Known for its university, Coimbra is a popular destination for tourists and, increasingly, people moving to Portugal. It is packed with history and character, particularly thanks to its university connections, and you can easily fill a day or two with things to see and do here.
The following are just a few suggestions.
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.