Coimbra is a historic city in central Portugal. Despite not being as popular among tourists as Lisbon or Porto, there are many reasons to come and visit the capital in the Centro Region. In this article, we will give you a list of the best tourist attractions in Coimbra.
As the fourth largest city in Portugal, there is a lot to do and see. Coimbra has a population of approximately 143,000 of which many are students. Over 20,000 are enrolled at Coimbra University which is one of the oldest universities in the world.
Coimbra’s history date back to Roman times, and the city centre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is easily accessible thanks to its central location in Portugal, so it makes sense to come for a visit and enjoy many of the great tourist attractions.
We will list all the best sites in Coimbra below. If you want to go on a guided tour, check all the current tours offered in Coimbra here!
University of Coimbra
The most famous site in Coimbra is probably the university. With over 20,000 students it has a massive influence on life in the city, and it also serves as a major employer in the region.
But for tourists, the most important part is to focus on history. The University of Coimbra is one of the oldest universities in the world that is in continuous operation. It was actually founded in Lisbon and not in Coimbra, but it moved around to several locations before settling in Coimbra in 1537. It has been an influential place for Portuguese culture, and some of the most important Portuguese people were enrolled at the university. That includes the famous Luís de Camões, author of Os Lusíadas.
The main university building is great to visit. It’s a beautiful place on the hill of Coimbra, it has a large square surrounded by the old white buildings. The clock tower is worth paying attention to. You should also notice the seal of the university that has been made as a mosaic on the ground in front of the main gate to the university. There are multiple statues around the square and the buildings, many of them portraying former alumni. The Joanine Library is part of the university and definitely worth seeing.
You will notice that the university has a lot of traditions when you see the students. They are often dressed in robes, and multiple times per year there are special events that date back hundreds of years.
You can easily walk to the university square and check out the exterior for yourself. But we highly recommend booking a guided tour – a local expert can tell you about the rich history of the university and show you places that most tourists don’t see. A private tour costs about 60€ but it is well worth the money. The tour takes between one and two hours so it is easy to find time for it.
Coimbra has two cathedrals – an old one (Sé Velha) and a new one (Sé Nova). They are located very close to each other, so if you decide to check one of them out, you might as well see both.
The Old Cathedral has a clear Romanesque style. It is the only surviving Portuguese Romanesque cathedral from the time of the Reconquista, so that definitely makes it worth seeing. Construction started as early as 1139 when the Portuguese king declared Coimbra as his new capital. The Old Cathedral is quite easy to recognize – it is a large structure with a relatively simple exterior and a clear yellowish color. It looks like a small fortress from the outside. The interior is quite impressive with its two isles and three chapels. There is a related cloister that was built in the 14th century, and on top of the Romanesque style, the cloister also has some Gothic features – especially the arches out to the courtyard.
The New Cathedral is perhaps not as new as the name suggests. It is newer than the old one, of course – but it is still a classic structure in the city of Coimbra.
Originally, it was a Jesuit church that was established back in 1543. But when the Jesuits were banned from Portugal a few centuries later, the bishop changed seat from the Old Cathedral to this one. It has a Baroque style that was copied in many of the Portuguese colonies as they started to build churches. The New Cathedral in Coimbra is very reminiscent of the Cathedral of Salvador in Brazil. In later centuries, many items were brought from the Old Cathedral into the New. It is located a bit uphill, just north of the university in the neighborhood of Alta Coimbra. Yet, there is only a distance of around 250 meters between the two cathedrals in the city.
Monastery of Santa Cruz
Monastery of Santa Cruz, or Igreja de Santa Cruz as it is known in English, is one of the most famous monasteries in Portugal. It has been declared as a national monument. The main reason for its importance is that the first two kings of Portugal are buried there.
The monastery was founded in 1131 while the church took another hundred years to be established. It had special papal privileges from the start, so it became a very wealthy place and a massive cultural influence for the entire region.
Originally, it was built in a Romanesque style, but nothing of it remains since King Manuel decided to make a full renovation in the early 1500s. The tombs of the early kings were preserved but moved to another chapel. The style went from Romanesque to Manueline, giving the place a similar look to the Tower of Belém and the Jeronimos Monastery in western Lisbon. As the years passed, the Santa Cruz church and the monastery became more and more impressive as all the top Portuguese artists were hired to work on it throughout the 16th century. It has an impressive interior with great decorations in the Azulejo style, paintings, sculptures, altars, and the famous organ.
Overall, it is one of the most important attractions to see in Coimbra from a historical viewpoint. With an ultra central location, it is easy to get there. The Church of Santa Cruz is open from 9 to 18 every day, while the Monastery of Santa Cruz is open from 9.30 to 5.30 on weekdays and slightly shortened openings hours on Sundays.
Portugal dos Pequenitos
After focusing on some very old attractions to begin with, we will move on to a more modern site in Coimbra.
Portugal dos Pequenitos is a miniature park that shows models of famous Portuguese houses and monuments on a smaller scale. If you are interested in architecture, or simply in Portuguese history, this is such a great place to visit.
Among the many miniature buildings, we find the University of Coimbra and several old houses from the city. There are also models of monuments and buildings from other parts of Portugal, divided into different sections. As you would expect, it has buildings from former colonies as well. Part of the reason for that is that Portugal dos Pequenitos was established in 1940, and at that time Portugal still held some important colonies in other continents.
While the place is actually intended for children, it is interesting for everyone to visit. Adult tickets cost 10.50€. There are reduced rates for children and families. Kids under 3 years get in for free. Portugal dos Pequenitos is open every day from 10 to 19. It is located on the other side of the Mondego River, so if you are staying in central Coimbra, you either have to take a bus there, or walk and cross the bridge on foot.
Coimbra is an ancient city. One of the best pieces of evidence for this is Conímbriga – the ruins of old settlements dating back to the 2nd century BC. We find these settlements approximately 16 kilometers away from Coimbra, so it isn’t too far from the city.
Over the years, this site has been excavated more and more. But it was already in 1910 that the Portuguese state declared it as a National Monument.
The settlement is walled, as we find stone structures surrounding it. This curtain of stones is over one and a half kilometers long. It used to be a Roman town with plenty of life, as evidenced by the presence of a forum, multiple houses, thermal baths, an amphitheater, a temple, an aqueduct, and much more. Some of the buildings have become more well-known than others. Casa das Fontes (House of the Fountains) is the most famous one. It was a villa complex with beautiful gardens and fountains and it still has some solid remains. Many buildings have mosaics on the floor, including Casa das Fontes. The Cantabar House is another highlight in Conímbriga.
It is believed that the area was inhabited as early as the 9th century BC. But it was when the Romans arrived around 139 BC that the main settlements were originally constructed. The town of Conímbriga was built in layers and gradually developed.
Conímbriga was never the most populated or most important Roman town in Portugal. However, it is the best-preserved town. Visiting it is like taking a step back in history, and you will definitely get a great experience from it. The best way to experience Conímbriga is by getting a tour guide to show it to you. This can be a private guide – or you can join a group. Since Conímbriga is located a short drive outside of Coimbra, it is too far to walk. You have to take a bus, rent a car, or join a tour. The latter option is always the easiest.
Arco de Almedina
In central Coimbra, you should see the gateway to the old city. It is called Arco de Almedina and it is one of the most famous and nostalgic monuments in the city.
Arco de Almedina was part of the wall that was constructed in the 11th century to protect the city. Coimbra was once a citadel, and the walled city had 3 entry gates. This is the only one that has survived over the years. In the 12th century, some changes were made to the gate, and a tower was built. This tower was very important politically, as it was actually the seat of power, and council meetings were held there. The bell on the top was used to announce when the gates opened and when there were council meetings, so it is a great piece of history.
The gateway is well connected to other parts of the city. It is near Praça do Comércio, the central square of Coimbra, as well as the beautiful Rua de Quebra-Costas (a street that is famous for people slipping on it)! If you follow Rua de Quebra-Costas you will get to the Old Cathedral. So Arco de Almedina has a very central location, and you should pass by it at least one time during your trip to Coimbra!
When you visit the University of Coimbra, you shouldn’t miss the Botanical Gardens – known as Jardim Botánico in Portuguese.
These gardens are located right next to the university, and it is a wonderful area. Founded in 1772 by the Marquis of Pombal, these gardens are the most expansive in the entire country! It’s a massive area with the gardens occupying 13 hectares. The gardens are basically split into two parts – one at the top of the valley that feels more primitive, and the interior of the valley with the arboretum.
For many years, the Botanical Gardens have been integrated into the university. Thanks to botanist Luís Wittnich Carrisso who was a professor at the university, the gardens blossomed during the period between 1918 and 1937. Carrisso studied other gardens around the world and brought in many new species of trees and plants. Many of them came from Angola which has given the garden a very exotic feel.
In total there are over 1200 species. They have been collected from all around the world. On top of the many trees and plants, the gardens have also been nicely decorated with ponds, fountains, and statues. There are stairs leading down to the interior of the gardens, and you can easily walk around in there. It is free to visit. Many botanists consider this place to be one of the most stunning gardens in Europe. It is open between 9 and 17.30 for most of the year – with extended opening hours in the summer where it closes at 20.00. If you want an official guided tour, send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and inform them that you are coming and that you request a tour.
Praça do Comercio
In the very heart of Coimbra, we find Praça do Comércio. This is the main square of the city. It is super busy during the daytime and in the evening. A lot of people use it as a meeting point when going out.
Praça do Comércio offers great views in all directions. There are many shops and regular apartment buildings around. You can eat in the middle of the square since there are a few restaurants with outdoor seating. Sometimes there is live music, sometimes there are political gatherings, so it is a place with plenty of life. Everyone in Coimbra stops by Praça do Comércio every now and then, so you should do the same. The church of São Tiago is on one side of the square, the São Bartolomeu stairs lead from the square up to one of the shopping streets, while Arco de Almedina is on the eastern end.
The Mondego River flows through Coimbra and separates the city into two – the eastern part which is the old Coimbra, and the western part which has more modern attractions, although also some historic sites.
It is very beautiful to walk along the river, but it can be even better than that. You can sail on the river and get great views of both sides of Coimbra. A popular option is to go with the Mondego River Cruise as it gives you a nice, calm trip on the river.
If you have energy for it, and if you want to try something different, try going on the Mondego River kayak tour!
Strolling around Coimbra
Coimbra’s streets are magical – especially at night. So aside from planning which specific attractions to see, you should also set aside some hours to explore the city in your own tempo. It is a joy to walk around and see what you find. You’ll get to see some very traditional architecture, and you’ll undoubtedly find some nice shops and restaurants. It doesn’t hurt to get lost – it can be a very charming experience. So don’t be afraid to turn off Google Maps and take some time to yourself. The city centre of Coimbra is meant to be explored in a calm, casual way, and you won’t regret going for an afternoon or evening walk in these awesome surroundings!