I'm standing level with the sinking sun, amid the tallest turrets of the 1,000-year-old Guimarães Castle in northern Portugal. The sky darkens into inky blue-black and the city lights begin to glitter. The high peak offers the perfect vantage point from which to observe Guimarães. By day, the peaks and troughs of the city's ancient granite rock formations are visible, for Guimarães is in a valley surrounded by hills: to the north is Senhora Hill and to the south lies Penha hill, where cable cars slowly glide between green mountains. By night, the lights of the luxurious pousadas and the fairy lights strung around windows and lamp posts shimmer in the lanes below.
Situated an hour's drive from Portugal's second city, Porto, and filled with medieval architecture, cobbled streets and about 50,000 inhabitants, Guimarães has been declared European Capital of Culture 2012, along with Maribor in Slovenia. I'm here to find out if this little-known city can really compete with former capitals of culture, such as Paris, Istanbul and Prague.
I arrive on an evening when the 10th anniversary of Guimarães's inauguration as a Unesco World Heritage Site is being commemorated through enthusiastic communal celebrations. Hundreds of candles flicker in the darkness of Largo da Oliveira, a square in the historic quarter. Several legends are told about "miracles" that have taken place here, including a withered olive tree springing back to life. It's a miracle, too, that hundreds of people have gathered in the square, despite the rain, for orchestra and choir performances.
An evening meal at the Historico by Papaboa restaurant (Rue de Valdonas, no 4), a short walk from the central plaza, is a perfect way to get a real flavour of Portugal. The seafood is wholesome and delicious; cream cod, or bacalhau com natas, is the local speciality. The crowd is young and its atmosphere lively; indeed, 50 per cent of the city's inhabitants are under 30.
The next morning, strolling along the cobbled streets, I notice a huge sign, gleaming in the sun: "Acqui Nasceu Portugal" (Here Portugal was born). The birthplace of the first Portuguese king, Afonso Henriques I, Guimarães gained the status of city in 1853 but its layout is more or less as it was in the 15th century. The city is full of history, its museums filled with relics and curiosities. The Ducal Palace, on the same street as the Castle (Rua Santa Maria), is also the President's official northern residence and one of the most visited attractions in Portugal, where visitors can wander through rooms housing a collection of impressive 15th-century artefacts.
Far from being fixated on the past, Guimarães has one eye firmly on the future. While celebrating history, the cultural programmers have also harnessed modern technology, with an Guimarães iPhone app that does everything from guiding visitors around the city to calculating distances and providing recommendations from locals. Guimarães 2012 visionaries are also making an effort to encourage "active participation" among tourists with projects such as "Mi casa es tu casa" ("My house is your house"), where residents put up visitors in their homes.
I wander through the old industrial area of the city, whose main trade was textiles. Decaying factories have been regenerated and are now filled with music, art and architectural projects engaging the local community. Visually, this has created some interesting architectural juxtapositions of old and new. The capacious Vila Flor Cultural Centre (www.ccvf.pt/) is a hive of activity, a modern building built on the grounds of a 17th-century mansion where I watch the enthusiastic National Orchestra play uplifting classical Portuguese music. The diverse cultural centre programme also includes the popular jazz festival.
Only an hour away from Guimarães is Portugal's second city, Porto, a former culture capital renowned for its striking architecture, including Renaissance and Baroque styles and the historic Ribiera district along the Douro River that winds all the way from Spain to the Atlantic at Porto. While several trains run daily from Lisbon to Porto, a car journey allows visitors to explore smaller towns along the Atlantic coast.
Porto is the kind of place where even everyday buildings look like works of art, such as the Sao Bento train station, which has become a tourist attraction thanks to its intricate design by Jorge Colaco that features 20,000 hand-painted azulejo (traditional blue-and-white tiles) depicting scenes from Portuguese history as well as the history of transport (Porto was the first city on the Iberian Peninsula to have a tram system, for example). From Sao Bento station, it's easy to catch a train along the Douro to Pocinho, close to the Spanish border.
The greatest pleasure in Porto can be found in strolling through the sloping streets, studying the quirky buildings, lively cafes and handicraft shops full of locally made toys, textiles, pottery and jewellery. The upmarket designer shops are clustered in the chic Boavista area, near the Serralves park and the must-see Serralves Foundation Museum of Contemporary Art, including the luxurious pink villa, Casa de Serralves, which houses art exhibitions.
I stop at the elegant Cafe Majestico (www.cafemajestic.com; Rua Santa Catarina 112), an opulent tea room where JK Rowling spent time working on her Harry Potter books when she lived in the city in the 1990s. Highly recommended is a visit to the neo-Gothic 19th-century Lello bookshop, with splendidly ornate stained-glass ceiling and a steep red staircase winding up to a heaven of books (residents claim it was the inspiration behind Rowling's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry).
I eat dinner at the nearby Book restaurant, designed with books hanging from walls and ceiling; books are even used as place mats. I tuck into carpaccio, fish roe and shrimp, followed by caramel ice cream.
The next day, a cruise on the Douro in a traditional flat-bottomed, wooden barco rabelo, a boat with a large flapping sail, offers fantastic views of the colourful houses lining the waterway, and the fresh breeze works up my appetite. I lunch in the renowned riverside restaurant, D Tonho (www.dtonho.com) in the Ribiera district), and enjoy a range of traditional dishes, including many varieties of the staple cod. Later I stroll around the area, gazing at the rocky cliffs overlooking the river while the sound of traditional "fado" music filters from cafes.
Walking along the stately bridges over the Duoro, one recalls the maritime history of this country. "Somos a gente do mar" ("We are people of the sea"), declared Vasco da Gama, after discovering the sea route to India. Although Portugal lost its colonial position, many of the seafaring traditions of ancient mariners remain, and rabelo still fill Porto's quay.
Accommodation in the city ranges from the luxurious Hotel Infante Sagres, filled with stained glass, mahogany panelling and marbled bathrooms, to the more bohemian Teatro, where I stay. The elegantly designed hotel was built on the site of the former Banqueting Theatre that was destroyed by fire in 1888; its theatrical spirit is evoked in the hotel lobby with busts draped in Victorian costumes, so that one can almost sense the ghosts of the previous era, the actors who would have performed here. Recreated 122 years later as a Design Hotel by the renowned Portuguese architect Nini Andrade Silva, it has low stage lighting, a chocolate-coloured carpet and golden bathtub. The entrance is adorned with the words of a Portuguese poem by 19th-century poet Almeida Garrett.
Another slice of architecture worth exploring is the Palacio da Bolsa, with the impressive stucco-walled Arabian Hall designed in the 19th century and decorated with 18kg of gold. The luxurious room where dignitaries dined seems all but perfect, but then our guide asks us to look more closely: one of the door frames is slightly askew, following the tradition in Islamic architecture of deliberately working in an imperfection.
Lisbon and southern Portugal usually bask in the limelight, but a visit to Guimarães and Porto proves that smaller cities too have much to offer. There is a gentle natural beauty found here; some of the lingering images in my mind from Guimarães are the spots of colour provided by bright pink camellias that seem to grow everywhere, proving that the tiniest details can be as impressive as the grandest designs.
If you go
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to London from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh3,980. Tap Portugal (www.flytap.com) flies from Lisbon to Porto (about an hour from Guimarães) from €247 (Dh1,205) return. Prices include taxes
The hotel Double rooms at Hotel de Guimarães (www.hotel-guimaraes.com; 00 351 25 3424 800) from €87 (Dh424) per night. In Porto, double rooms at Hotel Teatro (www.hotelteatro.pt/; 00 351 22 0409 620) cost from €133 (Dh643) per night. Prices include taxes