The best independent guide to Central Portugal
The best independent guide to Central Portugal
Coimbra is regarded as the university city of Portugal, but for over 100 years it was the medieval capital of the country. This interplay of ancient history and progressive student ideals come together in Coimbra to form a fascinating tourist destination.
As a tourist, there are three distinct aspects to Coimbra; the modern city, the university and the ancient past.
Modern Coimbra is a city energised by the large student population, boasting a colourful nightlife and flourishing artisan scene.
The university brings the heritage, awe-inspiring faculty buildings and deep-rooted traditions of one of the world’s oldest universities. Finally, there is ancient Coimbra, with Moorish fortifications, Gothic religious buildings and tales of legends and miracles.
Coimbra is a city for unique travel experiences; be it an intimate Fado performance, an authentic Portuguese meal or being caught up in some chaotic student tradition.
Strangely, Coimbra is often rushed through by foreign visitors or worse simply overlooked. But spend time in Coimbra, and you will discover a truly magical city.
The university complex stands high above the rest of the city and the Mondego River
Many tourists visit Coimbra as part of a coach or guided tour, which typically spend less than two hours in the city. This short time barely scratches the surface of this vibrant city.
Coimbra at a minimum requires one full day of sightseeing, while the day trips and attractions in the region surrounding could extend a visit to four or five days. Coimbra offers the largest selection of restaurants and liveliest nightlife of central Portugal, and is an enjoyable city to be based in.
Even if you are limited by time, it is worth spending at least one night in the city before heading to your next destination.
Coimbra is a fascinating destination for a day trip, and highly recommended when travelling between Lisbon and Porto.
Below is an interactive map of our suggested 1-day tour of Coimbra, and the tour begins and ends at the train station.
Sights along the tour route: 1) Igreja de São Tiago 2) Café Santa Cruz 3) Igreja de Santa Cruz 4) Jardim da Manga 5) Porta de Barbacã 6) Torre de Anto 7) Sé Velha 8) Museu Nacional Machado de Castro 9) Sé Nova 10) Aqueduto de São Sebastião 11) Jardim Botânico 12) Biblioteca Joanina 13) Torre da Universidade de Coimbra 14) Parque Verde do Mondego 15) Ponte Pedonal Pedro e Inês 16) Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha 17) Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Nova 18) Portugal dos Pequenitos 19) Ponte de Santa Clara
The above route is 8km and involves climbing some very steep hills around the university. The day can be shortened by excluding the Parque Verde do Mondego (14) and the Ponte Pedonal Pedro e Inês (15).
Within Coimbra, there are two distinct sections of the city; the Cidade Alta (high town) and Baixa (lower).
The medieval city was divided between the classes, with the nobles and clergy at the highest point of the city, while the poor were close to the Mondego River, which frequently flooded.
The university complex is found at the top of the city, with the vibrant Baixa district further down the hill, and is where the shops, bars and restaurants tend to be centred.
A guided tour is one of the best ways to discover Coimbra, and some of the best tours offered by Getyourguide include:
There is a lot to do and see within the Coimbra region, with many enjoyable day trips.
The Roman ruins of Conímbriga are regarded as some of Portugal’s finest, and include the largest Roman villa in western Europe along with beautifully preserved mosaics.
The tranquil Buçaco forests (Mata Nacional do Buçaco) were grown by Carmelites monks as a retreat from the outside world. Contained within the forest is the grand Fonte Fria, a spring-fed water cascade, and the wonderous Buçaco Palace, along with scenic hiking trails.
Along the coast is Figueira da Foz, with its magnificent beach, and a favourite with the Portuguese during the summer months.
With a car, you could explore the scenic Schist Villages, which extend over the Serra da Lousã hills and the Zêzere river valley. This is a stunning region of lush forest, mountains and ancient hamlets with houses constructed from dark schist stones.
Hotels in Coimbra
The map below shows the location of the best hotels and accommodation in Coimbra. If you adjust the dates to your stay, it will display current prices and availability.
Coimbra university has over 20,000 students spread over 8 faculties, but only the former royal palace complex is of interest to visitors. The majority of the university is housed in utilitarian 1960s tower blocks, which are characterless and out of keeping with the rest of historic Coimbra.
The Alcaçova Palace was donated to the university by king João III in 1537. This historic university building is centred around the Paço das Escolas plaza, with three wings and an open side overlooking the city.
Open to visitors are, the Royal Palace staterooms, the Biblioteca Joanina, the Capela de Sao Miguel and the Torre da Universidade.
The Biblioteca Joanina is a magnificent Baroque library containing over 200,000 books, and a colony of bats to protect the books from insects!
The Royal Palace contains many grand staterooms, including the Sala dos Atos Grandes, the former throne room, now used for university ceremonies. The decorative Capela de Sao Miguel was the king’s private chapel and is adorned with beautiful azulejo tiles.
The Torre da Universidade was constructed as a clock tower and from the top provides wonderful panoramic views of Coimbra.
The university botanical gardens can also be visited, but these are at the base of 125 steps, which keeps all the students fit.
The admission fee to view all of the historic university buildings is €12.50 or €7 excluding the library, but it is free to enter the Paço das Escolas.
Insight: The Biblioteca Joanina is the highlight of the visit, but tickets are sold with an exact entry time. Spaces do sell out, so either visit early in the day or book tickets from the Coimbra university website:
Coimbra is the setting for the fable of Queen Isabel de Aragão, a much-loved tale in Portugal.
During the famine of 1293, queen Isabel would donate food to the poor from the royal kitchens, unbeknown to the king (Dinis I). One day the queen was caught by her husband hiding bread under her apron, and when the king demanded to see what was under the clothes the bread changed into roses.
Queen Isabel was beatified in 1526 and, according to legend, her coffin inside the tomb at the Santa Clara-a-Nova Monastery, smells of roses.
Coimbra has excellent public transport connections, being served by the main north-south (Lisbon to Porto) railway and as bus hub for the entire region.
There are numerous express train services which connect Coimbra to Lisbon or Porto, and routes are fast (1h34 from Lisbon, 1h12 from Porto) and relatively inexpensive; €23,90 Lisbon to Coimbra (single) €17,50 Porto to Coimbra (single). This means that Coimbra is ideal if you are touring Portugal and reliant on public transport. The only inconvenience is that train tickets must be booked in advance and are popular in the summer.
Related articles: Lisbon to Coimbra – Porto to Coimbra
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