I’m always looking for an excuse to visit Guimarães. This northern city is known as the cradle or birthplace of Portugal so its wealth of cultural heritage is hardly surprising, nor is its UNESCO World Heritage classification.
Although most tours will whisk you around the medieval centre in a couple of hours, if you want to visit the museums and monuments and soak up the atmosphere of a medieval square or two, you should factor in a whole day for Guimarães, one of the best places to visit in northern Portugal.
There may not be much left inside the walls but Guimarães Castle looks impressive from the outside. A magnificent bronze statue of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, welcomes you into the castle grounds although the 10th century building predates his rule.
Pause on your way uphill to see the interesting tombstones in the floor of the tiny St Michael’s chapel. Once inside the castle, get yourself up to the battlements and towers for splendid views of the city and up towards Penha sanctuary.
Ducal Palace, Guimarães
The closest thing Portugal now has to royalty is the Duke of Bragança, a title of the highest standing among Portuguese nobility since its creation in 1442.
The first Duke of Bragança, Afonso, was also the 8th Count of Barcelos and bastard son of King João I. He had this unusual ducal palace built between 1420 and 1422. The imposing building is most noticeable for its excess of tall red brick chimneys, which you get a good view of from the castle battlements.
Furnished with exquisitely carved antique pieces, it’s easy to imagine how the rooms were used when the palace was lived in and there are some magnificent tapestries. One of my favourite rooms, mainly for the painted ceiling, is the Duchess’ bedroom. I also liked way the Flemish stained glass in the chapel casts a multicoloured pattern across the wooden floors and pulpit.
Other side rooms within the palace are now used for temporary and permanent exhibitions. Local artist José de Guimarães’ bright, bold contemporary art contrasts with the thick, austere granite walls. When I visited, there was a wonderful exhibition of work done by local secondary school children which encouraged them to view and present elements of their city in boxes.
UNESCO World Heritage architecture in Guimarães
As you walk around the historical centre of Guimarães, you’ll see a wide range of architectural details that point to different trends and periods in Portugal’s history.
Look closely at the sculpted stone that decorate the Câmara Municipal (Town Hall) building, the former Convent of St. Clare, for some impressive and amusing stone sculptures.
Just after this square, you’ll pass under one of the medieval archways that join buildings above the streets. The wooden upper parts of tightly packed stone town houses will have you reaching for your camera, too.
Medieval squares in Guimarães
One thing you must do when you visit Guimarães is sit in one of the medieval squares and admire the architecture while sipping a cup of Portuguese coffee or, better still, a glass of vinho verde wine. Two of the most atmospheric squares, Largo da Oliveira and Praça de Santiago, are separated by the old council chambers building although you can pass between them through the arches.
It’s hard to pick a favourite between these two squares but if you pushed me, I’d say Largo da Oliveira.
As well as an abundance of outdoor café seating, there’s the Our Lady of the Olive Tree church, the Gothic arches of the Salado monument and the Alberto Sampaio Museum, possibly the best museum in Guimarães. Nobel Prize winning Portuguese writer, José Saramago certainly thought so. I particularly liked the swirly gate in the museum’s cloistered courtyard and the juxtaposition of the artwork on display.
Largo do Toural, Guimarães
The first time I saw this enormous square, it was crowded with people who, like me, were there for the opening night of Guimarães’ year as the European Capital of Culture.
Without the crowds, it’s easier to appreciate the mix of architectural styles and the contrast between a Minnie Mouse balloon seller and a hardware store that’s been there for donkey’s years. Until the 18th century, Largo do Toural was outside the city walls and the site of a popular livestock market.
Just around the corner from Largo do Toural, you’ll find Alameda de São Dâmaso, a shaded area where local men gather around tables to play cards and women catch up on gossip.
Penha park and sanctuary
If you have time, you could venture uphill to Penha park. The cable car to Penha from Guimarães only operates between Friday and Sunday so I drove up to Penha sanctuary. After spending part of that morning at Bom Jesus in Braga, I was a little shocked at how modern and, quite frankly, ugly Penha’s church is.
The forested hillside around it, however, is beautiful with round mossy boulders and lots of paths and steps to wander, making it worth the journey and possibly an hour or two of your time.
The tranquil setting was marred by techno music blasting out of the café’s speakers but you should be able to find somewhere out of earshot if you choose to bring a picnic up here or simply take a walk in the woods. The car park under the statue of St. Pio offers spectacular views and appears to be a popular make out spot.
Best places to stay in Guimarães
You could spend the night up in Penha park at the beautiful former 12th century monastery, Pousada Mosteiro de Guimarães* with its magnificent azulejo panels and chestnut ceilings. Check availability and prices.
If you’d rather be in the city centre, you can’t get much closer to the action than in the 4-star Hotel da Oliveira* in Largo da Oliveira. The thick granite walls of the historical building contain comfortable modern rooms. Choose a room to suit
Rather have an apartment? You can still stay in the historical centre, in the tastefully renovated Guimarães Historical Centre Apartments*. There’s no onsite parking so consider this extra cost if you have a car. Pick an apartment
The first time I visited Guimarães, I stayed at the wonderful Casa de Sezim, a few kilometres outside the city but worth the additional journey for the historical charm of a manor house that’s been in the same family since the 14th century. See more photos and check availability.
If none of these appeal, there are plenty of other accommodation options* to choose from.
Day trips and guided tours to Guimarães
You could spend an afternoon, or longer, in Guimarães on this 3-day tour of the Minho’s Historical Charms.
This 1-day Guimarães and Braga day trip from Porto includes a visit to a famous sponge cake factory.
Click a tour to get more info and check availability
Where to eat and drink in Guimarães
If you’re not in a hurry and like organic vegetarian food, Cor de Tangerina is your best bet. Opposite the Ducal Palace there’s a white building with a craft/souvenir shop on the ground floor. Go upstairs and you’ll find a quirky arty lounge bar cum restaurant and a pretty garden eating area. Open for lunch and dinner every day except Sunday evening and all day Monday. Largo Martins Sarmento 1, Tel: 253 542 009.
For a reasonably priced hearty lunch with locals in a no-frills traditional restaurant, try Mumadoma, Rua Serpa Pinto 260, Tel: 253416111.
You’ll find more elegant, beautifully presented cuisine at Le Babachris. Menus are fixed and space is limited so best book a table as it’s justifiably popular. Rua Dom João, 39, Tel: 964420548.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with a cake or ice cream in Spirito Cupcake’s garden or bright, stylish interior. Open daily from 1pm to 7.30pm at Rua de Santo Antonio, 125A.
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