At the birthplace and home of Portugal’s first king, the city of Guimarães is Portugal’s cradle. The historic centre and its palaces and castle are a World Heritage Site, and it’s one of those culture-packed cities where you’re going to have to get organised to make sure you see it all.
Even ambling around the old streets and squares is a lot of fun, as these have Gothic monuments, decorative convents and mansions for nobility. To the north is the castle, which was the home of the fabled first king Afonso Henriques, and you can also catch a cable car to Monte da Penha where there’s a sanctuary poised high above the city.
Lets explore the best things to do in Guimarães:
1. Palace of the Dukes of Braganza
Afonso, Count of Barcelos built this palace at the beginning of the 1420s.
He was the illegitimate son of John I and his line would occupy this imposing Burgundian-style residence for the next 200 years.
Catherine Braganza, who would marry England’s Charles I, grew up right here.
The palace has courtyards with galleries and Gothic pointed arches and tall, narrow brick chimneys that look more like columns poking through the roof.
Take your visit slowly to enjoy the tapestries, furniture, ceramics, weapons, ceiling beams and fireplaces.
2. Historic Guimarães
The city’s old core is all tight, twisting lanes between dignified granite buildings.
These are set on stiff slopes and will deposit you at grand squares with majestic convents, churches and mansions like the Toural and Mota Prego.
This cityscape has wrought iron balconies, arcades and passageways as you step on paving stones smoothed by hundreds of years of pedestrians.
Every few metres there’s another sight to turn your head, but one of the best things about Guimarães is that, despite its UNESCO billing, it’s a lived-in working town and not a museum piece.
3. Guimarães Castle
In the 10th century this region had to cope with two main threats; the Vikings who would raid from the Atlantic, and the Moors attacked from the remainder of the Iberian Peninsula.
So a castle was erected on a rise just north of where the city is today, and in the 12th-century it became the seat and possible birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques.
It’s no stretch to say that Portugal was born at this National Monument.
The castle was abandoned until the 1900s when its keep and seven towers with pointed merlons were restored.
There’s an animated movie about Afonso Henriques to get you started.
4. Monte da Penha
You can catch a cable car from Guimarães to the top of this hill that dwarfs the city from the southeast.
Visually it’s an uplifting place, with lots of terraces and platforms to take in the scenery.
The best of these is the terrace around the statue of Pope Pius IX. There has been a sanctuary on the hilltop for hundreds of years, but the current Penha Sanctuary is an Art Deco construction, made from granite and built in the 1930s.
This is a beloved pilgrimage site, particularly in the summer months.
For everyone else the purpose for a visit is to marvel at the views, as well as the hulking granite boulders that litter the woodland around the summit.
5. Alberto Sampaio Museum
This museum is in the convent buildings adjoining the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira.
The oldest portions are the cloister and chapter house from the 13th century, but there’s also a 15th century funerary chapel and yet more monastic buildings from the 1700s.
Together they create an appropriate home for an opulent collection of sacred art assembled from the region’s former monasteries.
There are stupendous textiles, ceramics, sculptures, paintings and examples of goldsmithery.
The collection amounts to more than 2,000 pieces and contains historical curiosities like the padded tunic worn by John I at the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.
6. Largo da Oliveira
At the square in front of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira you’ll become aware of the great age of the city.
This is the first step for most tours around Guimarães, and also a good place to pull up a chair at a bar terrace and just savour the scene with a shot of coffee or a cold drink.
The square gets its name from the venerable olive tree still growing in the middle of the square.
A couple of paces away there’s a Gothic monument, the Padrão do Salado.
This small pavilion was built in the 1300s on the orders of Afonso IV. It’s a memorial for the Battle of Salado, fought in 1340 by Portuguese and Castilian forces against a Moorish armada in Tarifa.
7. Rua de Santa Maria
Wending its way down the slope from north to south is the old town’s prettiest and oldest street.
Rua de Santa Maria has plenty of cultivated 15th and 16th century architecture as it was favoured Guimarães’ nobility and wealthy families.
Before that it was plotted to link the 10th-century monastery on the current Largo da Oliveira in the lower part of the city to the castle in the upper part.
The way is strewn with historic buildings, like the Casa do Arco, Casa dos Peixotos, the Gothic Casa dos Valadares and the Convent of Santa Clara.
8. Citânia de Briteiros
The countryside in northwestern Portugal is scattered with iron age settlements known as castros.
These were inhabited from the 9th century BC and some survived the Roman period and continued to be occupied until the middle ages.
That is the case for the Citânia de Briteiros, which rests on a promontory a few minutes from Guimarães.
When you get here you’ll be taken aback by the size of the settlement, which has 24 hectares of dry stone walls that includes defensive walls, public meeting places, bathhouses and scores of homes.
The showpiece is the mysterious Pedra Formosa, a monolith with complicated Celtic carvings, that was once used for a burial chamber.
9. Museu Arqueológico Martins Sarmento
The perfect follow-up to the Citânia de Briteiros would be to return to Guimarães and drop by this museum in the solemn cloister of the former convent of São Domingos.
It’s a captivating attraction that is often overlooked by tourists.
Discoveries made at Iron Age castros across the region have been brought here, and if you’re in need of extra context you can join a guided tour to help make sense of the peculiar Celtic symbols in these stones.
There are suns, animals and human figures, and on some pieces you can see where Christian symbols were added to much older inscriptions.
10. Plataforma das Artes e da Criatividade
Right next to the museum is an avant garde cultural centre, set where the city’s market used to be.
The building is half the attraction, especially at night when it’s stark box-like facade is illuminated.
There’s a permanent exhibition at the centre showcasing African, Pre-Colombian and Ancient Chinese art.
These were donated by the prominent Portuguese artist José de Guimarães.
There’s more space devoted to multi-disciplinary exhibitions for young contemporary artists, as well as a bookshop, museum and studios.
11. Igreja de São Francisco
It can be easy to be bogged down by the sheer volume of churches in historic Portuguese cities.
But you need to prioritise this one before the fatigue sets in! It is part of an old convent and dates the first years of the 15th century as its predecessor was demolished because its design made the city vulnerable to a siege.
The outside is pretty discreet save for the tilework on the convent walls.
But in the 18th century the gothic interior was adorned with rich ornamentation, like the extravagant gilded altarpiece and the gilded archway leading to the main chapel, which contrasts with the blue and white azulejos on the wall above and beside it.
12. Zona de Couros
The streets around the Igreja de São Francisco were once the scene of Guimarães’ burgeoning leather industry.
In the last couple of decades the city has restored some of the old leather-making infrastructure: Most evocative of all are the tanning pits on Large de Cidade, a set of hollow stone cubes irrigated by a small water channel.
Skins would immersed in these tanks for days at a time to make them malleable, and after the cleansing phase they would go back in to be tanned, normally using bark from local Alvarinho oak trees.
13. Church of São Miguel do Castelo
A few steps down the slope from the castle is a church from the beginning of the 13th century.
In keeping with the Romanesque period, it’s a modest building with few openings in its walls and only small flashes of geometric decoration in the granite stonework.
But the power of a church like this lies in its history, and this is obvious when you see the many funerary slabs on the floor.
These record the names of knights who died protecting the castle and are buried under the church.
14. Centro Cultural Vila Flor
When one of the city’s richest mansions was restored in 2005 it was equipped with a cultural centre to be proud of.
In the modern wing there are two auditoriums, one for 800 spectators and the other for 200. These host talks, conferences and music performances from classical to rock.
There’s also a futuristic exhibition space for short-term art shows.
But besides all that you could drop by for the palace’s 18th-century baroque architecture, its terraced boxwood gardens and an all-encompassing view of the castle and old town from the balustrade.
15. Regional Gastronomy
The many convents in Guimarães gave rise to all sorts of confectionery because by tradition the nuns would be donated ingredients like eggs on special occasions.
Egg yolks, along with almonds and cinnamon are the main ingredient 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 savoury food papas de sarrabulho is a rich, filling meat dish with various pork products, beef and chicken, made in the winter months.
Grilled sardines are a lighter choice in summer, while a bolo is a circular dough base like a pizza topped with pork meat.
A great accompaniment for lighter dishes is the region’s sharp vinho verde wine.