Once the Capital of Portugal, Coimbra is one of the country’s oldest cities, known for housing one of the world's first universities and for its distinctive partition between an upper and lower town.
The Upper Town contains the city’s old quarter filled with historical churches and narrow streets while the Lower Town houses Coimbra’s busy commercial district.
Set over sharp hills by the shores of the Mondego River, the historical city it a must go for those who relish an at-times steep climb in order to catch stunning panoramic views!
Make your Start in Lower Town
The main commercial street in Coimbra is the lively Rua Ferreira Borges. We found it to be a great starting point as this pedestrian road leads into several significant areas of the city.
As you walk along Ferreira Borges, you will find numerous shops, restaurants and eventually reach a wide plaza called Praça do Comercio. Located under a small set of stairs, the plaza is a popular restaurant spot and home to São Tiago Church, known for its Rococo altarpiece.
Used mostly by pedestrians, Rua Ferreia Borges is quite long, culminating in the busy Praça Oito de Maio. The plaza’s most noteworthy sight is the commanding Mosteiro de Santa Cruz which was erected between the 12/13th centuries and contains the tombs of the first two Kings of Portugal.
Tip: As you face the monastery, take a look behind you, to the right and you will see - amongst many shops - a couple of narrow streets that cut through buildings. Rua da Louça is where we entered and then proceeded to get lost inside a maze of small streets. As you explore this area, you will find several clothing stores, butcheries and even restaurants.
Along Ferreira Borges, you can also reach the entrance to the city’s ancient upper town by walking under a rather out of place arch, tucked away in an alley.
This passage is called Arco de Almedina and was once Coimbra’s Moorish and Jewish quarters.
The Surprising Upper Town
As we made our way atop of the hill, to reach the University of Coimbra, we explored the several steep, narrow streets that make up this part of town.
The must-go churches in the historical quarter are the 12th century Sé Velha (Old Cathedral of Coimbra) and Sé Nova (new cathedral), located closer to the university.
Another highlight is the Museum of the Holy House of Mercy. This church in mostly unknown to travel books, but became our favorite place in Coimbra!
While exploring the hilly alleyways of the old quarter, we finally reached a spot where we could catch great views of the city below. Next to us were this small church and an extremely nice, welcoming patron.
He quickly went through the church’s history and went out of his way to open its bell tower so we could reach the top.
The bell tower’s narrow, almost untouched structure made us feel as if we had gone back in time! As we reached the top, the standing area could not fit more than the two of us, but we were welcomed by the most extraordinary, panoramic views we had seen from Coimbra.
On Top of the Hill for the University
One of the main attractions in Coimbra is its university, located atop of the old quarter. Established in 1290, it is the oldest in Portugal and one of the country’s largest institutions enrolling around 20,000 students.
You can visit the main campus through Porta Ferrea (Iron Gate) and explore its vast courtyard, enclosed by historical buildings and a stunning viewpoint.
The university’s most sought-after sights are its Baroque Chapel, Graduate’s Hall and most importantly, its library. Biblioteca Joanina is a spectacular Baroque library, built in the 18th century with a collection of around 300,000 ancient books.
If you are short on time, I would recommend skipping the other buildings on campus and making a quick visit to the library. You will be overwhelmed by its meticulous architecture, spectacular ceiling paintings and its golden, wooden decorations.
Tips: Tickets to visit the university’s sights are bought in the General Library Building located next to Porta Ferrea. A general ticket in 2013 was 7 euros and it gave us access to all of the sights. To enter the library, there is a time slot that you must sign up. This is to control the amount of visitors into the historical building.
KEEP IN MIND
The Wrap-Up: We felt that one day was enough to have a good feel for Coimbra. However, if you happen to have extra time in town, there is much more to see! Not far from Coimbra University is the city’s historic aqueduct and next to it a large Botanical Garden. A taxi drive across the river should take you to Santa Clara-a-Velha. This monastery was abandoned for more than 300 years and tourists can now visit its excavated Gothic ruins.
The Hotel: Quinta da Lagrimas is located just outside of the main historical part of Coimbra. It is considered a luxury hotel where you will be staying in a historical palace and enjoying an extensive estate with famed gardens. Being outside of town, you can leave your car at the hotel - Coimbra’s narrow, medieval streets can be quite a challenge to drive through.
- Want to see the full trip and plan your next? Check out our Portugal Two Week Itinerary!