What To Do In Coimbra — 1-Day City Tour

Vistar Coimbra | Visit Coimbra

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

Arcos do Jardim Coimbra
Garden Arches
Jardim Botânico | Botanical Garden
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

Escadaria Monumental | Monumental Stairs
Monumental Stairs
Estátua D. Dinis Statue
D. Dinis statue

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

Porta Férrea Coimbra
Porta Férrea
Pátio das Escolas Coimbra
Pátio 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.

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

Sé Velha de Coimbra | Old Church
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

Quebra Costas Coimbra
Quebra Costas Street

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

Igreja de Santa Cruz Church
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

Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery
Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery
Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery
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).

Mondego Green Park and Pedro e Inês Bridge

Parque Verde do Mondego Green Park
Mondego Green Park

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 banks, is the pedestrian bridge Pedro and Inês. A tribute to Portugal’s best-known love story.

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.Here are collections of archeology, sculpture, ceramics, among others, which came mostly from the abandoned monasteries and convents in the region. They date back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, being a mirror of the main artistic styles that dominated Europe at that time.

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.

Quebra Costas Coimbra

You need to know…

Get ready to walk the walk. I had no idea, but the historical center of Coimbra is quite high, and you’ll have to go up and down many steep streets and stairs.
Wear comfortable shoes and protect your head if it is a hot day. I wasn’t prepared, and I was running all the time into the shadows. Oh, and take plenty of water with you!

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.

Coimbra is charming and has a lot of history and tradition in its streets. Find out what to visit in Coimbra if you only have one day to discover the city of students.
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Comments

  • Danik

    I have never even heard of Coimbra, and just had to google it to find out where in Portugal this city is. NOW I want to go. As a photographer it looks like its a truly amazing place to get the great photos in and also as its an old city, I would love to walk the streets and check out the rustic buildings.

  • Linda (LD Holland)

    We did love our visit to Coimbra. We are sorry that we missed the botanical garden. And I can’t believe we never heard about the Mermaid Garden. It was graduation weekend when we visited so it was impossible to get anywhere near the university. Sorry we missed it. If you go back, make sure to visit Portugal dos Pequenitos. We did love this even as adults.

    • Marlene Marques
      Linda (LD Holland)

      Eheheh Portugal dos Pequenitos is a must when you are a kid in Portugal. I remember my parents taking me when I was very young and I was crazy about it. I have to go back one day and relive those wonderful childhood moments. 🙂 Thank you for reminding me of that.

  • Renata

    I’ve been to Coimbra last year and spent almost all my stay at the university and its surroundings – and I was amazed! It’s so majestic and beautiful. However, I need to come back to explore also some of the places you are introducing.

  • Jen

    I’m so impressed by how much ground you covered in a day in Coimbra! The history of the city is fascinating and I love the architecture. Especially those doors on Porta Ferrea-wow! I would love to spend time time in the Joanina Library checking out their rare collections too. Thanks for all of your great advice on visiting the city.

    • Marlene Marques
      Jen

      It was quite the day-trip! But if you’re not afraid to get up early and walk quite a bit, it is such a beautiful place to visit in a day. I didn’t go inside the Joanina Library, but it is a must-see place in Coimbra.

  • Rosemary

    I’m quite impressed by how much you accomplished in one short day. Reading this makes me sad because we missed Coimbra when we were in Portugal. The school looks magnificent and your photos are outstanding. I had no idea most of the university is a UNESCO heritage site. Just another reason to go back to Portugal and this time, visit Coimbra.

  • Tami Wilcox

    Embarassed to admit I hadn’t heard of Coimbra before. But I am astounded with all of the beautiful (stunning, actually) architecture and history. Mondego Green Park also looks like a great place to stop on a city walking tour — to people-watch and rest a bit!

  • Elaine Masters

    Goodness you covered a lot of different places. I would be hard pressed to leave the Mermaid Garden. You had a beautiful day to tromp up and down hills. I’d love to stay in that Art Deco hotel too.

    • Marlene Marques
      Elaine Masters

      The hotel was such a plus on this trip. I didn’t know how it really was until I got there. It is so beautiful and you do feel like you went back in time. 🙂

  • Hannah

    I’ve not heard of Coimbra, but have been meaning to get to Portugal for years. I love churches, monasteries and cathedrals, so Coimbra sounds like the perfect place for me. The Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery is incredible – I wonder how 13th Century buildings are still so intact!

    • Marlene Marques
      Hannah

      This one is a real phenomenon! The Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery is below the river line, so, in the wintertime, it got full of water. But the local government did some onsite interventions and is now safe for more years to come. 🙂

  • Adonis Villanueva

    There so much to Portugal that I don’t know about. Coimbra looks like a hidden gem. The architecture here looks spectacular, especially the cathedral. I want to walk the steep stairs and streets there and get lost. Thanks for showing us this treasure of a place!