I’m always looking for an excuse to visit Guimarães. This ancient 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.
There are plenty of things to do in Guimaraes and it’s road and rail connections make it a good base for exploring the Minho region. See this post for my recommendations on where to stay in and around Guimarães.
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.
Conquer Guimaraes Castle
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 (more on that later).
Visit the Ducal Palace of 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 in Guimarães 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 its 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.
See a wealth of 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 900-year 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.
Sit in medieval squares
One of the best things to do in Guimarães is to 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 city’s most atmospheric squares, Largo da Oliveira and Praça de Santiago, are separated by the arches of the old council chambers building.
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.
Explore the shops lining 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.
Enjoy the views from 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 the attractive Bom Jesus in Braga sanctuary, 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.
Guimarães hotels and guesthouses
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 the aforementioned medieval square of Largo da Oliveira. The thick granite walls of the historical building contain comfortable modern rooms. Choose a room to suit
The first time I visited Guimarães, I stayed at the wonderful Casa de Sezim. It’s 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.
There are plenty of other accommodation options to choose from.
Day trips and guided tours to Guimarães
You can discover the secrets of both Guimaraes and the lovely city of Braga on this full day small group tour which includes entrance to four of the key monuments.
If you’re a little short on time you may prefer this half day private tour.
Alternatively, you could try this Braga and Guimarães full day Private Tour.
For a DIY day trip from Porto, the Porto to Guimaraes train takes around 75 minutes (leaving from either Sao Bento or Campanha station) or travelling by car takes 45 minutes.
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.
Portugal itineraries designed by Julie
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We just stayed in the Pousada and ate out in Mumadoma, as you suggested. Both were the highlights of our weekend in the North!
In the Pousada you can feel like an ancient nobleman and Mumadoma is abolutely right for “a reasonably priced hearty lunch with locals in a no-frills traditional restaurant”, as you said. We loved it! Our suggestion for two: One each of the two house varieties of codfish (but only “meia dose”, otherwise you can not cope, especially after the very recommendable variation of starters) washed down with a bottle of vino verde from the local co-op. A great night out – enjoy!
Doris and Friedrich from Germany, first week of February 2016
Glad to hear about Guimaraeas, where my grandmother was born, she is a de Oliveira and on my next trip I want to sit at that plaza and see if I get goosebumps like I do when I visit Foz do Arelho where I was born.
Hi Dolores, I love it when that happens and I hope it does for you in Guimarães – such a special feeling to be close to your roots or something that really touches you.
Hi Julie, If you are exceptionally lucky – as I was four or five years ago – you might find an elegant woman being given a scarlet carnation by a dapper old gentleman as they drank their morning coffee in the Largo da Oliveira and then be treated to traditional music and dancing. It was April but I had forgotten the date. We had arrived to find the festivities commemorating the carnation revolution. Only in courteous Portugal would you have such a gentle revolution after a very repressive dictatorship. For me this was a very special day in Guimaraes
What a wonderful experience, Margaret! I wasn’t that lucky but I’m glad you were – you’ll never forget it, that’s for sure.