Coimbra is a historical city and former capital of Portugal situated on hilly terrain in the center of the country. Unlike Lisbon, Porto, and Faro, Coimbra is one of the city destinations within Portugal that’s not on the coast.
If you look at the map of Portugal, you will notice that Coimbra is in the middle of Porto and Lisbon. One-hour train from Porto and a 1.5-hour train from Lisbon, so it makes sense to consider this city in your Portugal itinerary.
I had the chance to visit Coimbra twice – in 2019 and then again in 2022 because I have a family member who lives here. I have realized that Coimbra has recently come up as a travel destination so I have decided to write this post for those who aren’t sure if Coimbra is worth visiting or not.
- Check Rental Car Prices for Portugal,
- Book Fado Show with Port Wine,
- Book Coimbra University & Library Walking Tour,
- Mondego River Kayaking.
Here are some suggested places to stay in Coimbra:
- Casas da Alegria: This mid-range hotel is next to the river and is very close to the University of Coimbra in the old town.
- Ibis Coimbra Centro: This budget hotel is also next to the river and is near the Coimbra University in the old town.
- Riversuites: This budget hotel is on the other side of the Mondego River as compared to the top two and it is next to the oldest bridge of Coimbra – Ponte de Santa Clara.
University of Coimbra & Joanina Library
Imagine a university building that is so stunning and historical that it becomes a tourist attraction. Yes, that’s what the Unversity of Coimbra is all about, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Not only is the University of Coimbra one of the oldest universities in the world, but is also the oldest academic institution for the Portuguese-speaking population. It was earlier in Lisbon but moved to Coimbra in 1308 and to Coimbra Royal Palace in 1537.
Coimbra University is located on top of a Sé Nova, which is also called the “University Hill”. Because of this, the view from the University terrace is absolutely stunning. You will see the old houses and buildings of Coimbra and the curve of Rio Mondego.
Yes, you have to go to the top of the hill in order to visit the University. You can take the bus to go up the hill instead of climbing up. Save your energy for exploring the University itself. The University has its own historical square – Paço das Escolas with a baroque bell tower – Torre da Universidade.
The most striking feature of the historical Coimbra University is its baroque library which was built in the 18th Century. It is called Biblioteca Joanina.
I don’t know why Porto’s tiny Livraria Lello gets so much attention while not many people talk about Coimbra’s Joanina Library. This will actually make you feel like you have entered the world of Harry Potter in Gryffindor Common Room.
Note: In case you decide to visit the University of Coimbra, it is good to know that the Biblioteca Joanina closes at 7 p.m. You can not touch any of the books because they are preserved, and you are allowed in only for a limited duration of usually 10 minutes.
Mondego River & Old Bridges
Most of the iconic historical cities in the world are situated along the water. Coimbra is too.
Coimbra is located along the Mondego River, which is one of the three major rivers of Portugal, and the largest river that’s just within the Portuguese border.
Mondego River starts at Serra da Estrela mountains and ends at Figueira da Foz, a beach destination in Portugal that I visited but haven’t yet written about.
The historical bridge Ponte de Santa Clara goes over Rio Mondego and is one of the bridges on which you can walk. It is the oldest bridge in Coimbra. Right after the bridge and situated on the banks of the Mondego River is Parque da Cidade Manuel Braga, where you can put a mat, sit, and look at the beauty of the river.
A few more notable bridges on the Mondego River are Ponte Rainha Santa Isabel and Ponte Pedonal Pedro e Inês. The latter is named after Inês de Castro, the wife of King Pedro I of Portugal.
Guess what, you can go kayaking on the Mondego River for some adventure, swim in the water, and stop at some pretty river beaches. Check the tour below.
To enjoy the beauty of Rio Mondego, walk from the University Hill to the Mondego River. There are a lot of grassy spaces along the Mondego River that you can explore on a walk.
Walk along “Ecovia do Mondego” and you will see a viewpoint of downtown Coimbra just before the Pte. de Santa Clara bridge.
If you have a rental car, then you can drive for 45 minutes to Acude-Ponte dam on the Mondego River and enjoy the beauty.
Baixa & Cidade Alta – Medieval Downtown
During the Middle Ages, Coimbra was divided into two sections – the Upper City and the Lower City. Today you can discover both of them one after the other and they form Coimbra’s historic center.
Cidade Baixa, a.k.a. Arrabalde is Coimbra’s lower town where the merchants, laborers, and artisans lived in the Middle Ages. In recent times it has turned into a lively neighborhood with old buildings and interesting cafes.
Coimbra’s medieval downtown will fulfill your European “old city” wanderlust. Yes, there are a lot of old streets but the real adventure would be getting lost in the labyrinth of the alleys.
In order to see the old town in Coimbra, head to the Baixa neighborhood. Sit at one of the cafes or bakeries and eat Queijadas de Tentúgal, the famous cheesecake of Coimbra.
Some notable buildings and landmarks in Coimbra’s Baixa and the nearby Almedina are:
- Santa Cruz Church: Igreja de Santa Cruz is a Catholic church that contains Mosteiro da Santa Cruz, and a mausoleum that has the remains of Portugal’s first king – Afonso Henriques.
- Cemitério da Conchada: This is a historical cemetery with interesting architectural elements. Please respect the peace of this place and don’t overstay but instead go to the viewpoint that’s here – Miradouro da Conchada.
- Mercado D. Pedro V in Baixa: If you want to explore the culture of Coimbra, then see this market which is only on the 7th and 23rd of every month and is a big open-air market.
- Cidade Alta or Almedina: this is where the aristocracy and clergy resided.
- Sé Velha: It looks like a fortress but Sé Velha is a Romanesque cathedral in Almedina.
- Cathedral of the Holy Name of Jesus: This is Coimbra’s new cathedral and is currently the bishopric co-seat of the city.
Almedina area of Coimbra is beyond the Cathedral of Santa Cruz and has old buildings but is also an urbanized area. The University Hill is a part of it.
Ruins of Aeminium at Machado de Castro Museum
Did you know that Coimbra was once the ancient city of Aeminium? The ruins are still there and you can see them, most importantly the Cryptoporticus.
Cryptoporticus of Aeminium is an underground gallery of arched passages and corridors that was built in the 1st or 2nd century AD. It can be visited via the Machado de Castro Museum as it is located under it.
The Machado de Castro National Museum was earlier the Bishop’s Palace was built in the Middle Ages. Inside this museum, you can see a collection of items that were church pieces such as paintings and sculptures.
Ruins of Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha
If you have a thing for looking at ruins and abandoned buildings, then you will enjoy this place. I like photographing abandoned places because these photos usually speak volumes.
The Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha (Old St. Clare) is a 14th-century monastery that was abandoned in the 17th century because of the recurring floods. Its ruins still remain here and were excavated 300 years after it was abandoned in the 20th century.
Coimbra has its own Fado Genre
I have talked about Faro music a lot already in my Lisbon post. Guess what, two major Fado styles are popular – Fado from Lisbon and Fado from Coimbra.
Fado de Coimbra, sometimes also called Student Fado (Fado de Estudante) is a unique and highly stylized sub-genre of Fado that originated from Coimbra. It is performed on a special guitar that originated in Coimbra itself – Guitarra de Coimbra.
If you are interested in a live Fado show with port wine, then I have found a place that you can book for EUR 14 per person.
If you decide to visit Coimbra, you can go to Fado ao Centro to enjoy live Fado music shows. The most famous musicians of Fado de Coimbra are Artur Paredes and his son Carlos Paredes, but in today’s date, there are a lot of contemporary influences.
Fun fact: If you are enjoying Fado in Coimbra, then you need to cough to applaud instead of clapping your hands.
Coimbra’s Botanical Gardens are Historical
Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra are must-visit Botanical Gardens of Coimbra that date back to the 1700s with fountains, flower beds, and greenhouses.
The center of this Botanical Garden is Quadrado Central and is a square. It has a historical fountain, Fontanário with a pond.
The Cidade Alta ends right before Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra. Aqueduto de São Sebastião is a historical aqueduct adjacent to the Botanical Gardens. There are openings in the walls at Aqueduto de São Sebastião from where you can peek at the Botanical Gardens.
Children Will Love Portugal dos Pequenitos
Portugal dos Pequenitos means “Portugal for the little ones” and is a perfect place to take your children. It is on the other side of the Mondego River as compared to most of the attractions on this page.
Portugal dos Pequenitos is a theme park with miniature figures of Portuguese monuments and houses. There’s a section where children can actually climb these miniature structures and play. There is also a Barbie exhibition that’s situated inside Portugal dos Pequenitos
Not just the children but grown will also enjoy Portugal dos Pequenitos and it is a good place to learn about the history.
Near the Portugal dos Pequenitos is also the Monastery of Santa Clara, which you can visit after or before this unique theme park.
Coimbra isn’t Crowded
If you are looking for offbeat things to do in Portugal, then Coimbra should be on your list because many travelers skip it completely. Travelers usually visit the Porto, Nazare, Lisbon, or the Algarve but Coimbra gets overlooked, which is actually a good thing.
This is especially true during the summer months. If you visit Lisbon in the peak travel months of July and August, you will see queues of travelers for just about everything and it will end up being a bit stressful instead of feeling like a holiday.
Perfect Base for Nearby Destinations
Due to its central location, Coimbra is an excellent base for visiting the nearby destinations on a day trip. For instance, you can easily make a day trip to Conimbriga from Coimbra. Conimbriga is just 15 kilometers away and has the largest Roman ruins in Portugal.
As mentioned before, the destination that I visited after Coimbra after my first visit here was Figueira da Foz, which is 40 kilometers away. It is a beach destination that’s popular among the locals. Since it is just 40 kilometers away, it makes sense to do a day trip there because the overnight stay in Coimbra is cheaper in summer than in Figueira da Foz.
Another destination that I visited from Coimbra was Nazare but it was more than a day trip. Nazare is a beach destination that’s famous for its massive waves. Surfers visit Nazare from all over the world to ride the waves in the winter months.
How to Reach Coimbra?
I arrived in Coimbra on a local train from Valado station near Nazare and I left on a bus from here to Porto. Both the journeys were short and easy.
No matter where you are in Portugal, it is easy to find trains and buses to Coimbra because it is centrally located.
It is important to know that Coimbra has two train stations:
- Coimbra-A – this station serves local trains and it is in Coimbra’s city center.
- Coimbra-B – this is for high-speed trains. So if you get on a train from Lisbon or Porto or even Faro, then you will get off at “Coimbra-B” train station to arrive here.
Coimbra-B train station is where I arrived and it was easy from here to walk to the main city. The Flixbus stop in Coimbra is also close to the Coimbra-B train station.
So is Coimbra Worth Visiting?
It depends on what you are looking for. If you are visiting Portugal on a tight schedule and would like to visit the more famous destinations like Lisbon, the Algarve, or Porto, then skip Coimbra by all means.
Moreover, compared to the more famous cities like Porto or Lisbon, Coimbra can be a bit boring for some people but others may just fall in love with it. Personally, I’d not stay here for more than 2 days.
If you are visiting Portugal during peak travel time, i.e., the summer months, then it makes sense to consider including Coimbra in your Portugal itinerary.
Moreover, if you are visiting Portugal in winter, then you will not visit the beaches of the Algarve. That time is also perfect to spend a few days of your holiday in Coimbra and admire the labyrinth of narrow streets, university towns, botanic gardens, the riverside, and old churches of Portugal.
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