Emerald-green hills, brisk ocean winds, softly clanging cowbells—the sights and sounds of Portugal’s Minho province may be a far cry from those of sunny Lisbon or the Algarve, but they’re just as beguiling.
Hugging the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast, Minho’s unsullied nature—the region’s main attraction—begets some of the country’s most stunning architecture. There are mysterious relics of bygone civilizations, Golden Age castles, and sprawling Baroque palaces, constructions that speak to the region’s rich history dating to the Iron Age.
The good news is, Braga and Guimarães (Minho’s foremost cities) are one hour by train from Porto. Whether you have an afternoon or a week to spare, be sure to mark these sites on your map to catch a glimpse of Portugal’s thought-provoking past.
Bom Jesus do Monte
Pilgrims arrive in droves to climb Braga’s zigzagging, 115-meter (380-foot) “stairway to heaven” that culminates at an 18th-century hilltop shrine, but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the complex’s evocative fountains, sweeping views, and poignant Stations of the Cross depictions. Though devout visitors often ascend to the church on their knees to show humility, a complimentary (though far less scenic) funicular service is available for those feeling less motivated.
A fairytale-like fortress overlooking the medieval town of Guimarães known as the “Cradle of Portugal,” Guimarães Castle was erected in the 11th century to ward off Moorish and Norse invaders. It’s almost unconscionable that the soaring keep, military square, and eight ancillary towers were slated to be demolished to help repave the city streets in the mid-19th century. Today the meticulously restored castle draws tourists from around the world, but it’s also worth ambling down the footpath to the stark Romanesque Capela de São Miguel, where legend has it that Henry of Burgundy’s son, Alfonso Henriques, was baptized.
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Palace of the Dukes of Braganza
Perhaps Portugal’s most controversial architectural site, the 15th-century Palace of the Dukes of Braganza has long invoked ire from scholars, who claim the structure’s integrity was irreparably compromised by a sloppy restoration job in the 1930s. While the brick turrets and chimneys may be an eyesore to those in the know, it’s hard not to marvel at the Romanesque-era porticoes and elegant courtyard, vestiges of a time when the palace was inhabited by a prominent noble family.
WHERE: Minho and Northern Spain
Not all of Minho’s architectural curiosities claim noble or religious roots. The farther you get out into the countryside in Minho, the more horrêos come into view. Known as “raccards” in English, these Neolithic-looking stone granaries are perched on stilts, which keeps ground moisture from permeating and spoiling their wares. Nobody knows who built the first hôrreo, but the fact that centuries-old examples are still in use today is a testament to their durability.
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Citânia de Briteiros
WHERE: Briteiros São Salvador
A network of stone ruins dating back 2,300 years, Citânia de Briteiros is one of the last-known bastions of Celtic civilization in Portugal, falling to the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. The remnants of a meeting house and 150 huts, paired with a grid-like street pattern and channeled water system, reveal a dynamic and rather advanced society. To get an up-close look at the fascinating artifacts archaeologists found while excavating the site, head to the Martins Sarmento Museum in Guimarães or to the Museu da Cultura Castreja in the center of town, where they’re on display as part of the permanent collection.
Chapel of São Frutuoso
The origins of the Chapel of São Frutuoso, a hulking slab of a church located in the city of Braga, are shrouded in mystery, but local lore has it that the structure was first built as a Visigoth temple, in the form of a Greek cross, around the 6th century. Though the chapel would later become the site of a Franciscan convent and undergo a number of attacks and renovations, it’s São Frutuoso’s enigmatic beginnings that make it stand out most.
The seat of the Archdiocese of Braga and the ecclesiastical nerve center of northern Portugal, it’s hard to understate the magnitude of influence that Braga’s cathedral once held. Everywhere you look, you’ll find an eclectic jumble of Romanesque, Gothic, and Manueline elements reflecting the varying aesthetics of the centuries the cathedral has endured. The site has so much history, in fact, that it houses a (worthwhile) religious museum complete with gilded idols and crucifixes. If your visit happens to coincide with mass, you may be treated to stirring melodies emanating from a gorgeous Baroque double organ.
Commissioned by a wealthy merchant in 1754, the Raio Palace is one of Portugal’s purest, most sumptuous examples of early rococo architecture. Marked by the unfettered application of naturalist forms such as leaves, shells, and scalloped edges, the blue-and-white-tiled palace was a sensation at the time of its construction and continues to wow visitors today. The interior has been converted into a free-entry local history museum that merits a quick breeze-through.