As the birthplace and hometown of Portugal’s first king, the city of Guimaraes is the cradle of Portugal. The historic center with its palaces and castles is a World Heritage Site and it is one of those culturally rich cities that you have to organize to make sure you see it all.
Even strolling through the old streets and squares is interesting because of the Gothic monuments, ornamental monasteries and noble mansions. To the north is the castle, home to the legendary first king Afonso Henriques, and you can take the cable car to Monte da Penha, a sanctuary towering high above the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Guimaraes:
1. Palace of the Dukes of Braganza
Alfonso, Count of Barcelos built the palace in the early 1420s.
He was the illegitimate son of John I, and his family would occupy this magnificent Burgundian home for the next 200 years.
Catherine Braganza, who would marry Charles I of England, grew up here.
The palace’s courtyard, with its galleries, pointed Gothic arches, and tall, narrow brick chimneys, looks more like columns passing through the roof.
Take your time to admire tapestries, furniture, ceramics, weapons, ceiling beams and fireplaces.
2. Historic Guimaraes
The old town core of the city is a narrow winding alley between stately granite buildings.
They are located on steep slopes and will lead you to grand squares with imposing monasteries, churches and mansions such as Toural and Mota Prego.
This cityscape features wrought-iron balconies, arcades and passageways as you step on the paving stones paved by pedestrians for centuries.
Every few meters there’s another sight to turn your head, but one of the best things about Guimaraes is that, despite being UNESCO-listed for fees, it’s a living, working town, not a museum s work.
3. Guimaraes Castle
In the 10th century, the region had to deal with two main threats; the Vikings would raid from the Atlantic Ocean, and the Moors from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.
As a result, a castle was erected on the high ground to the north of what is today the city, and in the 12th century it became the seat and possible birthplace of Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal.
It is no exaggeration to say that Portugal was born in this national monument.
The castle was not abandoned until the 1900s, when its castle and seven towers with pointed melons were restored.
There is an animated film about Afonso Henriques to get you started.
4. Monte da Penha
You can take a cable car from Guimaraes to the summit that dwarfs the city from the southeast.
Visually, it is an inspiring place with many terraces and platforms to enjoy the view.
The best of these is the terrace around the statue of Pope Pius IX. There has been a sanctuary on top of the mountain for hundreds of years, but the current Penha Sanctuary is an Art Deco building made of granite and built in the 1930s.
It is a much-loved pilgrimage site, especially in summer.
For others, the purpose of the visit is to marvel at the views, and the hulking granite boulders scattered across the woodlands surrounding the summit.
5. Alberto Sampaio Museum
The museum is located in the convent building adjacent to the church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira.
The oldest part is the 13th century cloister and chapter house, but there is also a 15th century funeral chapel and more monastic buildings from the 1700s.
Together they created a suitable home for the rich collection of sacred art gathered from former monasteries in the area.
There are amazing examples of textiles, ceramics, sculptures, paintings and goldwork.
The collection, numbering over 2,000 pieces, includes historical treasures such as the padded robe worn by John I at the Battle of Aljubarota in 1385.
6. Largo da Oliveira
In the square in front of the church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, you will learn about the great times of the city.
This is the first step on most trips around Guimaraes and a great place to pull up a chair on the bar terrace and enjoy a cup of coffee or a cold drink.
The square takes its name from the old olive tree still growing in the center of the square.
A few steps away is a Gothic monument, Padrão do Salado.
The pavilion was built in the 1300s on the orders of Alfonso IV. This is a monument to the Battle of Salado, where Portuguese and Castilian troops fought against the Moorish Armada at Tarifa in 1340.
7. Santa Maria Street
Going down the slope from north to south, it is the most beautiful and oldest street in the old town.
Santa Maria Street is rich in 15th and 16th century buildings, as it was favored by Guimaraes’ nobles and wealthy families.
Before that, it was planned to connect the current 10th-century monastery of La Gorda Oliveira, located in the lower part of the city, with the castle in the upper part.
The road is full of historic buildings such as Casa do Arco, Casa dos Peixotos, the Gothic Casa dos Valadares and the Monastery of Santa Clara.
8. Citânia de Briteiros
The countryside of northwest Portugal is dotted with Iron Age settlements known as Castro.
These have been inhabited since the 9th century BC, and some of them survived the Roman period and were occupied until the Middle Ages.
Such is the case with Citânia de Briteiros, located on a promontory a few minutes from Guimarães.
When you arrive here, you will be amazed by the scale of the settlement, which has 24 hectares of dry stone walls, including defensive walls, public meeting places, bathhouses and many houses.
The exhibit is the mysterious Pedra Formosa, a megalith with intricate Celtic carvings that was once used as a burial chamber.
9. Museu Arqueológico Martins Sarmento
The perfect follow-up to the Citânia de Briteiros would be to return to Guimarães and visit this museum in the stately cloisters of the former convent of Santo Domingo.
This is a fascinating attraction that is often overlooked by tourists.
Discoveries of Iron Age castros throughout the region have been brought here, and if you need extra background, you can take a guided tour to help understand the unique Celtic symbols in these stones.
There are suns, animals and figures, and on some pieces you can see Christian symbols added to older inscriptions.
10. Plataforma das Artes e da Criatividade
Next to the museum is an avant-garde cultural center that was once the city’s market place.
The building is half the attraction, especially at night, when its box-like façade is illuminated.
The center has a permanent exhibition showcasing African, pre-Columbian and ancient Chinese art.
These were donated by the renowned Portuguese artist José de Guimarães.
There are more spaces dedicated to multidisciplinary exhibitions for young contemporary artists, as well as a bookstore, museum and studio.
11. Church of San Francisco
In a historic Portuguese city, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of churches.
But you need to prioritize this before fatigue starts! It is part of an old monastery dating back to the first years of the 15th century, since its predecessor was demolished because its design made the city vulnerable to siege.
The outside is very discreet, except for the tiles on the walls of the monastery.
But in the 18th century, the Gothic interior was richly decorated, such as the sumptuous gilded altar and the gilded arches leading to the main church, in contrast to the blue and white glazing on the walls above and beside it.
12. Kuros District
The streets around Igreja de São Francisco were once home to Guimarães’ thriving leather industry.
Over the past few decades, the city has restored some of its old leather-making infrastructure: the most evocative is the tanning pit on the large de Cidade, a group of hollow stones irrigated by small channels.
The skins are soaked in these sinks for days at a time to make them malleable, and after the cleaning phase, they are returned for tanning, usually using the bark of the local Alvarinho oak.
13. Fort San Miguel Church
A few steps down from the castle is a church built in the early 13th century.
In keeping with the Romanesque period, it is a modest building with few openings in the walls and only a few geometric decorations on the granite stonework.
But the strength of a church like this is its history, which is evident when you look at the many funerary boards on the floor.
These record the names of knights who died protecting the castle and are buried beneath the church.
14. Villaflora Cultural Center
When one of the city’s wealthiest mansions was restored in 2005, it was outfitted with a proud cultural center.
The modern wing has two auditoriums, one for 800 spectators and the other for 200 spectators. These auditoriums host lectures, conferences and musical performances ranging from classical to rock.
There is also a futuristic exhibition space for short-term art exhibitions.
But beyond that, you can visit the palace’s 18th-century Baroque architecture, terraced boxwood gardens, and panoramic views of the castle and the old town from the balustrade.
15. Local Food
The many monasteries in Guimaraes produce a wide variety of sweets, because according to tradition, nuns donate ingredients such as eggs on special occasions.
Egg yolks, almonds and cinnamon are the main ingredients in the pastry tortas de Guimarães, while toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven) is a traditional almond cake that also relies on a lot of egg yolks.
For savory foods, papas de sarrabulho is a meat-rich dish with a variety of pork products, beef and chicken, made during the winter months.
Grilled sardines are a lighter option for summer, while bolo is a round dough base like pork on a pizza.
A great pairing for light dishes is the rich vinho verde wines of the region.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Guimarães, Portugal
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