Coimbra is a former capital of Portugal and is an important university city with a vibrant student vibe. As with many Portuguese cities (Lisbon and Porto come to mind), Coimbra is built on a hill and it is a good workout to walk up to the top of the hill where the university and museums are located. We had a guide on our first day – arranged through booking.com – which was very useful and value for money, especially as we were the only two people on the small group tour! We visited Coimbra in November and there is a lot to do and see. We really enjoyed our few days in this interesting city.
Magnificent 7 // Coimbra, Portugal
- Study the University of Coimbra
- Book time at the Biblioteca Joanina
- Marvel at the Monastery of Santa Cruz
- Soak in the music at the Fado ao Central.
- Revere the past at the Machado de Castro National Museum
- Cross the Pedro e Inês Bridge
- Relax in the Botanical Gardens
Getting there –
The train from Lisbon’s Santa Apollonia station takes about two hours. This is the same train that goes direct to Porto and stops at Aveiro, so it is easy to take a longer trip that includes both cities. The intercity train arrives at Coimbra “B” station. There is a free shuttle to Coimbra “A” station that is situated in the old town. We had to wait around forty minutes for this shuttle. The journey was stress-free.
Where we stayed –
We stayed at Hotel Oslo (Avenida Fernao de Magalhães), situated very close to Coimbra “A” railway station. The hotel was very convenient for the things we wanted to see and do. We booked via booking.com and did not have to pay a deposit. At check-in we were offered a room upgrade for 25 Euros a night that included a bigger room and balcony. As we had little intention of staying in our room during the day, we declined their offer. Our standard room was fine, a little on the small side, but perfectly adequate for a two-night stay. The check-in staff member was very helpful with maps and suggestions of things to do and places to go to eat. A buffet breakfast was included with a small selection of all the things you would expect. A bonus was the wonderful views from the restaurant, up to the University and down over the City Centre
To eat and drink –
We ate breakfast at the hotel. There is a lot of choice for evening meals and even in November we were glad we booked as both the restaurants we chose turned people away who had not booked. On our first night we ate at the La Tacho on Rua da Moeda: excellent food, exemplary service. On our second night we ate at Refeitro da Baixa, situated in a pottery workshop, that served more international dishes. As with all Portuguese cities there is a plethora of places to sit, drink coffee and watch the world go by. We particularly liked the café at Machado de Castro National Museum. You can visit the café / restaurant without buying an entrance ticket. The views are stunning, and the outside terrace is a real sun trap. Lunch is pretty good there too!
1. Study the University of Coimbra
This is Portugal’s oldest university, originally founded in Lisbon in 1290 and relocated several times before moving permanently to its current location. It is a World Heritage site located at one of the highest points in the city. You can get a combination ticket providing access to the Baroque library, Royal Palace, Saint Michael’s Chapel and the hands-on Science Museum. Walking around the cloisters you have fabulous views of Coimbra. The University is what Coimbra is known for and it is a “must-do” when visiting the city.
2. Book time at the Biblioteca Joanina
This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Coimbra. A limited number of people are admitted at timed, 20 minute, intervals. This library is spectacular. It has around 60,000 books, painted ceilings, a large canvas of King João V at one end of the library, and is simply breathtaking. We were told that there are bats in the old library kept to protect the books from moths and other insects. We did not see any, nevertheless, this is a fabulous library and should not be missed.
3. Marvel at the Monastery of Santa Cruz
The Mosteiro de Santa Cruz situated at the Praça 8 de Maio is one of the oldest and most important buildings in Coimbra. This National Monument, where the first two kings of Portugal are buried, has two sections. You can visit the church, attend services and take photographs – when appropriate – for free. For a small fee (3 Euros) you can look at the tombs of the two first kings of Portugal, as well as the Museum of Sacred Art, the Cloister of Silence, the Choir Stalls and a Sanctuary which is completely invisible from the outside. Our guide said this was the initiation room for religious Masons. No idea if this is true but it is a beautiful room. From the choir stalls on the second floor there is a panoramic view of the church. Very much worth spending time here.
4. Soak in the music at the Fado ao Central
We went to the 6 pm Fado performance and it was superb. It lasted around 50 minutes and included a glass of port after the performance. Fado is not everybody’s cup of tea (or port), and in Coimbra, unlike Lisbon, the fado singers were all men. We had two singers and two guitar players. The main instrument was a twelve-string, mandolin-shaped “Coimbra” guitar and the other was a classic six-string guitar. There were a few guitar solos and several classic Coimbra-based fado songs. Our Portuguese was not good enough to follow the songs, but we enjoyed the performance nonetheless. Very highly recommended.
5. Revere the past at the Machado de Castro National Museum
The Machado de Castro Museum is housed in a palace on the same site as Coimbra’s Roman Forum. There are sculptures, tapestries, ceramic altarpieces and religious paintings from the 15th to 19th centuries. If this is your thing, go there. The building, café/restaurant, and views are fabulous.
6. Cross the Pedro e Inês Bridge
On the morning before we caught the train back to Lisbon we walked along the riverbank and crossed this Pedro e Inês Bridge. Pedro and Inês represent a Portuguese Medieval Love story. https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/king-pedro-and-ines-de-castro/. This footbridge bridge has a cool design. It has two cantilevered walkways that join in the middle. Each walkway supports the other and has a visual effect of not meeting in the middle. The balustrade is made from coloured geometric plastic shapes. Where the bridge meets in the middle there is a wide viewing platform. And you get great views of the river and the university.
7. Relax in the Botanical Gardens
The Jardim Botânico was established in 1772 and is one of the largest green spaces in Coimbra. There is a formal garden as well as a wooded area that occupies around two-thirds of the total area of the gardens. We particularly liked the bamboo grove which provides great shade in summer. The original purpose of the garden was to supplement the study of medicine and natural history at the University as medicinal plants were grown and exotic species, brought back from Portugal’s overseas colonies, were planted. This is a lovely, relaxing spot in the city.
We did not have time to visit, however just south of Coimbra (15km) is Conimbriga, known for its Roman ruins and mosaics. It is a National Monument and buses and taxis can be taken from Coimbra
When we visited in November there was a lot of building work in both the historic areas, on the way up to the University, and on the riverbank of Mondego River. Health and Safety protocols were completely absent, and it was refreshing to find that common sense was needed rather than barriers and detours.
Each faculty at the University of Coimbra is represented by a colour: Medicine – Yellow; Law – Red; Science and Technology – Light Blue; Humanities – Dark blue; Pharmacy – Purple; Economy – Red and White; Psychology and Educational Sciences – Orange; Sports Science and Physical Education – Brown and White. The students wear ribbons of these colours.