11 must-do things in Coimbra

Visiter Coimbra

Visiting Coimbra: what are the best things to do and see in this city in central Portugal?

Rich in tradition, the old university town of Coimbra lies halfway between Lisbon and Porto in the ancient hilly province of Beira Litoral. The city stands on the right bank of the Rio Mondego, the river that flows around the hills of the Serra de Lorvão. Rooted in history and long considered Portugal’s cultural and intellectual center, the district of Coimbra is a timeless destination that has inspired the works of renowned poets and writers, old traditions of melancholy Fado serenades, and a unique heritage of spirited academic rituals. With its beautiful old buildings, many dating back to the time of Manuel I (15th century), Coimbra is well worth a few days’ visit during your trip to Portugal. We’ve listed the best things to see in Coimbra for you.

1. Universidade de Coimbra (University)

Université de Coimbra

Flickr – François Philipp

This is Coimbra’s treasure. One of Europe’s oldest universities, on a par with Oxford and the Sorbonne, the University of Coimbra was founded in 1290 by King Denis 1st. Initially based in Lisbon, it moved several times to Coimbra before returning to the capital. In 1537, theUniversidade moved permanently to « Coimbra », crowning the summit of the city within the ancient walls of the Alcaçova palace.

Aside from its grandiose architecture, the 18th-century Joanina Library is a true gem, dazzling you with its Baroque-inspired opulence, magnificent trompe l’oeil paintings and endless shelving. Containing a total of 300,000 books, these encestral relics have been impeccably preserved. Don’t miss a visit to the university’s various palaces, the chapel of São Miguel and the tower, from which you have a magnificent view of the city. Nearby Rua da Sofia has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the University of Coimbra.

Depending on the time of year you visit the university, you’ll see students dressed in their traditional costumes. The 20,000 students at the University of Coimbra are an integral part of the city’s life. With nothing on their heads, they wear a long black robe(batina) under a black cape(capa), with a ribbon(fita) in a different color for each faculty. On the occasion of Queima das Fitas, the end-of-year celebration held in mid-May, these ribbons are ritually burned in a giant party.

2. Jardim Botânico

Jardim Botanico, jardins botaniques, Coimbra

Flickr – Marco Varisco

Leave the university through the Porta Férrea (Iron Gate) and walk straight ahead to Praça Dom Dinis, then down to the right towards the 16th-century aqueduct to reach the entrance to the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens), commissioned by the Marquis of Pombal and terraced on the slopes of the Mondego valley. The park boasts numerous ponds, fountains, statues and a large number of subtropical plants.

3. Praça do Comércio

Praça do Comércio, Coimbra

Flickr – ho visto nina volare

To the west of Rua Visconde da Luz lies Praça do Comércio, the city’sformer market square. Now one of Portugal’s most impressive squares, it’s well worth taking a moment to linger over a café terrace, gazing at the facades of the neighboring houses, which for many years were the homes of artisans.

At the northern end of Praça do Comércio stands theRomanesque church of Sao Tiago (or Church of Santiago), founded by Ferdinand I of León, known as « the Great », in the 11th century, in gratitude for the reconquest of the city from the Moors. Rebuilt and redecorated several times, the different styles blend well together, both inside and out.

4. Mosteiro de Santa Cruz (Holy Cross Monastery)

Monastère de Santa Cruz, Coimbra

Wikimedia – Concierge.2C

The Santa Cruz monastery is historically significant, both for its Romanesque and Baroque architecture and for the fact that Portugal’s first two kings, Afonso Henriques and his successor, Sancho I, are buried here. Founded in 1131 by the Canons of Saint Augustine, it boasts an incredible 16th-century Renaissance porch. The monastery’s interior is equally impressive, with its keystones, Baroque azulejo decoration and organ.

Not far away, on the other side of the square, don’t miss the Jardim da Manga, also known as the Manga cloister.

5. Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal of the little ones)

Portugal des Petits à Coimbra

Wikimedia – José Goncalves

Opposite the Santa Clara monastery is Portugal dos Pequenitos, a miniature village created in 1940 to introduce young and old alike to Portugal and its heritage through history, geography and architecture. There are reproductions of the country’s most important buildings, as well as monuments and homes typical of Portugal’s former colonies (Macau, Timor, Cape Verde…). A great idea for a family visit.

6. Monastery of Santa Clara a Velha

Monastère de Santa Clara-a-Velha, Coimbra

Wikimedia – Carlos Luis M C da Cruz

On the left bank of the Mondego lie the partly sunken ruins of the Gothic monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha, founded in 1286 and gradually destroyed by the river’s floods. Elisabeth of Portugal (Isabella of Aragon) was once buried here, having spent the last ten years of her life in Coimbra. After the floods, her tomb was moved elsewhere.

7. Machado de Castro National Museum

Musée National Machado de Castro à Coimbra

Wikimedia – Alvesgaspar

Housed in a former 12th-century episcopal palace (remodeled in the late 16th century), the Museu Nacional Machado de Castro takes its name from the famous sculptor of the same name, born in Coimbra in 1731. As you can imagine, this museum is dedicated to art, and in particular to sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The museum also exhibits objects from Roman excavations, medieval sarcophagi, Gothic and Romanesque sculptures in stone and wood, gold and silverware, furniture, tapestries, porcelain and paintings (including some notable Flemish works). There is also a special exhibition devoted to the work of modern Portuguese painters, and a section devoted to religious art.

8. Velha Cathedral

Cathédrale Velha de Coimbra

Flickr – Benjamin Rossen

Sé Velha, the old cathedral, is one of Portugal’s most important. Construction began in 1140 (on the orders of King Alfonso Henriques) and was completed in 1185. With its imposing, Eastern-influenced Romanesque structure, magnificent, flamboyant 16th-century altarpieces, exceptionally well-worked Manueline baptismal font and Gothic cloister, the Old Cathedral is a must-see in Coimbra.

9. Nightlife in Coimbra

Vie nocturne Coimbra

Credit – facebook.com/nbclubcoimbra

Nightlife in Coimbra is lively and varied, as you’d expect. Indeed, the student population is very strong, and regularly goes out to the city’s bars and clubs. To meet the students and have a cheap drink, head for the bars around the Velha Cathedral. On the Praça 8 de Maio, there are a few nice bars, such as Café Santa Cruz. For live Fado, go to À Capella, Rua Corpo de Deus. For clubs, here’s a good address: Passerelle, Praça Machado Assis. And don’t forget that during the end-of-year celebrations in May, the Queima das Fitas attracts all the students, making it an excellent place to party.

10. Near Coimbra: the ancient city of Conimbriga

Conimbriga, Coimbra

Wikimedia – Andreas Trepte

Conimbriga lies 16 km south-west of Coimbra and was founded in the second century BC and destroyed by the Suevi in 468 AD. Although excavations are still underway, there is no doubt that this is Portugal’s most important ancient Roman city. The many remains of dwellings, baths and fountains and their mosaics, some of which are very well preserved, bear witness to the wealth and good taste of Conimbriga’s inhabitants in days gone by.

11. Other ideas for visits to Coimbra

In and around the streets of Coimbra, you’ll see many other monuments and activities, including the following:

  • The University Science Museum
  • Eat pasteis from Padaria Pastelaria Coimbradoce (Avenida Fernão de Magalhães)
  • The villa and gardens of Quinta das Lágrimas
  • The narrow streets of the Alta and Baixa districts
  • The Arc de Almedina via Rua Ferreira Borges
  • The New Cathedral
  • Heading towards the coast and Figueira da Foz, the fortified village of Montemor o Velho was built on a hill in the Middle Ages.

Coimbra: how to get there Where to stay?

Coimbra has no airport. The nearest is Porto, followed by Lisbon. Coimbra is therefore the perfect place to spend 2-3 days if you want to visit both Lisbon and Porto. The best way to get to Coimbra is by train, as the city is located 1h from Porto and 1h45 from Lisbon. Prices vary between €15 and €22, depending on your departure city. To find a cheap flight to Porto or Lisbon, don’t hesitate to compare prices on Skyscanner.

To find a cheap hotel in Coimbra, use our hotel comparison service.

Have you visited Coimbra?

Map of hotels and accommodation – Coimbra,pt