Visiting Coimbra has long been in my travel plans. The “city of students”, as it is called, is one of the best known cities in Portugal, not only because it was once the capital of the kingdom, but for the famous university, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
There is so much to see in this location of Central Portugal! But what to do in Coimbra if you only have one day to visit?
That’s what happened to me on this trip. The visit was a quick one, but I still manage to visit some of the most essential spots. It was no easy task, because Coimbra stretches over a vast hill, which implies a lot of walking through very steep streets, always going up. But it was worth every drop of sweat running down my back!
So let’s go through all the places I’ve visited that I consider a must-see in this Portuguese city. Read through until the end, as I leave you with a few more tips in case you manage to stay for a few more days.
- What to do in Coimbra
- The Garden Arches and Botanical Gardens
- Monumental Stairs and College Boulevard
- Porta Férrea and Paço das Escolas
- Mermaid Garden and Sá da Bandeira Avenue Garden
- Coimbra's Old Cathedral
- Quebra Costas and the Almedina Arch
- Santa Cruz Church
- Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery
- Unusual ways to explore Coimbra
- Mondego Green Park and Pedro e Inês Bridge
What to do in Coimbra
The Garden Arches and Botanical Gardens
The São Sebastião Aqueduct, or Arcos do Jardim, as it is better known, was my first stopping point.
This stone block structure, built in the 16th century, rests on what is believed to be the remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct. With its 21 arches, it aimed to bring water from the city’s high section to the hill in front, where, at the beginning of the 17th century, the Santa Ana Convent emerged.
It is in the center of these arches that you’ll find one of the entrances to the Botanical Garden of the University of Coimbra.
Created in 1772 by the Marquis of Pombal, it extends over 13 ha, where you can visit various spaces, such as the Alley of Tilias or the Big Greenhouse. Among the outdoor plants, enjoying the region’s own climate, or the reproduction of tropical, subtropical and temperate climates, the trip around here is full of beauty. From the more exotic varieties to the Portuguese flora, there’s a little bit of everything around here.
The Botanical Garden is open from 9am to 5:30 pm (8pm in the spring/summertime).
Monumental Stairs and College Boulevard
The Monumental Stairs are a city classic and set the tone for the University of Coimbra’s faculty district. You have to climb 125 steps to reach Praça de D. Dinis. It was built in the 1950s, during the Estado Novo political period. It’s said among students that the great spheres that crown the top of the stairs will fall on the day a university student finishes the degree still a virgin. 😉
The square next to the Faculty of Mathematics has the statue of D. Dinis. In 1290, he was the creator of what is today the oldest university in Portugal and one of the oldest in the world.
From there, take Rua Larga, also known as the Alameda das Faculdades (College Boulevard). The day I was in Coimbra coincided with the beginning of the academic year and the day of enrollment. I felt the pulse of the academic community and the anticipation in the eyes of those who just entered this imposing university.
Porta Férrea and Paço das Escolas
Passing the various colleges and arriving at the Library, you come to what is the noblest and well-known space in the whole city: the Paço das Escolas. This is where are the buildings recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The entrance is through the Porta Férrea, and as you arrive, you can guess that what you’re about to see inside is something unique. In this incredible door, look for some symbols, such as the figure of Sapience, the emblem of this university.
Inside, and around the vast and wide courtyard, is the entrance to the Royal Palace; the University of Coimbra Tower with the “goat” (a name given to its bell); St. Michael’s Chapel, with a Manueline portal; and the fantastic Joanina Library.
It was created with the sponsorship of D. João V and later called Joanina Library in honor of its patron. Is considered a masterpiece of the Baroque.
The interior stands out for its numerous gold-leaf bookcases decorated with Chinese motifs, but also for its literary collection. There are several copies — some quite rare — of bibliographic collections, ranging from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Just like in the incredible Library of the Palace of Mafra, here the books conservation has also the help of a colony of bats. The little guys hunt at night the insects that appear there.
📖 Get a better understanding of the history and traditions of the University of Combria on this guided tour.
Mermaid Garden and Sá da Bandeira Avenue Garden
Another place worth the stop is Santa Cruz Park. Known as the Mermaid Garden, this was used by the monks as a place of gathering and meditation. Currently is one of the significant green areas of Coimbra, situated next to Praça da República. Just in front of the main entrance is the Nogueira Fountain. It features the sculpture of a Triton opening a dolphin’s mouth. From there the water drops into a shell, with the figure of a Mermaid. Hence the name.
From the Praça da República you enter the Sá da Bandeira Avenue, with a large and beautiful garden separating the lanes. In addition to trees, lakes, and resting benches, there’s also an evocative monument of the First World War.
Coimbra’s Old Cathedral
Returning to the historical area, go to the Old Cathedral. This is one of the most important Romanesque style monuments in the country. Its construction began after the Battle of Ourique, when D. Afonso Henriques, declared King of Portugal, chose Coimbra as the kingdom’s capital.
Quebra Costas and the Almedina Arch
From the Old Cathedral, the path goes down the Quebra Costas Street to the Almedina Arch. This is one of the most touristy areas in the city. Here you’ll find several cafes, bars, shops and spaces where you can listen to jazz or the traditional fado of Coimbra. But keep in mind that in this area, the floor is steep and very polished, and it may lead to a possible fall. Maybe that’s why is named Quebra Costas (Back Breaker).
In this zone of medieval features, the Almedina Arch and Tower is another unmissable place. This was the main entrance of the city inside the walls and today gives access to the most historical part of town.
Santa Cruz Church
Next to the City Hall, at Praça 8 de Maio, is the Santa Cruz Church. This monastery was founded in 1131 with the support of D. Afonso Henriques and his son D. Sancho I, both buried here. It was in this church that the first king of Portugal came to pray each time he returned from his Christian Reconquest excursions.
In the Santa Cruz Church, which is also a national pantheon, besides the tombs of the two monarchs, you can see many other things. Be sure to check out the Museum of Sacred Art, the Cloister of Silence, the High Choir Chair, and a reliquary shrine.
Next door, don’t miss Cafe Santa Cruz. It’s one of the oldest in the city and where I was told that you can taste the Cruzios, a sweet of monastic origin.
Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery
Cross the Mondego River to see the Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery. It was built in 1314 by the Holy Queen Isabel, replacing a small convent of nuns founded in 1286.
After King D. João IV built a new convent (the Santa Clara-a-Nova), in the 17th century, this building was renamed Santa Clara-a-Velha and was abandoned.
In the late 20th century, the temple was restored, which eventually revealed an even more significant legacy. Today is open to visitors. You can circulate in a wide-open air path, where you have a perspective of the exterior of the monastery and the archaeological structures that were discovered there. Also, visit the interpretive center to learn all the history behind this monument.
The Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery is open from 09h to 17h (wintertime) or from 10h to 19h (summertime).
Unusual ways to explore Coimbra
Mondego Green Park and Pedro e Inês Bridge
End your day of sightseeing on the banks of the Mondego River. Mondego Green Park is about 4 kilometers long and offers walking and cycling paths, bars, restaurants, a children’s playground, and an area for water sports such as canoeing or paddleboarding. Also here, joining the two river
And if you still have more time in Coimbra …
Machado de Castro National Museum
The Machado de Castro National Museum occupies in itself an incredible space in the city of Coimbra. The buildings date from the 12th to the 18th century
Portugal dos Pequenitos
It delights the young ones, and it’s totally understandable: it is Portugal in a small size! Portugal dos Pequenitos opened its doors in 1940 and is a “living portrait of Portugal and the Portuguese presence in the world.” The park is divided into several thematic zones: “Monumental Portugal,” “Portuguese Expression Countries,” “Insular Portugal,” “Regional Houses” and there is even a single nucleus dedicated to Coimbra, as it should be. All done at children’s scale.
Quinta das Lágrimas
Do you remember when I mentioned the legend of Peter and Inês? Quinta das Lágrimas (Estate of Tears) is associated with this forbidden love story. Today the property is a 5-star hotel, but the gardens can be visited. In this space, look for the Fountain of Love, where Inês is believed to have been killed, and also for the Wellington Giant Sequoias planted to celebrate Duke of Wellington’s stay in this estate.
Santa Clara-a-Nova Monastery
The Santa Clara-a Nova Monastery is also on the left bank of the Mondego River, and here you can find the tomb of D. Isabel de Aragon, the Holy Queen, Patron Saint of Coimbra.
In total, I went to nine places, on a tour that lasted from 9h to 19h. A short but intense one.
On this visit, I stayed in the Astoria Hotel, an Art Nouveau building, open to the public since 1926. It’s one of the city’s architectural symbols. Really beautiful!
When it comes to meals, I went through some excellent restaurants that I recommend: the Terraço da Alta, with an incredible view; A Taberna, if you’re into meat; and Aeminium, in downtown, with super friendly service.
Do you know Coimbra? How was your first time in this city? Use the comments box below to share your tips, suggest where to stay or what to eat. If you have never been to Coimbra and have some questions, ask away! I’ll love to answer and help you with your trip.