As I approach the end of the year, I gladly recount the opportunities of traveling to offbeat destinations in Portugal and witnessing each one’s different approach to sustainable cultural tourism, as it should be. The beauty of sustainable tourism is the balance between the quality of life of local residents and the comfort of visitors, without compromising the destination’s cultural identity.
I can’t say I wasn’t surprised by the invitation of Visit Maia to spend one weekend as their guest to discover this Northern city. Without many references about the city, its heritage, the local culture (besides the International Festival of Comedy Theater) and what the day-to-day life was like, I got off at the Fórum Maia metro stop in the evening, straight from the Campanhã train station in Porto, without expectations but very curious.
Arriving at night hindered my ability to find my bearings, but I spotted my main point of reference immediately, the four-star Hotel Premium Aeroporto where I was staying, less than five minutes within walking distance from the metro station.
Understanding the History, heritage, and culture of Maia
When I arrived in Maia, I felt something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on it until the next morning when I was able to see the city in broad daylight.
It was the order.
The city felt ordered, planned, clean.
Later in the morning, as Sandra and Mário showed us around the City Council building, we would talk about some of the strict rules the city has to obey in the name of sustainability and planned growth.
For some, being nitpicky about the size of a sidewalk stone or the height of buildings may seem like a waste of time.
But once you see Maia from the top, whether you’re flying to Aeroporto Sá Carneiro or you’re on a guided tour to Torre do Lidador, you understand it’s for the sake of harmony and balance.
Torre do Lidador
I saw a glimpse of this tower on the evening of my arrival, and I ignored it.
I saw it again the next morning from the window of my room at the hotel, and I ignored it again.
But the high building was stuck at the back of my mind. I wasn’t bothered by the sight of it among much lower buildings.
But why, indeed, wasn’t I bothered?
There’s a reason why I’ll bring up harmony a few times in this blog post. It’s constant in Maia.
Contemporary architecture doesn’t clash with older buildings.
From the top of this 300 feet high (92 meters), glass-covered tower (known as “cigarette lighter” by locals), not only can you see the whole of Maia, but you can tell how the city mixes green spaces and urban areas.
Designed by architect António Machado, Torre do Lidador is the fifth highest building in Portugal and truly stands in the center of it all as a beacon of work, progress, and dedication to the prosperity of Maia.
(Guided tours to the top of Torre do Lidador happen on the second Saturday of every month at 12h30 p.m. and 2h30 p.m. for groups of up to 10 people. Check the Visit Maia website for details.)
Address: Praça Doutor José Vieira de Carvalho 45 – 4470-147 Maia
Santuário Mariano Nossa Senhora do Bom Despacho
I have a soft spot for Baroque churches and this one ticks all the items on the list, from the façade covered in blue-and-white tiles to the impressive, detailed gold carving work in the interior (wonderfully restored and preserved, by the way).
For those who have been (or plan to be) on the Way of St. James, this church is in one of the Portuguese parts of the route (known as Caminho Português Central). The other possible route is called Caminho Português da Costa (Portuguese Coastal Way) and you can read about it here or download the free mobile app for iOS and Android.
The French part of the route is known to be crowded these days, so I think it’s time you hear of an alternative in Portugal.
Address: Rua Padre José Pinheiro Duarte 39 – 4470-184 Maia
Igreja Nossa Senhora do Ó
At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about the plain, boxy façade of this church, typical of the Romanesque period.
Inside, there’s a mix of restoration work and add-ons made between the 17th and the 19th centuries, as was the norm in Portugal during these revivalist art periods.
But, like in all the churches built around that time, it’s the stories between the lines and the coexistence of sacred and pagan rituals forever etched in stone that make them so intriguing.
The church is dedicated to Marian devotion (as are the other churches we visited in Maia), specifically linked to fertility. When you visit, make sure to look up to the roof outside to see the stone figures of women going through the pain of labor.
Address: R. do Mosteiro 957 – 4425-140 Águas Santas (Maia)
Capela Nossa Senhora da Guadalupe
The first thing that strikes you inside this church is the baroque pipe organ and the walls and ceiling decorated with beautiful frescoes. Had I been here without context, and I wouldn’t have thought much of it. Sure, it’s a well-preserved and well-restored little Baroque church and undeniably photogenic, so what?
But here’s the thing about Maia and the Maiatos and Maiatas I had the pleasure to meet. They honor their roots and protect their heritage now so that future generations can continue to enjoy it and to learn about it.
I was impressed with this church not only because it’s one of the most beautiful Baroque buildings I have ever seen, but because I was lucky to meet the two men who handled the restoration process in 2006 by raising the funds and hiring a team of experts.
Address: Rua Capela – 4425-097 Águas Santas
Quinta dos Cónegos
An interior design enthusiast’s dream is one way to describe this 18th-century farmhouse and the gardens. No wonder we all spent so much time photographing every inch of this property. There’s even a group selfie in one of the master bathrooms, because… golden faucets. Also, because we were deeply impressed with the restoration work (the house burned down in 1992 and was completely restored by the Fundação Ricardo Espírito Santo).
The lush house has been linked to the higher classes of Maia for centuries as their weekend and summer vacation home of choice. And there is plenty of stories (and gossip) of what went on behind closed doors.
The house was recently bought by the City Council as a way to allow the local community to take advantage of a part of its heritage and legacy. Keep an eye on updates regarding this space and what will be its main function.
Address: Rua do Souto 363 – 4470-215 Maia
Fundação Gramaxo (Quinta da Boa Vista)
I love a detour. I love it even more when that detour takes me to a place of cultural interest (past, present, or future).
The property belongs to a family historically linked to Maia for over three centuries, the Gramaxos, who decided to start a foundation in 2013 focusing on leisure, art, and local culture. For now, only the gardens are open to the public every day but the foundation has plans to extend that access to more areas of the farm.
Renown architect Siza Vieira is designing the future headquarters house, that should be ready by 2019. A foundation dedicated to local culture and a house designed by a favorite architect of mine? I can’t think of a better win-win situation and an excuse to return to Maia.
Address: Rua Nossa Senhora do Bom Despacho – 4470-152
Opening hours (leisure park): 10am-7pm (April to Ocotber) and 10am-5pm (November to March)
Museu de História e Etnologia da Terra da Maia
Plenty of cultural tourists will choose landmarks and monuments over hours inside a museum unless it’s a must-see place in the destination. Well, when it comes to museums I’m a bit of a geek, so I make my point to include some very local ones in my itinerary.
But here’s the twist. There’s nothing of the typical museum atmosphere at the Museu de História e Etnologia da Terra da Maia. The way Liliana passionately talked about the history and the culture of her adoptive hometown had us hanging on her every word for a good chunk of the afternoon.
She also has this “crazy” idea that going to museums should be a sensorial experience, not a don’t-touch-don’t-be-loud torture some people tend to impose on kids.
Yes, this is the perfect city museum to actually learn something and not be bored to death.
Address: Praça 5 de Outubro – 4475-601 Castêlo da Maia
Opening hours: 9am-12.30pm & 2-5.30pm Tuesday to Sunday
Top cultural events
The crafts fair, Feira de Artesanato da Maia, is one of their most popular events of the year. The dates are tricky to keep track of, but here it goes: the fair starts on a Saturday and goes on for 10 days, ending on the first Monday after the second Sunday of July.
In case you decide to visit Maia outside these dates but would still like to see or buy some of the local artisans’ work, just head over to the Maia Welcome Center where the local artists also regularly show their pieces.
The Festival Internacional de Teatro Cómico da Maia (International Festival of Comedy Theater) is the other main event, one that I had the privilege to attend for the first time. This is the only festival of the kind in Portugal and welcomes theater companies every year from anywhere in the world, with shows that range from street performing to stand-up comedy and theater plays.
Running a successful festival, non-stop, for over 20 years has a secret, though. People. The one force that keeps driving this festival forward towards a new edition is because locals want it to keep happening.
Maia, the sustainable city
You can fill a city with parks, gardens, and other green areas and still not turn it into a sustainable place.
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, planning is the key to success in Maia.
At the Praça Dr. José Vieira de Carvalho, where the City Council and the Torre do Lidador are, I was intrigued by the odd square-shaped garden in one corner of the square that we could see from the top of the tower.
This garden, designed by architect Eduardo Souto Moura, was intentionally placed on a platform on wheels. Whenever the square is hosting an event where a lot of people are expected to attend, the garden can be moved to one side to free up space and be wheeled back into its spot when the event is over.
Maia’s commitment to sustainability could be summed up in this word and the 11 years in a row being awarded the EcoXXI – an award that is given specifically to cities in Europe committed to sustainability.
The environmental complex at Quinta da Gruta serves as both a place for children to learn more about Maia’s biodiversity and for locals to have their little plot of land to grow vegetables, flowers, herbs, and fruits. Farming here has quickly become a habit, a hobby, and a topic of conversation among locals.
Parque de Avioso, a 30-hectare (around 74 acres) urban park, is within easy reach for the local population by car or public transportation. The park is currently undergoing a reforestation project to replace so-called invasive species (like pine trees and eucalyptus) with endemic ones (like oaks and cork oaks) and it has quickly become one of the locals’ favorite spots for family picnics and outdoor activities.
Although I didn’t have time to explore the 1.15 mile-long Ecocaminho (eco-path, in English), while driving around the city I saw plenty of people running, hiking or biking on the path. With such a strong connection to sports (Maia has a plethora of sports associations and activities, from acrobatic gymnastics to karate. Unlike other cities in Portugal, soccer is not one of their strongest suits but they make up for it with plenty of other sports.), engaging in outdoor activities is the norm here.
Other activities in the weekend
Our program included the optional skydiving with Skydive Maia and horseback riding at Centro Equestre da Maia. Well, these activities didn’t quite fit in with the topic of sustainable cultural tourism so I opted out and stood as a spectator (and assistant photographer if needed). That’s one of the reasons. The other reason is that my quasi-irrational fear of heights often prevents me from taking part in anything more adventurous than going for a hike uphill.
(I polled you on Instagram stories asking if I had jumped off a plane in the morning and 67% said yes. You have so much faith in me…)
We also visited the Maia Zoo. Zoos are always tricky to write about (and I did ponder before mentioning it here) because it’s hard to see the line between animals imprisoned and the conservation efforts. To be clear, I’m not an expert in wildlife so I can only speak based on my experience but I think the behavior of an animal born and raised in captivity is not the same as the behavior of an animal born and raised in the wild. I didn’t see any of the animals being mistreated or underfed, and the staff seemed to genuinely care about them.
All the animals at the zoo were born in captivity and are used to being around humans (like Asha in the photo, the female tiger born at the Maia zoo, Nico, the male sea lion born in the Vasco da Gama aquarium in Lisbon, and the lion, spared from continuing his life performing at a circus).
Where to eat and drink
Let’s get to the really interesting part of this trip!
I’m joking, of course. All parts were interesting. But there is nothing more valuable to experiencing a destination than getting to know the local entrepreneurs behind small or family-owned businesses. Bonus points if those businesses are restaurants.
We covered four restaurants, one café, and one bar that allowed us to account for variety (of cuisines and of styles).
An expert advice, make room for dessert. Always make room for dessert.
Cozinha d’Avó Rosa
The restaurant is inside the zoo but don’t assume it’s one of those tourist traps where meals are expensive and the quality is miles away from decent. The name translates into Grandma Rosa’s Kitchen and it suits the restaurant’s casual atmosphere, the considerate staff, and the no-fuss cuisine.
When in doubt, ask for the daily specials (that include a meat dish, a fish dish, and a vegetarian option).
Address: Rua da Estação (Zoo da Maia)
Opening hours: 12h30-3 p.m. & 7h30-10h30pm
Armazém do Caffè
We stopped here for an afternoon break of tea and scones but were too full from the previous lunch to feel like having food again (see, this is why a Ecocaminho and a Parque do Avioso exist).
The group settled for trying different kinds of tea and then a pitstop at the hotel before dinner and theater.
Address: Av. D. Manuel II 1414
Opening hours: 9 a.m. – midnight Monday to Sunday
Restaurante Clube do Garfo
Here’s a tip. If you go to a traditional Portuguese cuisine restaurant and ask if the portions are big, don’t believe when the staff tells you they’re small. They’re never small! And I say this as a compliment. We, the Portuguese, do like our guests to be well fed.
Clube do Garfo is exactly like that. The chef came to ask how was the food, and we turned into an apologetic group of diners complimenting the food while explaining our lack of appetite. When Paula, the owner, sat with us at the table and asked us for dessert, there we were again, hands in our stomachs, mimicking how we couldn’t get another bite down. She suggested a plate with some dessert samples instead to taste and share and we couldn’t say no to that.
Address: Rua Conselheiro Campos Henrique 28
Opening hours: 12h30-10h30 p.m. Wednesday to Monday
Hamburgueria d’Avó Ana
Thank goodness a couple of my fellow bloggers were regulars at this restaurant because I was having a hard time choosing just one thing from the menu. The suggestion for the Rústico came up a few times but I was skeptic about a burger made with blood sausage.
Well, that doubt didn’t linger for longer than a couple of seconds between thinking about it and taking the first bite.
Address: Praça 5 de Outubro 38 – 4475-601 Maia
Opening hours: 12h30-3 p.m. & 7-11 p.m. Monday to Saturday
ARENA – Sports Lounge
A city as dedicated to sports as Maia could not be complete without a sports bar. It has a unique style because the three partners decided to found this bar considering all kinds of sports. It shows on the decor and on the TV sets tuned into different channels broadcasting more than soccer matches.
We stopped for a pint of Erdinger beer (October’s theme at the bar is, obviously, Oktoberfest) and it turned out to be the bar’s first anniversary. A happy coincidence!
Weather permitting, take it outside. I mean it. There’s a nice and cozy outdoor sitting area in the back.
Address: Rua de Augusto Nogueira da Silva 779
Opening hours: 12 p.m. – 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday & 2 p.m. – 2 a.m. Sunday
We ended the trip with a family-like dinner around a table full of typically Portuguese starters – bread, cheese, cold cuts – and plenty of wine.
Before arriving at O Forno (the oven, in English) we were recommended the codfish à lagareiro, slowly baked in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven at the corner of the room. The slower the cooking, the better the food and the longer the conversations (and the wine) flow.
The codfish did not disappoint: slightly charred at the top, flaky, and just enough olive oil to flavor (usually the à lagareiro dishes are swimming in olive oil). We hardly had room for dessert in the end, but I managed to find the spirit to try the homemade chocolate mousse.
Make reservations because while we were there the restaurant filled up really quickly.
Address: Rua do Dr. Farinhote 740 – 4470 Moreira (Maia)
Opening hours: 12 p.m. – 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Why visit Maia?
The proximity to the airport Sá Carneiro and Porto makes Maia a city of passersby (in the eyes of some) – passengers looking to rest during a one-day layover, visitors looking for hotels when Porto’s are fully booked, businessmen and businesswomen, sportsmen and sportswomen in town for a conference, an event, or a championship. I didn’t spend that much time at the hotel but, in three nights, yes, there was a constant in and out of guests.
I believe one way to counteract “over tourism” is to decentralize tourism and as a travel blogger and writer, there isn’t a better time to be part of the solution as right now.
No, Maia is not just a city where you stay when Porto is crowded.
No, Maia has a strong cultural identity that allows the city to stand as a destination on its own.
The diversity of parks and sports facilities points out the obvious: Maia is an active city fit for active people (both local and visitors), with a population of a little over 135.000 people.
Maia also has two feet strongly set in the past and the present with eyes in the future (and this is a trait you’ll see all around town – the acknowledgment of working today with what you learned yesterday to build a sustainable tomorrow). We expect the historical centers of cities to be surrounded by old buildings but here most of what you will see is contemporary art and architecture, which is equally relevant.
“People say that the historical center of Maia doesn’t look historical. But it will be, 300 years from now”, Mário told us as we were reaching Torre do Lidador.
In Maia, you can see the work of award-winning Portuguese architects like Eduardo Souto de Moura, Alvaro Siza (Vieira), Alfredo Ascensão, and João Álvaro Rocha. Their work is intimately linked to shaping the space to people’s needs and sustainable lifestyle.
Art is also all around you, be it in the urban art-covered wall at Parque Central or the scattered contemporary art pieces around the city center from the Bienal de Arte Contemporânea da Maia (Biennial of Contemporary Art).
Come for the sustainable approach to tourism. Stay for the art, the architecture, the food, the vinho verde and the History. Return for the recurrent cultural events.
How to reach Maia: by plane, via Aeroporto Sá Carneiro (the city is a 10-minute drive from the airport). By train, from Campanhã station (in Porto) and then metro (Line C – Green Line, towards ISMAI. Fórum Maia is the metro station in the city center).
Recommended hotel: we stayed at the 4-star Hotel Premium Aeroporto in the center of Maia. It’s the typical hotel for business guests (or people on layovers in Porto) and it’s always busy. Despite the impersonal decoration, the staff is nice and welcoming, and the breakfast is the typical Continental.