Located on the high banks of the Mondgo River, Coimbra is a city with the oldest university in the country.
The prestige of this school hits you when you step into the courtyard of Paço das Escolas.
In this rich complex is one of the best libraries you will ever set foot on.
The university was found exactly where the first kings of Portugal lived centuries ago, and the city’s monastery provided tombs for these rulers.
Culturally, you’ll learn about the tragic love affair between the medieval prince Pedro I and the noblewoman Ines, while Coimbra has its own genre of fado music that also originated in the university.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Coimbra:
1. University of Coimbra
The oldest university in Portugal is a World Heritage Site, located on a hill in the center of the city.
This is a huge tourist attraction with hundreds of years of history to show off.
You can climb 180 steps in the 16th-century tower at the university’s highest point for stunning views of the city.
Also worth your time is the Sala dos Capelos, a 17th-century ceremonial hall whose magnificent ensemble you need to admire in the courtyard of Paço das Escolas.
Unruly students are held in the student prison, and you begin the entire experience through the iron gates that used to be the entrance to Coimbra’s medieval castle.
2. Joanne’s Library
This esteemed Baroque library is located in Paço das Escolas, where the first kings of Portugal lived.
It dates back to the 1720s and needs to be seen to be believed.
The library consists of three huge salons bounded by a huge portico.
Each salon has tall lacquered and gilded shelves, as well as huge study tables made from dark hardwoods shipped from Brazil.
There are more than 250,000 volumes, from the 1500s to the 1700s, covering history, geography, medicine, law and science.
One of the strange things you will learn about the library is that it has a colony of bats that are raised to eat insects that can damage books.
3. San Miguel Church
Built in the first few decades of the 16th century, the university’s chapel is rich in history and lavish.
The main entrance is in 18th century neoclassical style, but if you step over the side door you will see some remarkable Manuel carvings.
The walls and ceiling of the choir are decorated with colourful 17th century glazing, made in Lisbon but with a clear Dutch inspiration.
The altarpiece is a masterpiece of Mannerism, with 16th century paintings of the life of Christ.
Finally there is the working organ, with a shiny baroque case, dating from 1733.
4. Machado de Castro National Museum
This wonderful museum has a very atmospheric Bishop’s Palace of Coimbra, named after the 18th and 19th century sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro.
The building was built in stages from the Middle Ages on the same site as the Roman Forum in Coimbra.
A remnant of this ancient history, the Hidden Gate (covered passage) is preserved on the lower floors.
The museum’s artwork comes from area churches and other defunct religious institutions.
You’ll browse the largest collection of sculptures in any Portuguese National Museum, as well as catalogues of tapestries, ceramic altarpieces and paintings from the 15th to 19th centuries.
5. Santa Cruz Monastery
The monastery has its roots in the early years of the Portuguese monarchy, dating back to the 12th century.
The building, albeit a late one, is of a 16th-century Manuel design, summed up by the charming decorations on the main portal, ceiling and outside cloister.
Later in the same century, pulpits and gilded wooden stalls were added in a brilliant Renaissance style.
But the important story of the monastery must be the tombs of the first two kings of Portugal, Afonso Henriques and Sancho I. They ruled in the 12th century and in the 1500s their remains were transferred to the wonderful Manuel ensemble carved by Nicolau Chanterene.
6. Coimbra Old Cathedral
King Alfonso Henrique built this Romanesque cathedral when Coimbra was the border between Christianity and Islam.
It was built shortly after his victory over the Moors at the Battle of Auric in 1139 and, unlike other churches of the time, it retains many Romanesque features.
You’ll know you’re on the border between worlds as you approach the plain facade, with jagged tops and only slender openings in the walls.
Inside, the original barrel vault alludes to the great era of the cathedral, with the capitals of a wonderful leafy, geometric and animalistic design.
Medieval art lovers will have a tour of 380 of these superb capitals!
7. Santa Clara Monastery
Another monument intertwined with Portugal’s medieval history, the Gothic monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha adds to the mystery once submerged by the river.
It dates back to the 1300s, but after Mondego was flooded for hundreds of years, the site was abandoned in the 1600s when the nuns of the convent moved to higher ground and established the Santa Clara-a-Nova Convent.
The place became a proper attraction in the 1900s, when interpretive routes and a visitor center were established.
In the center, you’ll find short films about the monastery, including one founded by Queen Elizabeth in the 14th century.
She was buried in a magnificent Gothic mausoleum in the monastery.
8. Pedro Ines Bridge
An integral part of any trek in Coimbra is the Pedro e Inês Bridge, a pedestrian bridge opened in 2007. Not only does the bridge give you a picture of the University of the Right Bank, it also has a cool, clever design.
It doesn’t actually meet in the middle. In its place are two cantilevered walkways that connect in the middle to form a wide viewing platform.
The railings are also stylish, made of yellow, pink, blue and green glass in an irregular geometric pattern.
9. Quinta das Lágrimas
The pedestrian bridge is named after the 14th century characters Pedro I (the future king) and Inês de Castro, his wife’s maid.
Under the orders of Pedro’s father in 1355, Ines had a long relationship before he was assassinated in Coimbra, and Ines had four children. She is said to have died in the park of Quinta das Lágrimas (Tears Manor).
Legend has it that she was killed at the fountain; her blood was to stain the stones on the fountain.
The estate’s palace is now a Pousada (heritage hotel), but the park is open to visitors.
10. Penedo da Saudade
To the east of the university is a hilltop garden with expansive views over Coimbra and the Mondgo River, as well as the Lausanne and Roxor mountains.
This is where Pedro mourned for Ines and has been a meeting place for Coimbra students since the 19th century.
It’s a place for romantic encounters, with plaques engraved on the garden’s stone walls with poems from over a century (some about love, some lamenting nostalgia), or commemorating distant events in the University’s past.
11. The New Cathedral
The name “Sé Nova” (New Cathedral) is a bit deceiving, as this fine church is almost 500 years old.
Originally a Jesuit church, the exterior features Mannerist and Baroque designs.
The lower half is older and more sober, with gables and niches, while the upper half has more extravagant sculptures, consisting of spires, scrolls, and coat of arms.
Shortly after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal in 1759, the church was chosen as the new cathedral due to its spacious size.
Some decorations were brought from the old cathedral, such as the 17th century choir booth, the gilded reredos and the marvelous baptistery, carved in Manuel-style stone in the early 1500s.
12. Botanical Gardens
The university’s botanical gardens were established in 1772 for the Faculty of Medicine and Natural History.
Influential botanist Avelar Brotero used the gardens in the early 19th century and founded several publications based on his findings here, as well as the university’s School of Botany.
The garden covers 13 hectares with several trees planted in the Brotero era, such as Japanese cedar pine and coral trees, on the Quadrado Central towards the hilltop.
Below the valley is a bamboo forest with 51 species of eucalyptus.
You may notice that you are accompanied by brown squirrels; these were introduced to the park, starting with six couples in 1994.
13. Portugal dos Pequenitos
Monasteries, libraries and churches are not necessarily suitable for young people.
So if you need some kid-friendly inspiration in Coimbra, try this park near Nova Santa Clara Monastery.
The attraction started in 1938 and developed over the next 20 years.
In eight areas there are children’s scale models of Coimbra and Portugal’s most famous monuments, as well as landmarks from the country’s former colonies in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.
There is a miniature train in the park, as well as a small museum displaying clothing, furniture and the Portuguese Navy.
14. Queima das Fitas
In a university as old as Coimbra, there are bound to be some quirky customs.
One of them is Queima das Fitas (Burning of the Ribbon). This May ceremony has been embraced by other institutions across Portugal, but in Coimbra it was even elevated to a tourist attraction.
There are parades, dances and musical performances: in an unforgettable event, students dressed in the colours of the faculty gather in front of the old cathedral to enjoy a traditional Coimbra Fado Serenade.
The real burning took place in Largo da Feira, where their teachers’ ribbons were lit in a time-honored ceremony to end their college years.
15. Corning Briga
Probably the largest, but definitely the most complete, the Roman ruins of Portugal are just a few minutes from Coimbra in Condeixa-a-Nova.
This was once a walled city with fortifications up to 1500 meters long.
When you get there, there is a visitor center with some of the things found on this site, about 10% of which have been excavated so far.
domus, Casa dos Repuxos (House of the Fountain) is a spectacular aristocratic residence protected by a modern glass canopy.
It dates back to the 1st and 2nd centuries and has traces of elaborate fountains, mosaics and painted frescoes.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Coimbra, Portugal
Lowest price guaranteed.