Coimbra is usually forgotten on most suggestions of day trips from Lisbon. Granted, hopping on the train for less than an hour to visit Sintra or Cascais is easier but why not go on a little adventure and spend one day in Coimbra?
If you were given the chance to spend just one day in Coimbra, these are my best tips to make the best of the Center region city.
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Some interesting facts about Coimbra
Coimbra is famous for its University (there’s a reason why they call it the “city of students) and its Fado (even more mournful and painful than the Fado you’ll hear in Lisbon and, traditionally, sung only by male students).
Until the late 1200’s this city by the Mondego river was the capital city of Portugal and the city where the king at the time, D. Dinis, resided. It was also this king who founded the University of Coimbra, the first public university in Portugal and one of the oldest in the world. Incidentally, the university was first established in Lisbon and only in 1537 it was physically transferred to Coimbra. But this is a minor detail. Once the University of Coimbra, always the University of Coimbra and that’s that! It still stands as one of the most prestigious higher-education schools in Portugal.
With an area of a little over 123 square miles and a population of 143,000+ people, the city might come across as small but, historically and architecturally, it has plenty to keep you busy during one whole day.
How to reach Coimbra
By car, you can take highway A1, and it’s about a 2-hour-drive from Lisbon (from Lisbon to Coimbra it’s about 210km / 130 miles) and a 1-hour-drive from Porto (about 122km / 75 miles away).
By train, it depends on your budget. If you choose the Alfa Pendular (the most expensive but the most comfortable, too), it’s about a 1h45 trip each way, and tickets for a return trip start at €30 ($35) per passenger. The InterCidades is still quite comfortable and a bit more affordable, at around €20 ($23) per passenger for one return trip, although, it does raise your travel time to about two hours each way (so, keep in mind it’s a 4-hour period that you’ll be traveling by train).
In a heartbeat, I would choose the train over driving but, unfortunately, my list of things to do and see in Coimbra that follows isn’t within a short walking distance from the train station. I leave that decision up to you and your preferences.
Top things to see and do in Coimbra
Unless you fall madly in love at first sight with Coimbra and want to stay longer, one day in Coimbra is enough to visit the top landmarks, roam around the old streets and alleys of the city, and gaze at the river Mondego.
These are the absolute must-see landmarks in Coimbra that you don’t want to miss.
Church of Santa Cruz
The construction of this church began in 1131, and you can see all the additions that were made in the decor: it beautifully mixes elements of Romanesque, and of “Manueline,” and of the Renaissance, and of baroque. It’s where the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, and his son the second king of Portugal, Sancho the first, are buried.
Address: Praça 8 de Maio
Opening hours: NA
Coimbra’s old cathedral was built in the second half of the 12th century and, although its main bones are Romanesque, it is a mix of several art periods too when it comes to the decor. Concerts often happen on this medieval church’s steps where the former students of the University of Coimbra, dressed in their black suits and long black cloaks (which is their typical College uniform), gather to sing Fado and serenade the city – they call it the former students’ serenade (Serenata dos Antigos Estudantes).
Address: Largo Sé Velha
Opening hours: NA
Universidade de Coimbra
The University is a big part of the city life and history. It is also where you will likely spend most of your time, not only for the History but the breathtaking views of the city.
Climbing the legendary 125 steps of the Monumental Stairs leads you to a campus that oozes the energy of the fighting spirit of the students, mostly famous for the 1969 “academic crisis” when they manifested against conservative dictatorship and in favor of more rights, democracy, and better education.
To visit the historical buildings around campus costs between €12 and €15 (if you want the audio-guided tour) or between US $14 and US $17 per person and I highly recommend it. At every location, they had a laminated sheet of paper that summed up what we were visiting. It included visiting the Biblioteca Joanina (a Baroque monument, beautifully decorated in gilded chinoiserie), the Academic Prison (a prison for the convicted students and scholars), the St. Michael’s Chapel (with a beautiful 1733 Baroque organ), and the University Tower.
You won’t be allowed to take pictures inside these sites, but the views of the city and the river from the campus will make up for it. I asked the employees to access the small terrace just at the end of the long corridor opposite Sala das Armas (Weapons Room) for a better and clearer view of Coimbra, Mondego, and the surrounding mountains. Slightly windy (me and my fear of heights…) but very worth it.
Address: Largo da Porta Férrea
Opening hours: 9am-7.30pm, Summers; 9am-1pm & 2-5pm, School season (Oct-Mar)
Where to eat in Coimbra
Last, but not least, the most important item on all cultural travel itineraries. No? Eating is part of culture, so I’m gonna go with a resounding yes.
Being the city of students comes in handy if you want to eat hearty meals at affordable prices. Not surprisingly, the restaurant we chose to eat in Coimbra was the recommendation of an old friend, a former University student who used to live in the city and knew his way around.
The restaurant has a peculiar name, Zé Manel dos Ossos (translated into English is something like bones’ Joe; I told you, peculiar), but everyone who lives or has lived in Coimbra recommends the place. It’s so famous that even Culture Trip listed it has one of the top 10 restaurants in Coimbra.
There’s nothing fancy about the food, on the contrary, but it’s typical Portuguese cuisine, well-cooked, well-seasoned, and budget-friendly. As usual in these places, portions are beyond generous, you have to like meat (this tavern-like restaurant is known for its goatling and wild boar dishes), and everything tastes better if you wash it down with a glass of the Bairrada region’s red wine.
Address: Beco do Forno, 12
Opening hours: noon-3pm & 7.30-10pm Mon-Sat
Average price per meal per person: €12.50 / US $14.77