Set along the Mondego river, Coimbra rises on a hill dotted with historical sites. The city is home to the oldest university in Portugal as well as several religious monuments that date from the 12th to the 18th century.
Among the city’s main attractions is an astonishing Baroque-style library decorated with gilded shelves that hold more than 300,000 volumes.
Despite all its history, Coimbra remains young in spirit, thanks to its large student population which occupy its bars late at night. Here you can listen to Fado de Coimbra, a unique fado style created by the students.
It’s worth spending at least a day in Coimbra to explore the old town and experience its nightlife. With a few extra days, you can discover other hidden gems nearby like the Roman ruins of Conímbriga or the romantic forest of Bussaco.
Below is a two-day itinerary of Coimbra, including suggestions for day trips, restaurants and hotels, so you can make the most of your stay.
No trip to Coimbra would be complete without a visit to its university. Towering over the city, it’s one of the oldest universities in Europe, and it’s been a UNESCO site since 2013. The university has several buildings, all assembled around a large courtyard called Pátio das Escolas. During your visit, you’ll pass through Paço das Escolas, the Capela de São Miguel and the Museu da Ciência. If you don’t mind the narrow stairway, you can also climb up to Torre da Universidade and enjoy the panoramic views of the city.
The most beautiful building at the university is the Biblioteca Joanina. Established in the 18th century, this library will dazzle you with its sumptuous decor and vast book collection. It gets its name from King João V who ordered its construction. There are three rooms in the library all decorated with frescoed ceilings and tall gilded shelves. One thing that you probably won’t see is the colony of bats, who eat the insects that might otherwise damage the books. When you buy tickets for the university, make sure to get the one that includes the entrance to the library.
Coimbra is full of churches and chapels from different eras. There’s Capela de São Miguel, which is part of the university tour, but there are many others that deserve a visit.
Near the university, you’ll find Sé Nova. This church started as a Jesuit temple in 1598, and it features a mix of Mannerist and Baroque architecture. It’s worth stepping inside to admire the gilded panels and the two organs above the altar.
From there, you can walk to Sé Velha, Coimbra’s old cathedral. Built around the 12th century, it has kept most of its Romanesque features. Outside, the church stands out with its imposing stone walls and narrow windows, while the interior features high vaulted ceilings and charming cloisters.
To end the tour, head to Igreja de Santa Cruz. The original church dates from the 12th century, but the architecture you see today is mostly from the 16th century, including the doorway and the cloister. Inside you’ll find the sculptured tombs of the first kings of Portugal—Afonso Henriques and Sancho I.
Just behind the Igreja de Santa Cruz is the Jardim da Manga. Also known as Claustro da Manga, this small square was once part of the church’s cloisters. In the middle of it stands a striking yellow building surrounded by water fountains. It might not look like it, but this is one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture in Portugal. Some say that King João III visited the area and sketched the fountain’s design on his sleeve, hence the name manga in Portuguese.
As you wander around the old town, you’ll inevitably pass by the Almedina Gate and Barbican Gate. This Moorish-style arch is one of the remaining gateways that were part of the city’s medieval wall. Today, it makes the connection with Rua Ferreira Borges, one of the main shopping streets in Coimbra. Attached to the gate is the Torre de Almedina, a medieval tower which now houses a small museum about the city’s past fortifications.
After visiting Coimbra’s main sights, you can relax at the Parque Verde do Mondego. Set along the river banks, this park stretches for nearly 4km. It offers several facilities including a running track, a children’s playground, and a little kiosk where you can grab a drink.
End the day by crossing to the other side of the river. Just above the Parque Verde do Mondego is the Pedro e Inês Bridge. Established in 2007, this pedestrian bridge provides the best views of Coimbra. From here you can capture the university up on a hill and locals paddling on the river in the summer. The bridge itself is a beautiful architectural work, lined with multi-coloured glass shapes that reflect on the wooden floor during the day and lit up at night. On the left bank of the river, you’ll find another park with a picnic area and a centre for water activities, where you can rent a kayak or stand-up paddle.
Not far from the city centre, you’ll find the forest of Choupal. Dating back to the 18th century, it was initially created to prevent the floods of the Mondego river. Today, this riverside forest has become a favourite spot for picnics and outdoor activities such as running and hiking. While Poplar trees (choupo) dominate the landscape, you can also spot other species like plane trees and cedars. Inside the forest, there’s a small bar and an equestrian centre where you can take riding lessons.
Most attractions in Coimbra are on the right side of the river, but there are some places worth discovering on the left end too. Among them is the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha.
Completed in 1330, this Gothic-style church was designed by the same architect as the monastery in Alcobaça. As it stands close to the river, it was frequently threatened by floods, so it was left abandoned in the 17th century. At the time the nuns moved to a monastery higher up, known as Santa Clara-a-Nova, leaving the original one behind. A few centuries later, Santa Clara-a-Velha got restored, and during that time, they uncovered the lower part of the church and its cloister. Now, beyond the church, you can visit a museum which showcases the items recovered during the excavations.
Nearby is Portugal dos Pequenitos, a miniature-village featuring Portuguese houses and monuments from north to south. If you have kids, you should bring them here.
Also on the left side of the river are the majestic gardens of Quinta das Lágrimas. This was the stage of one of Portugal’s most famous love stories between King Pedro I and Inês de Castro, a noblewoman from Galicia. They had a secret affair in the 14th century, but sadly Inês was murdered. Legend says that she died in this park and shed a tear at Fonte das Lágrimas (Fountain of Tears, also known as Fonte dos Amores). In the middle of the estate, there’s a 19th-century palace, which is now a hotel, but you can still wander around the gardens and learn about the legends of this tragic love story.
If you need a little break from sightseeing, you can stop by Parque Dr. Manuel da Braga. Also known as Parque da Cidade, it was created in 1920 by a landscape gardener called Jacinto de Matos. Hidden amid the trees, are statues of famous Portuguese writers like Florbela Espanca and Antero de Quental. The river flows right in front of the park, so grab a seat and take in the views.
Another relaxing spot in Coimbra is the botanical garden. Founded in 1772, it houses plants from all around the globe covering an area of 13 hectares. At first, it was used by the university for research purposes, but now everyone is welcome to visit. Within the garden, you’ll find a series of spaces including two greenhouses, a large fountain, and an old chapel that belonged to Benedictine monks.
A few steps away from the botanical garden is the Casa Museu Bissaya Barreto. This Neo-Baroque mansion was the home of Bissaya Barreto, a Portuguese surgeon and medical professor at Coimbra’s University. Beyond its medical duties, Barreto was also an art aficionado. Through the years he collected many items, which are now on display in this small museum, including traditional Portuguese tiles, Chinese porcelain and antique furniture. Surrounding the house is a garden decorated with statues and tiled walls.
Before you leave Coimbra, you should visit Penedo da Saudade. Sitting atop a hill, this historical garden offers sweeping views of the city and the Mondego river. Like Quinta das Lágrimas, Penedo da Saudade also has ties with the story of Pedro and Inês. According to a legend, after the death of Inês, Pedro came here to grieve her loss. This might explain the name saudade , which in Portuguese refers to a feeling of nostalgia. Today, it’s a meeting spot for lovers and Coimbra students. Dotted around the park are stone plaques carved with poems and busts of famous Portuguese figures.