Guimaraes. It rhymes with Gilgamesh, and to the Portuguese it’s just as historical. The city was founded in the 9th century, became the first capital of Portugal in the 12th century, and was even the birthplace of Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. So we would spend a day in Guimaraes, our tour guide explained, because no visit to Portugal would be complete without a visit to the “birthplace of the Portuguese nation.”
Like bees to honey, we seem to be drawn to medieval cities. Little wonder, then, that we thought this castle was the most interesting and photogenic building in town. Guimaraes Castle sits atop a hill and is remarkably well preserved, considering it is over 1000 years old. It was built in the 900s to defend the city from the Moors and the Normans.
Because Afonso Henriques and his allies fought and won the key Battle of São Mamede (1128) nearby, Guimarães Castle became one of the greatest historical symbols of Portugal. the capital. You can still find the ancient words Aqui nasceu Portugal (Portugal was born here) engraved in one of the old towers of the city’s old wall. (It’s in Largo do Toural, one of the most important squares in the city).
Cost: €2 (free admission on the 1st Sunday of every month and for children up to 12 years)
Open: Daily 10:00 – 18:00
Palace of the Dukes of Bragança
What they now call a palace was built as a manor house in the 1400s by the first Duke of Bragança. Apparently someone felt it needed to have 39 chimneys. Anyway, its facade was inspired by French architecture, and inside you will find tapestries, furniture and pottery, among other objects.
The Palace was eventually abandoned, which opened the way for it to be used as a military building during the Napoleon Invasions. Then it was left to ruin until António Salazar had it restored during his dictatorship. Now it’s a National Monument and an Official Residence for the Presidency of the Republic.
Cost: €5 (free on the 1st Sunday of every month and for children up to 12 years)
Open: Daily, 10:00 – 18:00
Largo da Oliveira (Olive Square)
Guimaraes (Guimarães, to the Portuguese) earned its World Heritage Site status due to its extremely well-preserved city center. In fact, it is so well-preserved that many of its 15th-century buildings are still being used. The narrow, winding maze of streets almost led us to wonder if we’d been transported to medieval Portugal, especially when we got to the main square.
It’s a good place to relax and enjoy the ages-old view of Olive Church and the rickety old houses that are typical in the city center. Olive Square is filled with standing-room-only narrow balconies on its oldest houses. Its newer (16th and 17th century!) granite and half-timbered houses are picturesque, too.
Mosteiro de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira (Nossa Senhora da Oliveira Monastery)
Our Lady of Olives monastery church was founded by King Afonso Henriques. It is known for both its ornate tower and for an interesting local legend. An olive tree was planted in front of the church to supply olive oil for the altar lamps, but it got sick and started to die. A local merchant placed a cross on the site and the tree miraculously recovered! True or not, the olive tree currently on the site is not the original.
(There’s also a really cool stone Gothic shrine in front of the church. If you know what it’s a shrine to, please let me know, as I haven’t been able to figure it out.)
A building with arches stands in the historic center, between Oliveira and Santiago squares. It’s all that remains of the 14th-century City Hall. It is now an art museum.
If you want more variety, here’s what else you can do
Enjoy marvellous panoramic views of Guimarães from Penha hill. As an alternative to driving, take the Penha cable car. You will get a spectacular bird’s eye view of the city.
The best time to experience the religious side of the city is the week before Easter. Holy Week is the most important event of the city, and the Ecce Homo evening procession on Maundy Thursday is the highlight of the week. You might want to tie it in with a visit to Bom Jesus do Monte, a sanctuary church outside nearby Braga.
Forget renaissance faires. Ever since the middle of the 15th century (1452, to be exact) Guimarães has held an annual festival of medieval art and costume. If you visit in the first week of August, you can join in its three-day celebration. It includes a torchlight procession and a lively, medieval parade. It also features a medieval-style handicraft market and arts fair.
September’s traditional Feiras Novas festivals, feature folk dance groups, concerts, livestock competitions, Garrano horse races, parades and a traditional procession in honor of Nossa Senhora das Dores.
Where to Stay
While it’s easy to visit the city on a day trip from Porto or Braga, consider prolonging the historic ambiance with an overnight stay at one of the two nearby Portuguese pousadas. Our stay at Pousada de Santa Marinha, on the slopes of Monte da Penha, certainly made us pousada converts. This former monastery once belonged to Queen Mafalda, wife of King Afonso Henriques, and was part of the order of the Holy Canons of Saint Augustine in the 12th century. Despite its impressive view overlooking the city, it retains its original tranquility even today.
Interesting fact: Guimarães is one of the youngest cities in Europe, with half of its inhabitants under the age of 30
- Visit the official Turismo de Portugal, Porto e Norte website.
- UNESCO explains why the historic centre of Guimaraes is a World Heritage Site
- Read Go Lisbon’s Guimaraes tourism guide
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Special thanks to Turismo de Portugal, Porto e Norte for sponsoring our trip and showing us around the Douro region. As always, all opinions in this post are our own.