This paper deals with the assessment of the seismic response of a portal frame pier belonging to an old reinforced concrete viaduct. A series of tests, consisting of cyclically imposed displacements, were carried out on three 1:4 scale mock-ups. The objective of the experimental campaign is twofold: (1) identification and evaluation of the local failure mechanisms and (2) calibration of a numerical model including all observed nonlinear phenomena. The experimental results show that the shear strength of the transverse beam and of the beam–column joints characterizes the post-elastic behavior of the piers. Other phenomena, like bond-slip and buckling of the longitudinal bars of the columns, typical of old reinforced concrete structures have also been observed. Finally, a numerical model, built in OpenSEES, was calibrated to reproduce in a satisfactory way the experimental results and to provide a reliable tool for the evaluation of the seismic response of the pier. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.