Visit Coimbra for History, Art, Culture, and Music
A Day in Historic Coimbra – Cultural Attractions
Not many cities come to mind when you hear the phrase “university town.” But Portugal’s Coimbra (pronounced “KWEEM-bruh”), about 120 miles northeast of Lisbon, is one such place. Above all, it’s home to the prestigious University of Coimbra, the city’s most popular attraction. And, with students making up more than 20% of the population, the city definitely has a youthful vibe.
But Coimbra is much more than its university. In addition, it has rich history, local Fado music, art, and other traditions that make it a great place to visit. As David said during our recent visit there, “Coimbra is the arts and culture city.”
The University of Coimbra
From its hilltop location, the University of Coimbra shapes the life of the city. Built atop the city’s highest point, its UNESCO-listed campus is Coimbra’s biggest tourist destination. Despite its popularity, you still can find plenty of quiet spots while walking around.
Getting to the University of Coimbra
To get to the campus, take a taxi there from the bottom of the hill since it’s a long, steep walk up. Plus, you’ll want to conserve energy to explore the charming, pedestrian-only streets on your walk down the hill to your hotel.
When you get to the main entrance to campus, two things stand out: the beautiful architecture and the music. As we arrived, we watched a student choral group singing folk songs outside the main gate. In fact, the tradition of these so-called “tuna” groups goes back to medieval times. As I’ll point out below, some tuna groups also perform in the historic center.
Highlights of the Campus
To gain entry to the most well-known attractions, we chose Program 1, “From the Palace to the College”. The ticket offers entry to the Royal Palace, the Chapel of St. Michael, and the Baroque Library, among other buildings. If you prefer, you can also take a guided tour.
The original part of the university is located in the former Moorish Royal Palace of Alcáçova built over 900 years ago. As befitting a palace, we entered through an enormous iron gate.
Former Royal Palace of Alcáçova
In 1597, the University bought the Royal Palace of Coimbra from Portugal’s royal family. Many of the most iconic rooms on campus can be found in this main complex.
One of the highlights of the palace is the Great Hall of Acts, the imposing room where doctoral students defend their dissertations as they have for generations. Most impressive is the wood paneled ceiling with painted designs. Also, the dark wall paintings feature portraits of the kings of Portugal, which date back to 1655.
The Baroque Joanina Library
Originally known as the Book House, the library was completed in 1728. It houses over 57,000 volumes in an over-the-top space, with lots of gilt and national coats of arms framing tall doorways.
Strangely enough, rumor has it that the library releases bats at night to eat any insects that threaten books and furnishings. Is that an urban legend? Probably, but it’s fun to think about it anyway.
Restaurante O Trovador
After we finished our tour, we meandered downhill on the winding, atmospheric streets around the Sé Velha (Old Cathedral). Finally, we found Restaurante O Trovador, a great spot for an al fresco lunch. From our table on the outdoor terrace, we watched the streetscape on the Cathedral’s quiet side. Our simple meal was excellent, and the service was great. While we didn’t get to hear it, the restaurant also hosts local musicians playing traditional Coimbra Fado music.
Probably the best known type of Portuguese music, Fado is a special form of art song. Often accompanied by guitar, these songs evoke the twin themes of loss and longing.
To our surprise, we learned that Coimbra has its own form of Fado music. Called Coimbra Fado, it’s a beautiful and much more lyrical version of what you may hear elsewhere in Portugal. In fact, its roots go all the way back to the songs of medieval troubadours.
The Fado ao Centro cultural center celebrates Coimbra Fado. In addition to hosting free late-afternoon rehearsals, it presents live concerts at 6:00 PM in an intimate performance space. While we could only stop by briefly during a late-afternoon rehearsal, the music was enchanting.
A Local Craft Store
Just downhill from Fado ao Centro, we found a small craft and handmade gift shop on Rua Quebra da Costas. Anna, the shop’s owner, told us how she turns old fabrics from northern Portugal into stylish scarves and bags. With every piece, she builds collages using images showing the history and rich culture of Portugal.
Pedestrian District in Coimbra’s Lower Town
Strolling and window shopping in the pedestrian district is a lot of fun. In addition to window shopping, you can stop at one of the many sidewalk cafes for a coffee and regional treat. Lucky for us, we stumbled on a lively street performance by one of the university’s tuna groups. Check out this short dance video with a cute ending.
Parque Verde do Mondego
In addition to walking around the historic center, we strolled along this lovely, tree-lined park by the river. It’s a perfect place for unwinding from a day of sightseeing. Plus, the walkway is near the Quinta das Lagrimas, the historic hotel where we stayed across the river.
Quinta das Lagrimas
Built as a palace in the 18th century, the Quinta das Lagrimas is a lovely small hotel. In fact, long before it became an inn, it was a royal hunting ground for many centuries. In addition, its gardens today are one of Coimbra’s biggest attractions, with many plants and rare trees dating back to the 1700s. Much as the hotel is a great place to stay, it’s also a perfect spot for a romantic meal. Fortunately, the weather cooperated during our visit, and we enjoyed a wonderful al fresco lunch next to the pretty gardens.
Few cities blend together history, architecture, and the arts like Coimbra. In just a few hours, you can see and learn a lot about its rich cultural heritage and Portugal’s storied past.
We barely scratched the surface during our visit. But if your experience is anything like ours, I bet you’ll want to go back there someday.
Also, If you like Coimbra, you’ll love reading about 4 Portuguese historic hill towns. Each of these charming towns has great views, culture, and unique lodging.