When in Porto, Take a Delightful Day Trip to this Charming Medieval Town
(The next installment in the series,, “The ABCs of Future Travel”, designed to inspire you to start planning your next trip.)
Guimaraes is a small city approximately 30 miles northeast of Porto. Known as the Cradle City of Portugal, its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can see the city in a day, which is what we did during our time in Porto.
What originally drew us to Guimaraes was its history, architecture, and reputation as a must-see Portuguese city. Guimaraes definitely did not disappoint, and as an added surprise, we were thrilled to be there during an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions at the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza. The displays were replicas, of course, but no less fascinating.
Guimaraes is located in northern Portugal’s district of Braga. The city was founded in the 9th century when the area was conquered by the Kingdom of Galicia. Guimaraes (or more correctly Guimarães) – known as “the cradle city” – had once been the administrative seat of the County of Portugal, and the birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Afonso I.
Today, Guimaraes is an industrial city known for its production of textiles, shoes, and other consumer goods. It is also a popular destination for history buffs, foodies, and those looking for a change of pace.
Our Day in Guimaraes
We began our visit to Guimaraes in Largo da Oliveira, which no doubt draws its name from the large, shady olive tree growing out of its center.
There, the city proudly shows its age in the well preserved gothic architecture gracing its perimeter: the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, the former city hall, and the Padrao do Salado, a monument commemorating the Battle of Salado.
Along with the fascinating architecture, you’ll find houses painted in the traditional style of the region, outdoor cafes, and an atmosphere of harmony between past and present. At any other time, we would have gladly lingered, but we had a date with Leonardo at the palace on Largo Hill.
Palace of the Dukes of Braganza
This imposing early 15th century palace was built by a bastard. I kid you not. His name was Afonso, Count of Barcelos and he was the illegitimate son of John I. Bastard or not, Afonso and his descendants occupied the Burgundian-style structure for 200 years.
We entered the palace and made our way up the stairs, admiring the artifacts displayed on each level. The interior had been restored, and 17th-century furnishings now stood in the medieval rooms. The spaces held time-warn tapestries and weapons once used in battle.
Finally, we climbed a narrow staircase to the room where the da Vinci exhibit was temporarily housed. The Palace of the Dukes of Braganza has an elevator, and the room dividers are ramped, but sadly, there is no way for a wheelchair to access that upper room.
Following our tour of the da Vinci exhibit, we took stock of the palace’s exterior, wandering the well-maintained courtyards and gazing up at the unusual brick chimneys. They were tall and skinny, and seemed somewhat out of place with the arches and galleries that adorned the palace’s facade.
What Else to Do in Guimaraes
The city of Guimaraes has much to offer visitors. Although our time was limited, here are a few more places we would like to see some day:
- Castles can be found almost everywhere you look in Portugal, and Guimaraes is no exception. Although the partially ruined Guimaraes Castle is comparatively small in stature, its historic value looms large. The castle was constructed atop a hill in the 900s in order to repel frequent attacks mounted by Viking raiders from the Atlantic, and Moors from the remainder of the Iberian Peninsula. But perhaps the castle’s best known claim to fame is that it is believed to have been the birthplace of Afonso I, Portugal’s first king, in the 12th century. The long abandoned castle’s keep and seven towers were restored in the early 1900s and eventually opened to the public.
- A short walk from the castle is the 13th century Church of Sao Miguel do Castelo. This simple, modestly decorated church has history written all over it. Well, all over its floor, at least. Knights who gave their lives to protect the castle are buried beneath the church. In their honor, their names are written on stone slabs inserted in the floor.
- Another church I’m looking forward to visiting is the 15th century Igreja de Sao Francisco, which was once part of a convent. With the exception of some tile-work on the walls, the exterior is quite simple. On the other hand, the interior is alive with extravagant 18th century adornments, such as a gilded altarpiece and a gilded archway at the entrance to the main chapel.
- Remembering the short time we spent exploring Guimaraes, I long to wander her historic center, with its narrow sloping streets and timeless granite buildings, at a leisurely pace.
- Then, a walk around Guimaraes’s cobbled squares, a peek inside one or two, or three more historic churches, and an opportunity to gawk at a couple of restored mansions. would make for a perfect day.
- For a spectacular view of Guimaraes and surrounding areas, you can walk or take a cable car to the top of Monte da Penha.
- There you will find several excellent vantage points from which to drink in the dream-like landscapes below. The terrace surrounding the statue of Pope Pius IX is considered to be one of the best options for photographers.
What to Eat in Guimaraes
Portugal is home to a host of sweet and savory foods rich in flavor and tradition. Grilled sardines are a good choice if you enjoy well-prepared fish. For you carnivores, there’s bolo, pizza-like dough topped with pork. Not carnivorous enough? Try some papas de sarrabulho, a meaty concoction comprised of pork, beef, and chicken. My favorite, no matter where I am in Portugal, is octopus rice, a light broth, bulked up with chopped octopus and tender rice. It’s more of a soup, and is often flavored with cilantro.
Indulging your sweet tooth in Guimaraes is an adventure in egg land. Tortas de Guimaraes is a delectable pastry made with egg yolks, almonds, and cinnamon. Or you can try toucinho do céu,. This almond cake is also traditional to the area, and contains a staggering amount of egg yolk.
Portugal is famous for its port, sherry and wines. While in Guimaraes, try the vinho verde, a light, puckery wine that tastes best as an accompaniment to a light meal and some people watching at a café on Largo da Oliveira.
We absolutely have no regrets about the amount of time we spent marveling at the futuristic creations produced by the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Contrary to pop cultural belief, he wasn’t just another pretty fighting turtle. What we do regret is that we didn’t have time for further exploration of Guimaraes. All the more reason to return to Portugal when we can travel again.
Guimaraes is a city well worth a day’s visit, but two or three days wouldn’t be hard to fill savoring the treasures of Guimaraes at a relaxed pace, with periods of chilling at an outdoor café with a glass of vinho verde; sounds like a plan to me.
If You Go
Guimaraes is within easy reach of Porto by bus, train or car. We had a rental, but travel by train is direct, inexpensive, and takes 1 hour and 10 minutes. The countryside between the two cities is less than spectacular, but when you reach Guimaraes – the last stop – you will be a short 10-minute walk from Largo da Oliveira.
The bus is slightly less expensive and may be faster than the train, but there may be many stops along the way. So, you’ll want to check both schedules before deciding your mode of transportation.
Once in Guimaraes, you won’t need public transportation as everything is within easy walking distance. A word of caution, though. The historic center consists of cobbled streets, which may be uncomfortable for people with wheelchairs or mobility challenges. There is a cable car to take you to the top of Penha Hill, so you don’t have to trek up there on foot if you’d rather not.