Deserving of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Guimarães, in the Minho region of northern Portugal, is reverentially known as the “cradle of the nation.” As well as being the birthplace of the country’s first king, Afonso Henriques, Guimarães was the first capital of the newly established kingdom of “Portucale” and is justifiably proud of its place in Portuguese history.
Its landmark castle, a medieval wonder, dominates the old town skyline. Together with the nearby Paço dos Duques, the ancient stronghold is indicative of the profusion of well-preserved buildings and historic monuments that embellish the maze of picturesque narrow streets converging on the town’s tourist-friendly central square, Largo da Oliveira.
Adding to the allure are some fabulous museums housed in beautiful convents and monasteries. Sightseeing extends to the city’s outlying districts, where verdant woodland and fun-packed water parks are waiting to be discovered. And not far from Guimarães is one of Portugal’s most impressive archaeological sites and a deserved tourist attraction in its own right, the evocative Citânia de Briteiros.
For more ideas on places to visit, see our list of the top things to do in Guimarães.
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1. Castelo de Guimarães
Castelo de Guimarães
Looming large over the city center, Guimarães Castle is one of the most complete and best-preserved medieval strongholds in Portugal. Dating from the 10th century, its enormous square keep and the eight crenelated towers that surround it remain a familiar and much cherished landmark.
The castle is believed to be the birthplace in 1110 of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, and as such is regarded by many as a national shrine; the much-visited font where he was baptized is kept in the Romanesque chapel of São Miguel, tucked into the western end of the castle. Mass is celebrated here annually on the king’s birthday to commemorate the event.
The aforementioned keep – known as the Torre de Menagem – reputedly housed an 11th-century Benedictine convent founded by the Countess Mumadona. Visitors can walk the heavy curtain walls and scale the narrow steps to the top of the tower where fine views of the city and the countryside can be admired.
Address: Rua Conde Dom Henrique, Guimarães
2. Paço dos Duques de Bragança
Paço dos Duques de Bragança
Standing at the foot of the castle hill is the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza. Begun in 1401 on the orders of Dom Afonso, the first Duke of Bragança, this magnificent royal residence follows a Burgundian style of architecture in deference to Dom Afonso’s taste for all things French.
The palace was completed in 1442 but fell into disuse after the seat of the Bragança family was transferred in the early 16th century to Vila Viçosa. In 1933, the building underwent extensive renovation to become the official presidential residence during António Salazar’s dictatorship.
A sightseeing tour of the palace takes in most of the rooms and their 16th-century furniture and includes a visit to a small museum where Persian rugs, Flemish tapestries, medieval weaponry, and a collection of rare paintings are displayed. The chapel is noted for its vivid stained-glass windows.
About 200 kilometers from Guimarães lies the town of Bragança, the original seat of the House of Bragança, which ruled in Portugal from 1640 to 1910.
Address: Rua Conde Dom Henrique, Guimarães
3. Museu de Alberto Sampaio
Alberto Sampaio Museum
Enjoying a fabulous film-set location within the serene Romanesque cloister of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, the Alberto Sampaio Museum was created to showcase the religious artworks belonging to the convent and other churches throughout the Guimarães region.
The depository of ecclesiastical treasures spans the 14th to the 18th centuries and includes an impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance-era sculpture, paintings, and ceramics; embroidered vestments; an outstanding array of rare jewelry; and items such as processional crosses and gold and silver chalices.
The Santa Clara room is an Aladdin’s den of gilt carving. Central to the permanent exhibition is the magnificent 14th-century gilded silver altarpiece and the tunic worn by João I at the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.
Address: Rua Alfredo Guimarães, Guimarães
4. Largo da Oliveira
Padrão do Salado
With its picture-postcard looks and venerable atmosphere, Largo da Oliveira exudes a genuine medieval aspect. Surrounded by time worn cobbled streets and heavy-set granite facades, the ancient square is the historic hub of old Guimarães. Some of the town’s most recognized tourist attractions are set within the square’s handsome arcades.
One, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, dominates the location. This former monastery, founded by Afonso Henriques in the 12th century, stands on the site of an earlier convent built 200 years earlier. Much of the original structure was demolished, and the church as it appears today is largely 16th century – the Manueline bell tower was added in the early 1500s. The tranquil cloister houses the Museu de Alberto Sampaio.
In front of the church is the Padrão do Salado, a 14th-century Gothic shrine shielding a cross. The monument is said to mark the spot where an olive tree was transplanted in the 13th century to supply the altar lamp with oil.
5. Museu Martins Sarmento
Enthusiasts of archaeology are in for a treat at the Martins Sarmento Museum. It’s no coincidence that the facility is named after the man who excavated Citânia de Briteiros in 1875 – one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Portugal.
The museum is imaginatively housed within the cloister of the 14th-century convent of São Domingos, and the Gothic setting lends a mysterious and strangely romantic quality to the collection.
The bulk of the exhibition is made up of Celtiberian artifacts unearthed at prehistoric Citânia de Briteiros and Castro de Sabroso, but also included are a host of finds from other northern Portuguese Iron Age sites. Actually, some of these date from the Stone Age, and placed together offer the visitor a fascinating glimpse into the region’s Paleolithic and Neolithic past.
Address: Rua Paio Galvão, Guimarães
6. Convento e Igreja de São Francisco
Convento e Igreja de São Francisco
Situated away from the old town center, the graceful convent and church of São Francisco is celebrated for the 18th-century azulejos that adorn the chancel. The tiles depict the life of St. Anthony in a series of vivid blue and white panels that flow in style and harmony with the Gothic dome of the main chapel.
The church foundations date from 1400, but the building underwent considerable reconstruction in the 1740s. Besides the tile work, visitors should look out for the splendid engravings that decorate the nave, the wooden roof of which displays a wonderful example of trompe l’oeil painting.
Other notable features include the large arc of gilded woodwork that separates the chancel from the Gothic transept, and the double-tiered cloister.
Address: Largo de São Francisco, Guimarães
7. Penha de Santa Catarina
Penha de Santa Catarina
Reached by a picturesque mountain road that twists and turns through verdant sloping woodland, the Penha de Santa Catarina Park is an ideal excursion for those tourists seeking respite from the city, especially during the often stifling summer heat.
Rising to a height of 620 meters and yet only seven kilometers southeast from the center of Guimarães, the green space forms part of a National Ecological Reserve and covers 50 hectares. A veritable oasis of flora and fauna, the park is serious picnic territory and is a favorite destination for families. A labyrinth of footpaths can be followed that trace through a lush environment of ancient trees and huge granite boulders, many cut with steps.
On the lower slopes of the hill is the former monastery of Santa Marinha da Costa. Founded in 1154, it’s now a stunning pousada hotel property, but the gardens and chapel are open to the general public. Crowning the summit (which incidentally can be reached by cable car) is the Santuário Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Penha, a major site of pilgrimage. The terrace surrounding the church provides fantastic views over Guimarães.
Location: Monte da Penha, Guimarães
Citania de Briteiros Map (Historical)
8. Parque Aquático Scorpio
For those traveling in the area mid summer with kids and looking for a way to keep them occupied, the Scorpio Water Park’s plethora of themed attractions will work wonders. This premier leisure facility, two kilometers from the city center is one of the most popular things to do for families. It consists of two swimming pools, one designed for adults and older children; the other for youngsters.
But the fun really starts at Fantasyland, the park’s purpose-built arena based on Guimarães Castle, where children can enjoy using multi-track waterslides, play under fountains, and get to grips with the pool’s toy water animals. Those feeling bold can run the “Scorpio Tower,” a 30-meter water tube. But the real test is the “Waterslide,” a 40-meter aqua splash slide rising a dizzying six meters off the ground.
Address: Centro Comunitário de Desporto e Tempos Livres, Multiusos de Guimarães, Guimarães
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Guimãraes
Portugal’s Minho region is a lush, mountainous province of enviable beauty, peppered with noble cities and national monuments. This is an area of surprising contrasts, not least regarding the weather; summer can be stifling hot, whereas winter often brings with it heavy rain and even snow. Whatever time of the year you visit, the most convenient way of absorbing the region’s sights is by joining an escorted tour with an expert guide.
- Day Trip from Porto: The Guimarães and Braga-Small group tour with lunch from Porto takes in two major historic destinations each of which exude a fascinating medieval atmosphere. Stroll their charming streets and squares to see top attractions like the Palace of the Dukes of Bragança and the castle in Guimarães and the magnificent cathedral and Sanctuary of Bom Jesus in Braga. Entrance fees, lunch, and hotel pickup and drop-off are included.