In my book, if traveling is done right, it should be exhausting. While you don’t want to push yourself to the brink of hallucinating, chasing the unknown should always take priority over laying in the sun while leafing through a magazine. After all, from now, sleeping on the beach isn’t the kind of memory you cherish years down the line.
So, needless to say, by the seventh of our Portuguese getaway, my mother and I were dragging a bit. The attractive and slow-paced town of Guimaraes couldn’t have come at a better time. While there was plenty to do (for a short day trip), the overall relaxing atmosphere proved refreshing.
What is Guimaraes?
This small city is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the significance it played in helping Portugal become a nation, and it was even the capital at one point. You’ll find medieval architecture in the Old Town, which makes for a pleasant stroll. However, the city itself is quite pleasant even outside of the historic center’s walls. A day spent here is really about taking in the scenes.
How to Get There and Get Around?
It’s simple to catch a train from Porto. Once there, all the things you’d want to do in Guimaraes are within walking distance from one another. However, expect the center of the city to be a leisurely 20-30 minute walk from the train station. Plus, you will encounter hills in Guimaraes, though nothing that compares to what can be found in Lisbon and Porto.
What I loved About Guimaraes
The Old City – The historic area catered to tourists, but not in a way that cheapened the experience. It was nice to walk around the medieval houses, restaurants, and churches without a lot of crowds. We ducked into an art gallery and, instead of finding the condescending trinkets we saw too much of in Porto, we encountered genuinely beautiful (and affordable) art. The owner/artist paid homage to the traditional, generic style of tile that is too commonly pedaled to tourists, and he used it the foundation for his own creative expression. Two of his pieces currently hang in my home.
So yes, of all of the things to see or do in Guimaraes, the historic city center tops my list. It’s classy without being haughty, and polished without seeming fake.
Palace of the Dukes of Braganca – This is where history comes alive . . . IF you go with a tour guide. More specifically, we paid a few bucks for a private trip through the building, led by a knowledgeable guide dressed as the lady that once ran the household. This was not pre-arranged, and you should be able to ask for something similar when simply buying your ticket. Being that her audience was just my mother and I, we were able to pepper her with questions that interested us. She also did a wonderful job of making the palace interesting. Without such vivid storytelling, one might find the interior a bit unimpressive.
Penha Hill – A doable-but-not-short walk away from the Old city is Penha Hill that offers visitors a beautiful city park completed with a great view. While it lacked the tropical-tinged plants of Sintra, it also lacked the large groups of tourists. No, here we encountered locals having family reunions, teenagers sunbathing, and a pleasant atmosphere ripe for exploring.
The best way to reach the park is cable car, for which we had no lines. Once on top, the view you’ll encounter a view of the surrounding area that will make the walk well worth it.
What I found “Meh” About Guimaraes
Lack of youthfulness or nightlife – There may be a stimulating nightlife in Guimaraeas but, if so, it’s well-hidden during the day. Plus, the tourists that meandered about the scenes were almost entirely senior-citizens, speaking to the overall lack of youthful allure. It is for this reason that I recommend making Guimaraes a day trip from Porto rather than an overnight adventure, as I’m under the impression that little is offered once the sun goes down.
Lack of diverse eateries for tourists – Outside of Lisbon, Portugal lacks the diverse food scene you’ll find in other countries. I found this statement to be especially applicable to Guimaraes’s historic center and downtown area. We encountered at least six restaurants right next to one another in the _____ square, all competing for the same business. Unfortunately for them, their menus were almost identical and served the same kind of dishes you’d find almost anywhere else in the country. Our meal was fine, but boring. I must stress though, this observation applies to the country as a whole and, if I hadn’t been served the same types of food over and over again beforehand, I might have found our lunch to be more delicious.
In summary, Guimaraes makes for a great day trip from Porto for those looking for a bit of history. It lacks the wow factor of Sintra, but its earthiness adds to its understated charms.