Coimbra Or Aveiro? Decide Between Portugal’s Arty Towns

Coimbra or Aveiro
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Coimbra or Aveiro? Which cultural hotspot of northern Portugal should you visit this year? That’s what we’re here to answer. We’ll pick apart each destination to offer a few insights on what you can expect there and what sort of travelers they are more attuned to.

The truth is that they are both pretty similar places, at least in the sense that they have roughly the same populations (Aveiro’s 80,000 to Coimbra’s 100,000) and occupy a similar part of the country (the Região do Centro north of Lisbon but south of Porto). They are also both cultural powerhouses, offering everything from mystical Christian monasteries to Roman ruins.

What we’ll try to do is outline where they are different. That’s a better way to help you make a choice between them, by showing where’s the prime spot for family travelers, which town is the place for food buffs, and even how easy it is to get to them in the first place.

Coimbra or Aveiro for ease of travel?

Aveiro train station
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Neither Coimbra nor Aveiro have their own airports. They are both in a similar region of Portugal, though, which means you’re looking at flying to either the Francisco Sa Carneiro Airport in Porto or Lisbon International Airport to get on the ground. The former is the closest, so we’ll measure driving distances from there. To Aveiro it’s under an hour o the main coast highway. To Coimbra it’s just over an hour following the E1 motorway.

Of course, roads aren’t the only option. Aveiro is linked to the stunning São Bento train station in Porto by direct train, which also connects to many of the beach towns between the two cities. There are loads of trains to Coimbra, too, and they go from both Porto and Lisbon. In fact, Coimbra sits on the direct train line from the capital to the northern second city, so you’ll have loads of services to pick from.

Winner: Coimbra, as it’s on the main train line going between Lisbon and Porto.

Coimbra or Aveiro for things to do?

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To be honest, the joy of both these towns is basically in walking around and seeing the historical sights. Seriously – just hit the streets, map optional. In Aveiro, you’ll walk down canals and waterways into an old town that’s filled with fish restaurants and food markets. Lots of visitors will opt to tour the city in one of the traditional punt boats, known as moliceiro – they’re great and cost about $15 per person. You should also venture to the Rossio district to wonder at the handsome Art Nouveau mansions and hit the Museum of Aveiro to explore the religious importance of the town.

Coimbra is a doozy for walking tours, but it is way hillier so be sure to bring a good pair of comfy shoes. Hitting the cobbled alleys here means sightseeing past handsome churches like the Sé Nova Cathedral and the gorgeous Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Nova. The view of the city and the surrounding countryside from the deck of a Mondego River cruise ship is also darn fantastic, while history sights like Conímbriga (perhaps the most impressive Roman ruin in Portugal) await close by.

Winner: Draw. Each town offers sightseeing and boat trips.

Coimbra or Aveiro for history and culture?

Aveiro Museum
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

It’s no secret that history and culture are the reasons that most people visit both Coimbra and Aveiro. So, what’s on offer? Well…Aveiro is best known for its mystical monastery, the Convento de Jesus. It’s home to the tomb of one of the most revered saints in the country, Saint Joanne, and hosts the informative Museu de Aveiro, which chronicles the deeply religious past of the town. On top of that, the historic center of the city is filled with pretty architectural relics of ages gone by, not to mention the traditional punt-style boats that give it the nickname the Venice of Portugal.

Coimbra probably just about comes out on top here, though. It was once the capital of the country, after all. That brings with it a prestigious and proud past, which comes through when you glimpse monuments like the Velha Universidade de Coimbra (which dates back to the 1200s, no less!) and the exquisite Igreja de Santa Cruz (home to the resting places of Portugal’s first two kings). You’ll also get to tour ruined monasteries and see a handful of Gothic and Baroque churches. It’s divine.

Winner: Coimbra.

Coimbra or Aveiro for nature and exploration?

Aveiro beaches
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Don’t go thinking that a trip to Coimbra or Aveiro is only about the exquisite historic sites that are in the towns themselves. There are also some jaw-dropping natural gems on the doorstep of both, although they come in quite different forms.

Let’s start with Aveiro. Plonked in the midst of a region known as the Silver Coast, this town is the gateway to long runs of powdery sand on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not actually right on the sea itself but is linked to the beaches by a brackish lagoon. The lagoon itself is a protected natural park, offering sightings of rare seabirds, along with glimpses of traditional salt pans. Push past that and you’ll reach Praia da Costa Nova, a handsome beach with light surf and pretty coast cottages.

Coimbra, meanwhile, is much more of a mountain town. It sits in the foothills of the Serra da Estrela, about 25 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s surrounded by rolling ridges that peak and trough, offering plenty of rustic walking routes along the sides of the Mondego River. More importantly, Coimbra is the gateway to the so-called Schist Villages of Portugal; time-stood-still mountain hamlets made entirely of dark schist rock. The likes of Casal de São Simão, Gondramaz, and Vaqueirinho are all within striking distance. 

Winner: Draw – you just gotta’ decide if you want the mountains or the ocean!

Coimbra or Aveiro for nightlife?

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

To be honest, we wouldn’t travel to either Coimbra or Aveiro if our express purpose was to party. These are much smaller towns than the likes of Porto and Lisbon, so you won’t get the same heady nightlife and stream of backpackers to fill the bars.

However, there is some post-sunset activity. In Aviero, it’s split between the old town center and the beaches out by Costa Nova. In the latter, you get a string of chilled sand-side taverns serving Portuguese beer and food. In the former, there are piano jazz bars and pubs, along with one larger venue, the Dokk Club.

Coimbra has a bit more because it’s one of the main student cities in Portugal. That resident population of party-hungry youngsters helps to fuel a much larger array of bars. You’ll find the core of them in the winding old town streets on the north side of the Mondego River. Favorites include the beer-sloshing What’s up Doc Bar (a bargain pitstop beloved of Erasmus students) and LOOK Coimbra (a sprawling club with lofted DJ booths).

Winner: Coimbra.

Coimbra or Aveiro for families?

Coimbra for families
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If you’re heading to Portugal with the kids in tow, then we’d say that Aveiro just about trumps Coimbra. The reason? There are a few. Firstly, it’s a more walkable city, thanks mainly to the fact that it’s flatter. You can hop off the train from Porto and stroll down the main high street with the pushcart if needed. There are now narrow alleys to navigate or huge hills to climb. Secondly, you also get access to the beaches of the Silver Coast, and nearby Costa Nova is a real gem of a family option.

Coimbra not only drapes over the mountains inland in Portugal, meaning the sightseeing here involves some hefty up-and-down walking, but it’s also an overload of culture. You might find that the little ones get church burnout if you’re taking them around the old city to see the iconic chapels and centuries-old monasteries. There’s also no beach to break the action up with, only mountain parks and hiking trails.

Winner: Aveiro

Coimbra or Aveiro for food?

Aveiro restuarants
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No trip to Portugal could be complete without a sampling of the local kitchen. Fresh, earthy, and drawing from both the ocean and the mountains, it’s a rich palette of flavors. And while Lisbon has really established itself as the country’s culinary capital, there’s plenty to be said for these two northern towns.

Where Aveiro excels is on the seafood front. Yep, this town sits just back from the wide Aveiro Lagoon, which links directly to the Atlantic Ocean. The upshot? Produce off the fishing boats is almost always as fresh as can be. That’s why the local dishes run the gamut from bacalhau com natas (a salt-cod pie topped with potatoes) to rich caldeirada de peixe (a slaty fish stew that’s imbued with paprika and nutmeg). The local eels are also a specialty – just in case you’re feeling adventurous.

Over in Coimbra, the bakeries are famed for their own version of the sweet Portuguese pastry. It’s known as the pastel de Santa Clara and was named after the Santa Clara convent that’s actually in Coimbra itself. A real sweet-toothed joy, it’s a puffy pastry with a nutty, egg-based filling that goes perfectly with a strong coffee in the morning. Coimbra is also close enough to the legendary Bairrada wine region, which some say produces full-bodied reds to rival even the uber-famous Douro Valley further north. We’ll let you be the judges there, though.

Winner: Aveiro because it offers seafood as well as country food.

Coimbra or Aveiro – the verdict

If you still can’t decide between Coimbra or Aveiro, then we’d say do both! Yep, these two towns are close enough to each other in the depths of northern Portugal that you can get between them in less than an hour easy. However, if you absolutely must pick, we’d say that Aveiro is the choice for beach lovers, surfers, foodies, and families, while Coimbra comes up trumps for nightlife, history seekers, and those who want to explore the Portuguese mountain ranges closer to the Spanish border.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.