Is Coimbra worth visiting? It sure is. This enchanting city of fairy-tale palaces and handsome mansions set on a lovely bend in the Mondego River is a unique spot. It whisks you away from the body-packed beaches of the Silver Coast and up into the wonderfully untamed hills of central Portugal, for a taste of rich culture and history.
Once the capital of the country, Coimbra’s past stretches back all the way to the Roman era and beyond. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of one of the oldest universities in the world! Wander here and you’ll see Baroque gatehouses, medieval monasteries, elaborate Gothic cathedrals – there’s all sorts.
But Coimbra is worth seeing for more than just its buildings and past. There’s a buzz about the place thanks to the continued student population, bringing wine bars and al fresco cafes to the old city. You can hear Fado music in the taverns, explore vibrant shopping areas, and even launch expeditions out to the wild heart of Portugal if you’re looking for a true escape from the Rat Race. Let’s check it out…
The vibe – big city but without the crowds
If you’re searching for a big city that has all the amenities, excitement, and energy you need, then Coimbra should meet your expectations. The city itself is home to around 150,000 people, while the wider municipal area has close to half a million residents. The upshot? You won’t miss out on energy and action but…
At the same time, Coimbra doesn’t draw the massive crowds that you’ll find in Lisbon or Porto. You can enjoy a vacation free from mass tourism and tooting traffic jams. Take a relaxed stroll around the ancient streets, city parks, and stunning surrounding countryside and you’ll see precisely what we mean. It’s just easier to escape the hubbub of it all in Coimbra.
While not entirely off-the-beaten-track, Coimbra is certainly something of a hidden gem. Compared to cities like Paris, Rome, and Athens, you can explore at your leisure without worrying about booming high season crowds. Many of the tourists who come will arrive on a guided coach tour and leave within a couple of hours, which makes it especially good if you want to stay overnight, when the day trippers have departed.
From Roman aqueducts to medieval churches, the buildings in this city are simply stunning. Whether they’re in ruins or fully preserved, you’ll find incredible sights virtually on every corner; a testimony to the thousands upon thousands of years of history that have taken place here.
Many of its most beautiful and historically significant buildings are protected under a city-wide UNESCO World Heritage Site. That means that they can’t be knocked down or modernized, helping the town preserve its air of authenticity and architectural interest.
There are some places that we think every building lover should be sure to seek out in Coimbra…
- Sé Velha – This rare cathedral dating back to the 12th Century is just one of many exquisitely preserved religious buildings you’ll find in Coimbra. Between the 1100s and the 1500s, it showcases Gothic and Moorish styles alike. The tombs host medieval luminaries who traveled to the city from afar.
- Conímbriga – One of Portugal’s largest Roman settlements. In ruins but well-excavated, it’s one of the best places to get up close to what life was like between 2,000 years ago.
- New Cathedral of Coimbra – Don’t be fooled by the name. The “new” cathedral is still 500 years old. It’s a part of the university complex and has a gorgeous Baroque frontage.
- Santa Cruz Monastery – Said to be the National Pantheon of Portugal because it hosts the tombs of the first two kings of the country.
Revel in the Student Energy
A university town, Coimbra is home to a student population of over 20,000. If you’re young or just enjoy the energy and creativity of a youthful city, then Coimbra may be for you. It’s got a thriving nightlife and bar scene, where you can connect with locals and party the night away.
In particular, Coimbra is known for its student festivals. Try to visit during the festival season to watch the streets come alive. First, there’s the Festa das Latas or “tin can parade”. This began in the 19th Century as a way for students to celebrate the end of their studies. Every November, students march through the streets, making oodles of noise, before baptizing themselves in the Mondego River.
The other famous student festival is Queima das Fitas or “the burning of the ribbons”. Taking place across eight days in May, it’s one of Europe’s biggest student festivals and one not to be missed. It’s hosted by the University of Coimbra but anyone can take part.
For the Fado
The music of Portugal is like no other. Having developed independently from outside influences, it’s an emotive and plaintive mix of singing and guitar known as Fado (pronounced far-do). Conceived in the 1820s, Fado is a uniquely Portuguese brand of music that incorporates Waltz-style triple time and lyrics. It’s a must-see for anyone visiting the country.
Coimbra actually has its own unique style of Fado that diverges from what you’ll find in Lisbon and elsewhere. While both styles include mournful lyrics of working-class hardship, Coimbra Fado is linked to the local university. The singers are always men, wearing academic robes, playing traditional medieval tunes.
Performances almost always take place in the dark streets after nightfall. This makes for an eerie but hauntingly beautiful experience. Nowhere else in the world will you encounter this special Coimbra Fado music.
To explore the natural beauty of the region
Although Coimbra is a large and bustling city, it hasn’t lost touch with nature. Within the city itself, you’ll find many protected parks and gardens. In the west, there’s the Arzila Swamp Natural Reserve, a wetland and wildlife conservation zone, while the university complex has its own botanical garden complex, which is considered one of the oldest in the world.
If you have time to leave the city, then you won’t be disappointed by the incredible natural scenery that awaits nearby. As the Mondego River leaves the center behind it’s lined with little pebble and silt beaches where the locals go to relax on hot summer days. It then stretches out into the mountains, where you can hike wooded trails to waterfalls and gorges.
The highlight, however, has to be the fact that Coimbra is the jump off point for the Serra da Estrela Natural Park. One of Portugal’s largest national parks, it’s about two hours’ driving to the east, where it crumples to the sky in a medley of lunar-like peaks studded with pines and furs and reflective lakes.
Relax in the natural pools
Coimbra is a young and energetic city so you may feel yourself becoming quickly worn out. Fortunately, it’s also a city that allows for full rest and relaxation. Take advantage of the abundant natural pools where you can cool off, just as the Romans did 2,000 years before!
One of the most popular places for locals and travelers to relax is the Piscina Natural de Ançã. Escape the city and unwind in this tranquil paradise. During the summer, this is the most efficient way to stave off the European heat. Alternatively, check out Louçainha, which has an amazing view of a nearby castle.
These natural pools have been used for many centuries as a dedicated place to relax and socialize. However, if you want to be alone, you can always head to one of the nearby lakes and rivers that flow throughout the Coimbra mountains. Wild swimming is a common past-time for residents here and is a great way to get in touch with nature.
The ideal weather conditions
Many from colder climates will head to Portugal to soak in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun. However, for some, it can get a little too hot. That’s why they often opt for coastal towns where there’s a bit more of a breeze and the chance to cool off in the sea. You may be worried that Coimbra is too far inland.
Don’t worry! The huge Mondego River that slices in the city in half brings the Atlantic with it. This helps to keep the whole city cool and stops you from overheating during your travels. It also lets you enjoy the more rugged mountainous terrain that exists inland without suffering in the scorching continental heat.
Is Coimbra worth visiting year-round? Well, temperatures from June to August do regularly top 100°F but for the rest of the year, it lies between a pleasant 70°F and a bearable 90°F. If you can visit during these months, the weather should be just about perfect.
Is Coimbra worth visiting? Our conclusion
Is Coimbra worth visiting? You bet it is. Despite having lost its title of the capital to Lisbon many centuries ago, Coimbra remains one of the most enchanting places in the whole country. It’s abuzz with student life, has oodles of bars and festivals, and hosts UNESCO-tagged architecture that dates back all the way to the Roman era. The downtown core is a stunner, worthy of postcards thanks to its medieval palaces and Baroque university district, while the surrounding region offers mountains, wild-swimming lakes, hills, and rustic villages aplenty. If you’ve got the time, this one’s 100% worth adding to that Portugal itinerary!