GUIMARÃES never misses an opportunity to remind you of its place in Portuguese history. Indeed, it was here that the country’s first monarch, Dom Afonso Henriques, was born in 1110, and the city became the first capital and court of the fledgling kingdom of “Portucale”. Although Guimarães subsequently lost its pre-eminent status to Coimbra (elevated to Portuguese capital in 1143), it has never relinquished its sense of self-importance, something that’s evident from the omnipresent reminder that Portugal nasceu aqui (Portugal was born here), which is the town’s motto. With a carefully preserved kernel of medieval monuments, cobbled streets, delightful squares and honey-coloured houses, the old centre retains both a grandeur and a tangible sense of history that’s helped earn it UNESCO World Heritage status. But it’s far from a museum piece – its contemporary attractions were showcased during its stint as 2012 European Capital of Culture, while the local university lends it a youthful exuberance and lively nightlife, at its best during the end of May student-week festivities.
Guimarães’ stint as European Capital of Culture in 2012 prompted a cultural and architectural makeover for the city, though as visitors stick resolutely to the confined streets of the historic old town, the new attractions tend to get short shrift – even though they are mostly located just a few minutes’ walk away. The old market building on Avenida Conde Margaride, for example, has been reborn as the Plataforma das Artes, an arts and culture space devoted to exhibitions, installations, workshops and other creative projects. Across the way, the converted buildings of a former plastics factory host exhibitions and events at the Casa da Memória (Memory House), where the city’s history, culture, heritage and industry is explored. Other former industrial buildings have similarly been given a new lease of life as arts and cultural centres, like the Centro para os Assuntos da Arte e Arquitectura (CAAA) – owned by a local association of artists and architects – or, just out of town, Fábrica Asa. The project known as Campurbis, meanwhile – a partnership between council and university – aims to reinvigorate the former leather and textile district of Couros, with old factories again being put to new use as a Living Science Centre and Design Institute, among others. Further art and culture can be found at the well-established Centro Cultural de Vila Flôr.
A 20min walk from town, the finest city choice is the elegant hillside Pousada de Santa Marinha da Costa Lugar de Costa, fashioned from a twelfth-century Augustinian monastery, which uses its vast granite spaces to impressive effect; for example in the soaring, arched dining room (once the monks’ adega), the wide, baronial corridors and majestic tiled bar. Water tinkles from fonts, the cloisters are intact, while a romantic terrace offers sweeping city views – and there’s a fine swimming pool and lovely hillside gardens as well. Rooms in the main building are in the atmospheric updated monks’ cells, though there’s more space and better views in the newer wing.