Cultural treasures: A local's guide to northern Portugal

Travel’s rising star Porto bags the headlines, but visitors will discover that Portugal’s north offers plenty more culture, history and some Iberian wilderness too...

5 mins

If I had a bottle of Vinho Verde for every time I am asked about discovering northern Portugal, my cellar would be brimming with lightly fizzing wine. To anyone dreaming of Algarve-style beaches, I’ll say, ‘Forget it.’ Instead, the country’s far north, where I was born and grew up, is a trove of cultural treasures packed to the gunwales with castles and explosions of Baroque exuberance.

Porto, Portugal’s second city and gateway to the region, has over the last few years found itself catapulted into travel’s premier league of European cities. With its intriguing museums, glittering gilt churches, art nouveau cafés, romantic riverside district and graceful bridges, the question is not so much why, as how come it has taken so long? And that’s before you cross the river Douro to the twin city of Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the port lodges and now the new World of Wine (WoW) district.


The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte (Alamy)

The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte (Alamy)

But the true cultural heartland lies further north in the Minho region. ‘Aqui nasceu Portugal’ – Here Portugal was born – announce giant letters on the illustrious city wall at Guimarães where the nation’s first king, Afonso Henriques, proclaimed his capital in 1139. The city has had its moment as a European Capital of Culture, in the wake of which it fizzes with youthful vim. Music spills from vibrant cafés in the intricate maze of cobbled alleys and tiny praças squatting in the lee of a commanding castle.

It’s a similar story in nearby Braga, ecclesiastic capital of Portugal, where a student population breathes energy into church-studded squares and boulevards. There is Roman heritage too, plus baroque fountains, façades clad with blue azulejo tiles, and flamboyant Manueline towers.

The five-day circuit suggested here has at its core these cultural riches of the region’s historic cities. It also makes some space to revel in the wild splendours and further cultural gems of the coast and hinterland. Beyond the green and fertile coastal strip rises a backbone of craggy grey granite splattered with yellow lichen. You will find hills roamed by herds of semi-wild ponies, and uplifting walks in wildlife-life rich Peneda-Gerês National Park. Or venture upstream from Porto, into the valley of the River Douro. Again, the reward is of cultural wonders in historic towns, this time to a backdrop of mountain-sides carved into geometric shapes by vineyards and silvery olive groves.

Traditional rabelo boat designed to carry wine down the Douro river (Alamy)

Traditional rabelo boat designed to carry wine down the Douro river (Alamy)

Historic buildings and balconied houses around Santiago Square in Guimarães (Alamy)

Historic buildings and balconied houses around Santiago Square in Guimarães (Alamy)

Northern Portugal in 5 days: A quick guide

Day 1: Porto

Start in Portugal’s second city, capital of the north. Wander the waterside Ribeiro district. Marvel at Baroque architecture and gilded churches. Jump on a tram, or
hire a bike and pedal, to river mouth Foz do Douro suburb. 

Walk across the top of double-decker Dom Luís I Bridge to the twin city of Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the port wine lodges and the new World of Wine district. 

Day 2: Historic core

From Porto, travel north first to Guimarães, cradle of the nation and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle and Paço dos Duques palace are twin gems, crowning a hill like a theatre backdrop to the tightly-packed medieval centre.

Day 3: Heaven’s above

Braga, ecclesiastical capital of the country where every other building seems to be a Baroque church. Except that Braga is also a university town fizzing with the youthful vim of student life. 

Days 4-5: Coast & hinterland

World class views unfurl from hilltop Basilica de Santa Luzia above the port of Viana do Castelo. Beyond Viana, swathes of wind-harassed sand unfurl, backed by dunes. Caminha, facing Spain at the mouth of the Minho, is defended by defiant stone walls.

Head on into the wilds of Peneda-Gerês NP. Discover the mountainous region of port wine-growing fame in and around Pinhão. If you still have a head for high culture, drive on along the river to Lamego and its collection of paintings by Portuguese master Grão Vascoin the regional museum. Stop at Amarante for the photogenic São Gonzalo bridge, and to eat egg-sweets of the same name.

Granite granaries raised on stilts in Soajo (Shutterstock)

Granite granaries raised on stilts in Soajo (Shutterstock)

Outdoors in northern Portugal

Dom Luís I Bridge

Stroll across the top level of the double-decker bridge, from near the Cathedral in Porto’s city centre, across the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia. Designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel, the bridge clearly shares structural DNA with Paris’s Eiffel Tower. The real treat is sweeping views up and down the Douro and over the twin cities.

Citânia de Briteiros

As if Guimarães was not already sated with history, 15km north of the city is Citania de Briteiros, a vast archaeological site of the last Celtiberian stronghold before the Roman invasions in AD3. Excavations are continuing over a whole hillside, and there is an evocative museum. 

Barcelos Market

The biggest open-air market in Portugal – some say in Europe – erupts in this Minho town east of Braga, from dawn every Thursday. Barcelos Market a hubbub of trading with truckfuls of livestock, blaring music, acres of cloth and ceramic stalls, sizzling barbecues and earthenware jugs of rough locally-grown wine.


High above the River Lima in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, Soajo is renowned for its extraordinary cluster of espigueiros – granite granaries raised on stilts. From the village, climb up to their sensational standing place on a high rock above the village.



Indoors in northern Portugal

World of Wine

Housed mainly in converted Vila Nova de Gaia port lodges and cellars, World of Wine is a huge wine-focused complex of immersive museums and restaurants is already famed for its port lodges. True to its name, it is an oenophile’s dream and makes up an entire city quarter. 

Castelo de Guimarães

Castelo de Guimarães is a seven-towered castle crowning a craggy hill, and is the birthplace of the Kingdom of Portugal and the country’s former capital. Climb the ancient staircase for a bird’s-eye view of the area. 

Sé de Braga

The ‘Rome of Portugal’ is best known for having 80 churches, but the  (Cathedral) is the truly unmissable one. The foundations are 12th century, to which Gothic, Renaissance, gleaming gilt Baroque and Manueline styles somehow come together in harmony. 

Solar de Mateus 

The façade of this over-the-top Rococo palace near Vila Real is famous for being on the label of Mateus Rosé, while the rooms inside the Solar de Mateus are similarly fantastical. 

Claus Porto 

Founded in 1887, Claus Porto is one of the oldest extant perfumeries in the world with iconic scents and vintage-style labels that give its high-end products a unique visual style. Take part in an immersive experience at the global flagship store on R. das Flores 22, and create your very own products, while learning the secrets of fragrance mixology and how to use 100-year-old soap-making-equipment. 

Soaps by Claus Porto (Alamy)

Soaps by Claus Porto (Alamy)

Shop selling local wares (Alamy)

Shop selling local wares (Alamy)

The Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (Alamy)

The Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (Alamy)

Things to do in Northern Portugal

CLIMB to Bom Jesus do Monte. This crazy 600-step Baroque staircase zigzags up to the pilgrimage sanctuary of Bom Jesus at the edge of Braga. Whimsical flourishes such as stone statues of biblical figures in turbans and cloaks, are at every turn. Cool your head under grinning fountain faces with cascades gushing from mouth, nose and ears.

WALK in the wilds of Peneda-Gerês in the far north, bordering Spain. Portugal’s only National Park is a gorse and boulder-strewn upland splintered by noisy streams and fringed with granite crags where birds of prey soar. A network of signposted trails has recently been waymarked across the area, with suggested routes varying from a couple of hours to all-day hikes.

CYCLE Porto’s fabulous new network of cycle paths. Once you’ve seen the sites, hire a bike and pedal along the north bank of the river to Foz do Douro at the mouth of the River Douro. If you’ve time, continue from here along the rocky Atlantic seafront, inhaling the salty air until you reach the Parque de Cidade. This is Porto’s new city park, beautifully landscaped with lakes, woodland, sculptures, walking trails and cycle routes.

CRUISE from Porto into the heart of port wine-growing country where vineyards are hewn out of steep mountain-sides. Along the way on this day-long itinerary, pass through a trio of dams via colossal locks including 35-metre elevation Carrapateira, Europe’s highest. Return by rail from Pinhão, completing a full day.

Essential travel information for northern Portugal

Porto’s rooftops as seen from Taylor’s Port cellars (Alamy)

Porto’s rooftops as seen from Taylor’s Port cellars (Alamy)

International dialling code: +351

Currency: Euro (€)

Getting there: There are currently direct flights to Porto from six UK airports.

Alternatively, catch the car ferry from Portsmouth to Santander from
where the region is about six hours drive. 

Getting around: You will need a car to explore the region’s remoter reaches. However, trains from Porto connect the cultural cores of Guimarães and Braga. The Douro line from Porto to Pocinho, which stops in Pinhão, is on many a rail enthusiast’s bucket list.

Weather: The coast is cooler with warm, mainly dry summers, but often wet in other seasons. The hinterland is drier with hot summers and cold winters; spring and autumn are more comfortable.

Further Information:

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