There are lots of cities in the world that I’ve traveled to in order to see one specific thing. Sometimes it’s famous bridge, or perhaps a monument, or maybe an incredible museum. But this is the first time that I’ve traveled all the way to a different city to see a set of stairs. Yes, stairs.
And they are not the easiest stairs to get to either. They’re located in the woods, on top of a hill, several miles out of town. But they’re the most photographed stairs in Portugal and I simply had to see them for myself.
So what are these highly photogenic, pilgrimage-worthy stairs? They’re part of Bom Jesus do Monte (aka Good Jesus of the Mount), a church situated just beyond the city of Braga, in Portugal’s north. The Baroque building is famous for the ornamental stairway that zig zags up the hill towards the church, leading visitors on a spiritual journey.
Dotted along the dramatic granite and plaster stairway are scenes representing Christ’s life. There are also fountains at the base of each staircase landing, with allegorical images carved into the stone. The first fountain shows water spurting out of five different spots on a crest – a symbolic reference to the wounds of Christ. The next five fountains represent the bodily senses and you can tell which is which based on whether the water shoots out of the ears, mouth, nose and so on of the figure depicted on the fountain (the “sight” fountain is particularly creepy – see my photo below). The final three fountains represent the three virtues (faith, hope, and charity). As you reach the front of the church, you see eight statues, representing people who condemned Christ, before entering the church and seeing The Crucifixion represented at the altar.
Despite the fact that no miracles or visions happened here, the church is a popular site of pilgrimage, and devoted visitors will sometimes make their way up the 600 odd stairs on their knees. Of course, there’s no shame in making the journey on foot either – and yes, it’s worth every step.
There’s a hydraulic funicular that whizzes visitors from the bus stop at the base of the hill straight up to the church, however, unless you have mobility issues, I’d highly recommend walking up the hill. You’ll make your way up a “Sacred Way” nestled in the trees and along the path there are numerous little grottoes with scenes depicting the Stations of the Cross. This journey is considered part of the pilgrimage experience, but if you take the cable car up, you completely miss this. It takes about 10 minutes to reach the bottom of the ornamental staircase and the view looking up at the elaborate structure is definitely worth all the climbing. If you’re tired after exploring the church, you can always take the funicular back down to the bus stop.
The church is built high atop a hill that has lovely views of the town and countryside. Surrounding the building are parks, including an artificial lake and grotto. It’s well worth bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy as you take in the views.
It’s possible to visit Bom Jesus as a day trip from Porto. Trains depart Porto’s São Bento train station and take about an hour to reach Braga. When you arrive in Braga, you’ll have to walk about 20 minutes to reach the historic area (walk along Rua Andrade Corvo). Buses to Bom Jesus do Monte (which is 3 miles east of Braga) depart from Avenida da Liberdade.