Approximately 1km from the historical centre of Guimarães, set on a hill overlooking the city, stands the majestic Santa Marinha Pousada. This 12th-century Augustinian convent/monastery was given to the Church by Dona Alfalda, wife of the first king of Portugal. It retains many original features, including its decorative façade, but it has now been transformed into a most impressive 51-room hotel. There is a formal garden, a lake, a terrace with granite fountains, cloisters, a grotto and an outdoor swimming pool. In 1985 the restored building was awarded the National Architectural Prize.
The monastery displays elements of late-Roman and Moorish architecture, including a doorway in one of the towers off the cloister that was once the main entrance to the building and is perhaps one of the finest remaining examples of a simple, ornamental Moorish door. Evidence of Romanesque, Gothic and Classic architecture can be seen around the monastery but a fire in the east wing during the 20th century has destroyed many of the impressive glazed-tile panels that depicted Portuguese life in the 18th century. The remaining panels provide us with a remarkable view into the culture and activities of the people of that time, whilst wood carvings, sculptures and other works of art depict the colourful history and function of the building.
The well-kept gardens are another focal point, whilst the stunning setting of the monastery on the hillside affords memorable views across the town and the surrounding hills.
The existing structure was converted in the 70s into the Pousada of today, and has retained many of the original features of the monastery including the monks cells which are now bedrooms, and the restored mill in the gardens near the spring. This Pousada is steeped in history and you cannot fail to be moved by its majestic façade, its rich architecture and its authentic atmosphere.
Guimarães - commonly known as ''the birthplace of Portugal'' - is a historical gem, well worth enjoying over a weekend. Portugal was named after the original city of Portucale (Porto, today) but it is Guimarães which is cherished by the Portuguese as the city where their first king was born. The historical centre has been declared a UNESCO Heritage site and the city has more recently celebrated its award of European city of Culture 2012 (jointly with Maribor in Slovenia).
Above the old quarter sits the castle which is well worth a visit - although it is a simple stone structure, partially in ruins, these days - and the 15th century palace of the Dukes of Braganza, which also fell into ruin but has been extensively rebuilt and refurbished.
As you walk down into the old town of Guimarães, you will see occasional ''religious stations' - alcoves with Christian statues and paintings - which are visited on days of Christian celebration, and you will pass through the attractive, narrow old streets before entering several of the central squares, all proudly maintained and immaculately adorned, many of which are cobbled terraces of charming restaurants and cafes. The main square - Praca da Nossa Senhora da Oliveira - perhaps hosts the most cafes with streets leading off it with small shops and on the square itself you will find the Church of Maria, the patron saint of Guimarães and one remaining olive tree, after which the square was named. Enjoy the arches, colonnades and colourful facades of the architecture of the city so fondly cherished by the Portuguese. This is a city to be explored on foot, and once you have explored the many sites in the city centre, you can venture up onto the hillside by a short ride in the cable car, to enjoy spectacular views down on the extended city and to join the locals in a quiet stroll on a warm afternoon.
Nearby, you can easily reach by car the three shrines overlooking the larger city of Braga, which include the specatular Bom Jesus shrine, and you can descend the steps, bordered by statues and flowers, and consider the marvel of the surrounding architecture along the hillside. The city of Braga isn't as small and picturesque as Guimarães and it perhaps lacks such a concentrated nucleus of historical sites to visit, but it makes up for that with broader streets and larger squares full of shops and boutiques, set neatly amongst colourfully painted and tiled facades.