It lacks the contemporary attractions of Lisbon and Porto, but the city of Coimbra is rich in old monuments illustrating every chapter of the history of architecture, from romanesque to gothic, to manueline and baroque. It’s easily accessible by train between the country’s two largest cities, and is worth a quick stop to see one of the world’s oldest universities and some of Europe’s best-preserved Roman mosaics.
1| COIMBRA UNIVERSITY
One of the world’s oldest, the university of Coimbra hides what is recognized as one of the world’s finest libraries. A gift of king João V in the early 1700s, it is filled with 300,000 ancient books displayed around an extravagant display of gilt. Also golden is much of Capela de São Miguel, an ornate chapel with a brightly painted ceiling, while another room that may be visited is the Sala dos Capelos (Graduates’ Hall), once used as an examination room and decorated with portraits of Portugal’s kings.
Portugal’s largest excavated Roman ruins are just a few minutes outside Coimbra and are remarkable for having some of the best-preserved mosaics in Europe. Conimbriga was once a rich Roman town but was abandoned after the invasion of Germanic tribes in the 5th century (a small but informative museum tells the history and daily life of the place). Besides the mosaics (the most extraordinary of which show the four seasons and hunting scenes), the most eye-catching features of the archaeological remains are the pond-gardens and fountains.
3| MACHADO DE CASTRO MUSEUM
Down the street from the university is this former bishop’s palace that is now one of Portugal’s most important museums for its collection of 14th-to-16th-century sculpture. It’s undergone a long renovation and the most memorable part of a visit is going underground to walk through vaulted passageways that survive from the city’s Roman occupation.
4| SANTA CRUZ CHURCH
This church is the reason why the university was established in Coimbra, as it was long known as a school and center of culture (St. Anthony was the most famous student). Behind the sculpted façade are the elaborate tombs of Portugal’s first two kings (at the altar), while the cloister is one of the purest examples of Manueline architecture.
5| SANTA CRUZ CAFÉ
A landmark with all the atmosphere you expect from a monumental and classic European café, this is one of the most unusual coffee shops you’ll see anywhere. It’s a former chapel of the church next door, with a high-vaulted Manueline ceiling, stained-glass windows and wood paneling. Tables are also placed outside facing the square.
6| OLD CATHEDRAL
This church-fortress was the city’s first cathedral, built in the late 1100s. It’s only been slightly altered during its nine centuries and therefore remains one of the greatest examples of Romanesque architecture in the country. The majesty of the interior only changed in the 1500s with the addition of a gilded altarpiece.
7| MONASTERY OF SANTA CLARA-A-VELHA
Two decades of careful renovation brought these gothic ruins back to life. It’s an old monastery founded in 1330 that had been sinking by the river since the 17th century and a museum now explains its past as well as the impressive renovation work through film.
8| PORTUGAL DOS PEQUENINOS
This tiny open-air theme park is a small tour of Portugal through the country’s main landmarks built to the scale of five-year-olds. Part of the fun is posing for photos creating the illusion of giants standing next to monuments and inside homes. While meant as a family attraction, adults will enjoy the experience on their own.
9| COIMBRA FADO
While Fado originated in Lisbon, it has a second home in Coimbra. Here it’s usually sung by male university students and it’s often not sung at all, with just instrumental pieces using the Portuguese guitar. You may hear it at night at the cafés below the university, but the best place to head to is the Á Capella bar, a tiny 14th-century chapel. That’s where the city’s best musicians perform, Fado and other musical styles.
10| QUINTA DAS LÁGRIMAS
This wonderful hotel stands on the site of a real-life “Romeo and Juliet” story, the tragedy of prince Pedro and Inês. King Afonso IV forbade his son from marrying Inês because of her Spanish origins, but they married in secret and the king had her murdered in 1355. The hotel is by far the best place to stay in town, while also offering the best gastronomic experience in its Michelin-starred restaurant “Arcadas da Capela.”