Last Updated on December 28, 2023

Coimbra is a magnificently preserved medieval old town on my family’s travel radar list for our next visit to Portugal. Situated along the graceful curves of the Mondego River, Coimbra emerges as a living testament to Portugal’s storied past and unyielding spirit.

With a skyline punctuated by the ancient spires of its renowned university, Coimbra exudes an air of scholarly reverence that has permeated its cobblestone streets for centuries.

As the rhythmic footsteps of students echo through the narrow alleys and the city’s distinctive fado music floats on the breeze, one cannot help, but be captivated by the enchanting blend of history, culture, and tradition that defines this medieval gem.

From the shadowy arches of the Joanina Library to the sun-drenched courtyards of the Royal Palace, Coimbra invites explorers to wander through the pages of time, where each stone bears witness to the vibrant tapestry of the city’s captivating narrative.

Though Lisbon and Porto may be Portugal’s most visited locations, let’s look at the reasons why Coimbra is a destination that shouldn’t be missed.

University of Coimbra

The University of Coimbra is not only a prestigious institution of higher learning, but also a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its establishment as one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world.

Built on the grounds of a former palace, visitors enjoy wandering through its impressive Joanina Library, the Royal Palace of Alcáçova, another remarkable structure, and the picturesque university grounds.

The University Tower, also known as the Clock Tower, is an iconic symbol of the university renowned for panoramic views of the city.

View of Coimbra university at sunny weather, Portugal
View of Coimbra university at sunny weather, Portugal. Courtesy Deposit Photos.

Botanical Garden of the University of Coimbra

The beautiful Botanical Garden of the University of Coimbra is one of the oldest in Europe. It was founded in 1772 with the primary purpose of supporting the study of natural sciences, particularly botany.

Its layout follows the traditional geometric design typical of 18th-century European botanical gardens and includes diverse and exotic plant collections, themed gardens, greenhouses and tranquil pathways. In addition, an old observatory once used for astronomical observations adds historical interest to these magnificent gardens.

Conímbriga

The ancient Roman archeological site of Conímbriga stands as one of the best-preserved Roman settlements on the Iberian Peninsula providing valuable insight into Roman urban life during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Awe-inspiring mosaic floors, baths, ancient streets, a forum and other well-preserved structures such as the House of Cantaber, the House of Fountains and the House of the Labyrinth showcase the incredible architectural mastery in this historic city.

Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal of the Little Ones)

Littles and big kids at heart can immerse themselves in the whimsical world of “Portugal dos Pequenitos,” a miniature park that showcases scaled-down replicas of Portugal’s most iconic buildings, monuments and cultural landmarks.

The main attraction of this delightful park is its collection of miniature replicas of Portuguese houses, churches, monuments and cultural landmarks. These scaled-down structures provide visitors, especially children, with an interactive and educational experience.

Santa Clara-a-Velha

Santa Clara-a-Velha, founded in the 14th century, is a historic site with archeological remains of a medieval monastery located on the banks of the Mondego River. The site offers a fascinating look into Portugal’s history and architecture.

In the 20th century, archeological excavations uncovered not only the foundations and remnants of the original monastery, but discovered the layout of the original church and artifacts providing additional context about the building’s architecture, history, and the daily life of the nuns who once inhabited the monastery.

Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova

Given Coimbra’s fascinating ancient history, it’s of no surprise that another monastery exists in the region: the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova founded in the 17th century.

Housing the tomb of Queen Isabel, the monastery features a captivating blend of Gothic and Manueline architecture. The nuns’ choir is magnificently adorned with carved woodwork.

The adjacent museum houses a collection of religious artifacts, historical documents and art from the Santa Clara order and provides insights into the life of the queen, canonized as Saint Isabel, and the history of the monastery.

Machado de Castro National Museum

This is an ideal place for art aficionados to delve into Coimbra’s art and history, housed in the former Episcopal Palace. The museum features an impressive collection of sculptures, paintings, and decorative arts spanning various periods.

Its location near the University of Coimbra makes it convenient to add to a day-trip itinerary. The museum is renowned for its extensive and diverse collections that feature a wide range of exhibits, including sculpture, painting, ceramics, textiles, metalwork and decorative arts. The collections encompass both Portuguese and international art.

Fado ao Centro

A cultural initiative and performance venue, Fado ao Centro is situated in a historic city setting and features a genre of traditional Portuguese music characterized by expressive and soulful vocals, often accompanied by acoustic instruments such as the Portuguese guitar. The music is mesmerizing, and absolutely one of our favorites.

Fado ao Centro plays a crucial role in preserving and celebrating the rich tradition of fado, a storytelling medium that conveys a deep emotional state of melancholic longing. The intimate and cozy setting allows audiences to experience Fado in a close and personal setting where vocalists captivate audiences with the emotive and evocative qualities of this traditional Portuguese music.

Pedro e Inês Bridge

This modern architectural gem spanning 180-meters (600-feet) across the Rio Mondego is known locally as the “bridge that doesn’t meet.” The span was created from two cantilevered walkways joining in the middle and supporting one another. It was also partly inspired by the image of skipping stones.

Named for the ill-fated affair between Pedro, the Crown Prince of Portugal, and the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Inês de Castro, the provides stunning views of Coimbra and the surrounding landscape.

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