On the high banks of the Mondego River, Coimbra is a city with the oldest university in the country.
The prestige of this school will hit you when you step onto the Paço das Escolas courtyard.
In this rich ensemble of buildings is one of the finest libraries you’ll ever set foot in.
The university is found precisely where Portugal’s first kings had taken up residence centuries before, and the city’s monasteries have tombs for these rulers.
For culture, you’ll learn about the tragic love affair between the medieval Prince Pedro I and the noblewoman Inês, while Coimbra has its own genre of fado music that also originated at the university.
Lets explore the best things to do in Coimbra:
1. University of Coimbra
The oldest university in Portugal is a World Heritage Site, high on a hill in the middle of the city.
It’s a big tourist draw and has hundreds of years of history to show off.
You could scale the 180 steps in the 16th-century tower at the highest point of the university for an awesome perspective of the city.
Also well worth your time is the Sala dos Capelos, the 17th-century ceremonial hall and you need to survey the magnificent ensemble on the Paço das Escolas courtyard.
Unruly students were locked up at the students’ prison, and you’ll begin the whole experience by crossing the Iron Gate, which was once the entrance to Coimbra’s medieval citadel.
2. Biblioteca Joanina
This esteemed Baroque library is on the Paço das Escolas, where Portugal’s earliest kings once lived.
It goes back to the 1720s and needs to be seen to be believed.
The library is composed of three vast salons, bounded by monumental doorways.
Each salon has tall lacquered and gilded shelves, and enormous study tables made with dark hardwood shipped over from Brazil.
There are more than 250,000 volumes here, dating from the 1500s to the 1700s and dealing with history, geography, medicine, law and science.
One of the curious things you’ll learn about the library is that it maintains a colony of bats bred to eat insects that would damage the books.
3. Chapel of São Miguel
The university’s chapel is from the first decades of the 16th century and abounds with history and sumptuous fittings.
The main portal is Neoclassical and from the 18th century, but if you step across to the side entrance there are some extraordinary Manueline carvings.
The walls and ceiling of the choir are festooned with colourful 17th-century azulejos, manufactured in Lisbon but with a clear Dutch inspiration.
The altarpiece is held as a Mannerist masterpiece and has 16th-century paintings of the life of Christ.
Last up is the working organ, with a gleaming Baroque case and dating to 1733.
4. Machado de Castro National Museum
With a very atmospheric venue Coimbra’s episcopal palace, this fantastic Museum is named for the 18th and 19th-century sculptor, Joaquim Machado de Castro.
The building was constructed in phases from medieval times onwards, and is found at the same site as Coimbra’s Roman forum.
A vestige of this ancient history, the cryptoporticus (covered passageway) is preserved in the lower levels.
The museum’s art has been curated from regional churches and other defunct religious institutions.
You’ll browse the largest collection of sculpture in any Portuguese National Museum, as well as tapestries, ceramic altarpieces and a catalogue of paintings from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
5. Monastery of Santa Cruz
Rooted in the earliest years of the Portuguese monarchy, this monastery goes back to the 12th century.
The architecture though is later, with a 16th-century Manueline design summed up by the captivating decoration on the main portal, ceiling and cloister outside.
Later that same century the pulpit and gilded wooden stalls were added in a resplendent Renaissance style.
But the big story at the monastery has to be the tombs of Portugal’s first two kings, Afonso Henriques and Sancho I. They reigned in the 12th century and in the 1500s their remains were transferred to a marvellous Manueline ensemble sculpted by Nicolau Chanterene.
6. Old Cathedral of Coimbra
Back when Coimbra was a frontier between Christianity and Islam, King Afonso Henriques established this Romanesque cathedral.
It was built not long after his victory over the Moors at the Battle of Ourique in 1139, and unlike other churches of its day has kept a lot of its Romanesque character.
You’ll know that you’re at a boundary between worlds when you approach the austere facade, which is capped with crenellations and has only slender openings in its wall.
Inside, the primitive barrel vault hints at the great age of the cathedral, and the column capitals have wonderful foliate, geometric and bestial designs.
Lovers of medieval art will have 380 of these masterful capitals to inspect!
7. Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha
Yet another monument intertwined with Portuguese medieval history, the Gothic Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha has the added mystique of once submerged by the river.
It dates to the 1300s but after the Mondego had flooded over hundreds of years the site was abandoned in the 1600s when the convent’s nuns moved to higher ground and founded the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova.
This site was turned into a proper attraction in the noughties, when an interpretation route and visitor centre were set up.
At the centre you’ll get to see short film about the monastery, including its foundation by the 14th-century Queen Elizabeth.
She is buried at the monastery in an imposing Gothic tomb.
8. Pedro e Inês Bridge
An integral part of any walking tour in Coimbra, the Pedro e Inês Bridge is a footbridge that opened in 2007. As well as gifting you a photogenic view of the university on the right bank, the bridge has a cool, clever design.
It doesn’t actually meet in the middle; instead there are two cantilevered walkways, joining at the middle to create a wide viewing platform.
The balustrade is also snazzy, made from sheets of yellow, pink, blue and green glass in an irregular geometric pattern.
9. Quinta das Lágrimas
That footbridge is named for the story of the 14th-century figures Pedro I the future king and Inês de Castro, his wife’s lady in waiting.
They had a long affair, with Inês bearing four children, before she was assassinated in Coimbra on Pedro’s father’s orders in 1355. The park at the Quinta das Lágrimas (Estate of Tears) is supposedly where she died.
The story goes that she was killed at the fountain; her blood is meant to have stained the stone on the fountain.
The palace at the estate is now a pousada (heritage hotel), but the park is open to visitors.
10. Penedo da Saudade
East of the university is a hilltop garden, gazing out over a large sweep of Coimbra and the Mondego River, as well as the Lousã and Roxo mountains.
This is meant to be where Pedro would come to grieve for Inês, and since the 19th century has been adopted as a hangout for Coimbra’s students.
It’s a place for romantic encounters, and on the rocky walls of the garden are more than a century’s worth of plaques inscribed with poems (some about love, others lamenting homesickness), or commemorating distant events in the university’s past.
11. New Cathedral
The name “New Cathedral” (Sé Nova) is a little deceiving as this fine church is almost 500 years old.
It began as a Jesuit temple, and the exterior has a Mannerist and Baroque design.
The lower half is older and more sober, with pediments and niches, while the top half has far more lavish sculpture, composed of pinnacles, scrolls and a coat of arms.
Not long after the Jesuits were thrown out of Portugal in 1759, this church was picked for the new cathedral because of its ample size.
A few ornaments were brought from the Old Cathedral, like the 17th-century choir stalls, gilded reredos and the marvellous baptismal font, carved from stone in the Manueline style at the start of the 1500s.
12. Botanic Garden
The University’s Botanic Garden was founded in 1772 for the medical and natural history faculties.
The influential botanist Avelar Brotero used the gardens in the early 19th century, founded several publications based on his findings here and also set up the university’s school for botanical studies.
The garden covers 13 hectares, and on the Quadrado Central towards the top of the hill there are several trees planted in Brotero’s day, like the Japanese sugi pine and the coral tree.
Lower in the valley is a bamboo plantation and forest with 51 eucalyptus species.
You might notice you have brown squirrels for company; these were introduced to the park, starting with six couples in 1994.
13. Portugal dos Pequenitos
Monasteries, libraries and churches aren’t necessarily for youngsters.
So if you need some child-friendly inspiration in Coimbra try this park near the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova.
The attraction began in 1938 and was developed over the next 20 years.
Across eight zones there are kid-sized scale models of Coimbra and Portugal’s most famous monuments, as well as landmarks in the country’s former colonies in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.
There’s a miniature train at the park, as well as a small museums for costume, furniture and the Portuguese Navy.
14. Queima das Fitas
At a university as old as Coimbra’s there are bound to be some eccentric customs.
One is the Queima das Fitas (Burning of the Ribbons). This ceremony in May has been picked up by other institutions around Portugal, but in Coimbra it has even been elevated to a tourist attraction.
There are parades, dances and music performances: In one memorable event the students dressed in their faculty colours gather in front of the Old Cathedral for the traditional Coimbra Fado serenade.
The actual burning takes places at the Largo da Feira, when their faculty ribbons are set alight in a time-honoured ceremony to bring their university days to an end.
Possibly the largest, but definitely the most intact, Roman ruins in Portugal are a few minutes from Coimbra in Condeixa-a-Nova.
This was once a walled city, with defences that went on for 1,500 metres.
When you arrive there’s a visitor centre with some of the finds made on this site, around 10% of which has been excavated so far.
The domus, Casa dos Repuxos (House of the Fountain) is a spectacular aristocratic abode sheltered by a modern glass canopy.
It dates to the 1st and 2nd centuries and has an elaborate fountain, mosaics and traces of a painted mural.