s a city whose charms are mostly appreciated by Portuguese, which makes this a perfect time to become acquainted with it.
In a country which boasts numerous examples of outstanding religious architecture, the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte
is possibly the most impressive of them all. Its sheer scale is breathtaking, more like a religious theme park. The image that many will be familiar with is of the Staircase of the Five Senses
, an ornate Baroque masterpiece which zigzags upwards from the Portico to the Basilica in double flights, pausing at patios decorated with fountains and statues – good spots for a breather and an opportunity for a photo of the iconic structure. Consisting of five hundred steps, it’s quite a climb. But there is a funicular for those who want to save their breaths for the sight which awaits them at the top.
Casa Rolão, a 250-year-old Baroque building on Avenida Central, is the sort of intriguing building that looks like it could have a few tales to tell, which makes it the ideal location for an atmospheric bookshop. Centésima Pagina (open Monday to Saturday) is more than a bookshop though, it’s a cultural centre which hosts intimate concerts and art exhibitions as well as book signings. It is the sort of place literature lovers will adore, especially as it has a café and courtyard garden; perfect for book browsers to enjoying flicking through their latest purchases in charming surroundings.
A taste of Braga
Braga’s culinary scene is like its streets, featuring a compelling blend of the traditional and contemporary. This is a city with a liking for sweet things. The dessert most famously associated with Braga is Pudim Abade de Priscos (sugar, lemon peel, cinnamon, egg yolks, Port, and lard) created by an abbot with a talent for cooking. For those who prefer savoury to sweet, frigideiras are a Braga speciality. These are little pies usually filled with minced veal and ‘secret’ ingredients. The most authentic come from Frigideiras do Cantinho, where they have been made and sold since 1796.
Pause for refreshments
Anyone who’s visited the Chiado district of Lisbon will instantly recognise the distinctive façade of its doppelganger in Braga, also called A Brasileira (open daily until late). It’s Portugal’s version of a chain, there are two of them and they both look the same. Like its Lisbon twin, the stylish coffee shop boasts a rich and interesting past. It originally opened in 1907, selling freshly ground coffee from Brazil. Back then, customers got a free coffee if they bought a kilo of coffee beans. At one time, men were only allowed entry if they wore ties: definitely not your usual coffee shop franchise.
The Instagram shot
Braga’s most eye-catching building is shy. The Raio Palace, also known as Casa do Mexicano, lies tucked away from the main streets in a location that could be easily overlooked. An interpretation centre since 2015, the interior, with its frescoed ceilings and tiled stairways, is an artistic shrine to Braga’s past. However, it is the Raio Palace’s façade which sets it apart from other historic buildings in the city. Adorned by vibrant azulejos (the famous blue Portuguese tiles), curved forged iron balconies, and a flat roof decorated with a row of amphoras, it’s a delightful building, especially when the tiles are illuminated at dusk.
The independent shops lining Rua Dom Diago/Rua do Souto reflect Braga’s contrasting character – the reverent and the irreverent. On one side of the pedestrianised street, you’ll find establishments selling unusual religious artefacts; Braga is the place to go if you’re looking for life-size sculptures of Christ on the cross or the Pope. On the other is an off-licence selling speciality drinks in quirky containers; one of which is Malandrice, a liqueur traditionally sold in a clay, phallus-shaped bottle; not the sort of thing you expect to see in a city with a devout reputation.