Wander through the narrow streets of Coimbra and you will come upon all kinds of fun places to see and explore. This small city in central Portugal is city rich in history, tradition and natural beauty. Add to that, quaint cafés, restaurants, places to hear the uniquely Portuguese fado music and even a museum for sardines!
But be prepared to do some walking. Coimbra, like Lisbon and Porto, is a city of hills. It will mean lot of climbing and a lot of steps. You might opt to take a ride in one of the city’s small electric buses on the Linha Azul. It’s quite a sight to see how the little buses squeak through the narrowest of streets with just inches to spare on either side. Skilled drivers no less!
University of Coimbra
Coimbra is best known for its ancient university. This famous institution is renowned as one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world.
Founded in Lisbon in 1290 by King Dinis, the university moved back and forth between Lisbon and Coimbra several times over the next 300 years. In 1537, during the reign of King João (John) III, the university moved into the former Alcora Palace high above Coimbra. A statue of the king – looking remarkably like his contemporary, Henry VIII of England – stands in the Paço das Escolas or University Patio. This immense plaza looks out over the Rio Mondego, the broad river that bisects the city.
On one side of the Paço das Escolas stands the magnificent library, the Biblioteca Joanina or Joanine Library. Founded in 1717, it has more than 40,000 rare books. Also in the square is the São Miguel Chapel whose massive organ has more nearly 2,000 pipes!
Tours of the university, including access to the Joanine Library cost 12.50 euros. A tour without the library is available for 7 euros.
Since the university is at the top of the hill dominating Coimbra it’s a good place to start a tour. On the hillside beside the university are the beautiful botanical gardens, the Jardim Botanica da Universidade.
Cathedrals, churches and monasteries
Other Coimbra attractions include the “old” and “new” cathedrals.
The massive and somewhat foreboding Sé Velha (old cathedral) looks more like a military stronghold than a church. It even has narrow windows and battlements more proper to a fortress. The explanation for its martial appearance stems from its construction date during the late 12th Century. This was a time when Portugal was battling the Moors and when Coimbra was the country’s capital.
The Sé Nova (“new” cathedral) is a much more elegant structure. This beautiful building , with its curvaceous facade, started life as a Jesuit church in 1543 and officially became the cathedral a couple of hundred years later.
Coimbra is also home to two famous monasteries, the Igreja e Mosteiro da Santa Cruz and the Mosteiro de Santa Clara Velha.
And while exploring Coimbra’s historic places, don’t forget to visit the Machado de Castro National Museum. This architecturally superb museum houses a wide collection of jewelry, sculpture, paintings and ceramics, mostly from convents and monasteries around the diocese of Coimbra.
Parque Verde do Mondego
Coimbra has a lot of fun places to see. But at some point it’s worth taking a break from the history. That’s when it’s time to take a stroll to the Parque Verde do Mondego by the river. If you’re lucky, and the sun is shining you will see a blaze of rainbow colors in the water feature on the city side of the park. In the middle of the park you might do a double-take when you see a giant green statue of a bear. It looks as if it were made of grass but on close examination you can see it’s astroturf.
At the end of the park, a path leads to a modern footbridge dedicated to Pedro and Inês. These 14th Century star-crossed lovers are often called the Portuguese Romeo and Juliet. Pedro, an heir to the Portuguese throne, fell in love with a lady-in-waiting, Inês de Castro. It’s a dark and tragic story of political intrigue. In short, Pedro’s enemies captured and killed Inês, leaving Pedro heartbroken.
Sardines and your birthday
Sardines are close to every Portuguese heart. So it’s no wonder there is a virtual shrine to the little fish in Coimbra. On the list of the fun places to see is the Mundo Fantastico Das Conservas Portugues. Here you will find every flavor of sardine imaginable. You can pick a can of sardines from the year of your birth. Or maybe sardines packed in a gold tin. Kind of like a fishy version of gold bricks.
How to get to Coimbra
By Car: Coimbra is appoximately 200 km from Lisbon. Driving from Lisbon using the A1 toll highway takes about 2 hours.
Train: from Lisbon Santa Apolonia station to Coimbra takes between 1 hr. 40 mins. to about 2 hours. depending on which service you choose. Tickets are between about 20 euros to 35 euros depending on the service and class of ticket. All train seats are assigned. Travelers aged 65 and over can ride half price with ID. (Information at Comboios de Portugal.)
Bus: from Sete Rios bus station in Lisbon takes about 2 hours to Coimbra. Tickets cost about 13 euros. Information at Rede Expressos.)