Coimbra may not be the most popular name that pops up when it comes to Portugal travel, but it’s definitely still a worthwhile stop especially if you’re travelling from south to north of Portugal. This is exactly the case for us as we planned to travel from Lisbon to Porto during this 10-day Portugal trip. We first spend 4 days in Lisbon (including a day trip to Sintra and Cascais) before visiting Coimbra for 2 days.
Coimbra (2 days)
What’s special about Coimbra? First up, the city is famous for its University, which is one of the oldest in Europe. The city oozes history and you can see a mix of both Roman and Moorish influences across its streets and architecture. It actually once served as the capital of Portugal back in medieval times and is known to be the cultural hub of the country. Additionally, located on the banks of the River Mondego, it’s quite a scenic city to visit as well. Here is our itinerary:
Getting to Coimbra
Regular trains operate from Lisbon to Coimbra. From Santa Apolónia station in Lisbon (near Alfama), it was roughly a 1.5hour train ride to Coimbra’s Coimbra-B station. You then have to take another quick 5-minute ride on a local line to actually get to Coimbra’s town centre/university hub.
Coimbra City Centre & Fado Music
We arrived in Coimbra at nighttime and went straight to bed at our AirBnb after a quick bite. The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we started our way around Coimbra’s town centre. Weaving through the cobbled streets, we got to see charming cafes along the way and also encountered some live Fado performances at the city centre.
Fado is a type of Portuguese music/singing and a tradition of the region that dates back to medieval times. You’ll find a group of men dressed in black robes and capes carrying guitarra portuguesa and viola singing on the streets.
Sé Velha & The National Museum
From the city centre, we continued uphill towards the upper city. En route towards the National Museum, we walked past Sé Velha, a historical fortress-like cathedral in Coimbra. We didn’t go inside, but its exterior architecture widely reminded me of the Cathedral Basilica of Ciutadella de Menorca in Spain. It would somewhat make sense, backed with the history of the country, that the two may share a similarity where the Catholic church has been built over the site of an old mosque.
At the National Museum, we were greeted with a gorgeous panoramic view of the city. Once again, we didn’t go inside the museum, but the view is certainly a worthwhile visit. I particularly loved the way the large columns and arches frame against the backdrop of the scenery.
University of Coimbra
Pretty much just around the corner is the University of Coimbra. The historical university houses plenty of sights to see, from architecture to chapels and its famous Baroque-style library. The first thing I noticed about the university is its striking architectural resemblance to the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. I definitely believe the Moors has built this university based on Fez’s blueprint and, over time, adding European touches to it.
There are a few impressive sights to see, including the bell tower which offers a bird’s eye view of the city, as well as the Saint Michael’s Chapel housing a majestic pipe organ and beautiful neoclassical architecture.
- €12.50 including entry to University of Coimbra, Royal Palace Hall, Saint Michael’s Chapel, Science Museum, and Joanine Library
- €7 the above but without Joanine Library
- Free for children below 12 years old
The Royal Palace Hall
Next up, we paid the Royal Palace Hall a visit as well before calling it a day at the University of Coimbra. There was quite an exhibition at the armoury section, showcasing a range of weapons and military uniforms of the old Academic Royal Guard. From there, you get a glimpse of the halls and rooms for ceremonial purposes. It’s interesting because it used to be the residence of the kings of the first Portuguese dynasty before turning into a university. Whilst it’s not the fanciest of palaces to visit around the world, it’s still one with plenty of history. Once again, if you look closely, you get to see a mix of both Moorish and renaissance influences in its architecture.
My favourite part, though, is being able to get out to the balcony for a bird’s eye view of the city from the sea of red roofs to and beyond the river.
The Joanine Library
The Joanine Library is arguably the most famous site in the University of Coimbra and one of the most spectacular historic libraries in the world. The photo below doesn’t actually show how it looks like because photographs are not allowed in the actual library.
You get an appointed time slot to visit the library when purchasing your ticket. The tour starts with a little visit down the dungeons where misbehaving students get locked up for disciplinary actions. Then the tour takes you through a few levels of the library before arriving at the main library.
The library showcases gorgeous Baroque-style architecture and designs. Lavish gold and dark ornate wood adorned the entire hire from ceiling to floor. Fun fact, there are actual bats living in this very library and they fly out every night!
Science Museum & the Confucius Institution
The Science Museum is quite a fascinating visit. It showcases historic astronomical and scientific instruments that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as plenty of exhibitions relating to the fields of anthropology, botany, mineralogy, medicine and zoology. They have quite a collection in the natural history part which I enjoyed the most.
Totally unplanned, we stumbled across the Confucius Institute and decided to pop inside there for a little bit. It’s just a simple exhibition showcasing a little Chinese calligraphy and literature, but a nice little surprise nonetheless.
Breakfast at the Igreja de Santa Cruz
On our last morning, we popped into the Igreja de Santa Cruz, not for sightseeing, but to have breakfast inside! Okay, maybe it’s a little kill two birds with one stone situation as you do get a glimpse of the architecture at the church although it’s not particularly special in my opinion.
The Café Santa Cruz was originally created in 1530 as a parish church but had undergone many changes and served many different purposes over the years before finally becoming a cafe and a meeting point for locals. Food-wise, we didn’t find it anything impressive but it’s a fairly cool spot to hang around. In the evenings, there are also fado music performances there.
That summed up our short but fulfilling two days in the city of Coimbra. In the late morning after breakfast, we went back to Coimbra-B station and hopped on the train to continue our journey to Aveiro (part 4) and, lastly, Porto (part 5).