Lying halfway between Lisbon and Oporto in the Beiras region of central Portugal, venerable Coimbra nestles on the banks of the River Mondego in dignified glory. Famed for its university – the oldest in the country – and a fantastic collection of handsome churches, serene monasteries, and lively cultural institutions, Coimbra is also a busy commercial hub with its many shops, boutiques, and appetizing choice of cafés and restaurants. The city center is divided into two neighborhoods, the Lower Town and the Upper Town. Its historic heart lies high above the Mondego on Alcaçova hill, known to the Romans as Aeminium. Here, medieval convents, cathedrals, and some fine museums cluster around the old University.
Kings were born in Coimbra; they are entombed here, too. Indeed, it was once the proud capital of the Portuguese nation. This royal heritage permeates the city’s steep hills, narrow lanes, and verdant parks, all of which are best explored on foot. And exploration further afield is rewarded with the largest and most compelling Roman site in Portugal, and an emerald-hued forest of enchanting allure and breathtaking beauty.
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 places to visit in Coimbra.
1. University of Coimbra
The city’s high point, the university nucleus, consists of a series of remarkable 16th- to 18th-century buildings, all set within and around the vast Páteo das Escolas (‘patio’ or courtyard). These include the Paço das Escolas (Royal Palace), clock tower, Prisão Acadêmica (prison), Capela de São Miguel (chapel) and Biblioteca Joanina (library).
Visitors to the library are admitted in small groups every 20 minutes. Buy your ticket at the university’s visitor centre near the Porta Férrea. With the exception of the library, you can enter and explore on your own, or head off with a knowledgable university tour guide on one of three different tours (€12.50/15/20). These take place daily at 11am and 3pm.
2. Joanina Library
The Biblioteca Joanina, or university library, is one of the most visited buildings in Coimbra’s university complex. Construction was started in 1717 at the instigation of King Joao V, after whom the library is named, and was completed in 1728. Until its construction the old library had been moved constantly from one location to another, its collection expanding all the time and with no building suitable or large enough to house it. This building in Coimbra’s university complex is a fine sample of baroque architecture and a superb example of a collection of talented artists working together and collaborating to create one of the most extraordinary libraries in the world. As with many historic buildings of this age, the library has been renovated and embellished several times during its long history.
As you enter, your eyes are treated to a feast of red and gold, of arches, carvings and gilded patterns. Don’t miss the beautiful painted panel ceilings, which were undertaken by artist Antonio Simoes Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes, both of whom were brought in from Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, in order to undertake the project. The Chinese motifs are another must-see attraction. Adorning the bookshelves, these motifs were painted by artist Manuel de Silva and took more than three years to complete. Steps leading down from the grand main door will lead you a room that contrasts starkly with the opulent grandeur of the main rooms. Located here in the basement is a small prison, to which scholars and students were sentenced for confinement when convicted by the university’s “in-house” courts of law.
3. Old Cathedral of Coimbra
Founded during the reign of Afonso Henriques, Coimbra’s Old Cathedral represents, through its monumentality, the austere magnitude of the Romanesque architecture. It is seen as a treasure of the Portuguese Romanesque Style and is the only Portuguese cathedral built during the Reconquista era which has remained intact until today. It’s worth your while to cross its magnificent door, which reminds the entrance to a fortress, and discover its interior, where stone has created an impressive space characterized by an alternation of light and shadow which take us through massive columns and delicate capitals full of leaves and animal figures.
You should also save some time to admire the magnificent retable, carved in woodwork, which decorates the centre of the main chapel and is a Renaissance work by Olivier de Gand and Jean d’Ypres. Next to the church, you can appreciate the silence of the Gothic cloister which invites you to quietness and delight. Finally, you can walk around the building and stand in front of the Especiosa Door, a symbol of the Renaissance, scholar and cultural Coimbra. This remarkable work by João de Ruão was sculptured as a gigantic stone retable and displays delicately beautiful sculptured pieces. Next to the entrance, prophet Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist hold the magnificent locket with the image of Madonna and Child. This is considered one the most beautiful pieces of the Portuguese Renaissance.
4. Quinta das Lágrimas
Revive your romantic side with a visit to the stage of the most well-known Portuguese love story. At Quinta das Lágrimas, where Peter and Inês secretly met, there is a hotel incorporated into the Small Luxury Hotels, surrounded by gardens so rich and diverse that they equal the most complete Botanical Gardens in rarity and exoticism. Forget the past and the future and fall in love with here and now. Relax your body at an extraordinary spa and let your spirit fly away while discovering this place.
A love story becomes great because of the tales that keep it alive. And the story of Peter and Inês is no exception. Although the Prince lived with Inês at Santa Clara Palace for many years, folk tradition says that, in order to communicate with his lover, Peter would use a pipe which went through Quinta das Lágrimas until near the Poor Clairs convent. It is said that he would put letters into small wooden boats and then they would travel across the water that came from a fountain, the Fonte dos Amores (Fountain of Love). At Quinta das Lágrimas there is also another fountain, the Fonte das Lágrimas (Fountain of Tears) which, according to legend, is made out of the tears that Inês cried when she was murdered. It is said that the blood from her body left a stain of red seaweed which is still noticeable today.
5. Roman ruins of Conimbriga
Conimbriga is one of Portugal’s largest Roman settlements and arguably its most important. It is classified as a National Monument for its historical importance and is a popular sightseeing destination for visitors to nearby Coimbra and the surrounding area of north central Portugal. Conimbriga is found at a distance of 16km from Coimbra and just 2km from the village of Condeixa-a-Nova. It is easily reached for a morning, afternoon or full-day trip from Coimbra or, if you prefer to stay nearby, there is a popular luxury pousada in the village of Condeixa-a-Nova, which makes a great base from which to explore the surrounding area.
It is estimated that Conimbriga had over 10,000 inhabitants, pointing to its position as an important administrative centre in the region. While Conimbriga was not Portugal’s largest Roman city, it has certainly remained the best preserved. To date, it is estimated that only a tenth of the city has been excavated, and it is from this that archaeologists have been able to piece together its urban structure. The city walls are superbly preserved and there are some delightful examples of mosaic floors and the foundations of houses and public buildings throughout the city. The most important examples are Cantaber’s House, a huge residence dating back to the third century AD, which is one of the largest in the western Roman world, and the House of the Fountains.