Braga Is The Coolest City You’ve Never Heard Of

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The restaurant was barely full, only 2 other tables were occupied when we were seated. Casa de Pasto das Carvalheiras is industrial-chic mixed with an artsy touch. A long bar, stretching the length the dining room, with an open kitchen, and accented with the restaurants symbolic bright orange wall with the ‘black lady’ lamp in front of it. A relatively young staff, with a menu that changes monthly, from Chef João Pupo Lameiras, served up some really excellent dishes that were very contemporary, but clearly based on traditional Portuguese flavours. “This is the last thing I expected coming up here,” I said to Susete as we ate through our meal, “The food scene in Braga is really cool! Who knew?!”

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“Who knew?” This pretty much summed up our experience in Braga, the capital of Portugal’s northern Minho region, most famously known for its production of the uniquely Portuguese vinho verde wine. I usually research things to death, when we go to new places, but this part of Portuguese discovery wasn’t part of our original plan, as unfortunate circumstances with our first apartment in Lisbon caused us to change up our whole trip, leaving us bouncing around every couple of weeks. Braga was our last stop on the Continente (as the Portuguese call mainland Portugal) before we headed to the Açores.

Of course, I’ve known about the Minho region being home to vinho verde, as it’s one of my favourite wines. I also knew that this is where the city of Guimarães is, known as ‘the home of Portugal’, as it was the home to Dom Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, and where the country grew out of. The only thing I really knew about Braga, was that people there rolled their Rs while speaking, more like Spanish than the Portuguese further south… which now makes sense since Braga is only about 1 hour drive from the Spanish border, and Minho Portugal once shared a kingdom and culture with Galician Spain.

What I didn’t know though, was how much Braga would remind me of Lisbon in the way that they seamlessly intertwined their strong history with their bright future.

As Susete and I were lugging all our baggage across the bumpy cobbled streets from the train station just outside the city centre, I couldn’t help but notice all the deep red and white “Braga Romana” banners around the city. Turns out, Braga has a super strong ancient Roman identity and is proud to show it off through one of its biggest annual festivals, which we apparently missed by only 1 day. Once called ‘Bracara Augustus’, vestiges of ancient Rome can be seen all over town… the Fonte do Idolo (an excavated old Roman fountain), the Termas Romanas (ruins of a large Roman bath complex), and even a statue of Emperor Augustus himself, who seems a sort of folk hero here, as he founded the city in 20 BCE after Rome’s conquest of northwestern Iberia.

Most of northern Portugal has a very strong Celtic identity, as Celtic tribes ruled Portugal (and most of the Iberian peninsula) before the Romans got there, but Braga sets itself apart from its neighbours with identifying itself with the Empire that took over… although, the name of the city itself does still hold the secret to its Celtic heritage, as Augustus named the city not only after himself, but also the Bracari, a Celtic tribe that had been settled in the area before the Romans (hence, ‘Bracara Augustus’).

Aside from the obvious ruins and archeological treasures in the various museums around Braga, there’s also plenty of traces of Rome hidden in plain sight, like a couple of engravings on blocks of the Sé de Braga (the central cathedral), but perhaps my favourite is the floor of Frigideiras do Cantinho, a local café and pastry shop. Although, not the prettiest or well-maintained of sites, this is the ultimate showing of the importance that the Portuguese place in their history. In North America, we’re used to most of our historical traces being wiped out for bigger and newer, but over here in Portugal, they take their history seriously, and when they are building new projects, if they find old ruins, they preserve them in some way or another. The entire floor of Frigideiras do Cantinho is clear plexiglass (or rather, cloudy, trampled on plexiglass), showcasing the old Roman ruins that they found underneath when doing renovations. New working with old, not in place of it… Braga in a nutshell.

Before we left Lisbon to head north, a friend had told us that Braga is “A very young city”, but I didn’t really grasp what this meant, although we quickly found out once we arrived. Just as we’d been advised, one of the first thoughts I had was, “I can’t believe how many young people there are up here!” previously assuming that most young Portuguese head for Lisbon, or abroad. Yet, here in the far north of the country, about 35% of Braga’s population is 25 or under. Of course, a lot of this has to do with this being the home to the University of Minho, but other cities have universities too. The difference here is that young people are staying here after school, as well as coming in from surrounding areas. This has given Braga a very young and vibrant atmosphere… so much so that in 2012, it was named the European Youth Capital, and it’s only growing stronger.

Braga gives me the feeling I got when I first visited Lisbon, before all the tourism magazines started touting its treasures. When I first visited Lisbon, I felt that it was a really young, cool, vibrant place that holds on to its deep history, but also is on the verge of breaking out into the future through its current generation. Now, Lisbon is getting more expensive and overcrowded, a result of an over 32% boost in tourism over only 2 years, but Braga is still that somewhat an undiscovered gem. Sure, there are tourists, but it’s still very much a city for locals. The restaurant scene is booming and surprisingly contemporary and trendy. There aren’t any waiters trying to drag you inside as you walk by, presenting you with a large menu in seven different languages, the sure tell sign of a typical ‘tourist restaurant’ where you’ll be served mediocre food for higher prices. No, Braga caters to its inhabitants. It’s a very pedestrian-friendly city, as most of the city centre is zona pedonal (no cars allowed). The OGs can still be seen sitting on lawn chairs in the alleyways, gossiping or peering down from their balconies. Many of the city’s coolest restaurants and cafés can be found right in the historical heart, surrounding the Sé, first built in 1070, having been added onto over the centuries, resulting in a curious mix of several different architectural styles.

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On our final weekend in Braga, unknowingly to us, it was the annual Vinho Verde festival. When we first arrived, I’d told Susete that I’d like to really explore vinho verde a bit more while we were there, because at home in Toronto we pretty much only have 2 or 3 brands, but I know there are hundreds that exist. Well, I certainly got my wish with this one, and again, Braga continued to be full of surprises. Festival fever was in full swing, with one just ending before we got there, and the city setting up for another 3 to come. In the centrally located Praça da Republica, wooden house booths were set up to house all the different vinho verde wineries to come and showcase their goods for the 3 day event. I was so excited to find out this was going on, but I really had no idea how awesome it would be. I wanted to try all the different types of vinho verde, from many different producers, but Susete and I aren’t big drinkers, so we would only be able to sample a few, which was completely fine since we were really watching our wallets at this point.

We tried a tinto (red wine), because this was something we hadn’t seen before with a vinho verde (which is normally white), and we didn’t really care for it all that much because what we love about this style of wine is that it’s bright and fresh… which the red was not. We decided that we didn’t want to try any more wine from that particular producer because we wanted to ration our samples for other producers since we had made the decision to only do 3 in total, to save money, so we asked how to pay. The producer laughed and said, “Não, é gratis!” (no, it’s free!). Wait… what? Free???! Apparently, the entire festival was free! All you had to do was buy a wine glass for €1 and all the samples you want, from every single supplier are completely free. Damn, there goes our plan to not drink too much! So, it began…. 3 days of wine sampling, and eating. Coming from North America, where absolutely nothing is free, the whole concept was completely crazy to me. Not only were the tasting free, but these guys were free pouring half-full glasses as their “tastings”. In fact, they were so generous with their wines, they would even pour wine into your glass and tell you to dump it out, just so you could coat the glass with the new wine in between from the last tasting.

With so much wine being consumed, we needed to eat or I wouldn’t last beyond 3 samples. Luckily, in the central stage area, there were two food vendors. As we passed by one of them…. the amazing smell of smoked and grilled meats that I missed so much from southern Portugal, Susete noticed something. The sign said Estremoz on it… a town in Alentejo where one of our friends lives. And then we saw Natalia, our Brazilian friend who’d we met while she was working at another market in Lisbon, serving up delicious food for the restaurant she works with in the market town of Estremoz. We all gave our big hugs, surprised to see each other again, as we had hung out while Susete and I were in Alentejo, but hadn’t thought that we’d see each other again. The smell of my beloved porco preto on the grill was too much to resist, so we got a plate, with some Alentejo bread to soak it up, and I was in heaven. This really is the best pork in the entire world and I had missed it so much when we went north, but here it is again! As we were sitting down eating and chatting, some people came by pouring more vine verde into our empty glasses… and they kept coming and coming again. Everything about this event was truly a surprise to us, and it was such a wonderful way to end our time spent in Braga

Simply put, Braga is a cool city. That’s the best way I can describe it in short. Yes, it’s full of historical places to visit, and being the city with the most churches in Portugal, it’s also full of amazing religious buildings to see, but the real allure of Braga for me is the local culture. The “cool factor” that it has. The vibrancy of the younger generation, which seems to be moving this religiously and historically important city forward, while still retaining it’s past. The restaurant scene is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Lisbon, and things are only looking up. Let’s hope this gem of the north doesn’t become diluted as its popularity with tourists increases. As always, travel responsibly, as the best experiences happen when you integrate into the local culture, not demand it be more like yours. Just enjoy being Braga cool.

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