Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Northern Portugal
The Douro region in Northeast Portugal is near the border with Spain. Even with the advent of modern civilization, this area is characterized by a sort of frontier spirit that tenaciously preserves a traditional way of life handed down through many, many years.
Thinly populated and remote, the Douro is not unlike Galicia in Spain in that its people speak a dialect that is markedly different than the rest of the country; in the Douro, it is closer to Latin vulgate than Portuguese. Along with speaking a traditional language, pottery and weaving are still important cottage industries. Long-held folk practices include a dance with wooden staves called the Dance of the Pauliteiros, which takes place on the third Sunday of August, during the Feast of Saint Barbara. Curiously, this dance is less related to Saint Barbara than it is to Roman martial pomp – the Dance of the Pauliteiros is an outgrowth of the old Roman sword dances.
One of the symbols of Porto is the Torre dos Clerigos, the bell tower adjoining the Clerigos Church, a baroque church built between 1732 and 1750. The church was one of the first Baroque churches in Portugal. Its Baroque adornments reflect the city’s seaside way of life, as its façade is carved with shells and garlands.
More iconic than the church however, is its bell tower. Standing at 75 m (245 ft) high, the tower offers an amazing, panoramic view of the city, the Duoro River and the Atlantic coast. Completed in 1763, this granite tower is based upon a Roman Baroque design scheme coupled with an unmistakably Tuscan bell tower design; visitors familiar with Italian architecture will be delighted to see a decidedly Roman Baroque masterpiece towering over a Portuguese port. Once you’ve ascended the 225 steps and reached the top of the sixth floor, the Torre dos Clerigos, you’ll be able to see the whole city.
The imperious, double-decker metal spans of Ponte de Dom Luís I stretch across the Douro River from Porto to Villa Nova de Gaia, and were designed by Téophile Seyrig, the student of Gustave Eiffel who also drew up the plans for the nearby Donna Maria Pia Bridge. When the Dom Luís I was finished in 1886, it was the longest single-span bridge in the world at 564 feet, and it supported 3,045 tons of steel in weight.
The bridge marked a significant step forward in Porto’s economic growth, as before it existed, the only passages across the river were boats lashed together. Today the lower deck of the bridge carries cars while the upper level is utilized by metro Line D and has a pedestrian walkway offering views across the river. Since the late 19th century, four other bridges have joined the bridge of Dom Luís I and Donna Maria Pia in reaching across the Douro; they are all best seen by river cruise in a traditional wooden rabelo.
Originally a Romanesque church from the 12th century, the Porto Se Cathedral was rebuilt with a Gothic style about 600 years later. Like other major churches in northern Portugal, this twin-towered cathedral boasts remodeling design by the famed Italian architect and painter Nicolau Nasoni. Perhaps this is why the western façade and interior are undeniably Romanesque. Visitors should take note of its gilded main altar and its silver Altar of the Sacrament.
On the left hand aisle is the statue of Oporto’s patron saint, Nossa Senhora de Vendoma. The interior is decorated by azulejos (blue ceramic tiles), installed in the 18th century. Apart from the church’s architectural treasures, it is also famed for its view – the terraces on the north and the west sides of the church provide stunning photo opportunities for capturing Oporto’s labyrinthine streets and dwellings.
Many of Europe’s great cities have an "old quarter," the original part of town from which centuries of cosmopolitan evolution spread outward. In Porto, the old town is known as The Ribeira, as it looks out onto the River Douro. In days past, it was once the major entrepot for international shipments, but its modern waterfront is now lined with restaurants, bars and cafes, making it a popular leisure hub and nightlife destination. The main drag, Cais da Ribeira, leads to Praca da Ribeira, a square dominated by two large fountains (one is bronze cubist monument and popular with pigeons) and populated with revelers going between its myriad bars and restaurants.
If you are able to, visit Porto and the Ribeira on June 23 for the annual Festa de Sao Joao (Festival of St. John). While this festival is in memory of St. John, its celebration includes a peculiar tradition - hitting people in the head with plastic hammers.
Behind its comparatively stark Gothic façade, the Church of São Francisco harbors a trove of Baroque finery and its unabashed opulence makes it one of Porto’s most unmissable architectural wonders. The church itself was built between 1383 and 1410, but most of its lavish decorations date back to the 17th and 18th century Baroque period and no expense (or space) has been spared.
Pass beneath the striking rose window and you’ll be confronted with glistening marble columns, intricately carved arches and gilded interiors, coated with some 400kg worth of gold. It’s a feast for the eyes, with every inch of the church walls and ceilings adorned with ornamental frescoes, rich floral motifs and Mudéjar wood paneling. Highlights include the magnificent Tree of Jesse altarpiece, the 13th century statue of Saint Francis, and the eerily beautiful catacombs, adorned with sculptures by Nicolau Nasoni and António Teixeira Lopes.
Lying at the southern end of Porto’s majestic Avenida dos Aliados, Liberdade Square (Praça da Liberdade) started its life in the late 18th century when the city began to expand beyond its medieval walls, which are now long gone. The geographical and social importance of the square grew in the early 19th century with the building of both the main railway station and the Ponte Dom Luís I across the Douro River.
The equestrian statue of King Pedro IV by French sculptor Anatole Calmels was placed in the center of Liberdade Square in 1866 and stands in direct eye-line of City Hall’s bell tower as the Avenida dos Aliados sweeps upwards. The wide promenade in the center of the avenue is a popular gathering place for evening strolls and was designed by Alvaro Siza Vieira, who also built the innovative Serralves Museum. The south side of Liberdade Square is punctuated by the gigantic façade of the Palácio das Cardosa, formerly a nunnery but now a luxury hotel.
Porto’s former stock exchange building, the Palace of the Stock Exchange (Palácio da Bolsa), is a magnificent 19th-century mansion at the heart of the city’s UNESCO-listed historic center. A marvel of neoclassical architecture and steeped in history, its grand ballrooms have played host to royals like Queen Elizabeth II over the years.
Today, the Palacio da Bolsa is open to the public by guided tour only and visitors can explore a number of its opulent rooms. Highlights include the Nations’ Room, with its collection of international flags; the exquisite parquet floors and the monumental grand staircase with its glittering bronze chandeliers. The undisputed star attraction is the dazzling Arabian Room, where the arabesque décor and gilded pillars are inspired by the famous Alhambra Palace in Granada, and music concerts are held throughout the year.
Much of Porto’s culture is rooted in old traditions, but the Museum of Contemporary Art (or Museu de Arte Contemporanea) is a successful entry into contemporary cultural relevance. Found at the Casa de Serralves, a cultural center in a magnificent garden just west of downtown, the Museu de Arte Contemporanea has become Porto's greatest attraction and probably the most influential modern art museum in Portugal. Its permanent collection covers the 1960s to the present day, and the grounds feature large pieces by such sculptors as Dan Graham, Richard Serra, and Claes Oldenburg. Note the giant trowel embedded in the ground, as well as the giant, red pruning sheers.The surrounding gardens are worth the trip alone; in 2006, they were restored to the original, 1932 octagonal design. The museum’s expressed purpose is to provide a collection of contemporary works from both Portuguese and international artists, such as South African painter Marlene Dumas.
More Things to Do in Northern Portugal
The Casa da Música is as much of an architectural attraction as it is a musical attraction. The Casa da Música was completed in 2005, but is already considered an iconic structure of Porto. This 1,300-seat concert hall is home to three of Northern Portugal’s renowned classical musical groups — the National Orchestra of Porto, Orquestra Barroca and Remix Ensemble. The Casa da Música also hosts other musical performances like choir and visiting artists ranging in genre from jazz to solo piano to rock.
The ultra-modern, sleek building is a rare example of modern architecture in historic Porto and it attracts visitors just for the sake of its unique design. Sharp angles, geometric patterns, sweeping staircases and massive glass windows, including two entire walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, are among the visual highlights.
A modern town with ancient roots, Viana do Castelo is in the very north of Portugal, crushed between the estuary of the River Lima and the wild surf of the Atlantic Sea. The Praça da República, its beautiful fountains and the Church of the Misericórdia –a three-story melange of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture – form the medieval heart of the city. Along with the 15th-century cathedral, the ancient piazzas and Manueline mansions all contrast neatly with the area’s modern-day seafront marina. But Viana is best known for its Santuario de Santa Luzia, a church perched on a hilltop overlooking the Atlantic rollers. It is accessible by funicular from the town center, which will climb the 820-foot hill. The construction of this elaborate Neo-Byzantine church began in 1903 based on a design by Miguel Ventura Terra, who was inspired by the Sacré Coeur in Paris.
The Douro is one of the Iberian Peninsula’s major rivers, flowing from Duruelo de la Sierra in northern Spain and emptying itself into the Atlantic at Porto. It has been shaping the harsh landscape of the Douro region since time immemorial, sculpting and irrigating its riverbanks to sustain the tradition of viniculture that has produced fine port wines for centuries.
On its 557-mile run through northern Spain and Portugal, the Douro meanders through steep-sided valleys laden with regimentally straight stripes of vines; the wine-growing region has been appointed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural beauty. The hillsides, arid and barren further inland from the river, are scattered with low-lying quintas (wineries) where wines can be sampled and bought.
Allegedly established by a Roman centurion named Amarantus, Amarante is situated between the steep sides of Serra do Marão and the curves of the river Tâmega, the longest tributary of the river Douro. Modern Amarante is actually rooted in the 13th century, when the Benedictine monk St. Gonçalo settled in the area after completing a pilgrimage to Italy and Jerusalem. He is said to have commissioned the original bridge over the river Tâmega, located in the same spot as modern times. In addition to its centurion, saint and bridge, Amarante is known for its sweets and cakes, and these are easy to find in many of the region's cake-shops and cafés. However, during the Feast of Sao Gonçalo, Amarante’s baked goods become famous for a different reason: they’re baked in the shape of phalluses, Sao Gonçalo is the patron saint of marriage and lovers. As suggestively shaped confections are not the norm for a Catholic Saint’s day, the tradition is likely rooted in a pagan fertility ritual.
Founded in 1859 by António Alves Cálem, Porto Calem is one of the most celebrated wineries in the Porto region. It is located in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the south bank of the Duoro River. While modest beginnings saw the winery export to colonies in Brazil through private marine fleets in exchange for exotic woods – as depicted in the winery’s logo, a caravel – Porto Calem now boasts a very positive international reputation. It has remained in the Cálem family for over four generations. The winery regularly arranges guided visits, including a visit to the museum and cellars, which aim to help visitors understand the centuries-old wine production tradition in the Duoro River region. The tour also includes a tasting of both red and white wines that can be enjoyed on the stunning terrace overlooking the iconic Portuguese river. There is a shop with a vast selection.
Located in city of Braga in northern Portugal, the Braga Cathedral is the oldest surviving church in Portugal and one of the most important monuments in the country. Built in a Burgundian Romanesque style between the 11th and 13th centuries, the cathedral provided architectural inspiration for many other churches and monasteries built in Portugal around the same time. Due to numerous modifications over the centuries, the cathedral today features a mix of styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Baroque.
The cathedral consists of several chapels built at different times. The parents of the first Portuguese were buried in the Chapel of the Kings in 1374 and the Chapel of the Glory was built in the mid-14th century as the final resting place of Archbishop Goncalo Pereira. Looks for the tomb guarded by siz life size stone lions and the painted Moorish geometrical designs.
The city of Guimaraes was originally settled in the 9th century and is widely regarded as being “the cradle of the Portuguese nationality.” It served as center of government for the historic county of Portugal after the Moorish invaders were pushed out by the Kingdom of Galicia in the 10th century. It was also the site of the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, and may have been the birthplace of Afonso I of Portugal, the first Portuguese king.
Today the historic city center of Guimaraes is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it’s said to be an authentic example of the evolution of a medieval town into a modern city. Among the well-preserved 15th to 19th-century Portuguese architecture is the medieval Guimaraes Castle, and the famed Palace of the Dukes of Bragança.
This bustling promenade lies at the heart of Porto, a Beaux-Arts beauty stretching between the imposing, landmark bell tower of the marble-and-granite City Hall and Liberdade Square to the south. As the boulevard makes its way downhill, it is lined with majestic civic buildings, luxury hotels and cafés, including the historic Guarany, where specialties include sweet pastries, strong coffee and a tradition of live music.
Porto’s main tourist office sits right by City Hall, and the courtyard statue in front honors Portuguese writer Almeida Garrett. A magnificent walkway – designed by Alvaro Siza Vieira, architect of Porto’s Serralves Museum – marches down the center of the avenue to Praça da Liberdade; this esplanade is the scene of much summer action and a popular venue for performers, pop-up cafés and street parties around the equestrian statue of King Pedro IV.
Sitting north of Porto on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, Matosinhos is the closest beach to the city, an easy and pleasant two-hour walk along the banks of the River Douro towards its estuary. At the southern end of the beach stands the squat Fort of São Francisco do Queijo, built in the 17th century as a turreted defence castle; to the north there is a busy container port. The broad sandy beach sweeps around the bay, backed by a promenade dotted with contemporary sculpture and low-rise apartment blocks as well as dozens of exceptional seafood restaurants. In summer the sands are packed with local Porto families and lifeguards are constantly on duty; there are usually sporting activities such as volleyball and soccer on the beach, as well as water-sports equipment for hire and lessons on offer. Thanks to its sandy shoreline, Matosinhosis is also the most popular and consistently good surfing beach around Porto, with the harbor wall at the north end of the beach providing shelter.
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