Older than Portugal by more than a century, Braga is the country’s oldest city and the spiritual capital of Portugal. It’s also the rainiest city in the country. We spent two soggy days in Braga.
Braga’s history spans several millennia, getting its name from early Celtiberian settlers called the Bracari. When Rome conquered the area around 136 B.C. the city was renamed Bracara Augusta in honor of Roman Emperor Augustus. Over the next centuries the city passed through the hands of the Suebi, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Gallicians before Portugal ultimately won its independence.
Our hotel was just two blocks from Avenida da Liberdade, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare that leads to the heart of Braga, Praça da República. Avenida da Liberdade is a wonderful mixture of old and new, with high-end stores and historical sites like the Baroque Raio Palace and the 1st century Fonte do Ídolo, a Roman fountain built during the time of Roman Emperor Augustus. Despite the grand old age of the city, Braga has a cosmopolitan feel. Brightly colored buildings and storefronts line the avenue, including the fantastic Theatro Circo.
At the top of of the avenue is Praça da República. Located at one end of the Jardim da Avenida Central, the Praça da República is a great place for people watching. The Arcada, at the end of the Praça, features two old cafés, Café Vianna and Café Astoria, and a central fountain. We had breakfast at Café Vianna and enjoyed the view; from the Arcada you can see all the way to the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, 5km away from the city’s center.
From the Arcada we wandered through the Jardim da Avenida Central. Braga is a religious center and it seems that everywhere you look there’s a church or monument celebrating the city’s faith. The park is no exception. You’ll find the huge Convento dos Congregados, the tiny Igreja da Penha and the modernist monument celebrating Pope John Paul II’s visit to Braga in 1982.
At the far end of the park there’s a view that epitomizes the dedication the city has to its faith. The azulejo-covered Igreja de Nossa Senhora-a-Branca catches your eye first, but a few blocks behind the stone Igreja de São Victor is just as beautiful. It seems that everywhere you look there’s a church.
While we’re at this end of Central Avenue, there’s a little park that I loved. Jardim da Senhora A Branca features one of Braga’s Cruzeiros, a monument topped with a cross, and beautiful orange trees. I love the fact that you see fruit trees in the middle of the city.
Now, back to the churches. There were churches and chapels of all sizes and religious monuments throughout the city. The Sé, or Cathedral, is probably one of the best known and a highlight on any tour of Braga. First built in the 12th century, the Cathedral underwent several renovations resulting in the gothic and manueline structure that exists today. A national monument since 1910, the Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Braga.
We stumbled across the tiny Capela de São Bentinho while out looking for a lunch spot. Tucked down a narrow little lane, it’s a beautiful little chapel.
Scattered throughout Braga are Cruzeiros, or crosses. This one is located near the Arco de Santiago.
On the other side of the Arco de Santiago is this beautiful monument.
Finally, we always try to find a restaurant or food that’s unique to the city. Most of our dining in Braga was at pubs or cafés. Braga is known for its frigideiras, or meat pies. One of the best places for them is Frigideiras do Cantinho, a small restaurant near Braga Cathedral. While the food was good, the interesting thing about Frigideiras do Cantinho is that the floor is glass and the restaurant is built over Roman ruins. It’s quite unique.
Despite frequent downpours, resulting in soggy shoes, we enjoyed our visit to Braga. It’s a beautiful city with a lot to recommend it.