Braga: A Slice of Ancient Rome in Modern Portugal

A Slice of Ancient Rome in Modern Portugal

"I tell you what, I could not recreate this kind of life back in Napa. It's half the cost, and you can live well," says Bob, a retired military lawyer from California. We're sitting on the terrace of a café in Braga, Portugal—a pleasant walkable city about an hour's drive north of Porto.

The Romans started building Braga about 2,000 years ago. And from what I can see, it's still going on. A forest of cranes surrounds the historic city center, and speaks to the amount of construction here. And since Braga has one of the fastest growing populations in Portugal, it makes sense. The population is quite young thanks to the university in town, and Braga is known as both the oldest and youngest city in Portugal, thanks to its rich history combined with the young people it attracts.

Bob and his wife Laraine tell me they love the city because there is always something fun to do. "We scouted out a few places in Portugal before we moved," Bob says. "But when we got to Braga, I made my decision before we even left the hotel room. I had picked up a brochure about cultural events for the month, and there was just so much going on!"

The city is known for its festivals and events. The day I arrive preparations are underway for the festival of São João, the city's patron saint. The streets are festooned with streamers in all colors of the rainbow and pictures of the saint. It's a festival atmosphere, and that's common for Braga.

The festival of São João sees images of the saint decorating the streets of Braga's historic centro district.
The festival of São João sees images of the saint decorating the streets of Braga's historic centro district.

Bob and Laraine moved here about three years ago, before the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down. With things getting back to normal after the pandemic, all of Braga's festivals came back with a bang. "We feel like we're getting to see the city wake back up again," Laraine says.

"Just a couple weeks ago there was a Roman festival with chariot racing. Actual chariots, pulled by two horses apiece," Bob says, laughing. "Everybody wore costumes. It was like a citywide toga party."

The Roman connection is strong here. The café that we sit outside even has a preserved Roman ruin inside, protected by thick plexiglass in the floor. Plus, they serve cake made to a recipe that has remained basically unchanged since Roman times. I paid just €6.50 for a slice, including a glass of tawny port wine.

Maria and her husband David are more recent arrivals. They moved to Braga from New England just six months ago. Maria is an IL reader and credits our former Portugal Correspondent, Terry Coles, for helping with their move. "She was just wonderful, answering our questions over email," Maria says. "We were considering a few different places in Portugal. I didn't want to move to the Algarve and live in a condo. This is more authentically Portuguese."

"We live here in the centro and can walk everywhere," she tells me. "It's nothing like back home. We walk to the vegetable store and to the butchers, we eat out a lot. We get together with expat friends every other week to try new places."

Maria and David are also big fans of the active cultural life here in Braga. They became members of the theater here. It costs just €25 per year, and they get entrance to every event at half price. "It comes to about the price of a cup of coffee," Maria laughs.

Check out our Full Guide to Braga, Portugal here.

"But the best thing about living here is the Portuguese," she says. "They are so warm and welcoming. We don't feel like American expats. We feel like locals."

"That's so true," Laraine agrees. "I was buying pastries a while back from this little place that doesn't have a card machine. I realized I had no cash and apologized to the owner. He said not to worry, to just bring the money next time I came.

"Another time, when we moved into our apartment, we bought a lot of appliances from this local store. After they were installed I tried to pay and the store owner, Antonio, wouldn't let me. He said he wanted to be sure everything worked properly before taking my money. As it turned out, some lights didn't work and it was because we needed some rewiring. They handled it and didn't even want to accept payment for fixing the wiring."

Portugal Itinerary: How to Spend 7 Days in Portugal

An Overview of Traditions and Culture in Portugal

Is Portugal a Safe Place to Live?