Is Coimbra worth visiting – you bet it is! Visiting Coimbra is overlooked by most travellers to Portugal, and it really shouldn’t.
Coimbra in Portugal is home to a long, rich history, culture and centuries-old architecture. A world-renowned university, which is one of the oldest in Europe. Even with all that history, I found that Coimbra has a wonderful hip, youthful atmosphere with warm, friendly locals.
On a recent return trip to Portugal, Coimbra was on my list of places I wanted to go, and I was so glad I did add it to my itinerary.
A Coimbra day trip from Lisbon or Porto is super easy, so what are you waiting for? Here are 9 reasons to visit Coimbra and how you can too take a day trip here from either Porto or Lisbon.
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Is Coimbra Worth Visiting?
A big, yes! I think so. I do have to say, visiting Coimbra didn’t make the cut for my first trip to Portugal. And after going, I wish I had seen it sooner.
If you love going to places that are a bit under the radar and off the beaten path from most tourists – visit Coimbra!
If you love history, architecture, and beautiful gardens – visit Coimbra!
If you are a foodie? A book and art lover? Or, simply love a youthful vibe to cities? Then visiting Coimbra Portugal needs to be top of your list!
Knowing that you’re likely wondering what to do in Coimbra once you get there. Use my one day itinerary where I outline all the amazing things to do in Coimbra.
Visiting Coimbra for its History
One of the biggest reasons why you need to visit Coimbra is for its interesting, and very long history! History buffs take note!
The history of Coimbra Portugal dates back to pre-Roman times when the city was known as Aeminium. There is evidence to show that the city of Coimbra was founded by the Celts in the 9th century BC and was later conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. During the Roman era, Coimbra became an important center for trade and commerce due to its strategic location on the Mondego River.
In the 8th century, the Moors took control of Coimbra, which they called Qulumriyah. The city remained under Muslim control until the 11th century when it was conquered by the Christians.
Before Lisbon was the capital city of Portugal, it was actually Coimbra who held that coveted spot! In the 12th century, Coimbra became the capital of Portugal and the residence of the monarchs. The city experienced a period of growth and prosperity, with the construction of important landmarks such as the Old Cathedral of Coimbra and the Monastery of Santa Cruz.
In the 13th century, Coimbra became an important center for education (which still holds true today!). The establishment of the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest universities in the world, put Coimbra on the map attracting students and scholars from all over Europe over the centuries.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Coimbra was an important center for the Portuguese Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. Many important buildings were constructed during this time, including the Royal Palace of Coimbra, the New Cathedral of Coimbra, and the Aqueduct of Saint Sebastian.
So this rich history is the biggest and best reason to visit Coimbra! Let’s now see the 9 reasons why Coimbra is worth visiting!
9 Reasons to Visit Coimbra
1. Coimbra has a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site
I don’t know about you, but when a place has UNESCO status, like the historic town of Evora, that usually means it’s worth visiting. In Coimbra, the University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia has received that special status.
The University of Coimbra, founded in 1290, is considered one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. The notable buildings on its campus include:
- 12th-century Cathedral of Santa Cruz and a number of 16th-century colleges
- Royal Palace of Alcáçova, which has housed the University since 1537
- Joanine Library with its rich baroque decor
- 18th-century Botanical Garden and University Press
As well, it’s famously known as a “University City” created during the 1940s. That means there’s an influence on how the city was developed, how the academics shape learning and research and that there are long-standing ceremonial and cultural traditions that have been kept alive through the centuries.
Learn about the incredible history of the University of how it shaped Portugal through a guided tour of the campus by a former student, book your dates here!
2. The natural beauty of Coimbra
Coimbra is located on the banks of the Mondego River, the longest river in Portugal. It runs 234 km (145 miles) from the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean. It widens the most as it cuts through the city of Coimbra.
The Mondego River separates the Santa Clara neighbourhood, home to the famous Convent of Santa Clara-a-Velha and a residential area with pretty parks and gardens from the historic city centre Baixa and Alta. Any city with a bridge and a river running through it means it will be picturesque. And, Coimbra is that indeed! Making this top of your list of what to see in Coimbra!
Mondego is also known as Portugal’s best kayaking river. Why not admire the natural beauty of Coimbra from the river? Rent a kayak and paddle down an 18km stretch stopping at some river beaches and go swimming.
Nature lovers will want to explore the nearby Choupal National Forest, famous for its tall trees along the Mondego River. This is a local’s favourite spot for running, walking, and biking – a great way to escape the city and be surrounded by nature.
3. The incredible architecture of Coimbra
The amount of historical monuments is endless in Coimbra Portugal! With that rich long history, it’s no wonder you’ll find Coimbra is a city with important landmarks to explore. Such as the Old Cathedral of Coimbra, the Monastery of Santa Cruz, and the New Cathedral of Coimbra to name just a few.
Let your feet be your guide and discover a mix of architectural styles all over the city ranging from the 13th century to the 19th century.
4. Fado Music originated in Coimbra
Coimbra is one of the centers of Fado music in Portugal. Fun fact – Fado music actually originated in Coimbra! So of course, this Portuguese tradition continues to live strong in this amazing city. The traditional Coimbra Fado is sung exclusively by men and often accompanied by a Portuguese guitar. Whereas in other cities in Portugal like Lisbon and Porto, you’ll find the traditions a bit relaxed.
In the historic centre of Coimbra, you’ll find many live music performances in many restaurants and bars in the city.
5. The delicious food and drink in Coimbra
What makes Coimbra worth visiting? The food! You won’t find any fine dining or Michelin-starred restaurants in Coimbra like you might in Lisbon or Porto. Coimbra has something way better – authentic restaurants serving traditional cuisine. And, is it ever good!
Tiny tascas, or budget eateries are everywhere in Baixa- the historic neighbourhood. There may be 7 to 10 tables only. One person working the restaurant and one chef. It’s quaint and cozy.
Coimbra has a rich culinary tradition, and you’ll find a range of local specialties to try, such as roasted suckling pig or chanfana (goat stew). Being vegetarian, the chef made Migas for me (every region in Portugal has their own version) and Bacalhau for my husband (mostly vegetables and cod fish).
Coimbra is also known for its wine, such as the Bairrada and Dão wines, which I had in a very big Sangaria! Yum!
Lisbon and Porto might be known for the creamy custards called pastel de nata, but Coimbra has Barrigas de Freira or nun’s belly. These delicious pastries are made with egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, and almonds and are shaped like a nun’s belly, hence the name “nun’s bellies”.
6. Coimbra is a walkable city
Coimbra is a small-ish city, and for the most part, your time will be spent in Baixa and Alta neighbourhoods. This also means it’s a walkable city. And, that’s exactly what tourists love. A city they can easily navigate in a couple of hours.
Coimbra is a wonderful city for those who love to simply stroll with no real plans. It features narrow streets, charming houses to admire, and beautiful squares to people-watch. If that’s the type of city you like to visit, then Coimbra is worth visiting.
7. Coimbra is a big city without the crowds
Who doesn’t love to visit a destination and feel like you’re the only tourist in the city? That’s how I felt when I went to Coimbra. I do have to tell you I did visit in the low tourist season (late November/early December), but compared to Lisbon, Porto and other Portuguese places I went to, Coimbra was the quietest.
Well, maybe quiet isn’t the word I would use to describe Coimbra. The city is undergoing a transformation. There’s a lot of rebuilding and restoring of old ancient buildings and landmarks. Perhaps in anticipation of a tourist boom? Either way, visit Coimbra now and don’t put it off.
And, because this is a university city there is a great youthful vibe. Coimbra as a result has a great nightlife because of its student population. I love visiting cities that are young, hip and trendy. And, there’s a great art scene too.
8. The beautiful gardens in Coimbra
There are many beautiful parks and gardens to explore in Coimbra. But the most beautiful is the Botanic Garden of the University of Coimbra dating back to 1772. This was top of my list of things to see in Coimbra.
The impressive entry to this free garden is through a 16th-century aqueduct. And every inch of the 13 hectares (32 acres) is incredibly beautiful. Fountains, statues and plants from all around the globe can be found here. Be sure to seek out the greenhouse from 1859. It was the first iron and glass structure in Portugal.
I could have easily spent the entire day here, and on any return trip to Portugal, I am headed back here again.
Another park of interest is Portugal dos Pequenitos – a theme park featuring miniature replicas of traditional Portuguese buildings, landmarks, and monuments. It’s a fun experience for children and adults alike, and it’s a great way to learn about the country’s history and culture.
9. Visit Coimbra for the hidden gems
I love discovering hidden gems. Those secret places almost always go undetected by most travellers. To my delight, I found some amazing ones! If you do too, add these to your Coimbra things to do list.
- Biblioteca Joanina – the stunning 18th-century library can be found at the University of Coimbra. A beautiful baroque building with ornate decorations that houses a collection of over 300,000 books, some of which date back to the 16th century.
- Quebra Costas – is a steep staircase that connects the lower town to the upper town, passing through a series of narrow alleys and beautiful old buildings. Once you’re at the top you’ll be awarded an incredible view.
- Igreja de Santa Cruz – is a small but beautiful church that dates back to the 12th century. It’s located in the heart of the historic center, and it features a beautiful facade, intricate carvings, and an impressive collection of Renaissance and Baroque art.
- Café Santa Cruz – is a historic café near the church (of the same name). It’s a great place to stop for a coffee or a pastry, and it has a rich history that dates back to the 1920s.
Fun Facts about Coimbra
There are several interesting and fun facts about Coimbra! Here are a few:
- What is Coimbra famous for? The University of Coimbra is one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world and is the reported inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.
- Before Lisbon was the capital city of Portugal, Coimbra held that honour from 1139 to 1255.
- Coimbra’s students attending the university wear traditional black capes and carry black canes with silver or gold knobs. The uniforms are a symbol of the city’s university and its long-standing academic traditions.
- Coimbra practices the traditional Fado which is sung exclusively by men and often accompanied by a Portuguese guitar.
- Coimbra hosts many cultural events throughout the year. The most popular is Queima das Fitas, a week-long celebration that marks the end of the academic year for students.
How to get to Coimbra from Lisbon
Coimbra is north of Lisbon. The distance from Lisbon to Coimbra is about 200 km (125 miles) making a day trip from Lisbon to Coimbra very easy.
There are several ways to get to Coimbra from Lisbon:
- Train: the most convenient way to travel from Lisbon to Coimbra is by train. The journey takes around 1.5 to 2 hours, and there are several trains departing from Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia or Oriente train stations each day.
- Bus: there are several bus companies that operate regular services from Lisbon to Coimbra, such as Rede Expressos and FlixBus. The journey takes around 2 to 2.5 hours, depending on traffic, and there are several departures each day.
- By car: You rent a car and drive from Lisbon to Coimbra. The journey takes around 2 to 2.5 hours, depending on traffic and the route you take. The most direct route is to follow the A1 highway north and exit at Coimbra Norte.
How to get from Porto to Coimbra
Coimbra is about 120 km (75 miles) south of Porto. If you are visiting Porto for a few days you’ll definitely want to add Coimbra to your itinerary.
There are several ways to get from Porto to Coimbra:
- Train: the most convenient way to travel from Porto to Coimbra is by train. The journey takes around 1 to 1.5 hours, and there are several trains departing from Porto’s Campanhã or São Bento train stations each day.
- Bus: there are several bus companies that operate regular services from Porto to Coimbra, such as Rede Expressos and FlixBus. The journey takes around 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic, and there are several departures each day.
- By car: rent a car and drive from Porto to Coimbra. The journey takes around 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic and the route you take. The most direct route is to follow the A1 highway south and exit at Coimbra Sul.
Go on a day trip from Porto to Coimbra with Get Your Guide where you will experience a guided tour of the University of Coimbra campus and free time to explore the city centre, check prices and book your dates.
Where is Coimbra, Portugal?
Coimbra is located in central Portugal, approximately halfway between Lisbon and Porto. From Lisbon, Coimbra is about 200 km (125 miles) north and about 120 km (75 miles) south of Porto.
How long should I spend in Coimbra?
Coimbra can easily be experienced in a day if you want to explore the historic centre and tour the University. An overnight stay will allow you to enjoy a dinner with Fado music and visit one of Portugal’s most beautiful abandoned monasteries.
What is Coimbra known for?
Coimbra is known for its long rich history, culture and historic landmarks like Coimbra University – one of the oldest continuously running universities and traditional Fado music.
Is Coimbra safe?
Coimbra is a very safe city to travel to. It’s a livable city with welcoming locals and experiences very little crime. This makes it an ideal city for all travellers, especially solo travellers.
Portugal Travel Resources
To help with your Portugal trip inspiration and planning, check out some of my other articles.
If Porto is your base:
- Get to know what Porto is best known for beyond its world-famous production of port wine and historic cellars lining the Douro River.
- The city’s allure and why it is worth visiting lies in its enchanting old town, Ribeira, boasting vibrant houses and quaint, winding streets.
- No matter the number of days in Porto you’ll want to explore its historic center, including must-see landmarks like Porto Cathedral and Clerigos Tower.
- And, if you can take another day trip from Porto head to the breathtaking Douro Valley, where terraced vineyards and picturesque landscapes create an idyllic setting for Port wine tasting.
If Lisbon is your base:
- Stay at Baixa House, a charming boutique hotel nestled in the heart of Lisbon’s vibrant Baixa district.
- Use this ultimate Lisbon itinerary no matter how many days you might have in Lisbon. Immerse yourself in its vibrant and charming neighbourhoods. Wander through Alfama’s narrow streets and soak in the soulful melodies of Fado music. If you have more time to spare, follow our ultimate itinerary to uncover the city’s hidden gems.
- Venture to the historic Belém district and visit the iconic landmarks like the Jeronimos Monastery and Belém Tower, testaments to Lisbon’s rich history.
- Escape to the chic resort town of Cascais on a delightful day trip from Lisbon. Relax on beautiful beaches and soak up the charming atmosphere that surrounds this coastal gem.
- Lastly, visit one of the most Instagrammable places in Portugal – the beautiful Pena Palace, a captivating fairy-tale castle perched atop a hill. As well as, the nearby Quinta da Regaleira Sintra, with its famous initiation well.
If Alentejo and Algarve regions are part of your trip planning:
- Both these regions have some of the best villages in Portugal you’re going to want to explore.
- Learn more about the Alentejo region, considered the Tuscany of Portugal! And, add spending a day in Évora, a UNESCO-listed city renowned for its well-preserved Roman ruins and medieval architecture.
- Learn more about where to find the best beaches in the Algarve, which includes a visit to the hidden gem of Tavira.
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As a Holidaymaker
Those are just 9 reasons to visit Coimbra in Portugal. Did I convince you? Did I answer your question – is Coimbra Portugal worth visiting? I hope so. A special thanks to Coimbra Tourism for helping me discover the best of their city!