We arrived on a rainy day in Coimbra and left on a sunny one. You’re like in two different cities depending on the weather. We opted for an indoor itinerary in the first day, so that we could visit lovely gardens and stroll the streets at ease the next day.
Coimbra is a city to see if you’re planning a longer stay throughout Portugal. It speaks history at every step and that’s the reason number one why it is so enthralling.
Here is where we immerse in history…
Upper town and Lower town
Coimbra is what they call the Portuguese City of Knowledge, where the first and only university of the country was established in 1290 until 1911. It also stood as the first capital of Portugal (1139-1255) due to the many Portuguese royal families that lived here, accompanied by nobles and the clergy. Thus the town became a melting pot of history and monuments, with several important artists painting its today’s appearance.
Like most of the cities in Portugal, Coimbra is set on a hill. Yes! You’ll have to walk up and down, but it is totally worth it. Here is what we recommend visiting.
The University of Coimbra
The best way to start your day is by going uphill, marvel at the views of the Mondego river flowing through the city and then head to the main attraction: The UC (University of Coimbra).
In its early years, the university’s location changed several times from Coimbra to Lisbon and vice-versa. In 1537, the university was finally set on the most privileged venue of the time, the royal palace.
To this day, more than 25.000 students attend the university every year, whether Portuguese or foreigners.
The University is a conjunction of several buildings from different periods though the most important one is the old building, also known as Paço das Escolas. Here you’ll have the chance to see all the rooms that were converted from royal palace to university in the 16th century. Nowadays some of the most important scholar acts, like the PhD defences, still happen inside this building. From this period dates also the Saint Michael’s Chapel, rich in decoration of Manueline style in particular (a typical Portuguese architectural ornamentation).
The tour continues with the visit of one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, the Joanina Library dating from the 18th century, in Baroque style and holding over 35.000 books from 12th to 18th century. The library construction was ordered by John V of Portugal to enlighten the minds of those studying here (this is the same king who ordered the construction of Mafra Royal Convent).
We recomend you to make the visit with a guide, for 15€ you’ll get a fully detailed presentation of all the visiting area (the visit lasts 1h30m).
After the University, you can visit the unique National Museum Machado de Castro, situated on an ancient Roman structure, the Cryptoporticus (a structure to level the ground for the construction of buildings). Inside you will find a collection ranging from archeology and sculpture to jewellery, painting, drawing, ceramics, textiles and furniture.
The New and the Old Cathedrals
One of the most curious facts about Coimbra is that the city has not one, but two cathedrals. The cathedral changed its location because the old building started to be too small to accommodate the Bishop and his staff. For that reason this new construction was called the New Cathedral, and the one from the 12th century the Old Cathedral.
The latter, with its imposing Romanesque style, is a beautiful and peaceful site, which cloister hosts the tomb of the first Governor of Coimbra after the Christian Reconquista, Sesnandes Davides.
Starting from this monumental point you’ll embark upon the most scenic journey, descending the slopes through the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys discovering bit by bit Coimbra’s charm.
Once you’ll get to the steps of the Quebra Costas street (the name suggests a popular very steep road, used in many medieval cities) you’ll thank us for not making the tour the other way around :). At the end of the street you’ll reach the Medina Arch that stands as the main entrance to the Old Town.
On the other side of the river you can (and should) see both Santa Clara-a-Velha and Santa-Clara-a-Nova monasteries and the Jardim da Quinta das Lágrimas.
Santa Clara-a-Velha and Santa Clara-a-Nova Monasteries
The Old Santa Clara’s Monastery dates from the 13th century, which construction was ordered by Elizabeth of Aragon, Queen of Portugal, becoming her home after the husband’s death. She is also known as The Saint Elizabeth of Portugal due to the famous Miracle of the Roses:
Legend has it that the king, who had a bad temper, was angered at the queen always mingling with beggars, and forbade her to give more alms.
One day, seeing her leaving the palace, he went after her to find out what she hid under the cloak. It was bread for the poor. But she, afflicted by disobeying the king, said:
– It’s roses, my Lord!
– Roses? Roses in January?, he doubted, Let me see!
With downcast eyes, Queen Elizabeth opened the lap and the bread, miraculously, had turned into roses.
Since the start, flooding was a major problem for the Santa Clara’s Monastery. After two centuries a new monastery emerged on the hilltop, safeguarded from the floods. Santa Clara’s New Monastery is where you can see the tomb of the St. Elizabeth of Portugal. However, we confess that the Old Santa Clara’s Monastery remains one of the most spectacular places we’ve seen in Coimbra.
Jardim Quinta das Lágrimas (Estate of Tears Garden)
This charming city gathers many hidden treasures yet to discover. One of them is Jardim Quinta das Lágrimas, an estate with a 12ha garden and a 4* hotel. It is the most romantic place to visit in Coimbra and one of the most alluring gardens in Portugal.
This scenic botanic garden witnessed the tragic love story of Inês de Castro and King of Portugal D. Pedro I:
Despite his marriage, Pedro used to have romantic encounters with Inês in the gardens of Quinta das Lágrimas. After the death of his wife in 1345, Pedro went to live with Inês, thus disobeying his father, the King Afonso IV. The court and the people also condemned the connection between the two.
For years, Pedro and Inês lived in Santa Clara in Coimbra, with their three children. But the growing censorship of their union by the court, made constant pressure on the King Afonso IV, who ended up ordering the murder of Inês de Castro on January 1355. Insanely hurt, Peter led a revolt against the king. When he finally took the crown in 1357, Pedro ordered the arrest and he himself killed the murderers of Inês, ripping their hearts, earning the nickname of The Cruel.
Later, swearing that it had secretly married Inês de Castro, Pedro imposed its recognition as Queen of Portugal. In April 1360, he ordered the reburial of her body from Coimbra to the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça, where he built two magnificent tombs, so he could rest eternally next to his beloved one. Like this it was immortalised in stone the most sweeping Portuguese love story.
Some claim that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet play is based on this story.
During autumn the colours of the leaves boost its splendor. It has more than fifty different types of trees from all over the world. We tried to capture the garden’s magic…
What else to see
– Igreja de Santa Cruz (Holly Cross Church)
This National Pantheon (yes, pantheon, because here are the tombs of the first two kings of Portugal) was the first church built in the town. From the original church few vestiges remained to this day, being the result of renovations made starting with 16th century.
– Santa Cruz Café
This coffee shop is hard to miss since it’s on the right-hand side of the Igreja de Santa Cruz, built on another ancient church. On the 8th of May 1923, the already desecrated building gives birth to a new café that rapidly becomes popular in the city. This fame is highly related to a specialty served here, the Crúzios or Crosiers in English. This name comes from the religious order, the Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross, commonly called Crosiers, who lived for centuries in both of the churches. The Crosier is a sweet with monastic roots, based on a traditional recipe, containing flour, butter, egg cream and sliced almonds, sprinkled with sugar.
– Jardim da Manga (Sleeve Garden)
Jardim da Manga, also known as Cloister of the Sleeve, belonged to the ancient Monastery of Santa Cruz.
The fountain you will find here (a remembrance of the fountain of life) is a structure in Renaissance style, characterized by a body-centered-shaped dome, based on eight columns and surrounded by four small chapels. Noteworthy are the water lakes inspired by Moorish architecture.
But why the name of Sleeve Garden? Legend says that one day when King John III of Portugal visited the monastery, by encountering a large empty space he outlined in the sleeve of his doublet (a man’s snug-fitting buttoned jacket that was worn from the late 14th century to the mid-17th century ) a cloister and the surrounding garden.
– The student life and traditions
We were lucky to be present on the day of the second most important event for the academic tradition in Coimbra – the Latada. The word derives from lata which means can, the reason for this stays literally at the freshmen’s feet. All the students parade carrying several cans stringed to their feet (also known as hazing).
Where to eat in Coimbra
Don’t forget to try the Portuguese Tentugal pastries, cigar-shaped treats that used to be made in convents.
Finally we cannot skip the part of showing you the streets, the hidden gems, the panoramic views we came across during our walk on rain and sunshine through Coimbra. Whoever said it is a poetic city, we couldn’t agree more.
We hope you enjoyed our history travel guide of Coimbra, and if you’re in doubt about something in particular, please do share your thoughts with us in the comment area below. We’re always happy to hear from our readers :).