Historically, Coimbra is the third city in Portugal – well, it was even the capital for a few years! Today, it’s famous for the University! Though, more than just a university city, it is a city of culture, full of history and stories. In this article, we will introduce some of these stories while exploring the fun things to do in Coimbra.
From the unforgettable university to the monasteries, passing through the gardens, the riverside, and the famous sweets of Santa Clara, Coimbra has a lot to offer. Most people only have one day in Coimbra but we believe that it takes about 3 days to get to know the city.
17 things to do in Coimbra
#1 Explore the old city centre
Usually, this is our first topic in historic cities and lots of things to see and explore. Wandering through the historical centers is the best way to grasp a destination, to start to perceive it from the inside. Plus, it gives you a feeling of freedom, adventure, and even a sense of time-travel.
Coimbra is no exception! Besides all the monuments mentioned in this article, there are a few lesser-known that also embellish the center. Anto Tower, Almedina Tower, the New Cathedral, the Church of Santiago and Santa Cruz, the many squares, streets, and alleys, there are plenty of things to see while getting lost in Coimbra.
But keep in mind that this is an old city, which reflecte in lots of winding, tight, and steep streets. There’s even a street quebra costas which translates to “back-breaking street”! Our advice: Leave the car outside the historic center, and do Coimbra on foot! It’s tireing, but it is much more profitable.
#2 Visit the University
The University is, without a doubt, the best-known monument in Coimbra and an institution that marks the city. Thus, it is clearly the main attraction and the main place not to be missed in Coimbra. Founded in 1290 and transferred definitively to Coimbra in 1537, it is the oldest university in Portugal and one of the oldest in the world.
Going to Paço das Escolas (where the Manueline Portal, Tower, Via Latina, and Porta Férrea are located) is free. Still, the visit to the main historical buildings of the University (Biblioteca Joanina, Laboratório Chimico, and Capela S. Miguel) entails buying an entrance ticket. Paço das Escolas is the historic center of the University of Coimbra and is perhaps the university’s most famous image and the city. In addition to being architecturally beautiful, it offers stunning views of the Mondego and downtown.
The entire area of the courtyard and the royal palace was built over hundreds of years, from the reign of D. Afonso Henriques to the 16th century. Previously, the complex was an Alcáçova, being later inhabited by the Portuguese monarchy (Coimbra was the capital of Portugal) until, in 1544, the University of Coimbra was permanently installed. Due to its importance, the University of Coimbra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since June 2013.
#3 Biblioteca Joanina
Joanina Library is possibly the best known of all the University buildings and one of the greatest examples of the Baroque in Portugal. Considered one of the richest libraries in the world, it was built between 1717 and 1728. It received the name in memory and honor of D. João V, the main sponsor.
All its construction and internal decoration serve to heighten the power of the Portuguese Empire at the time, namely due to the wealth coming from Brazil. It was filled with shelves lined with gold leaf and decorated with Chinese motifs. Its collection has about 55 000 books.
The building has 3 floors, the lower floor housed the academic prison. During the visit, there is an interesting video explaining what this prison was and how it worked. The library’s noble room is on the top floor, with direct access to Patio das Escolas, where the visit ends.
#4 S. Miguel Chapel, tower and other buildings
In addition to the monumental library, Paço das Escolas includes a series of buildings and rooms that can be visited. These include the Capela de S. Miguel, the university tower, the Latin way, the hall of great acts, the private exam room, the weapons room, and the yellow room.
All of these historic rooms are quite beautiful and are well worth a few minutes of our time. The Private Examination Room, for example, was part of the former Royal Palace – it was the room where the king spent the night. And, it is still today the room where the Solemn Opening of Classes takes place.
The hall of great acts, on the other hand, is where some of the most important ceremonies of academic life take place, namely the Ph.D. thesis defense. Previously it was the Throne Room of the Paço Real da Alcáçova, where the courts acclaimed D. João, Mestre de Avis, King of Portugal in 1383.
Via Latina is the long gallery, rhythmic by an elegant neoclassical colonnade, located on the main façade of the old Paço Real. Next to it, we have the clock tower that played a fundamental role in the university’s day-to-day. It is possible to climb to obtain a privileged view of the university and the city. Finally, the chapel of S. Miguel is the religious site of the university. It has a curious interior with tiled walls and a beautiful ceiling, but the Manueline portal is the most impressive feature on the outside.
#5 Science Museum and Chemical laboratory
The science museum and the Chimico Laboratory is located outside the school grounds, but it is very close, just 400 meters, next to the ticket office, so it is effortless to go there. This university area is made up of several scientific collections, and the Colegio de Jesus and the Chimico Laboratory (built during the Pombaline reform) are divided into two poles.
In the Chimico laboratory, there is a permanent exhibition “secrets of light and matter” that portrays the history of scientific evolution through interactive and multimedia experiments. It is interesting for people of all ages, but especially for children.
In the old Colégio de Jesus building, we find the interesting physics office and the spectacular natural history gallery. In the physics office, we can find numerous scientific and didactic physics instruments, even being considered one of the best historical collections of this kind.
The natural history gallery consists of a huge collection of animals, plants, minerals, rocks, and fossils. It’s the oldest museum in Portugal. The animals’ collection is absolutely fabulous, both in terms of quantity and diversity of the animals conserved using different techniques. Of these, we have to highlight the skeleton of almost 20 meters of a whale, the bear, and a couple of goats from Gerês. There is even a room with only Portuguese fauna.
This was the portion of the visit for which we had less interest… but it turned out to be one of our favorites. It is well worth it, and if you have children, it will be a guaranteed success.
#6 Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Garden is our last point regarding the University of Coimbra in this list of things to do in Coimbra. Currently measuring more than 13 hectares, this garden was founded in 1772 as an integral part of the Natural History Museum and as a result of the Pombaline reform of the university.
The central square, the greenhouses, the forest, and the entire garden contain priceless botanical collections used for teaching, supporting research, and promoting biodiversity conservation. In the gardens you can find a huge diversity of plants, from all continents, creating a luxurious and romantic environment.
It is undoubtedly a wonderful and pleasant place to take a walk through nature, right in the center of the city. We especially enjoyed the possibility of entering the lower part of the city, next to the river, connecting the botanical gardens to the riverside and the other parks in the city. The negative point is that this entrance is a little weird, ugly honestly, but as soon as you enter the gardens, everything changes!
#7 Machado de Castro Museum
Founded in 1911, the Machado de Castro National Museum is one of the most important fine arts museums in Portugal, presenting important collections of sculpture, decorative arts, and paintings. Anyone who likes sculpture and sacred art should definitely enjoy this museum.
However, the museum’s works of art are not even its most interesting point. The Machado de Castro museum is housed in the old Episcopal Square which, in its view, was built on the Cryptoporticus of the ancient forum of Aeminium (sometimes also Eminium), the ancient Roman city in the place where it is today Coimbra.
The cryptoporticus is possibly the most significant Roman work in Portugal. It is a 2-story gallery that supported the old Roman forum (Roman cities’ civic center). Since the flat space at the top of the city was limited, the Romans built this structure to make it possible to have the forum there. Dating from the 1st century, the interior space was mainly used to conserve food, as it was always fresh and protected from light.
The experience of visiting the old galleries and underground passages is incredible. We felt in another dimension. However, we have to mention that during the visit, the information about the construction, how it was used, how it worked, and even what we are seeing is missing! There is a lot to improve in this field, as this is a fantastic monument.
We have to buy a ticket at the museum to visit the cryptoporticus but note that there is a ticket for the museum + cryptoporticus and another only for the cryptoporticus.
#8 Old Santa Clara Monastery
Founded in 1283, Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery is located on the left bank of the Mondego River, on the opposite side of the historic center. Despite being extinct for some years, the monastery was refounded by Elizabeth of Aragon, Queen Saint Elizabeth. The latter ordered the construction of new buildings such as the cloister and the church.
Due to its location on the bank of the Mondego, this monastery was constantly being flooded by river floods. So what can be seen today are the ruins, since this monastery was abandoned in 1677, when the monastery of Santa-Clara-a-Nova was founded.
The ruins are spectacular, and with the works done in recent years, it is possible to see the ruins and also some of the surprises found in the excavations and studies. Unfortunately today (2020) it is only possible to visit the interpretation center as the ruins are under construction. However, even if you cannot go to the ruins. Though it is possible to see them from the outside, and since the monastery is close to several other attractions, it is well worth spending some time contemplating it, even if from outside.
#9 New Santa Clara Monastery
As mentioned above, the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-nova replaced the Monastery of Santa-Clara-a-Velha, built a little higher and completely protected from the Mondego River. The view from the square in front of the Monastery is spectacular, due to its dominant position.
This monastery is sometimes called “Convento da Rainha Santa Isabel” because that’s where the sarcophagus, mortal remains, and even relics are.
This is a sober and utilitarian building, but in the church, we have a beautiful Baroque altarpiece built to venerate the city’s patron saint, the Holy Queen. However, the original tomb is not this one, but the one in the low choir of the church. It is also possible to visit it, however, photographs are not allowed. Either way, it is well worth going there, as it is considered a unique work and one of the best examples of Gothic tomb art in Portugal. In the next room, it is also possible to see the queen’s original relics.
Finally, we must mention the monastery’s spectacular cloister, funded by João V of Portugal in 1733 – clearly one of the stars of this monastery.
#10 Quinta das Lágrimas
Quinta das Lágrimas is one of the oldest green spaces in the country and the scene of one of the most popular legends in our history. Occupying an area of about 18 hectares, the gardens of this estate accumulate memories and legends since the 14th century. It is here that we can find the famous Fonte dos Amores and Fonte das Lágrimas, famous for being the scene of the love of D. Pedro and D. Inês de Castro.
But Quinta das Lágrimas is much more than history, it has an enchanted forest with lush forest, the famous and very photogenic neo-Gothic arch of the 19th century, the Colina de Camões amphitheater, and of course the various Gardens.
In 1995 opened the Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas, considered one of the best charming hotels in Portugal; It’s an excellent option to stay in Coimbra. As a luxury hotel, and it comes with a price tag, but on the other hand, it is the opportunity to stay in a legendary place.
#11 Portugal dos Pequenitos
Speaking of legendary places … Portugal dos Pequenitos is a place not to be missed for anyone traveling with children as it is a magical place! Or at least that’s how it stayed in our memory since we visited as a child.
Opened in 1940, during the Estado Novo dictatorship, Portugal dos Pequenitos is a theme park and a playful and educational space designed to show the Portuguese heritage and culture in Portugal and the World.
This park is characterized by having small-scale constructions of monuments and other elements of Portuguese heritage (or of Portuguese origin). Thus, the park is organized into 7 zones:
- Portuguese Speaking Countries;
- Insular Portugal (Azores and Madeira);
- Regional Houses;
- Children’s House;
Tickets to Portugal dos Pequenitos are a bit expensive (10.5Euros per adult and 6.5E per child), but the truth is that children love it, so it is probably well worth the financial effort.
#12 Old Catedral
Constructed in 1184, the old Cathedral of Coimbra is the only Romanesque cathedral in Portugal from the Reconquista Era that has survived intact until today. It is an impressive building both from outside and inside. It is right in the center of Coimbra, so it is natural to visit while wandering around the city.
The building’s exterior is symmetrical, robust, with few openings and battlements, as was usual at this time. Also, note the portal decorated under a clear Muslim influence. Inside, we have to highlight the altarpiece of the chancel, in flamboyant Gothic.
Finally, the cloisters are considered the first Gothic experience in Portugal. Constructed in 1218 by Afonso II, they consist of a vaulted floor, with arcades composed of double arches and based on double columns, and an upper oculus. A curious feature is that all of these oculus have a different representation. This is our favorite part of the old Cathedral, as it exudes a certain calm and beauty, but we are a little suspicious as we are usually fond of the aesthetics of cloisters.
#14 Try typical portuguese sweets
In Coimbra, as in almost the whole country, the sweets originate mainly in the countless monasteries and convents in the region. However, nowadays it is very easy to taste some of these wonders of Portuguese sweets. The variety is great so we will just list some of the best known and best sweets in Coimbra:
- Pastéis de Santa Clara – perhaps the most famous of Coimbra’s sweets;
- Arrufadas – originating in the Convent of Sant’Ana is a dry sweet, very similar to a folar.
- Clarissas Pudding – delicious egg yolk pudding;
- Egg Lamprey – a local Christmas sweet but which is often available throughout the year;
- Crúzios – one of the most difficult to buy, only available at Café Santa Cruz;
- Pasteis de Tentúgal – one of best sweets in Portugal .
- Nevadas de Penacova – despite the name they are original from Lorvão and later they were taken to Penacova;
- Pasteis de Lorvão – also from the Lorvão Monastery, are delicious;
Some of these sweets are not originally from the city, but from the region. However, they are almost always present in Coimbra, so it is an excellent opportunity to try them out.
There are plenty of quality pastries in Coimbra, but our favorite place to try conventual sweets is Pastelaria Briosa in Largo da Portagem, right in the center. The ease of access, the pleasant terrace, the variety and quality of the sweets from the Coimbra region make it our favorite destination for a breakfast or a sweet snack.
#15 Verde Mondego Park and riverside
The entire riverside area of Coimbra is very pleasant, both on the left and right banks of the Mondego. It is a perfect place for a walk, taking advantage of the various parks and green areas, as well as the proximity to the city center (on the right bank) and several attractions on the left bank (Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery and Portugal dos Pequenitos) .
In the Verde Mondego park, which occupies a large part of the banks of the Mondego, we have the Pedro and Inês pedestrian bridge, which, besides allowing easier and more pleasant pedestrian circulation, is a magnificent structure. From there that you can get one of the most beautiful postcards in Coimbra.
#16 Take a river cruise
Still in the riverside area of Mondego, we have Basófias, a boat that makes small cruises through Mondego thus allowing travelers to get a completely different perspective of the city. Each trip lasts about 50 minutes, but in this short time it is possible to see some of the most emblematic points of the city.
It is well worth it for those who have some extra time and enjoy taking boat trips … like us!
#17 Assist a Fado show
Fado is a unique musical expression and intangible UNESCO heritage. Traditionally starring only men, its songs evoke love and longing for a woman, the city, or the academy.
Fado de Coimbra is a unique musical expression in the world. Played and sung by the University students, according to tradition, it is played only by men. Likewise, to play and sing Fado de Coimbra it is necessary to wear the cover, which must be drawn. Unlike Lisbon’s fado, which is traditionally found in taverns and fado houses, Coimbra’s fado is typically street, sung by students.
Despite this, currently the best places to watch Fado de Coimbra are some commercial establishments such as:
- Fado ao Centro – much more than a Fado house, it is a cultural association with daily shows, which allows direct contact with musicians – always students or former university students.
- Café Santa Cruz – a mythical space in Coimbra that has been in operation since 1923, in a building from 1530 served as a church and maintains part of the original Manueline style. The same that serves crúzios.
- Fado Hilário – made up of musicians conceived for those who want to genuinely and purely share Coimbra’s experience.
Where to stay in Coimbra?
Despite being a large city (by Portuguese standards), the historic center is relatively small and the major tourist attractions are all very close to each other. Even those in Santa Clara (on the other side of the river) are easily reached on foot, crossing the bridge. So, we suggest you try to stay in one of the many guest houses, hostels and hotels in the center of Coimbra. However, if you are traveling by car, note thatCoimbra’se historic center is horrible to drive and even worse to park. If possible, book a hotel with parking, even if it is paid, it will save you a lot of time, hassle, and possibly money.
A Residência Coimbra is our favorite cheap accommodation in Coimbra. It is comfortable, cheap, and excellently located. It’s the basics, but it has WIFI, a toilet in the room, and everything we need when we are not looking for luxury. As it is right in the center, parking in the area can be problematic. See here if it’s available!
Casas da Alegria
If you are looking for a whole house to have total comfort and privacy, our suggestion is Casas da Alegria. It is very well located, next to the river and close to the toll plaza. Parking will not be easy, but it is possible since it is not right in the middle of the historic center. Since the houses have a fully equipped kitchen/kitchenette, you can prepare meals. There are houses for 2, 3, or 4 people, so they are suitable for couples and families. See the prices and check here.
Vila Galé Coimbra
The Vila Galé Coimbra is our favorite alternative for anyone looking for a high-level hotel, where quality is above all. The rooms are spacious, modern yet welcoming. Of course, there are bathrooms, WIFI, TV. There is a SPA, swimming pool, and fitness center. The hotel is also known for its beautiful breakfasts and quality restaurant. Despite being in the center, it is not in the historic center; still, it is close enough to walk. It has parking, which makes life in Coimbra much easier. Check more info here!
Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas
More than a hotel or accommodation in Coimbra, the Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas is a destination itself! If you like to stay in historic hotels, this is the place to stay. Of course, a little bit expensive, but honestly it’s a lot cheaper than we expected. Quinta das Lágrimas is one of the most mythical places in Portugal. Concerning amenities, the hotel has everything you would expect and even more. See more information and availability here.