I actually lived in Coimbra as a child, although I was so young that I don’t remember much about it. Since moving back to Portugal, I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time here and to get to know this city as an adult.
Over the past few years, Coimbra has become an incredibly popular destination to visit. Coimbra has a lot to offer, of course, and is an incredibly important city in Portugal, but a big reason for Coimbra’s popularity is its location: Coimbra is halfway between Lisbon and Porto.
In fact, because it’s so popular, many people assume that it’s Portugal’s 3rd city. It’s not. Braga is actually bigger than Coimbra and, if you’re counting places like Amadora, Coimbra drops down another few places.
Not only is it ideally located for those doing a “Lisbon-Porto” or “Porto-Lisbon-Algarve” itinerary, but it’s also ideal for a weekend break: just 2 hours from Lisbon and a little under an hour and a half from Porto. The old “location, location, location” seemingly doesn’t just apply to homes and businesses, but cities as well.
Looking for somewhere to stay in Coimbra? Take a look at these suggestions.
Coimbra is a university city, and it’s home to the oldest university in Portugal and one of the oldest universities in Europe. Although there are a few interesting monasteries, churches, and other historical attractions in Coimbra, it’s really the university that Coimbra is most famous for.
The city hasn’t been as renovated as Lisbon and Porto, both of which have had millions poured into fixing old buildings, and it doesn’t have the same wow factor that either of these cities has. It has its own charm, though, and is definitely somewhere that’s worthy of a visit.
The city is ideal for a 2-day break, either for a weekend break or as part of a longer trip around Portugal. There are plenty of great hotels, apartments, and other accommodation options, and plenty of really nice restaurants as well.
Things to see and do in Coimbra
Explore Coimbra University
Coimbra is not only the oldest university in Portugal, but it has some of the most beautiful buildings as well. As of 2013, Coimbra University is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Coimbra’s heart, as mentioned, is its university, and visiting some of the Coimbra University buildings while you’re here is an absolute must. You’ll need tickets to see some of the attractions, particularly the Torre da Universidade and Biblioteca Joanina (the Joanina library).
You’ll need to buy tickets to see quite a few parts of the university (and there are usually queues), but you don’t need to buy tickets to see the Paço das Escolas (a beautiful square where you can see the clock tower exterior).
Take a stroll through the Repúblicas
The repúblicas are Coimbra’s student neighbourhoods, and they’re a part of Coimbra that many people miss despite visiting attractions that are incredibly close to them. These neighbourhoods often have an anarchistic feel, although less so than in the 60s when student riots and demonstrations were a lot more common.
You’ll still see plenty of interesting banners fighting for democracy and freedom of speech or rallying against corruption or climate change, as well as a few more exhibitions that are best described as “arty.”
It’s an interesting neighbourhood to walk around and, as mentioned, you’ll probably be extremely close to some of these buildings if you’re visiting the nearby University of Coimbra.
Walk through the Botanical Gardens
Coimbra’s botanical gardens don’t get recommended nearly as much as they should. They are fantastic to walk through and some sections, like the bamboo walk, are an oasis of cool and shade, particularly in the summer months when the city is hot and crowded.
Attend a Coimbra Fado session
There are two regional styles of fado (a traditional style of Portuguese music) in Portugal: fado from Lisbon and fado from Coimbra.
Lisbon’s style of fado tend to be more popular than the Coimbra style, but it’s definitely worth hearing both. While Lisbon Fado can be sung by anyone, male or female, Coimbra fado is only sung by male singers. Often called “Student Fado” (Fado de Estudante), it’s a part of the soul of Coimbra and so a “must experience” while you’re visiting the city.
There are several places that you can listen to Coimbra including:
- À Capella (map) – One of the nicest venues for fado (inside a 14th century chapel).
- Café Santa Cruz (map) – Another beautiful venue, this café often hosts fado performances (Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find out when these events are).
- Fado ao Centro (map) – Probably the most popular place due to its central location.
- Fado Hilário (map) – No, not hilarious fado: the venue was named after Augusto Hilário da Costa Alves, the first Portuguese fado singer.
Get in touch with your smaller self at Portugal dos Pequenitos
For those with kids, or those that are just young at heart, Portugal dos Pequenitos is one to consider adding to your Coimbra itinerary. Portugal dos Pequenitos is a miniature village that consists of miniature versions of Portuguese houses and monuments as well as houses and monuments from former Portuguese colonies like Brazil, Macau, and East Timor.
I say consider adding it to your itinerary rather than definitely do because it tends to receive mixed reviews. It was a Coimbra institution for many years, but it definitely doesn’t appeal to everyone anymore.
First of all, at €10 per adult and €6 per child Portugal dos Pequenitos is expensive. And, it’s not exactly Disneyland. Miniature villages may have been all the rage at one point in time, especially in the days before people could easily travel to the real-life versions of these destinations, but model villages don’t really hold the same appeal anymore – both adults and kids expect a lot more stimulation.
As mentioned, reviews are mixed which means some people like it and some people don’t. Only you will know whether it’s suitable for you and your kids.
Go back to Roman times at Conímbriga
For history buffs, Conímbriga is somewhere to add to the itinerary. Located around 18 km outside of Coimbra, Conímbriga is one of the largest excavated Roman settlements in Portugal.
Don’t expect entire Roman villas: most of what remains are the floors and an outline of where the walls would have been, and so it may not be the most entertaining spot for young children (or those that aren’t interested in history). All of that aside, this is probably one of the best Roman ruins that you’ll find (outside Italy at least).
The exhibition shows some of the items that they’ve excavated (such as coins and tools) and, combined with the ruins outside, it gives quite a good insight into what Roman life was like. The site is also well-maintained, and you’ll even see archeologists at work: they still haven’t finished excavating here.
Note: There’s almost no shade at Conímbriga so, if you visit during the summer, you will be very exposed to the sun. Ideally, if you’re visiting during these months, try to get there as early as possible.
Getting to Coimbra
Coimbra is on the trainline between Lisbon and Porto, and so there are normally 20+ services from either Lisbon or Porto each day. Train tickets can be booked on CP.pt, and there are often discounts if you book in advance (see here for details) and of course discounts for older travellers.
Note: Coimbra has two train stations: Coimbra and Coimbra-B. Trains stop at Coimbra-B and from there you’ll need to take the train from Coimbra-B to Coimbra. This train is essentially a shuttle service and it’s incredibly regular: there are normally services every 10-15 minutes and the journey itself only takes 4 minutes.
As well as train services, there are also plenty of bus services to Coimbra with daily direct buses from Lisbon, Porto, and even destinations like Braga and Faro. Tickets can be purchased on Rede Expressos.
Coimbra is just 75 minutes from Porto by car and around 2 hours from Lisbon. The downside to driving to Coimbra, unfortunately, is the lack of free parking (or sometimes: any kind of parking).
If you’re visiting Coimbra by car, you may want to stay a little outside of the city centre – both for the free parking and also the narrow streets.
Although there is a small regional airport in Coimbra (Aeródromo Municipal Bissaya Barreto – LPCO Coimbra), the nearest airport for most people will be Porto Airport (138 km away) or Lisbon Airport (198 km away).
By airport transfer
If you want to go directly to Coimbra from the airport, several companies like Welcome Pickups offer airport transfers to Coimbra. You can also compare prices from multiple companies using a site like hoppa.com.
Regional Coimbra foods
Leitão Assado à Bairrada
Coimbra is in leitão country – specifically Leitão Assado à Bairrada which is probably the most popular style of cooking leitão in Portugal – and so you’ll see a lot of leitão restaurants in Coimbra.
Leitão, if you haven’t already heard of it, is suckling pig or baby pig. It’s fatty and delicious, although often quite salty, and so something you’ll definitely need a few glasses of wine to wash down.
Leitão Assado à Bairrada is one of the “7 Maravilhas da Gastronomia” (7 gastronomical wonders of Portugal), a competition that Portugal had to find its best dishes, so it’s worth looking out for it. The other 6 dishes that made the list are:
- Alheiras de Mirandela
- Queijo Serra da Estrela
- Caldo verde
- Sardinha assada
- Arroz de marisco
- Pastel de Belém (or pastel de nata)
Pastel de Tentúgal
Pastéis de Tentúgal are from Tentúgal, a small village that’s around 20 km from Coimbra, but they seem to be very common here. Perhaps that’s because it’s one of the most popular sweets in the region: the Pastel de Tentúgal was a finalist in the 7 Maravilhas da Gastronomia (7 Gastronomical Wonders).
They have a light and flaky pastry and a filling that, like most Portuguese conventual sweets, is made from sugar and eggs. The outside is dusted with powdered sugar.
Pastel de Santa Clara
The pastel de Santa Clara is actually one of my favourite Portuguese sweets, although the version that I have taken a photo of here is different to the ones you’ll see around Coimbra. Apparently they come in a number of different shapes and sizes, but you’re much more likely to see them in a half moon shape (kind of like an empanada).
The cakes are even more Coimbra-esque than the pastéis de Tentúgal: the full name is Pastéis de Sta. Clara do Convento de Coimbra. The addition of ground almonds (as opposed to just eggs and sugar) is what makes this one the winner for me.
Other regional cakes
As well as the Pastel de Tentúgal, look out for these other cakes which you’re likely to stumble upon in Coimbra.
- Arrufadas de Coimbra
- Barrigas de Freira
FAQs about Coimbra
The following are a few questions that are often asked about visiting Coimbra.
How much time should I budget for Coimbra?
Coimbra is a good weekend break destination, and so 2-3 days is ideal. A lot of people on a tight budget visit Coimbra for 1 day, and you can definitely get a feel for the city and see a few attractions in that time, but you probably won’t have time to see everything.
2 days is probably enough for most people. For those living in Lisbon or Porto, that could mean going to Coimbra on either Friday night or Saturday morning and heading home on Sunday evening.
Is there a left luggage service in Coimbra?
Yes, there are a few options if you need to leave your bags for a few hours (or days).
- Serenata Hostel (map) Offers luggage storage for guests and non-guests. For non-guests the cost is €5 per 24 hours.
- Go Walks Portugal (map) Offers luggage storage lockers (which can hold 2 cabin-size bags + 2 medium backpacks) for €5 for up to 4 hours and €8 for up to 8 hours. This service is available from Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm.
- Hotel Oslo (map) offers FREE luggage storage. This isn’t just for guests, but for anyone visiting the city. They’re situated next to Coimbra train station.
When is the best time to visit Coimbra?
Coimbra can be quite cold and grey in the winter and hot and stuffy in July and August. The best time to visit is probably sometime between April and September, avoiding the peak summer months. If you do visit in July and August, try and find somewhere that has aircon or at least a fan.