Set in a prime location overlooking the city centre, Porto’s Sé Cathedral is a magnificent Romanesque building dating right back to the 12th century.
Perched atop Penaventosa Hill on the former site of a Suebian church, it was founded by Count Henry and Dona Teresa, the parents of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, at the time of the country’s creation.
Many key events in Portugal’s history have taken place within its imposing granite walls over the centuries, chief among them the marriage of King João I (father of Henry the Navigator) to his English bride, Philippa of Lancaster in 1387, thus sealing the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, the oldest active treaty in the world.
Standing proud as one of the most important monuments in Portugal, its impressive fortress-like design features a high barrel-roof and two large square towers, each crowned with a cupola and supported by two buttresses. Of equal note are the elaborate baroque doorway and striking 13th-century rose window, as well a perfectly proportioned 18th-century loggia by the Italian architect Niccoló Nasoni on one side of the building.
Rich in gold and silver, the cathedral’s interior is predominantly Romanesque with three fine marble stoups in the nave, while the gilded wood-carvings in the chapels are excellent examples of baroque ornamentation.
Lined with exquisite azulejo tiles depicting scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Bible’s Song of Solomon, the cathedral’s impressive 14th-century gothic cloister was begun in 1385, the same year as the Battle of Aljubarrota. One of its architectural highlights is the Nasoni-designed Renaissance staircase which leads up to a dazzling chapterhouse, with superb city views afforded from the casement windows.
In the main chapel, the 17th-century silver Altar of the Sacrament, one of the most precious jewels in the cathedral’s crown, was hidden behind a wall of plaster by an ingenious sacristan in 1809 to protect it from Soult’s troops during the Peninsular War. Other items of interest are a bronze relief of the baptism of Christ in the baptistry and a 17th-century gold-carved retable in the crypt.
Outside, in a small square on the north side of the cathedral, stands the statue of Vimara Peres, the warrior of Alfonso III of León who liberated Porto from the Moors in 868.
At the foot of the cathedral lies Porto’s old quarter, a warren of medieval alleys and cobbled streets winding all the way down to the old Ribeira riverside district, an area classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1996.
Terreiro da Sé, the main square in front of the cathedral, is the site of the former baroque palace of the archbishops of Porto featuring fine granite-cased doors and windows and an exceptional stairway inside. It was at this spot in 1147 that the Bishop of Porto persuaded a group of English, Flemish and German crusaders who had anchored in the River Douro en route for the Holy Land to help Afonso Henriques capture Lisbon from the Moors.
Offering one of the best panoramic photo opportunities of the city, the head-spinning views stretching from the square all the way down to the River Douro encompass most of downtown Porto, including the city’s iconic two-tiered Dom Luís I Bridge and the famous port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia.