After some incredible days exploring Lisbon and Cascais, the beautiful city of Coimbra was the next big stop on our trip around Portugal. Located halfway between the Portuguese capital and Porto, our final destination, Coimbra seemed like the perfect location for the quick stopover we were looking for. With backpacks full of pasteis de nata and excited to grab a bite of its enviable history, we hopped on the first train from Lisbon to Coimbra. The former capital of Portugal from 1139 to 1250 is famous for its notable University and historical library, and it was now ours for just over 24h.
With the purpose of uncovering as much of the city’s hidden gems as possible, we started our day walking down Rua Visconde da Luz, Coimbra’s main pedestrian and shopping street. We soon realised that Lisbon’s uneven layout, with cobbled streets and hilly alleys, seemed to be transported north to this city. The old charming stone architecture has survived throughout the years, as if untouched by time. Although mixed with more modern contemporary buildings around it, there’s no doubt the old builds are the true essence of the iconic University City.
A clear example is the splendid Igreja de Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz Church), by Praça 8 de Maio (May 8th Square), at one end of Rua Visconde da Luz. The high vaulted ceilings and impressive stone columns create a peaceful environment with excellent acoustics, bringing visitors a little closer to the skies above. The same pattern seems to be followed by the two cathedrals of Coimbra (Sé Velha and Sé Nova) and the romanesque architecture of the place, highlighting its true religious character.
Next to Igreja de Santa Cruz is Café Santa Cruz, an emblematic and perhaps the most famous coffeehouse in Coimbra. Opened on May 8th 1923, it displays a medieval style interior with stone arches, marble table tops and leather chairs. Formerly the meeting point of choice for intellectuals and students from the University of Coimbra. It now welcomes locals and tourists from all over the world regularly throughout the day.
This is also one of the best places to enjoy true Coimbra Fado concerts and poetry readings with the freshest of coffees. Coimbra Fado is slightly different to other types of Fado as it’s only sung by men, usually dressed in the cap and gown style of students. These were its original performers and, as a tradition, used to sing their goodbyes when graduating from the University of Coimbra.
The University of Coimbra is indeed the most magnificent building in the city. Although established in Lisbon back in 1290, the splendid institution relocated to various places until finally settling down in Coimbra in 1537, under the reign of King João III. Located in the former Royal Palace of Coimbra, it’s the oldest and most distinguished University and Research Centre in Portugal. Although founded after the University of Oxford, the University of Coimbra is also one of the fifteen higher education institutions that emerged in Europe before the end of the 13th century.
A national symbol and a pioneer of cultural splendour, the University of Coimbra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. With stunning views overlooking the Mondego River, the main building is set around an open courtyard dominated by the emblematic University Tower and the statue of King João III. Inside, the Biblioteca Joanina protects a range of book collections from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – its grandeur is unlike anywhere else I have ever seen, a true symbol of magnificence! The remaining structure of the last existent medieval prison in Portugal, which goes back to the former use of the building as a Royal Palace and Academic Prison, is located under the Baroque Library.
With one third of the city of Coimbra’s population being students, the culture and magnificence of the symbolic University City is undeniable. After trekking across the bridge to get a better perspective of the city, we walked up the slopes and steps before sitting down for lunch at Passaporte. With stunning views of the river and city, coupled with the fresh menu options that were absolutely amazing!
Our next stop was the Aqueduto de São Sebastião, a reconstruction of the former Roman aquaduct that was carried out under the reign of King Sebastião, in the 16th century. A National Monument since 1910, it’s 1 km long and possesses 21 “Garden Arches”. Close by, the statue of John Paul II commemorates the Pope’s visit to Coimbra on 15th May 1982, who funnily enough, travelled through Portugal from Lisbon, to Coimbra and Porto, just like us!
The Aqueduct of São Sebastião runs parallel to the beautiful Botanical Garden of the University of Coimbra. It’s safe to say we love visiting gardens (just check out our posts on Sky Garden and Barbican Conservatory to find out hoooooow much ) and the lovely Jardim Botânico de Coimbra did not disappoint! With a free entrance (bonus!), its 13 hectares collect a variety of medicinal and exotic plants that were used for the study of medicine and natural history at the University of Coimbra.
After hours of getting lost among the greenery of the gardens, we headed to our restaurant of choice for the evening, Fangas Mercearia Bar. This cosy, colourful and quirky place is, without a doubt, our recommendation as the best place to eat in the old town. With delicious petiscos (tapas), vinho verde and an obligatory selection of cheese, sausages, stuffed vegetables and honey (of which we had plenty!). Fangas also has a sister restaurant nearby, Fangas Maior. Top tip: you don’t need the cheese board AND extra cheese…there’s more than enough on the board already!
Before we knew it, it was already time to go back to our lovely hotel and get a good night’s sleep before our trip to Porto.
I am really excited to plan another trip around Portugal soon! There is still so much to see and this beautiful country never ceases to surprise me. Have you ever been to Coimbra? Are there any other hidden gems in Portugal you would recommend? If you really loved our post please leave us a comment and show us some love on social media using the buttons below 🙂
Passaporte |R. da Couraça Estrela 13, 3000-150 Coimbra, Portugal
Fangas Mercearia Bar | Rua de Fernandes Thomas 45-49, 3000-168 Coimbra, Portugal
Do you love Portugal as much as we do? Then check:
- Top 10 things to do in Madeira, Portugal | TRAVEL GUIDE
- The 10 Best Things to do in Lisbon, Portugal | TRAVEL GUIDE