Portugal’s former capital, Coimbra, has a small treasure trove of things to see. If you plan wisely, you can catch most of the highlights in one day, either as a day trip or as a stop in between other cities, like Lisbon and Porto.
Assuming you’re not making an overnight stop in Coimbra, you’ll find it easily accessible as a round trip or stop over by train from Lisbon, about 2:2:30 hours, and Porto, about 1-1:30. There are two regional train stations, Coimbra and Coimbra-B. You’ll want to arrive at the former, which is in the heart of the city.
What to do on a day in Coimbra
The city is walkable and fairly small, but you can comfortably enjoy some of Coimbra’s most popular attractions in about 6-8 hours.
University of Coimbra
Few places boast a university as the number one thing to do, but when your university is built on the site of a former palace, it’s well worth the trip. Of all the city’s sights, the University of Coimbra is likeliest to be a bit crowded. There are two kinds of tickets, depending on what you want to see. The full-price ticket includes everything: the Royal Palace, the Chapel of St. Michael, the College of Jesus, and the Baroque Library for 12€. If you want to add the tower to your ticket, it’s an extra euro. This ticket also gives you access to the science museum, though you can pay for that separately.
You can do everything at your own pace except the Baroque Library (Biblioteca Joanina), which is hands down the main draw of this destination. Entrance is limited to 60 people every 20-30 minutes and when you buy a ticket, they book you at the earliest time slot available. This means you might have to wait a couple of hours, but even if you have to schedule the rest of your day around this library, you should. It’s one of the few libraries in the world that’s kept free of bugs by bats that are allowed to live here. Photos are not allowed, but trust me, the gilded columns and the massive stacks of books against the dark wood cases are stunning. You could hear an audible gasp from the group when we were taken inside.
The ticket also allows you to walk the grounds of the former Royal Palace turned university campus, including an ornate active lecture hall, the arms room, and the Chapel of St. Michael. The tower gives you a beautiful view of the city, though with the regular ticket, there’s a lower viewpoint that gives you a nice look at the city and the river. The line for the tower can be long and requires climbing 180 steps.
Check out Coimbra’s religious sites
I’ve never seen a cathedral I didn’t love and Coimbra has some truly spectacular ones. If you’re on a budget, the New Cathedral of Coimbra is free to visit, with a 1€ recommended donation. The 17th century structure has a peaceful and grand interior that features vaulted ceilings, a dome, and a gilded wood altarpiece.
Another interesting cathedral to visit on a day in Coimbra is the Old Cathedral of Coimbra (Se Velha). Construction of this Roman Catholic Church dates back to the 10th century. It’s largely made of carved stone, inside and out. For 2.5€, you can take a self-guided tour of the main chapel as well as the Gothic cloisters. The Old Cathedral also houses the tombs of some notable figures.
The last important religious site on the list is the Santa Cruz Monastery (Igreja de Santa Cruz). This majestic church houses the remains of Portugal’s first two kings, resting on either side of the altar. The inside of the church is decorated with the traditional blue tiles depicting different historical events. It costs 3€ to enter.
Walk up and down the city
You can’t enjoy a day in Coimbra without simply walking around the stony city center and taking everything in. The Santa Cruz Monastery marks the beginning of the long walking street Rua Visconde da Luz. It’s a bit touristy, but Coimbra isn’t terribly crowded even at the height of summer. You can take that street all the way to the Monument of Joaquim Antonio de Aguiar on the river. You can also walk across the Santa Clara bridge just to get a nice view of the city and the Mondego River.
You’ll notice as you walk up and down Rua Visconde da Luz that there are staircases going up and down, branching out from the main path like arteries. You can reach other landmarks like the Barbican Gate (Porta de Barbaca) and Anto Tower (Torre de Anto) by going up these steps. You’ll also find cute little neighborhoods nestled up and down past the stairs where you can have a drink and enjoy some live music at the snack bars and restaurants with outdoor seating.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other Coimbra guides on GPSmyCity here.