When I wrote about the best viewpoints in Porto, I hadn’t yet been to Serra do Pilar Monastery. The white circular church on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the Dom Luis bridge in Porto looks beautiful during the day and orange lighting gives the arches underneath it a magical glow at night.
You can see it as you stroll along the river or sit at a streetside café in the Ribeira, as you cross the top tier of the bridge on foot, or as you pass beneath the iron structure on a boat tour. What you really need to do, however, is visit it.
A military escort at Serra do Pilar Monastery
The monastery, named after the hill it sits on, is still used by the Portuguese army as barracks for the Serra da Pilar Artillery Regiment. This doesn’t become apparent until you are escorted by museum staff through a stone hallway to wait your turn to go up to the roof. At this point, you’ll be met by two young men in army fatigues. One of them will lead you up the tight spiral staircase to the platform that encircles the domed cupola.
The 360º view from here takes your gaze out towards the sea, across the red rooftops of the port wine lodges in Vila Nova da Gaia and past a succession of bridges. The colourful city of Porto rises away from the river on the opposite bank. In the other direction, you can look down on the tanks and canons on display within the barracks and beyond the long rows of dormitories to more bridges and the edges of Porto and Gaia.
Unique circular church
The architecture of the church itself is unique in Europe. Although an extension was built in the 17th century for a new altar, the original 16th century church was a perfect circle, as are the cloisters. Together they form a figure of eight, the symbol of infinity. Although I’m not religious, I like the original intention of the circular church whereby the priest would deliver his readings directly underneath the cupola, surrounded by the congregation.
The church remains open for services through the support of wealthy local families. They hold the key and open up for guided visits via the monastery. Other than that, it’s only opened for mass (11 am on Sundays) and weddings.
Added bonuses at Serra do Pilar Monastery
When I visited in August 2013, the temporary exhibition in the monastery showed off some of the best masks and costumes from the north of Portugal. If you can’t make it to the mask museum in Bragança, hopefully this little display will still be there to give you an idea of the crazy characters that roam the streets at Lent and around Christmas time and congregate in Lisbon each year for the Iberian Mask Festival.
There’s also a series of slideshows showcasing the religious, natural and architectural heritage of the north of Portugal. Before you leave, take the weight off your feet while you watch the short taster video about the World Heritage sites in the area.
Practicalities for visiting Serra do Pilar Monastery
Closed on Mondays, the monastery is open from 9.30 am until 17.30 or 18.30 April to October. It’s worth the 3 euros to visit the tower but you can see the cloisters and exhibitions for just 1 euro.
You can get pretty amazing views for free from the terrace surrounding the church if you don’t want to go inside the monastery.
Address: Largo de Avis, Santa Marinha 4430-329, Vila Nova de Gaia or see Mosteiro Serra do Pilar on Google Maps. I would walk from Porto across the top tier of Dom Luís bridge until you reach the entrance to the monastery, or take the metro (yellow line) to Jardim do Morro.Get my tips for where to stay in Porto
Combine a visit to the monastery with a bistro lunch, a boat trip and a stroll around the beautiful Jardins do Pálacio Cristal on a Romantic Day Tour of Porto with Lunch and River Cruise.
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