48 hours in the city where Portugal was born

Words: Susana Ribeiro
Photos: João Saramago

Known as Portugal’s “birthplace”, Guimarães is a city in the north of the country which tells some of the most important stories of the country’s founding. If it’s proof you need, then look no further than its architectural heritage, from the castle ruins to centuries-old streets and churches, and because preserving such a history is so vital, UNESCO added the historical centre to its list of World Heritage sites in 2001.

It’s in the historical centre that we begin our 48-hour journey to Guimarães. Every single street is of historical interest, and we defy anyone not to take tons of photographs there. Archways give onto alleyways, their houses dressed up with washing hanging out to dry, on full view in the city squares and lanes. The sense of community is strong here and the population of Guimarães, the vimarenses, are very proud of their long ancestral history. It’s something we can feel when we come here.

Rua de Santa Maria is one such street that has been lovingly restored, in a way that has preserved what makes it one of the most ancient streets in Guimarães. Its still-ongoing commercial activity extends as far back as the 12th century, and one look at the building façades (some with coats of arms) is enough to understand the long shadow cast by history.

If you need to park your car before taking a walk, we suggest you start at the very top, where you’ll find the ruins of the castle. Over time, the interior was lost, but the castle walls survived, much of which have since been restored. Classified as a National Monument, Guimarães castle was first a monastery, and then became a fort to protect the city’s inhabitants from attack. According to history, it was where the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques, was born.

Beside the castle we also find the tiny Chapel of São Miguel, where some believe D. Afonso Henriques was baptised, or which is at least the place where the ceremonial baptismal font is found — the chapel itself only being built centuries later.

This is also the site for the lovely Paço (palace) of the Dukes of Bragança. Built in the 15th century, it was turned into a barracks in the 1800s and was neglected for some years. More recently it was restored, and is now a museum which all can visit, along with its many rooms, the chapel, and an exhibition of Decorative Arts from the 17th and 18th centuries. In this very building, classified as a National Monument, and more precisely on its second floor, is the wing serving as the official residence of the President of the Republic, whenever he comes to the north of Portugal.

After checking out the view from on high, as you come down make a stop at Praça de São Tiago square, which is one more place where you’ll feel like staying awhile and watching life go by, particularly in nice weather. Like any good tourist, pick an esplanade and figure out where in the city you’d like to go next.

Are you familiar with the Museum of Alberto Sampaio? You can save it for the second day of your visit. This museum holds more than two thousand pieces of sacred art, some from the many religious institutions in the region that were abolished in the 19th century. Besides the museum’s interior, its architecture is also worth a look, at the very least for its charming 13th-century cloister!

Another suggestion would be the Sociedade Martins Sarmento Museum, one of the country’s oldest archaeological spaces, where one can see exhibitions ranging from modern art to ancient sculpture.

If there’s one place in Guimarães besides the lofty castle where you can feel the pulse of history, it would be the Largo da Oliveira! It’s almost like being in a time machine that takes us back to life as it was centuries ago. The setting definitely compels us to embark on this journey. The small, colourful houses clustered together, centuries-old archways and architectural treats found there all add to the atmosphere.

In the heart of this vibrantly modern city which has not forgotten its past, the Padrão do Salado in the middle of Largo da Oliveira is certainly not to be missed. This National Monument was built in the 14th century to commemorate victory in the Battle of Rio Salado in 1340.

Next to the Padrão do Salado there is the age-old church of Nossa Senhora de Oliveira and the Domus Municipalis, which was once the Town Hall.

This is a great place to take a breather. Sit at an esplanade from where you can people-watch, as the city transforms from day to night. The restaurants and bars breathe life into the square and often there are open-air performances here. If you need to find a bed for the night, this is a prime central location.

Besides the previously-mentioned historical landmarks, the Chapel of São Francisco, from the 15th century, is also worth a visit for its architectural riches, including Gothic and Romanesque traces and the Baroque of its interior.

Every corner is a reminder of history: Largo do Toural square was where markets (selling cattle, hence its name) were held, and this is now a venue for all kinds of events. On its flagstones, the plan of the historical centre was drawn, something best seen from above.

Jardim da Alameda garden is the perfect place to relax, and don’t forget to take a picture of the immortal words found next to one of the turrets of the ancient city wall — “Here Portugal was born” — reminding us this was the birthplace of the nation.

And, at the far end of the avenue with its pretty, well-kept gardens — the so-called Jardim do Largo da República do Brasil — rises the mighty Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação, a church which took almost 200 years to be completed.

Other places worth visiting in Guimarães: the ruins of Citânia de Briteiros, where you can find traces of people who lived there more than two thousand years ago; the convent of Santo António dos Capuchos; and the sanctuary of Monte da Penha, at the highest point in the district, which can be reached by a cable car, unless you need the exercise. If you ask us, the panoramic view from the top is a great place to watch the sun go down!

Perhaps the best way to enjoy the local culture is through our stomachs, and in Guimarães we recommend some of the more traditional dishes such as roasted goat, or cabidela, seasoned pork loin, roast codfish and eel, or the sweet Toucinho do Céu. Our advice is to try a bit of everything! Enjoy your travels!

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