The small city of Guimaraes is another delightful destination for those willing to scratch the surface of what Portugal has to offer. Tucked away in northern Portugal, Guimarães could be simply seen as an easy day trip from Porto. However, that really wouldn’t be doing this quaint city justice.
By virtue of its smaller size there is less to do here than in Porto or Lisbon, sure. But there’s no sense rushing a visit to this historic place that is often dubbed “the Birthplace of Portuguese Nation“. Doesn’t that sound like a place you might want to give a little more time to? With that in mind, here are some of the many things you can do when visiting Guimaraes, Portugal.
1. Visit the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza
Given my unending love of castles and palaces, what else could I put first? Sitting on a hilltop overlooking the old quarter of the city, sits the unconventional Palace of the Dukes of Braganza. I say unconventional because although it was built as a palace and residence in the 15th century, it sure looks like a box-shaped castle. And let’s not forget the many unusual chimneys that pop out of its rooftops.
Anyway, this medieval palace is a must-see when in Guimaraes because it explores an interesting part in the city’s history. Built by local Count Afonso, it soon became the seat of one of the first and most important Duchies in Portugal, the Dukes of Braganza. While it fell into disrepair over the centuries, it is quite interesting to learn about some local history as you explore its vast halls and intimate chapels.
2. Climb Guimaraes Castle
Wait, there’s a palace and a castle too? Yes, Guimaraes has the good fortune of having both right next to each other in fact. Just up the hill from the Ducal Palace you’ll find the very medieval Guimaraes Castle. One look at the jagged crenellations of its walls and towers and you’ll be conjuring up mental images of knights on horseback and siege warfare. Dating from the 10th century, this fortification was built to defend a nearby monastery from various outside forces like the Moors and Vikings.
While not a gargantuan castle, the medieval castle is pretty darn photogenic from below. And then there’s the views once you actually climb up onto its walls. The castle walls are one of (see below) the best view points in Guimaraes, as you get to see the hilly countryside surrounding the city, not to mention the Ducal Palace nearby. The combined ticket for both castles cost 6€ as of April 2017.
3. Take photos in Largo do Toural
A great place to start when exploring the centre of Guimaraes is the Largo do Toural square. Lying on the edge of the old quarter and adjacent to a pleasant park, the square really gives you an idea of what you’re in for with Guimaraes. Surrounding on all sides are quaint, traditional buildings with typical Portuguese architecture. Those looking for a classy restaurant for later in the day should look to Restaurante Café Oriental – good food, but a bit upmarket for my tastes.
Just on the square’s corner you’ll find a large sign that reads “Aqui Nasceu Portugal” that translates to “Portugal Was Born Here“. This motto refers back to the city’s claim as the “the Birthplace of Portuguese Nation“. So where does this claim come from? Well, firstly Portugal’s first king Afonso Henriques is believed to have been born in the city in the early 12th century. Secondly, it was the scene for a defining battle that brought about Portuguese independence, the Battle of São Mamede in 1128. This battle was won by, you guessed it, Afonso Henriques also known as Afonso I.
4. Wander through the Old Quarter
Now while it may be one of my favourite things to do in any city, there’s another reason why you should wander through the Guimaraes city centre. As it turns out, the extremely walkable Old Quarter of Guimaraes is recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage listed site. If that’s not a guarantee of quality, I don’t know what is.
As you stroll through the old quarter, you’ll be treated to narrow cobblestone streets and plenty of charming, old stone houses. For lovers of Portuguese tiles, you’ll find plenty of those too here. Other wonderful little touches include the old street lamps, the little herald-shaped street signs and the occasional archway. Given its size, there’s a lot of character packed into this small area.
5. Admire Old Houses in Praça De São Tiago
If the houses in the streets of the Old Quarter aren’t doing it for you, make your way to Praça De São Tiago. This square is lined with plenty of quaint houses that look like they haven’t changed since the Middle Ages. These traditional houses of stone and wood sit at random levels and angles, often with washing hanging from their windows. If you’re after old world charm, you’ll find it here.
6. See the Sights of Largo da Oliveira
At the centre of Guimarães lies Largo da Oliveira, a small square with plenty to see. One of the more interesting buildings is the Old Town Council Chambers pictured above. Their style of architecture and the open air arcade beneath make for a distinctive landmark. Another is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, a church with a very moody looking cloister. Next to the church is the Padrão do Salado, an eye-catching monument to a battle fought in 1340.
Much like the nearby Praça De São Tiago, you’ll find plenty of traditional houses, although the ones here look in much better shape. The square also hosts numerous restaurants, popular with tourists.
7. Look down Largo Republica do Brasil
One of the first photos that brought Guimarães to my attention was the above view of Largo Republica do Brasil. With its immaculately manicured gardens leading up to the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação e Santos Passos, the temptation to get my shot was too much. The avenue starts right on the edge of the Old Quarter so it’s an easy spot to get to for that quick photo too.
8. Look out over Guimaraes from Mount Penha
If you look at the photo of Largo Republica do Brasil earlier, you’ll spot some hills in the distance. That my friend is Mount Penha, a nearby hill/mountain that overlooks the entire city. This is where you find the best views of Guimaraes. Accessible by the teleferico cable car from the city for just 3€ one-way, you’ll feel removed from the city and treated to some spectacular scenery. Alternatively, you can hike your way up but best to have a map for that, as I got a bit lost trying to take the trails down.
9. Explore the Park of Mount Penha
Once you’re up on Mount Penha, you may as well explore it there right? The walk up from the top of the cable car takes you between giant boulders draped in moss and you feel like you’re passing through an enchanted forest. Once at the top and finished with the viewpoints, there are some cafes, and several churches to admire. But in the end, the most fun part is wandering the trails nearby that pass over and under the incredible boulders that litter the hilltop.
Beyond the spots mentioned above, there’s plenty of other things to do and see in Guimaraes. For starters there’s the incredibly modern International Arts Centre and the nearby Archaeological Museum. Then there’s the picturesque houses and the disused leather tanning pools south of Jardim Público da Alameda. I’m sure there’s more I failed to uncover during my visit too. Safe to say, there’s more than a day’s worth of sights to see in Guimaraes.
If you’ve been, what would you say are the things to do in Guimaraes? Where would you start if you visit Guimaraes? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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