Coimbra Guide: 5+ Things You Must See & Do

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Written by: | Last updated on September 21, 2023 | Est. Reading Time: 12 minutes
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Nestled on the banks of the Mondego River in Central Portugal, Coimbra is a city steeped in history and rich in cultural heritage. Known as the city of students due to the prestigious University of Coimbra, the oldest university in Portugal and one of the oldest in Europe, Coimbra emanates youthful vigor and intellectual prowess. Its historical university complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dominates the city skyline, while the winding, narrow streets of the old town below brim with a charm that echoes times gone by.

Coimbra’s rich history is palpable, with Roman ruins, Moorish walls, and medieval churches forming a vibrant backdrop to the city’s modern life. The Old Cathedral (Sé Velha), with its fortress-like appearance, and the more opulent New Cathedral (Sé Nova) stand testament to the city’s religious significance. The 18th century botanical garden, Jardim Botânico, offers a tranquil retreat amidst the hustle and bustle of the city.

Aside from its historical allure, Coimbra is known for its vibrant cultural scene. The age-old academic traditions live on in the city’s streets, with the black-caped students and the melancholic strains of Fado music lending a distinct character to Coimbra. Regardless of whether you’re exploring Coimbra’s academic history, appreciating its architectural wonders, or immersing yourself in its music and traditions, the city of Coimbra provides a compelling glimpse into Portugal’s rich and diverse culture.

Useful Resources for Your Trip to Coimbra

Here’s our top tips and tricks for getting the best deals for your trip to Batalha. 

  • Accommodation: Booking.com and Airbnb are the two most comprehensive websites for finding hotels, hostels, apartments, and other types of accommodation in Coimbra. 
  • Car Rental: Discover Cars and Rental Cars are the two most useful sites for booking local car rental, particularly in Coimbra and the surrounding Central Portugal region. There are normally cheaper deals at the airport. 
  • Airport transfers: There are taxis and Ubers at Lisbon and Porto Airport, but you can also pre-book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups
  • Tours & Things to Do: Both Get Your Guide and Viator list lots of local tours and activities in Coimbra and the surrounding Central Portugal region. 
  • Luggage Storage: Luggage Hero and Bounce are two great sites for finding places to store your luggage in Coimbra, and are a good place to look for luggage storage in Coimbra. Alternatively, take a look at this article about luggage storage in Coimbra
  • Public Transport: Cp.pt is the main website for trains in Portugal. For longer distance buses, see Rede Expressos. Flixbus.pt often has cheap tickets between cities in Portugal. 
  • Flights: Skyscanner and Google Flights are the two most useful websites for finding flights to Portugal. The nearest airport to Coimbra is Porto Airport, but Lisbon is only slightly further away.  

What to See & Do

Coimbra 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.

Explore Coimbra University

Paço das Escolas

The University of Coimbra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Central Portugal. Established in 1290, it is one of the oldest continually operating universities in the world, and the oldest in Portugal. The university holds a special place in the cultural and historical fabric of Portugal, and its stunning architectural ensemble perched high above the city offers breathtaking views of Coimbra.

When you visit the University of Coimbra, the first place that is likely to catch your eye is the stunning Joanina Library, considered one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. This 18th-century Baroque masterpiece houses around 300,000 ancient books, but it’s the library’s opulent decor – the gold leaf, the frescoes, the exotic woods – that is the real showstopper. The library is also home to a colony of bats that are let out at night to protect the books from insects!

You’ll also want to explore the Royal Palace (Paço das Escolas), which served as the royal residence of Portugal’s first dynasty before becoming the main building of the university. Here, you’ll find the Sala dos Capelos (Graduates’ Hall), a grand room where academic ceremonies take place, and the Capela de São Miguel, the university chapel boasting a beautiful Baroque organ and stunning azulejos (blue and white ceramic tiles). Another must-see is the University Tower, which offers panoramic views of the city. Your visit to Coimbra won’t be complete without hearing the haunting melodies of Fado de Coimbra, a genre of fado music associated with student life in the city, echoing through the campus.

steps at via latina

 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,particularly the Torre da Universidade and Biblioteca Joanina, 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

coimbra political republicas

The “Repúblicas” of Coimbra are one of the city’s most unique and deeply-rooted traditions. They are student-run housing cooperatives that serve as alternative living communities for university students. Originating in the 14th century as a form of affordable accommodation for students from low-income families, the Repúblicas have evolved into vibrant communities known for their bohemian lifestyle, social activism, and camaraderie.

Each República has its own distinct character, traditions, and rules, but all share a commitment to communal living and democratic governance. The members, known as “repúblikos,” share responsibilities and make decisions collectively, forming tight-knit communities that often remain close long after graduation. These houses are not just accommodations, but important social and cultural hubs that contribute to the city’s vibrant student culture. They host a variety of events, from debates and workshops to concerts and parties, often open to the wider community. Visiting a República and experiencing its warm hospitality and lively atmosphere is a unique way to delve into the student culture of Coimbra.

republicas window display

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

Bamboo walk coimbra university botanical gardens

The Botanical Garden of the University of Coimbra, sprawled over 13 hectares, is an oasis of tranquility and a verdant testament to the scientific heritage of Coimbra. First established in the 18th century by the then prime minister (the Marquis of Pombal), the garden’s primary role was to aid in the teaching of medicine at the university, but today, it serves both as an educational resource and a peaceful retreat from the bustle of the city.

Divided into two distinct sections, the upper and lower gardens, the Botanical Garden is home to a wide array of plant species from around the globe. The upper garden showcases a stunning greenhouse that houses an exotic collection of tropical and subtropical plants, while the lower garden offers meandering paths through sections devoted to different world climates. Standout features include a dense bamboo forest, a collection of Mediterranean cycads, and a serene bamboo-lined pond, all punctuated by the diverse collection of trees, some of which are over 200 years old.

More than just a collection of plants, the Botanical Garden of Coimbra serves as a living museum, showcasing the botanical diversity of the planet and the deep-rooted scientific legacy of the University of Coimbra. Amidst the historical university buildings and the vibrant student life, it offers a calming respite, making it a must-visit for anyone in the city.

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:

  • Fado ao Centro (map) – Probably the most popular place due to its central location.
  • 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).

Get in touch with your smaller self at Portugal dos Pequenitos

Portugal dos Pequenitos Entrance

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.

It should be noted that Portugal dos Pequenitos tends to receive mixed reviews. It was a Coimbra institution for many years, but it definitely doesn’t appeal to everyone anymore. 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. Many people also fee the price tag is too expensive for the experience. 

Go back to Roman times at Conímbriga

Conimbriga mosaics

Conímbriga, located just a short drive south of Coimbra, is one of the largest and best-preserved Roman settlements unearthed in Portugal. Dating back to the 9th Century BC, Conímbriga was a prosperous town during the Roman Empire, which fell into decline when its inhabitants were forced to flee to Coimbra during the invasions by the Suebi in the 5th Century AD. Today, Conímbriga is an extensive archaeological site that provides a fascinating glimpse into Roman life.

The excavated ruins are remarkably well-preserved and give an insight into the architecture, art, and daily life of the Roman era. The site includes the remains of houses, shops, thermal baths, an aqueduct, and a forum. A key highlight is the Casa dos Repuxos, or House of Fountains, a large residence built around a central courtyard with an ornate garden that features a complex system of fountains, with more than 500 jets that create a unique spectacle.

Adjacent to the site, the Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga presents a vast collection of artefacts discovered during the excavations, including mosaic tiles, ceramics, coins, and tools, further enriching the understanding of the Roman era. Guided tours and informational panels scattered throughout the site offer additional context, making Conímbriga a compelling destination for history enthusiasts and families alike. The sheer scale and exceptional preservation of Conímbriga make it one of Portugal’s most significant archaeological sites and a captivating side trip from Coimbra.

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).

Conimbriga ruins

There’s also an exhibition which 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.

What to Eat

Coimbra’s culinary scene is steeped in tradition, with many dishes and treats that reflect its rich history and cultural influences. One dish not to be missed is Leitão Assado à Bairrada. This delicacy, traditional to the Bairrada region but widely appreciated in Coimbra, is a succulent roast suckling pig, seasoned with a mix of spices, garlic, and lard, then slowly roasted to perfection in a wood-burning oven. The result is crispy skin and tender, flavourful meat, often served with orange slices and fresh salad.

Equally notable are Coimbra’s sweets, many of which have origins in the city’s convents. The Pastel de Tentúgal and the Pastel de Santa Clara are two such examples. The Pastel de Tentúgal is a delicious puff pastry filled with a sweet mixture of eggs and sugar, while the Pastel de Santa Clara is a larger, round pastry filled with an almond and egg yolk cream. Both are delightfully sweet and offer a rich taste of Coimbra’s culinary heritage. Trying these local specialties is not only a gastronomic pleasure but also a journey into Coimbra’s history and culture.