Coimbra sits pretty on a hill over a hill alongside the Mondego River in Portugal’s Centro Region (see a map of the regions of Portugal). The Romans called Coimbra Aeminium. It was capital of Portugal in the High Middle Ages but after losing power it remained a major intellectual center and its university is one of the oldest and most celebrated in Europe.
There is a lot to see and do in Coimbra, and it’s a wonderful place to walk around and explore. The university makes it a fine city for nightlife, and Coimbra’s uniquely happy fado and inexpensive entertainment prices make it a place to stay a while and enjoy. Three days isn’t too much. A week? Why not?
University of Coimbra
The University sits on high ground, offering fine views of the river and beyond. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013. According to the UNESCO application:
Situated on a hill overlooking the city, the University of Coimbra with its colleges grew and evolved over more than seven centuries within the old town. Notable university buildings include the 12th century Cathedral of Santa Cruz and a number of 16th century colleges, the Royal Palace of Alcáçova, which has housed the University since 1537, the Joanine Library with its rich baroque decor, the 18th century Botanical Garden and University Press, as well as the large “University City” created during the 1940s.
Much of the history of the University is on display in the Science Museum as part of reforms put in place by the Marquis of Pombal in 1772, a time when the study of science became a far more important part of the University.
A visit to the Joanine Library is a must, and the area around the University is a lively place full of bars and restaurants, many of which offer Fado performances. The unique fados de Coimbra, called a “happier” fado than those sung in other places in Portugal, seems to have originated with students.
There are two major gardens in Coimbra that garden lovers will have to see. The Botanical Gardens are near the University borders and are said to be the fifth oldest in the world.
The jardins da Quinta das Lágrimas, associated with the Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas, are hauntingly beautiful. Located on the left bank of the River Mondego, the estate is said to have been the setting for the forbidden romance between King D. Pedro I and D. Inês de Castro.
Two other gardens worth visiting are Jardim da Sereia and Penedo da Saudade, which offers fine views of the city.
Coimbra for Kids
Just across the river, on the “left bank” of the Mondego, is Portugal dos Pequenitos, a Portugal in miniature that dates back nearly three quarters of a century. It’s a historic monument in it’s own right, reproducing the famous architecture and monuments of Portugal in miniature form. Being discoverers, it also offers pavilions dedicated to the former Portuguese colonies.
Important Museums & Attractions
Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro is one of the most important art museums in Portugal. It’s named after Portuguese sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro. Consequently, the museum offers a very extensive collection of sculpture.
Dating from 1283 and classified as National Monument in 1910, Mosteiro Santa Clara-a-Velha has been restored and readied for your visit; a guided visit can be had for about 5 euro. It’s across the river from the historic center, in a bit of low ground which became a problem over time. High waters flooded the place easily. The church on the site is a beautiful skeleton of Romanesque architecture, handsome as it returns to sand and dust.
Seeking the unusual? Coimbra hosts a Water Museum inside a former water collection plant dating from 1922, located in in the Dr. Manuel de Braga Park.
Hidden in plain sight is the sobering site called the Patio of the Inquisition (Pátio da Inquisição). Across the street from the Santa Cruz church and the Jardim da Manga, a block of stone juts from the modern pavement. This was the stone upon which Jews who wouldn’t convert to Christianity or where found guilty of acts against the church were beheaded.
When you get tired of looking at tourist geegaws scattered about Coimbra, search out Anthrop on Rua de Fernandes Thomas n 2-4-6, 3000 167 Coimbra, Portugal.“Anthrop promotes dialogue between technology and traditional Portuguese knowledge and new ways of producing objects.” Great stuff, and above all unique.
Weather and Climate – When to Go
Coimbra’s weather is moderated by its proximity to the sea, so there aren’t many really sweltering days in summer except perhaps a few in August. June is a very good month to go. I also like fall. There is little rain in the summer. For charts showing the historic averages as well as the current weather, see: Coimbra Weather and Climate.
Best Places to Stay
Foodie romantics with a stuffed wallet will want to spend their time in Coimbra at the Hotel Quinta Das Lagrimas, which has one of Coimbra’s finer restaurants and is a good value. On the other end of the spectrum is the Dream On Coimbra Hostel. There are many budget choices in between, see Coimbra User-Rated Hotels or Hostels.
We had a few very good meals at Restaurante O Estudante near the train station. Also highly recommended is hole-in-the-wall Zé Manel dos Ossos at Beco do Forno, 12.
There are an abundance of Restaurants in Coimbra, so you don’t have to worry about being bored with the cuisine.
Transportation & Getting There
There are two train stations in Coimbra. Coimbra A station serves the center of Coimbra, or “Baixa de Coimbra” near the Mondego river. The Coimbra B station, slightly out of town, serves long-distance trains—but your ticket is also good for a train ride to the A station.
By car, Coimbra is about 1 hour from Porto and 2 hours from Lisbon.
Public bus transportation in Coimbra is provided by SMTUC, who also offer a sightseeing tour called Funtastic Coimbra.
OdaBarca offers Boat trips on the river that depart from the Parque Dr. Manuel Braga.
The Final Word
I like Coimbra a lot. If you want to really hang out in the university city, rest assured that there’s a lot nearby to explore. For the rural explorer or perhaps the mountain bike or hiking enthusiast, the Schist Villages to the east offer a real treat. For the budding archaeologist, the Roman ruins at Conimbriga; the largest Roman site in Portugal is also one of the best preserved. Just in case you’re not yet convinced you need to go there, read (and gape at the pictures!): Why the Roman ruins of Conímbriga are worth visiting. If you have a car, Conimbriga is a mere 17.6 kilometers away. You can do it also by taxi.