Guimarães - Five Things to Do

by Ana Magalhães

Portugal’s glorious beginnings are rooted in Guimarães, a city in the northwest hailed as the “cradle of the Portuguese nationality”. It is an ancient city that is known as the birthplace of the first king of Portugal, Afonso I, who dedicated his life in establishing the kingdom and expanding its reach through the Reconquista. The atmosphere in Guimarães is teeming with rich history and culture, and it has conserved its impressive historical center throughout the years by employing controlled urbanization in the 19th century. Guimarães has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, and it was also named as the European Capital of Culture in 2012.  You can never get enough of the picturesque views and the captivating gothic architecture strewn across the city, as well as its modern city life and its chic restaurants that serve traditional Guimarães cuisine.

Keeping this in focus here is the list of top ten things to do in Guimarães to make the best of your time:

1. Guimarães Castle

The Guimarães Castle (Castelo de Guimarães) is the crux of the foundation of the Portuguese nation. Sitting on top of Monte Largo, a granite hill surrounded by lush greenery and well-manicured lawns, the Guimarães Castle functioned as the stronghold of the monastery built by Countess Mumadona Dias during its glory days, to protect the population against attacks from the Norsemen and Moors. Its stunning medieval architecture is reminiscent of the countless battles that it endured after the seeds of Portugal’s independence were planted in the Battle of São Mamede. After falling into ruin and abandon in the 15th century, the Guimarães Castle was restored to its former prestige in the 1930s and is now a monument of Portugal’s origins.

2. Paço dos Duques de Bragança

Just a few meters south of the Guimarães Castle is the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (Paço dos Duques de Bragança), a luxurious Norman-Gothic granite manor built in the 15th century by Afonso de Barcelos, who later on became the first Duke of Braganza. The palace fell into gradual ruin when the Afonso residence was moved to the more grandiose Vila Viçosa Ducal Palace and the stones were quarried for renovations. With the restoration of the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza in the 20th century, it now houses a museum filled with an ancient collection of furniture, weapons, and armors dating back to the 17th century, as well as commissioned copies of the historical Pastrana tapestries of 15th century artist Nuno Gonçalves. The uppermost floor of the Paço dos Duques de Bragança serves as one of the official residences of the President of the Republic of Portugal.

3. Self-Guided Tour

A walking tour around Guimarães is a one-of-a-kind experience: the modern city life of shops, restaurants and cafes compliments the scenic medieval architecture throughout the city. First stop is the Largo da Oliveira square, named after an olive tree that was planted on this area many centuries ago. A gothic shrine stands on the cobbled pavement of the square, built in commemoration of the Battle of Salado in 1339.  Beside this shrine is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora de Oliveira (Collegiate Church of Our Lady of the Olive Tree), which is home to the Museu Alberto Sampaio located at its southern area. The museum features a collection of religious relics and art masterpieces of the 13th to 18th century.

An ancient medieval building, which used to be the town hall, stands on the northern area of the Largo da Oliveira, and the Gothic archway exits to the Largo de São Tiago, a spacious square lined with outdoor café furniture and picturesque houses. The roads along São Tiago and Oliveira squares intersect with the Rua de Santa Maria, and as you step into its cobbled streets, it feels as if you’ve travelled back in time. The buildings that line the streets are decorated with intricately-designed wrought iron balconies, artistic doors, and sculptured stone. It’s a fun way to go on a relaxing walk while basking in the old-fashioned atmosphere of the street.

The Igreja de São Francisco is also worth visiting for its simple yet elegant exterior architecture and carved wooden doors. Its interior is stunningly beautiful – the elaborate designs of the golden archways and the magnificent chandeliers will leave you at a loss for words. The welcoming terrace of soft grass and landscaped fruit trees are the features of the Jardins do Palácio de Vila Flor, situated at the Vila Flor Cultural Center. The enchanting flora adds a romantic charm to the captivating architecture of the Cultural Center building, which houses a gallery for temporary exhibits.

4. Santuário da Penha

The Santuário da Penha offers an excellent view of the city of Guimarães, as this natural sanctuary sits on top of a 600-meter mountain. The sanctuary is accessible by riding the telepheric (cable car transport) from the city, as you take scenic pictures of Guimarães all the way to the top of the mountain. The church at the Santuário da Penha features a calm design, with a vertical fountain highlighting its grounds. The peaceful and quiet atmosphere also offers visitors a place to meditate and reflect.

5. Citânia de Briteiros

Surrounded by nature 15km from Guimarães by car – the only way to get there, you will be back to the 1st and 2nd century BC until the Middle Ages, example of how the Iberian Societies lived.

Citânia de Briteiros is a vestige of the Castro culture, a settlement of human communities dating back to the first and second century BCE until the Middle Ages. It is an archaeological site that has unearthed much about the Bronze Age and Iron Age settlers in the Iberian Peninsula, and these provide a glimpse into the way of life of those early societies. The rustic area of Citânia de Briteiros rests on top of the São Romão hill, with a breathtaking view of the Ave River. The only way to access the Citânia de Briteiros is by driving a car from the city of Guimarães to the hilltop.

Extra Tip: Traditional Dishes

The traditional cuisine of Guimarães is heavily influenced by the institution of feminine monasteries during the youthful years of the city. The Tortas de Guimarães were created by the nuns of the Convent of Santa Clara, and the recipe has been passed down for generations until it has become a popular dessert in the city. It is a bell-shaped pastry with a crunchy, flaky texture on the outside and a lusciously sweet combination of sugar, crushed almonds, egg yolks, and chila squash on the inside. Another dish that’s sure to hype up your senses is the Toucinho do céu – the name itself, translated as the “Bacon from Heaven”, is enough to unleash your cravings for this sweet, velvety cake. This Portuguese almond cake is made from pork lard, crisp ground almonds, and sugar, dusted off with a thin layer of flour on top.

Whether you are a history and culture aficionado, Guimarães has everything to keep you thoroughly entertained during your Guimarães trip.