When I was initially planning my trip to Northern Portugal with Visit Porto and North, I only thought of visiting Porto and the Douro Valley. While neither of those destinations disappointed in any way, I would have been extremely disappointed if I missed out on the smaller, lesser-known cities and towns that are just a short drive away from the usual tourist stops. I have always been a big fan of travel author Rick Steves, and one of the first books I bought of his was Europe Through the Back Door, which encourages travelers to go off the beaten path.
The three cities I’m focusing on today, Guimarães, Amarante, and Braga, are all about an hour or less from Porto, the most populated and touristy city in Northern Portugal. I would never, ever, discourage you from visiting Porto, because it’s a truly beautiful city, but give yourself time for a day trip or overnight stay in any of these three amazing destinations. Let’s get started!
1. GUIMARÃES – A forty-five minute drive from Porto, or an hour and a half by train.
The historical city center of Guimarães is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the city itself is often referred to as “the birthplace of the Portuguese nationality”. If those two reasons aren’t enough to make you want to visit, I don’t know what will!
I had the pleasure of visiting Pousada de Guimarães Santa Marinha, a former XII Century Augustin Monastery, beautifully set on a hill overlooking the city. Our tour guide described it as an incredible monument with a museum inside, and I have to agree. The Pousada is now a luxury hotel but open to the public for visitors, and the ancient gardens that belonged to the monks hundreds of years ago are a must-see. These gardens boast a stone staircase, built by the monks, from the 16th century. The whole property remains rather untouched in order for visitors to enjoy how they were enjoyed hundreds of years ago.
Guimarães Castle, a medieval castle from the 10th century is another notable landmark in this historic town. The castle is a military fortification and was built to defend the monastery from attacks by the Normans and Moors. Nowadays, it’s open for the public to explore. The exterior is still intact and you can explore the ruins inside and climb the towers for great views of the city.
My main recommendation is to simply explore the cobbled streets of Guimarães on foot. You’ll discover several churches, old balconied houses, tiny cafes hidden on winding streets that eventually open up to two town squares that locals and visitors alike can enjoy a lazy afternoon in. A visit to Guimarães shouldn’t be rushed, as there are so many hidden gems to discover.
2. AMARANTE – A forty-five minute drive from Porto.
Okay, Amarante is technically a town, not a city, but it definitely deserves to be on this list! For me, Amarante is a place to escape to when you need a break from the city. Amarante’s tranquility is surprising, considering you are barely an hour from Porto, but it’s a welcome surprise.
The old center of town is filled with boutique shops, restaurants, and extremely tempting bakeries (the smells were incredible!), but the main star, and a building that’s hard to miss is the Church of Sao Goncalo. Beautifully situated alongside the Tamega River, it can be reached from the main street of town by crossing a medieval bridge. The exterior of the church is a fantastic blend of Baroque and Renaissance, and the interior is equally impressive with an elaborate alter and ornate wood carvings. There is no entrance fee and my only recommendation would be to visit in the later afternoon when the light is strongly shining through the church windows!
Casa da Calçada, located in the center of town, is a romantic hotel with a vast history which dates back to the 16th century. Both locals and tourists flock to the hotel’s restaurant, Largo do Paço, as its the only restaurant in Northern Portugal to be awarded a Michelin-star. In a small town of barely 60,000 people, that’s pretty impressive!
This hotel felt more like a museum to me, and in a good way! I loved exploring the different rooms that were kept in tact from hundreds of years ago, as well as the ancient artifacts scattered throughout the property. Along with the Pousada in Guimarães, I’ll be discussing these hotels in more detail later this month. For me, the most memorable aspect of Casa da Calçada are the incredible views of the town that can be enjoyed throughout the hotel. While I’d highly recommend a romantic, weekend getaway to Amarante, the town’s accessibility from Porto (and the Douro Valley!) make it a great day trip as well.
3. BRAGA – A forty minute drive from Porto, or an hour by train.
Last, but certainly not least, is Braga! Braga is literally the oldest town in Portugal and one of the oldest Christian cities in the world. Founded in the Roman times under the name of Bracara Augusta, the city has more than 2000 years of history.
It’s easy to get lost in the winding, narrow streets of Braga, but getting lost in an ancient city like this is very enjoyable. Take time to stroll around the pedestrian areas with its modern shops and impressive monuments including the Cathedral, Sta. Barbara Gardens, and the Bishop’s Palace. Braga definitely deserves at least two days, especially if you want to drive up to see the incredible Bom Jesus.
This hilltop, Catholic pilgrimage site is known as Bom Jesus do Monte, meaning Good Jesus of the Mount. While you can climb 577 steps up this unique staircase, I’d recommend a ride on the funicular or driving to the top! With the time you saved, you can enjoy a nice picnic lunch at the top and take hundreds of more pictures like I did. Interesting fact: Bom Jesus was elevated to a Basilica status on July 5, 2015 by Pope Francis, something that the Portuguese are very proud of, and it’s easy to see why.
Big thanks to the Visit Porto and North Tourism Board for showing me these incredible cities that I would have (shamefully) overlooked. Three days isn’t nearly enough, especially when you’re fitting in the Douro Valley and Porto, so you better believe that I’ll be returning! I firmly believe that when you step outside of the populated, touristy cities, you learn a great deal more about a country’s culture. Portugal is so much more than just Lisbon and Porto, and I encourage everyone to explore beyond those cities.
Have you visited Guimarães, Amarante, or Braga before? What are your thoughts on day trips or weekend escapes that are bit more off the beaten path? I’d love to know in the comments below!