5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Coimbra, Portugal

April 20, 2024

A majestic city rising up from the Mondego River, Coimbra is a not only picturesque, but has a rich history and cultural importance in Portugal. You may have stumbled across this article by wondering, is Coimbra worth visiting? My answer is, absolutely! During our trip, I fell in love with this charming city. In this article, I'll share a few reasons why I think you visit Coimbra. Plus, I've included our full 1-day itinerary in Coimbra for inspiration.


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Why Is Coimbra Worth Visiting?

When planning a trip to Portugal, you'll read about so many beautiful places that it's hard to know which ones are worth visiting. I'd argue that Coimbra is definitely worth at least one day of your itinerary, including one night's stay. Let me tell you why I think so.

1) Former Capital of Portugal

First off, did you know Coimbra was once Portugal's capital city? From 1139 to 1255, Coimbra served as Portugal's capital, until it was replaced by Lisbon. Many of the buildings from that period remain, including the former Royal Palace. Combined with the narrow alleyways that twist and turn up the hill, quaint squares, and steep stairways, this medieval city is chocked full of charm. 

For anyone who enjoys wandering through a historic city center and soaking in the old-world charm and medieval architecture, Coimbra is a great spot.

Back of Coimbra Old Cathedral

2) University of Coimbra

Perhaps one of the main reasons to put Coimbra on your itinerary is to visit the University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra). Not only is it Portugal's first university, but it's also one of the oldest universities in Europe and the world.

Although founded in Lisbon in 1290, the university later moved to Coimbra by order of King D. João III in 1537. The university sits atop the city in the former Royal Palace and in many newer buildings surrounding it. 

As a "university town", one of the interesting cultural attractions in Coimbra is seeing all of the students hanging out in their black robes throughout the town. Our trip coincided with the start of the academic year and we noticed several student festivities happening around the town. Took me back to my university days in Washington, DC!

Sé Nova de Coimbra night

Students wearing black robes congregating in front of the New Cathedral in Coimbra

3) Music in the Air 

As we walked around Coimbra, I kept thinking, there's music everywhere here. During the day, street performers and students seemed to be scattered throughout the city singing and playing instruments. At night, strains of soulful fado - Portuguese folk music - echoed through the quiet streets. 

Though it may not be the number one reason to visit Coimbra, the music gives the town a unique and special vibe that I really appreciated.

Fado in Coimbra

4) Small City Charm and Prices

Compared to cities like Lisbon or Porto, Coimbra is much smaller and has a more intimate feeling, especially if you're sticking to the historic section. As a result, the general vibe seemed to be more relaxed and places seemed less crowded - especially at night. It's a nice change of pace to spend a night in Coimbra. 

Another perk of a smaller city is that the prices for food and hotels are lower than Lisbon or Porto. Being a university town, Coimbra also has a great variety of cuisines represented despite being a smaller city.  

5) Great Stop on Portugal Road Trip

Finally, another excellent reason to stop in Coimbra is that it's a perfect mid-way point on a road trip from Porto to Lisbon. About 50 miles inland from the coast in central Portugal, Coimbra is a ~2-hour drive north of Lisbon and 1.5-hour drive south of Porto. 

Along the drive, you'll find many other interesting places to stop for a couple hours here and there. As a result, I'd recommend spending a couple of nights in Coimbra. That way, you leave enough time to stop in places on the way to Coimbra, but still have at least a full day in Coimbra itself.

Coimbra is also a great place to use as a base to spend a few days exploring central Portugal. You can find several day trips starting from Coimbra, such as the ones below.

How to Get To Coimbra

Coimbra is located in a pretty convenient spot in the heart of Portugal and there are several ways to get there. If you're planning to fly, you'll have to land in Porto first (closest airport) or Lisbon (larger airport), then choose one of the ways below. 

Driving to Coimbra 

We found that driving to Coimbra was pretty simple. Given that Coimbra is just off the A1 highway - a major route from Lisbon to Porto - it's easy to stop as you drive between the two cities. 

Once you arrive in Coimbra, however, you should plan to park at a parking lot outside the old city. As mentioned above, roads in historic Coimbra are narrow and probably confusing if you're driving, plus many have Limited Traffic Zones. As a visitor, it's best to avoid accidentally entering one and incurring a hefty fine. 

If you plan to stay overnight in Coimbra, parking is also something you should factor into your accommodations decision as most places do not have parking on-site. 

Getting to Coimbra by Train

Trains running between Lisbon and Porto stop in Coimbra, so it's easy to work Coimbra into your itinerary. You can check out the train schedules on Comboios de Portugal.

Coimbra itself has two train stations:

  • Coimbra B (~2 km / 1.3 mi from historic center) is the one on the route from Lisbon to Porto.
  • Coimbra A (500 m / 0.3 mi from historic center) - you can catch a train from Coimbra B to this station. From Coimbra A, it's an easy walk into town.

Getting to Coimbra by Bus

Getting to Coimbra by bus from either Lisbon or Porto (and other destinations) is also pretty easy and very affordable. The Coimbra Central Bus Station is located on Avenida Fernão de Magalhães, which is ~1.2 km / 0.75 mi from the city center. 

You can check out bus rates and routes on Omio

Where to Stay in Coimbra

Despite its smaller size, Coimbra has a nice variety of places to stay. If you're looking to be close to or in the old city, you'll probably find yourself staying in an apartment or boutique hotel. Larger hotels, as well as those that are more accessible, tend to be located along the main road - Avenida Fernão de Magalhães.

Places to Stay in Coimbra

To give you an idea of what you can expect to find in Coimbra for accommodations, I'll share where we stayed, as well as some other highly-rated hotels in town. You can also use the Coimbra accommodations map below to get an idea of budget and what's available in the city.

Casas da Alegria

During our 2-night stay in Coimbra, we stayed in a spacious apartment on R. de Alegria that featured a balcony with river views. Named Casas da Alegria, the hosts own the entire building, which has apartments on each floor and no elevator. Since we booked the unit at the top, we had a little climb each day.

Inside, the apartment has a 2-story layout. On the ground floor of the unit, there's a living room with a sofa bed, plus a kitchen and full bathroom. Upstairs, you'll find a bedroom with a king bed and another full bathroom (shower only), plus the large balcony.

Coimbra apartment living room
Casas da Alegria bedroom
Balcony view in Coimbra

Gorgeous balcony view

One of the other highlights for us was the washing machine and drying rack on the balcony. At this point in the trip, we needed to do laundry so that also took up some of our time in Coimbra.

Hotels in Coimbra

If you're not keen to stay in an apartment, you might enjoy staying in one of Coimbra's hotels instead. Below are a few well-reviewed properties that I would consider for a future trip:

  • Sapientia Boutique Hotel: An upscale boutique hotel just steps from the University of Coimbra.
  • Hotel Mondego: An art deco hotel close to the Coimbra A Railway Station with wheelchair-accessible rooms.
  • Solar Antigo Luxury Coimbra: A quirky hotel in the old city with unique, lavishly-decorated rooms.
  • Quinta Das Lagrimas: A luxury 5-star resort with full spa, swimming pool, and valet parking located across the river in the Santa Clara neighborhood. Short drive to Coimbra's old city.

1.5 Days in Coimbra

On our visit, we stayed for 2 nights in Coimbra. This schedule not only gave us one full day in Coimbra, but also an evening and morning on the shoulder days.

Since we were doing laundry throughout the day in Coimbra, we probably did not see as much as we might have otherwise. Several times, we had to return to our apartment to pull laundry out of the washer and hang it on the drying rack. Doing so broke up the flow of our day a bit. Still, we managed to see quite a bit and the sun in Coimbra was perfect for drying clothes!

Arriving in Coimbra

The day that we arrived in Coimbra, we started our journey in the Douro Valley. We took a meandering route, enjoying the Portuguese countryside. Along the way, we stopped for several hours in Aveiro - a charming seaside town about 60 km / 37 mi north of Coimbra which is known for its canals. 

Checking in to Casas da Alegria

Arriving in Coimbra, we arranged to meet up with our host at a local bar. There, Carlos, who is the host's father, got us a drink as we attempted conversation. Carlos didn't speak a lot of English (his words; I thought he did great). We were pretty rusty on all the languages he did speak. So, Ismael (our host) was on the phone and translating for the first part of the check-in. 

First, Carlos showed us how to get into their private parking garage where they have spaces for guests. It was €12 per night, which was about half the price of the public parking garages. Although normally they drive guests up to the property, it was a short walk and we didn't have much luggage. So instead, Carlos helped us to wheel our luggage up the hill and to carry it up the stairs in the building. 

Then, he showed us around the apartment and let us know where everything was. Both Carlos and Ismael were so welcoming. Even though we had a bit of a language barrier, we made it work. Navigating situations like this is just one reason I love to travel. 

Evening in Coimbra

After checking in, it was getting late so we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from our balcony at Casas da Alegria.

Coimbra sunset

Then, we set out to explore a bit of the historic section of Coimbra at night while looking for a place to eat dinner.

Dinner at Fangas Maior

Along a charming street, we sat down at Fangas Maior, a tapas-style restaurant focusing on using Portuguese ingredients to create unique dishes paired with a great wine list. Since the portions are smaller, you can order a bunch of things to share. We enjoyed the smoked sausage, stuffed portobello mushrooms with sausage and almonds, plus the aubergine gratin. 

Dinner at Fangas Maior

If you don't eat meat, you might enjoy Fangas Veg instead. A similar concept to Fangas Maior, but they only serve vegetarian food.

Coimbra 1-Day Itinerary

Our second day in Coimbra was our only full day to explore. One day is probably enough time to spend here, especially if your Portugal itinerary is tight.

However, a couple days in Coimbra would make it easier to see the highlights, plus see some of the things we missed. Though, we would have seen more in our day if we hadn't been doing laundry, so there's that.

Breakfast at Pastelaria Briosa de Coimbra

We started off our morning in Coimbra with a couple of pastries and coffee from a bakery near our apartment called Pastelaria Briosa. Its beautiful window display lured us in. As we enjoyed our pastries alfresco, we watched the hustle and bustle along the R. Ferreira Borges.

Briosa breakfast Coimbra

Walking around Coimbra's Baixa District

After breakfast, we wandered down the R. Ferreira Borges into the bustling shopping district, known as Baixa. Anything from pharmacies to clothing stores, fruit stands to souvenir shops, you can find it in this maze of narrow streets and pedestrian alleys.

Arco de Barbacã 

As we walked along R. Ferreira Borges, we passed the Arco de Barbacã, a 16th-century arch leading up to the university area.

Arco de Barbacã Coimbra
Arco de Almedina

To find the original medieval arch, Arco de Almedina, head up through up through the Arco de Barbacã and around the corner. The Arco de Almedina is the gateway to the medieval walled city of Coimbra. Since we didn't actually go through the gate that morning, I only have a picture from the other side at night. 

Arco de Almedina and Fado Monument

In front of the Arco de Almedina is the Monument to Fado bronze sculpture, which is half guitar, half woman.

Church of Santiago

Continuing the Baixa walk, another historic sight which caught our eye was the Church of Santiago (Igreja de São Tiago), a Romanesque church built in the 12th century.

Church of Santiago
Praça do Comércio

In front of the Church of Santiago, you'll see the Praça do Comércio - Coimbra's largest square. Once a market square, now mostly apartments and businesses occupy the 18th-century buildings. Although active during the day, the square is surprisingly quiet at night. 

Igreja de S. Bartolomeu

At the southern end of the square, sits another church - Igreja de S. Bartolomeu. Rebuilt in the 18th century in a simple Baroque style, the current structure took the place of a 10th-century church that was destroyed during the 12th century.

Red building Coimbra

Igreja de S. Bartolomeu is the church in the background. I love the contrast of the colorful buildings with the older ones.

Coimbra Street Art 

This area also has a few murals that are worth a look - especially this one just off the Praça do Comércio . 

Mural in Coimbra
Coimbra Town Hall

At the northern end of the Baixa district, we came across the Coimbra Town Hall in the Praça 8 de maio. It's a pretty building, but the main attraction in this square is the Santa Cruz Church and Monastery that sits beside it.

Coimbra Town Hall

Santa Cruz Church and Monastery

The Santa Cruz Church and Monastery (known in Portuguese as Mosteiro e Igreja da Santa Cruz, or in full English, as Monastery and Church of the Holy Cross) is one of the oldest churches in Coimbra.

Santa Cruz Church Coimbra

Built in the 12th century, it is an important National Monument as Portugal's first two kings, Afonso Henriques and Sancho I, are entombed inside it. Due to this, the church also has the status of a National Pantheon.

Santa Cruz Church interior

First built in 1131, little remains of the original structure. Most of the complex dates to a reconstruction in the 1500s which was done in the Manueline, or Portuguese Gothic, architectural style. The church's interior is lined with baroque tile panels, or azulejos, crafted in Lisbon. 

Entrance to the Igreja de Santa Cruz is free, however, to tour the monastery and cloisters (which I recommend) it costs €4 pp.

Santa Cruz Monastery cloister

Cloister at the Santa Cruz Monastery

Santa Cruz Monastery cloister courtyard

Lunch at OAK Food, Beer, Wine

After a morning of walking around the town, we ate a scrumptious lunch at OAK Food, Beer, Wine. Their specialty is a lighter version of the Francesinha - one of Porto's traditional sandwiches. Vegetarians will delight in their veggie francesinha which is loaded with fresh and flavorful vegetables.

Traditionally, the sandwich is comprised of bread, layers of meat (ham, steak, roast, etc.), and melted cheese. The whole thing is topped with a hot tomato-and-beer sauce, known as molho de francesinha, plus an egg. Then it's paired with fries.

Francesinha sandwich at OAK Food, Beer, Wine

OAK's version still has the meats (unless you get the vegetarian one), but the cuts seem thinner or perhaps there are fewer layers. The fries are a mix of regular fries and sweet potato - my favorite!

Historic Coimbra

After lunch, we headed up into the historic upper town. Once the heart of the city, from which Portugal's early kings ruled, winding streets climb up the hillside and eventually reach the university.

The roads leading up to the university are fun to explore. On some streets, you'll find well-maintained apartments and trendy restaurants. Nearby, you'll find more rundown houses sprinkled with graffiti, which are mostly the student housing areas, known as repúblicas. This may turn some people off, but I found it to be an interesting mix and a visual representation of university life in this historic city.

Alley in Coimbra at night

For some reason, I only seem to have night photos of the streets.

Alley in Coimbra with graffiti

Old Cathedral of Coimbra

As we climbed, we stopped at Coimbra's Old Cathedral, or Sé Velha de Coimbra. Built in the 12th century, this church is one of Portugal's best examples of Romanesque architecture. In 1185, the second king of Portugal, Sancho I, was crowded here.

Old Cathedral Coimbra

Unlike many of Portugal's churches, the interior nave retains much of the original Romanesque features. In 1218, construction of the Gothic cloisters began. They were one of the first Gothic works in Portugal. 

Sé Velha de Coimbra interior
Altar of Sé Velha de Coimbra
Cloister at Sé Velha de Coimbra

New Cathedral of Coimbra

Since we visited the Old Cathedral in Coimbra, it seems fair to talk about Coimbra's New Cathedral (Sé Nova de Coimbra). Started in 1598 by the Jesuits, it was completed in the 17th century, so really, it's only "new" in relative terms.

Sé Nova de Coimbra

Although we didn't go inside, we admired the impressive white facade from the outside. Located next to the university, the outside steps of the cathedral seemed to be a meeting place for students after classes.

University of Coimbra 

One of the main reasons to visit Coimbra is to tour the University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra). One of the world's oldest universities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was first established in Lisbon in 1290. Although it moved several times, it was permanently established in Coimbra in 1537. 

University of Coimbra

Located at the top of Coimbra's old city, the university occupies the former Royal Palace as well as many newer buildings around it. Walking around this section of the city, it definitely feels like a university campus.

Pro Tip: As the main attraction, it's important to buy tickets in advance to tour the interior spaces of the university, such as the Joanina Library, St. Michael's Chapel, and the former Royal Palace. We bought our self-guided tickets on the university's website earlier on the same day as we toured and it cost €13.50 pp. For a bit more, you could purchase a guided tour to the Palace of Schools.

Joanina Library

If the university is the main attraction in Coimbra, its baroque library - Biblioteca Joanina - is the showstopper. The Joanina Library gets its name from King João V, who sponsored its construction in the early 1700s.

No photos are allowed inside - to preserve the library or to prevent Instagram madness, I wonder? So, picture in your mind - a huge hall with elaborate ceiling frescos, long rosewood, ebony and jacaranda tables, and soaring gilt chinoiserie shelves holding around 40,000 books. It's an impressive sight.

The time on your ticket is for entry to the Joanina Library. Since entry is strictly controlled, be sure to be on time. You'll enter with a group through a side door on the southern end of the library on the Minerva Stairs.

St. Michael's Chapel

After leaving the Joanina Library, we made our way to St. Michael's Chapel. Originally built in the 12th century as the private oratory for the former Royal Palace, it's named for the Archangel Michael.

St. Michael's Chapel Coimbra

Another stunning and opulently decorated space, the chapel was renovated in 16th century under the reign of King Manuel. Its current decor, such as the tilework, was completed in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Royal Palace

Next, we toured a few of the rooms from the former Royal Palace, including the Great Hall of Acts and the Private Examination Room.

During the first Portuguese dynasty (1143-1383), the Great Hall of Acts was the Throne Room and residence of the Portuguese kings. Once the university opened in the Palace of Schools, this hall became the space where important academic ceremonies took place.

Great Hall of Acts University of Coimbra

The Private Examination Room served as the king's quarters during the Royal Palace days. Later, it was transformed into a space where students took their oral exams until the practice was abolished in the 18th century.

The ceiling fresco includes the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Portugal as well as representations of the faculties at the university. Portraits of 38 university rectors from the 16th-18th centuries line the walls.  

Private Examination Room University of Coimbra

Coimbra Botanical Garden and Aqueduct

One sight that we missed in Coimbra was the University of Coimbra's Botanical Garden (Jardim Botânico). Founded in 1772, this beautiful green space covers 13 ha (32 acres) and is divided into different levels covered with a wide range of plants from around the world. Throughout the garden, various sculptures and fountains from the 19th and 20th centuries decorate the space. 

When entering the garden, you'll pass under a 16th-century aqueduct - San Sebastian Aqueduct (Aqueduto de São Sebastião) - which was built where an old Roman aqueduct once stood. Also called the "Arches of the Garden" or "arcos do jardim", the aqueduct is one kilometer long and has 21 arches.

Dinner at Sete Restaurante 

For dinner on our second night, we headed back over to the Praça 8 de maio to Sete Restaurante. This Portuguese restaurant serves what I'd consider traditional, hearty meat-based dishes as mains while the starters are a bit lighter. The octopus and lamb shank we ordered were delicious.

Dinner at Restaurante Sete

Sitting outside on the small deck area meant we could enjoy a bit of people-watching as we ate. Although we didn't see a fado show while we were in Coimbra, we heard notes of the performances echoing through the streets.

Departing Coimbra - Best Viewpoint

The next morning, we left Coimbra to continue our road trip. Our host at Casas da Alegria, Ismael, picked us up at the apartment to drive us, and our luggage, back to our car. As we departed the city, however, we made one last stop across the Mondego River for an amazing view of Coimbra.

Becky at Coimbra viewpoint

Although we drove, you could easily walk to this viewpoint. Just cross the Ponte de Santa Clara and turn right on Av. Conimbriga. There's not only plenty of parking along this street, but also a lovely river walking path. 

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article convinced you that Coimbra is worth a visit while you're visiting Portugal. I fell in love with this vibrant university town with its rich history, winding streets, and amazing food. And I hope that you will too!

Happy travels!

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5 Reasons to Visit Coimbra, Portugal
5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Coimbra
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