Coimbra, the former Portuguese capital (in the 13th century), is one of the most picturesque cities in the country, located right between Porto and Lisbon in central Portugal.
Even if tourists usually focus on these two when visiting Portugal, Coimbra has so much to offer with its ancient university which is one of the oldest in Europe, rich history, and beautiful buildings. And I was lucky enough to see all this!
To give you the same amazing experience I had in the city, I decided to share all of Coimbra’s TOP attractions and activities in this post about the best things to do in Coimbra. I also included some practical information on accommodations and directions to help make sure your trip is super easy!
Trust me, Coimbra is definitely worth visiting… Are you ready to explore this charming city with me?
If you are in a hurry
If you just want to book some cool activities in Coimbra, Portugal, right now, check out the main tours in the city:
Here are the main things to book in advance:
- Book a Coimbra free walking tour
- Take a guided tour of Coimbra University
- See a Live Fado show with Port Wine tasting
And here are the best hotels: Quinta das Lagrimas (Luxury), Solar Antigo Luxury Coimbra (Mid-range), Njoy Coimbra (Budget)
1. Take a free walking tour of Coimbra
The first thing I suggest you do if you want to get a real (and general) feeling of the city is to join a walking tour through the city center and its narrow streets.
I personally joined this free walking tour of 2.5h (it was supposed to start at 4 pm, but it was so hot during the day, they ended up moving it to 9 pm) and discovered Coimbra through many interesting and fun facts.
Did you know that the word marmalade comes from the Marmelo fruit, typical from here (you can try it at the market in the old town)? Or that J.K. Rowling got inspired by the cape student uniform of Coimbra University for the Harry Potter uniforms?
We also visited some important attractions of the city, like the Santa Cruz church (we’ll see it in more detail in the next section), and spots like the Miradouro do Penedo da Saudade, offering a great view (it is a bit outside of the city center, so you can take a taxi and walk back downhill).
P.S.: If you don’t find availability for a free walking tour/you want to make sure the group is not big, you can join this half-day exclusive walking tour, during which you will visit the University of Coimbra, the New and Old cathedrals, the Monastery of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara a Velha convent, and much more, for €25!
2. Visit Coimbra University
If you visit Coimbra, you absolutely cannot miss Coimbra university, a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the oldest universities in Europe, and the oldest university in Portugal… This is THE tourist attraction in the city!
Coimbra university is set on a hill in the middle of the city (in Paço das Escolas courtyard) and was originally a medieval palace. Now it is particularly popular because it hosts a stunning baroque library, the Biblioteca Joanina.
While you have to buy tickets to visit the university, you can either walk around and explore by yourself or if you prefer to get an explanation of what you see from a live guide, you can also visit the Coimbra university and library on a guided tour, for €45.
2.1 Explore the famous university library, Biblioteca Joanina
The library is part of the university complex but you cannot visit the university without paying for a timed ticket and you will be ushered around during your visit so I recommend you make the most of it!
There are different types of tickets to access the many buildings in the university complex. The most popular ticket (and cheapest) allows you to visit the library, the Palace of Schools (including the Baroque Library, St. Michael’s Chapel, and the Royal Palace), and the Chemistry Lab.
I’ll talk more in detail about the other attractions of the University in the next section.
PRO TIP 1: You have to buy tickets at the entrance to the university, not directly at the library (which is 5 mins walk from the entrance)! Many people don’t realize this and have to walk all the way back to get them!
Alternatively, you can also buy tickets online for specific time slots, the payment is only with PayPal (not credit cards). They are also very strict with time, so make sure you aren’t late!
PRO TIP 2: Tickets are valid for 2 days so if you don’t have time to visit everything during your visit, you can come back and see the remaining buildings the next day.
The library is definitely a MUST and is certainly the main attraction. It’s divided into 3 floors: (for every floor they will give you about 10 minutes to visit and then make you pass onto the upper one):
- Ground floor: This is an ex-prison with 2 cells (very tiny and sad), that have been preserved from the 18th century.
- 2nd floor: This was where the guards of the prison lived and stored books, the books were chained to the shelves so no one steals them!
- 3rd floor: The last floor is the actual library, the Biblioteca Joanina, which is absolutely stunning! With exotic wood, elegant decorations, and bookcases hosting about 56,000 books and manuscripts which have been collected and preserved from the 15th – 18th century. The walls of the library are over 2m thick to make sure the books are preserved well. NOTE: for whatever reason, you cannot take pics on that floor (the guard will check on you the whole time!).
FUN FACT: There are bats living inside the library that protect the preservation of the books by eating insects. Don’t worry, you won’t see them, they are nocturnal animals!
Library entrance: €12.5
2.2 See some other incredible university buildings
If you have time to visit more buildings, these are the main ones to see. To access all these attractions, there are different combined tickets, check them out on this website.
NOTE: The tickets are valid for 2 days (but only 1 entrance for each building is allowed), so you can, for example, visit the library on the first day and the next day the chamber.
- St. Michael’s Chapel – This lovely and very small chapel hosts an organ with 2000 pipes, you can visit it with the normal ticket every day except on Sundays.
- Sao Miguel Chapel – Dating back to the early 16th century, the Chapel of Sao Miguel has incredible interiors, with colorful 17th-century azulejos on the walls and ceiling and beautiful religious paintings, definitely worth it to check them out!
- Royal Palace – Built in the 10th century, in this important building you’ll gaze at many different architectural styles from Gothic to Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque and more.
- Ceremonial hall – This hall is one of the university rooms where students used to do their exams or defend their Ph.D. thesis. In the past, it was way more formal than now, students had to defend their Ph.D. in front of many professors who were sitting right above them, in a way that their face was lower than their feet! The special thing about this room is that the walls are painted with important rectors of the university.
- Cabinet of Curiosity – In this recently opened space, you’ll find a vast collection of objects of all kinds from various lifestyles over seven centuries. They have been collected from the University of Coimbra to present “the entire world” in a single place.
- Botanical garden – The botanical gardens, managed by the students, are 10 minutes from the university and are an amazing and well-curated place to relax and hide from the sun (for free)! It also provides a nice way to walk back to the city center from the university.
Last thing: if after visiting the university complex you just want to relax in a quiet space, I found the lovely Parque Manuel Braga is just a 10-minute walk from here, where you can sit on a bench and just enjoy the views of the Mondego River!
3. See all the charming religious buildings in Coimbra
If you’re a fan of churches, monasteries, or religious architecture in general, Coimbra won’t let you down, hosting many sacred buildings. Let’s check out the best ones!
PRO TIP: if you, like me, are going to visit Coimbra in the summer, then the churches will also provide a long-needed relief from the sun. When I was there, it was 38C (100F), so I basically moved from church to church. 😀
3.1 Sé Velha Cathedral (Old Cathedral)
If you’re a fan of architecture, you will love this majestic and ancient cathedral, dating back to the real beginning of Portugal as a country, when Afonso Henriques (the 1st Portuguese king) made Coimbra the capital city!
The Sé Velha (Old Cathedral) boasts a mix of different architectural styles: the facade is an example of classic architecture in its lower half, while the upper half is made in Baroque style, and the interiors blend Baroque and Neoclassical styles. This is also a perfect place to hide from the sun and rest, featuring a nice cloister!
3.2 Sé Nova Cathedral (New cathedral)
Contrary to what its name suggests, the Sé Nova (New Cathedral) is not new at all, even though it’s 400 years younger than Coimbra’s Old Cathedral from which it took some ornaments!
The new cathedral is located just near the University of Coimbra and is just beautiful! Outside you’ll gaze at the lovely Baroque facade, the statues of four Jesuit saints on the top, and two bell towers. Inside, the main highlights are its high and imponent altar and a small museum…Make sure you don’t miss it!
PRICE: €1 (as a donation)
3.3 Santa Clara a Velha Monastery
History buffs will love visiting the gothic ruins of the Santa Clara a Velha monastery, very well preserved and located right next to the Mondego River.
The Santa Clara A Velha Monastery was destroyed over time by frequent floods that forced the nuns to leave it, and now it’s partially submerged and sunken in the ground, with crumbling cloisters and a dilapidated bell tower.
In the 17th century, the nuns relocated to the new Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova, built to replace the old one (which lies right by the ruins!).
Nowadays, in the ruins they host music concerts, events, and even a short film telling you all about the history of the Gothic Monastery of Santa Clara.
3.4 Igreja de Santa Cruz church
Here’s another building dating back to the era of King Afonso Henriques that actually hosts its own relics: the Santa Cruz church. Its towering facade is strong and elegant at the same time, featuring fine sculptures and carvings which are absolutely beautiful!
Here you can visit the many tombs (the most important and beautiful ones and the tombs of the first 2 Portuguese kings, Afonso Henriques and Sancho I) stroll around, and gaze at the Renaissance central fountain in the middle of them.
PRICE: €3 to see the grave, otherwise for free!
4. Eat in Coimbra’s delicious restaurants
A visit to a place is not complete if you don’t try the local food… Do you agree with me? Then check out some of the best places to eat in Coimbra (or at least the ones that I loved the most!):
- Praca do Comercio: This central square in Coimbra is the best place to eat like a local, offering typical restaurants, cafes, and bars, and you’ll also find many street vendors selling crafts, shoes, clothes, and textiles.
- Café Santa Cruz – In this cafe, they offer Portuguese pastries and free Fado (see section #7 for more details). Try the pastel de nata!
- Passaporte – This is a fancy restaurant with a nice view (it got its name because this is where they used to assign passports) serving gourmet food and the best cocktails in town, so better book in advance to ensure a nice table!
- Luna – If you want to have a delicious Portuguese meal without spending too much, this cheap restaurant is where all the local people and students go. Here you’ll have the best bacalhau com nata… Make sure you try it!
- Murphy’s Irish pub – This 4-floors bar is one of the best places to go out in Coimbra, offering happy hours, live music every night, and also great food, both Irish and Portuguese!
And if you want to experience the Portuguese (young) nightlife, in Praça da República they throw parties and events every day for students!
5. Explore the Machado de Castro National Museum
In the beginning of the 20th century, the government here made a controversial decision to tear down a part of the university (a cathedral) because it was blocking a street that they wanted to implement. Since the cathedral was so beautiful, they moved a part of the church to this museum (the other part is still standing on the new street, in Largo Feira dos Estudantes).
The Machado de Castro National Museum (named after the sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro), is the largest Roman building preserved in Portugal and it has been constructed in different phases from medieval times onwards!
Here you’ll have a complete cultural experience, exploring Roman ruins, religious art, sculptures, and paintings… But the coolest thing is the dark tunnels of a 2000-year-old Roman cryptoporticus, lying right beneath the modern museum!
The museum is huge and even with some rooms being closed, it still took us about 2 hours to visit everything. There is an audio guide available for €1.50, it wasn’t particularly amazing but for such a small price it is worth getting if you want some info about the pieces you are seeing.
The Machado de Castro National Museum is closed on Mondays and the last entrance is at 5:30 pm daily (closing at 6 pm). But once you’ve finished exploring, there is a Cafe with a nice view as well, offering a daily lunch special which is perfect to rest after an intense visit!
6. Experience one of Coimbra’s crazy festivals
If you’re in town on the 2nd Sunday of May, you’ll attend a very special event in Coimbra (you will literally have no choice as it takes over the city)! On this day, the senior student body celebrates the end of academic life by sponsoring the whole city to get drunk!
Yes, you heard it right! On this day, students walk to Sé Velha to sing a melancholic fado serenade, then fill the streets with colorful parades from their faculty (yellow for medicine, red for law, etc.) and start offering/throwing alcohol from the car… Everyone ends up drunk!
For the graduation celebration, students go to the church singing/listening to sad fado music which speaks of the fact that they probably will leave the city to work somewhere else and won’t see the other students and professors anymore! Get ready to cry!
Another event you should not miss if you’re in Portugal at the beginning of July is the The Holy Queen Elizabeth festival. Queen Isabel is the patron saint and symbol of the city and her saint day has been celebrated in Coimbra for about four centuries!
During this festivity, every street and corner of Coimbra gets full and very lively with lights, colors, events, processions, and general celebrations. The most emblematic one is the Penance Procession where the image of Elizabeth is carried from the Church of the Holy Queen to the Church of Santa Cruz!
7. Listen to Fado music Coimbra style
As you might know, the Fado Music genre started in Alfama, an old area in Lisbon (check out our post with the places to attend fado in Lisbon), but since a lot of young people were moving to Coimbra for university, they brought the music with them and then adapted it to a unique style.
The Coimbra Fado is very particular: it is traditionally performed exclusively by men dressed in black since women weren’t accepted at the Coimbra university until the 19th century! Also, to appreciate the Coimbra fado you don’t have to clap (as in Lisbon), but instead, show your appreciation by staying in silence and crying… You don’t believe me? Check out this video to see it yourself!
If you would like to listen to some Coimbra Fado, the best place to see it is at Café Santa Cruz. In this cafe, they offer Portuguese pastries (try the pastel de nata!) and free Fado every evening at 6 pm, lasting about 45 minutes.
Alternatively, if you want to learn even more about this interesting musical genre, this tour not only allows you to enjoy some beautiful live music but afterward you will be treated to a Port wine tasting with the musicians so you will have a chance to actually talk to them about their personal experiences with the music!
|🤩 Range of activities:||Average|
|👪 Family-friendly score:||Medium|
|🏛️ Best museum:||Machado de Castro National Museum|
|🎢 Top paid attraction:||Coimbra Old University|
|🚶🏽♂️ Best free activity:||Old Town free walking tour|
|👧 Best attraction for kids:||Portugal dos Pequenitos|
|🌱 Best green space:||Botanical gardens|
|🐟 Must try food:||Bacalao con Nata|
|📅 How many days:||2 days|
|📍 Best neighborhood:||Old Town|
|✈️ Cost of traveling:||Low|
BONUS: 2 Things to do in Coimbra with kids
If you are going on a holiday to Coimbra with the family, there are some kid-friendly attractions that your children will love, and probably you too!
Here are a couple of the best activities to add to your list:
1. Portugal dos Pequenitos
This theme park is entertaining and educational at the same time, hosting all the most famous landmarks, monuments, traditional villages, and buildings of Portugal in miniature models… That’s why the name means “the little ones of Portugal.”
The Portugal dos Pequenitos park is divided in eight zones, also featuring kid-sized landmarks in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia (Portugal’s former colonies), and you can explore them all on a small train.
Also, on the park’s grounds, there are three museums specializing in furniture, naval artifacts, and traditional costumes, so all the members of the family will learn and have fun here!
2. Popular fair in Praça da Canção (just in summer)
Between the 1st and 17th of July, every year in Coimbra they organize a traditional fair with an amusement park and lots of entertainment. This is the perfect way to spend an evening with the family and have some fun!
Here you will enjoy many different attractions, from the Ferris wheel to carousels, bumper cars, circus and fire shows, popular marches etc, as well as stands with Coimbra handicrafts, several taverns selling traditional food, stages… It’s huge!
The fair starts at 8 pm and closes at 12 am on weekdays, or at 2 am on weekends, and entry is free!
Where to stay in Coimbra, Portugal
The best place to stay in the city is definitely the Old Town, where you’ll be within walking distance of the famous landmarks. You’ll also be able to see the remains of the ancient walls that once surrounded Coimbra (Coimbra was a walled city).
So let’s see some options for any price range:
Luxury (€150 and up)
- Quinta das Lagrimas – This is a historical palace hotel offering luxury spa rooms with incredible views and access to free parking. The Quinta das Lagrimas gardens were actually the set of a tragic love story between king Pedro and his mistress Inês de Castro, who was murdered on Pedro’s father’s orders!
PRO TIP: And even if you don’t stay here, you can also visit the property for breakfast, served in the beautiful Quinta das Lágrimas gardens for €20.
Mid Range (€70 – €140)
- Solar Antigo Luxury Coimbra – This lovely hotel is located in the old city, a few steps from the University of Coimbra, and offers spacious family rooms, free WiFi throughout the property, and a delicious breakfast!
Budget (up to €60)
- Njoy Coimbra – This is one of the best budget hotels in town, featuring apartments with private bathrooms, free wifi, and access to a shared kitchen where you can cook your own meals!
How to get to Coimbra from Lisbon
The closest city to Coimbra is Lisbon, located around a 2hrs drive away. In Coimbra there’s no airport so to get there, you can either use a rental car, public transport (train) or join a guided tour.
Let’s check them all out:
- Train – The cheapest way to get to Coimbra is by fast train which will cost you from €15 – €25 and take you around 2.5h. I suggest you buy your tickets on the official site and just have them on your phone, there’s no need to print them. Make sure you get off at Coimbra-B station (which is for fast trains, while Coimbra train station is for regional trains) and then just take a 7-minute taxi drive to the city center.
- Car – From Lisbon to Coimbra it will take you about 2 h via A1 highway if you rent a car.
- Tour from Lisbon: If you prefer just to visit on a day trip, you can easily take a private day tour from Lisbon to explore Coimbra and Óbidos, another gem in Portuguese history and culture. For €240 and up to 3 people, I think it’s a pretty great deal as they will even pick you up and drop you off at your hotel with an air-conditioned car.
FAQs about things to do in Coimbra, Portugal
🤩 What are the best things to do in Coimbra, Portugal?
The best things to do in Coimbra are visiting Coimbra University, the Se Velha Old Cathedral, a remarkable example of Romanesque architecture, the gothic Monastery of Santa Clara located right by the Mondego river, and hosting temporary exhibitions.
👧 What are the best things to do in Coimbra, Portugal, with kids?
The best things to do in Coimbra, Portugal, with kids, are visiting the Portugal dos Pequenitos Park, hosting many architectural highlights of Portugal in miniature, or spending a summer evening at the Amusement park in Praça da Canção.
✅ Is Coimbra worth visiting?
Yes, the charming town of Coimbra is definitely worth visiting, offering several tourist attractions. The most popular tourist attraction is the Old university, located on a hill in the middle of the city (in Paço das Escolas courtyard), hosting important buildings and a botanical garden just nearby!
📅 How long should I stay in Coimbra?
2 days In Coimbra are more than enough to see everything with no rush, but if you don’t have much time in Portugal you can always visit Coimbra on a day tour from Lisbon.
Well, here we are! We just saw all the best things to do in Coimbra, one of the most beautiful cities in Portugal, with all the best tourist attractions.
From the important Coimbra University to religious buildings, museums where you learn all about Portuguese history, day trips, and kids-friendly attractions like the Portugal dos Pequenitos, you have something for any taste here!
So yes, Coimbra is definitely a must when visiting Portugal and can even be explored as a day tour from Lisbon. While you’re at it, make sure to check out all the other great day trips from the Portuguese capital!
I hope you enjoyed my guide and that it will help you have a great holiday, but please just drop a comment below if you still have any questions or doubts, I’ll reply as soon as possible!
Have a wonderful trip!
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I was disappointed to find out the free walking tour is not offered in English. Lots of other good info though.
I actually took one in English, unless they changed something meanwhile, I think it should be available since this is the most popular language of tourists