Just an hour train ride from Porto and on the way to Lisbon, Coimbra (pronounced kween-bruh) is a dazzling detour you don’t want to miss. J’Nell and I stayed two nights (November 11-13, 2019) and fell in love with the town. A world-famous university, outstanding Fado music, a vibrant restaurant and bar scene, gorgeous architecture, and narrow streets that will bring you immense pleasure to stroll . . . I’m grateful we got to experience it.
Here are some of my favorite things (in no particular order) about Coimbra, Portugal:
While there were lots of good, inexpensive options for lodging, we thankfully booked the Hotel Astoria just a few minutes’ walk from the train station. Opened in 1926, the Astoria is in a beautiful Art Nouveau building that reminded us of Paris. While the room seemed more circa 1996, it was impeccably clean and we had a nice view of the river shimmering across the road. There were also touches that brought you back to the Roaring 20s, such as the old-timey jangling key, the chandeliers in the lobby, and the iron elevator.
University of Coimbra
You could say it’s Portugal’s Harvard or Oxford, but that would be doing the place a disservice. Founded in 1290, it’s Coimbra’s number one attraction for a reason. Built on top of the hill and incorporating the former palace, it’s a fun place to wander around and take in over 700 years of history.
The foremost thing to see is King Jao’s Library (Biblioteca Joanina), but it is unfortunately the one spot where photos are not permitted. It’s the epitome of 18th Century opulence and the most beautiful library I’ve ever seen; I wanted to curl up with a book and a mug of hot chocolate and stay for hours. But since you have a timed entry and there is always a group waiting after you, I had to be content with soaking up as much as I could in the 10-15 minutes we were allotted. It was apparently the inspiration for the library in the Beauty & the Beast live action film, and here’s a link to a travel article that has some photos I would have liked to take.
Another favorite of the university was the ceiling, altarpiece, and Baroque organ inside St. Michael’s Chapel. I also particularly enjoyed seeing Grand Hall inside the palace building, which is used for academic ceremonies. While we didn’t climb the tower in the courtyard, it added to the ambience. It was also fun to walk through the old iron gate, with the pieces of graduation robes at the top (part of a long standing tradition).
Santa Clara Bridge & The River
We could see the bridge and the Mondego River from our room, and it was pleasurable to cross the water and look back to get a full sweep of the town and its hills. There’s a boat cruise you can take, but it’s only available from April to September. Since we’d recently taken a river trip in Porto, we were content to amble over the bridge and survey the sights from there.
Meandering the Nooks & Crannies of Old Town
There’s so much to see in Coimbra just by wandering around and being surprised at what you find. Old Town has its lower area (Baixa) and upper one (Alta), and we enjoyed ambling up and down it’s narrow streets, stone stairways, and tiled sidewalks. Whether it was a funky bar, a cool mural, a tiny door, a historic archway, or even a cat cafe, there were so many interesting things to be discovered if you weren’t looking for them.
The Architecture and City Layout
Related to what I was describing above, Coimbra is an overall aesthetically appealing place. When on the hill you get gorgeous vistas of the rooftops and colorful interconnected buildings below, and at river level your perceptions are more heightened to inspect the architectural wonders all around you. Along with all the students and the fact there seemed to be many more locals than visitors, Coimbra simply had a cool vibe. While two nights was enough to see a lot of the city, I could have gladly stayed longer.
It’s on the Camino de Santiago (Portuguese Way)
We had just completed the Camino Frances 11 days prior and were still processing the experience, and it was wonderful to keep the connection alive in Coimbra. In addition to seeing the signs and markers that were our life for 6 weeks and 550 miles of walking, we also visited the Church of St. James. It made both J’Nell and I want to someday walk the Camino Portuguese.
Church of Santa Cruz
After walking the Camino and viewing an unfathomable amount of enchanting historic churches, we were selective in the ones we visited in Portugal. The Mosteiro de Santa Cruz was one of my favorites. The fanciful facade is a stunner, but the inside is even better.
Like many of the cathedrals in Spain, Santa Cruz was built during the 12th Century and underwent a significant remodel later on (the 1500s in this instance). It’s free to enter and get a glimpse of the altar and the sumptuous blue and while Azulejos tiles similar to what we saw in Porto, but you should spring for the 3 or 4 euros it costs to tour the interior and grounds.
The intricately carved tombs of two former 12th Portuguese kings are worth the price of admission, but my favorite part was strolling the Cloister of Silence (the open air quadrangle of the church’s interior). Back in the day monks, many who are buried there, would walk the ornamental covered archways devoted to not saying a word. You can also go up to the next level and look down onto the space and see the gargoyles.
Fado Music & Bar Scene
University towns usually have a fun nightlife, but Coimbra takes it to another (more sophisticated) level. Praxis brewpub is a must visit, with excellent craft beers and delicious food. We also greatly enjoyed the no frills bar right in the middle of Praca du Republica, where we sat outside and enjoyed some large and inexpensive beers with the students and fall foliage. ColLab Bottle Shop was a super cool place with an extremely friendly bartender, something like you might find in San Francisco or Seattle. We also stumbled into a tiny little local tavern in an alley (the owner couldn’t have been any friendlier despite the language barrier) that had bird cages above the entrance; I didn’t see a sign out front so I’m not sure of it’s name, but so glad we got to experience the charismatic place.
The best of Coimbra’s nightlife was listening to live Fado music by Luis Travassos at Dilgencia Bar. We arrived early to the Zebra stone pattern basement location, and thankfully they served food; we’d been walking around for probably 7 hours without anything to eat, and we scarfed down some tasty appetizers while we waited for the performance. It was an intimate setting, just Mr. Travassos and his guitar at a table, and the songs were hauntingly beautiful. Here is a short video below.