Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia: Sé Catedral and Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar

One of my favourite things to do in Porto was visiting the city’s many, highly decorative churches. From pretty tile-clad exteriors to breathtaking gilt carved interiors and superb views over the city, there was a lot to marvel at.

But of all the incredible ecclesiastical buildings we visited (and we saw quite a few!), two stood out – the Sé Catedral do Porto and the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar in neighbouring Vila Nova de Gaia.

Sé Catedral do Porto

The Se Cathedral in Porto

High on a hill overlooking the Douro River lies Porto’s Sé cathedral, a delightful building that’s home to some of the prettiest cloisters I’ve ever seen.

Originally founded in the 12th century, the cathedral is a curious mix of architectural styles – part Romanesque, part Gothic, part Baroque – having been rebuilt and reworked repeatedly over the centuries.

The Se Cathedral in Porto, viewed from the side

During that time, the cathedral has had a starring role in a number of high-profile events, including the 14th century wedding of Portugal’s King John I to Philippa of Lancaster, and the baptism of their son, Henry the Navigator.

It’s no surprise the cathedral was considered a suitable venue for a royal wedding because while it’s fairly plain inside, it’s a handsome, elegant space.

The nave boasts pale, high-vaulted stone ceilings and two rows of small stained glass windows line the upper reaches of its walls. Charming, but faded, pastel-coloured frescoes cover the chancel’s walls and window frames.

Part of the opulent exterior inside the Se Cathedral in Porto

Less understated is the main altar (above), a huge and elaborate affair with a surprising history.

The story goes that when Napoleon and his army invaded Porto in 1809, a local man painted the altar silver so they could stash the city’s silver there. The ruse worked and the French soldiers failed to spot the valuable treasures hidden amid the ornate decoration.

Blue and white azulejos (tiles) depicting stories from the Bible adorn the walls of the Se Cathedral's cloisters in Porto

But the most remarkable part of the cathedral is the adjoining cloisters (while the cathedral is free to enter, it costs €3 to visit the cloisters).

Set over two floors, the Gothic cloisters date back to the 14th century and are decorated in a series of delightful 18th century blue and white azulejos (tiles) that depict scenes from the Bible.

The upper floor of the Se Cathedral, featuring more blue and white azulejos (tiles)

The cloisters are striking and utterly beautiful, and quite unlike any I’ve seen before. They’re among the best I’ve visited, and I’ve seen a fair few that are pretty spectacular (Gloucester Cathedral and Lisbon’s Mosteiro dos Jeronimos spring to mind).

The lavishly decorated sacristy inside the Se Cathedral in Porto

A few small chapels lead off from the cloisters, including the St Vincent Chapel, as does the Sacristy (above), which features lots of dreamy pink marble, dark wooden furniture and gilding.

There’s also a small museum where various religious artefacts, such as priests’ robes, crowns and cups, are on display.

Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar

The Serra do Pilar Monastery in Porto

Perched on a hilltop, on the opposite side of the Douro to the Sé, lies the intriguing Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar. The sprawling monastery dominates the surrounding landscape and having spied it from neighbouring Porto, I was curious to find out more.

The monastery has been owned by the Portuguese military since 1851 when Queen Maria II decided it would make a great military base, a decision that, perhaps, wasn’t all that surprising.

The monastery had previously played host to Arthur Welleseley, the first Duke of Wellington, during the Napoleonic wars and had lain dormant since the 1830s, when all the religious orders in the country were closed.

As the monastery is now part of the Ministry of Defence, only the cloisters and chapel are open to visitors (the latter only as part of a guided tour), and only at specific times of the day – at 10.30am, 11.30am, 12.30pm, 2.30pm, 3.30pm and 4.30pm.

The unusual round cloisters in the Mosteiro Serra do Pilar in Vila Nova de Gaia

Inside the monastery, there’s small exhibition and video as soon as you walk in, and just beyond it, are the cloisters (above).

The cloisters are small and, unusually, round, and as I walked around I noticed a series of numbers carved into the paving stones, which our guide later told us represented graves.

The fabulously ornate high altar inside the round chapel at the Mosteiro Serra do Pilar in Vila Nova de Gaia

Having had a little while to look around the cloisters before our tour began, we were taken into the monastery’s chapel. It’s a tall, round building and the only example of a church built in the Renaissance style in Portugal. It’s also the only church in the world to have both a round chapel and round cloisters.

The chapel is a fabulous building, if a little rundown and in need of some tlc, and is home to a large chancel featuring painted frescoes and an elaborate high altar with a statue of the chapel’s patron saint, St Agustino (above, to the right). There are also a number of alcoves with ornate altars.

The chapel’s still used as a church and is open to the public for mass every Sunday, although the high altar is no longer in use, with the priest preferring to give mass from the pulpit in the centre of the chapel instead.

The roof of the Mosteiro Serra do Pilar in Vila Nova de Gaia

Having spent a little while looking around the chapel, we were met by a soldier who took us up a series of narrow staircases to the roof, which was home to a massive, red tiled dome in the centre.

The guard let us spend 10 minutes or so roaming the roof, taking photos and admiring the incredible views over Porto and the Douro (below), before we were taken back downstairs and escorted out of the chapel into the cloisters.

The iconic Dom Luis I Bridge over the Douro River, connecting the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia

I enjoyed our visit to the Sé and the monastery, two strikingly different, yet fascinating buildings. Occupying similar positions high on a hill on opposite sides of the Douro, the two buildings boast remarkably unusual features.

The cathedral is pretty, charming and elegant, while the monastery is a much simpler, rounder affair with views that are second-to-none. Both are well worth visiting when in Porto.

2 thoughts on “Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia: Sé Catedral and Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar

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  1. I can see why these two churches stood out in terms of their architecture and design. It’s incredible to think just how long it took to construct these buildings. Your pictures are stunning and it looks like no one else was around. What a nice view from the roof.

    Liked by 1 person

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