Coimbra weekend travel guide - Jardim Manga Coimbra

36 hours in Coimbra

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You won’t see the inside of Coimbra’s most stunning building on this blog, or almost anywhere. So concerned is the leadership of Portugal’s oldest — and for hundreds of years only — university with protecting the bibliophilic treasures enshrined on the holiest floor of its ancient library that no photos are allowed. Think of it as a treat; a reward for those who make the trip and get to remember what it’s like to file away magical images of the wizardly tomb of weighty tomes and times gone by (and bats) with only their memories, not their phones.

“Coimbra is more than just the university,” our tour guide Julien explained while showing us around the giant, historic, hilltop university grounds. “It used to be the capital of Portugal.” 

He’s referring to the years 1131 to 1255, when Coimbra was at the centre of this young, budding nation. My small mind can barely comprehend dates so long ago, and he’s speaking as though it was 90 not 900 years ago.

But the now-capital of the Centre region is also very much about the university. It opened here in 1290, giving this Portuguese city a deep academic vein. While you certainly spend a lot of your 36 hours in Coimbra looking at historic monuments of the past, this small student city feels very much alive in the present.

Here’s what else you can do with 36 hours or a weekend in Coimbra

The best things to do with 36 hours in Coimbra

Day 1 in Coimbra

Arrive in time for lunch at Zé Manel dos Ossos

This tiny tavern or tasca tucked down a laneway is an essential stop on any Coimbra itinerary. Go early and queue – there are only six or seven small tables inside. You don’t want to find yourself left waiting as the first table of the second sitting (like we did). Find more wise advice on my where to eat in Coimbra guide.

Related Blog: Where to eat in Coimbra: the best restaurants, bars & sweets

Afternoon

Explore the University of Coimbra

Sitting high on the peak of Coimbra’s old town, the university has been central to life in this city for the past 730 or so years. Some of the buildings actually pre-date the 1290 opening date, including the former royal palace that was gifted to the university in the 16th century.

We don’t often do guided tours, but there was daily English at 3pm that lined up perfectly with our afternoon. On this quiet but sunny February weekend we were paired with the brilliant Julien, and no one else joined us. Awesome! He took us around the campus, showing us the newer buildings from the 20th century before diving into the most historic parts of this UNESCO World Heritage Site

The great halls of the old palace are magnificent with hand-painted ceilings and gold leaf galore. PhD students have to present and defend their thesis in the biggest hall to an academic audience dressed in robes. It’s all very Harry Potter and a little bit magic.

Visit the Capela de São Miguel

Having seen many, many tiled chapels it takes quite a lot to blow me away but the Capela de São Miguel in Coimbra is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Covered floor to ceiling in intricately hand-painted tiles and ornate wooden balustrades, with a brightly painted ceiling and a mega Iberian organ, this is a serious work of art. Dive deeper into the history of this chapel, and admire the pretty inside with my visual #tileoftheday blog about the Capela de São Miguel.

Gaze at the Biblioteca Joanina Library

After the palace and the chapel we visited the third key site at the university – the Joanina Library. Stepping inside the space is like Beauty and the Beast in real life. Three huge rooms with two-storey-high ceilings cascade onto one another. Each room is completely ringed by two levels of wooden bookshelves painted deep hues of red, green and blue and decorated in gold leaf. On the shelves are books from the 16th to 18th centuries, which students can still take down and read at oversized ornate wooden tables. Sadly you can’t take pictures in this magnificent room due to the preservation of heritage (here’s looking at you, old people who can’t control the flash function) so you have to imagine (or Google) how it looks. The coolest fact? All that paper attracts bugs, but a small family of hungry bats live in the library and keep insects under control.

Evening

Catch the sunset at a rooftop

After exploring the magnificent history of the University of Coimbra, pop around the corner to Loggia, a modern nothing-special rooftop bar set within the Machado de Castro Museum. From here you’ll have views across Coimbra’s old town.

Date night at Refeitro da Baixa

The best date night restaurant in Coimbra must be Refeitro da Baixa. This gorgeous little restaurant shares the space with the last ceramic factory in Coimbra (which has apparently been open since 1824). We really enjoyed the slightly upmarket romantic dinner here, and I’ve detailed the experience in my guide on where to eat in Coimbra.

See Coimbra-style Fado

Fado in Coimbra is different to Lisbon. Here the songs are sadder, slower and more melancholic (because apparently that’s possible). Watching live Fado is fantastic, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak – somehow the songs move you. The 6pm timing of Fado ao Centro seemed a bit early, so we opted for àCapella. I’d hoped it was more like a Lisbon fado house with music from 9.30pm, but we missed half the show by arriving after dinner at 10.30pm. Unfortunate because HOLY HELL the talent. The main singer Fabio’s voice is something else, and the small 14th-century chapel (built on a former synagogue) has out-of-this-world acoustics. Then out came Francisco with his 12-string Coimbra-style Fado guitar. Unmissable.

Stay: Hotel Astoria

Day 2 in Coimbra

Morning

After a late night of fado there’s no need to rush back to the streets. Enjoy a slow breakfast at your hotel, or set out to taste some of Coimbra’s local sweets at a top bakery. If you are a morning person, I always love stopping by the local market halls where you can really get a feel for the town and Coimbra’s Mercado Municipal D. Pedro V is not far from downtown.

Santa Cruz Monastery (and cafe)

Here lie the bones of kings. The Monsteiro de Santa Cruz was founded in 1131 in the city’s centre. What you see today is mostly a 16th-century restoration and expansion of the original, but it’s the bones of the church (and the king’s) that matter… here you’ll find the tombs of Portugal’s first two monarchs: D. Afonso Henriques and D. Sancho I. The main church is ringed by a beautiful ribbed ceiling, baroque blue-and-white tiles, and another magnificent organ built around 1720. Read more about this history here. Don’t miss the historic cafe next door.

Afternoon

Lunch at A Cozinha da Maria

The best chanfana (goat stew) I’ve ever eaten is at this small restaurant in downtown Coimbra. The waiter ran over with huge oven mitts grasping a bubbling terracotta pot loaded with our dark, rich goat stew. 

Related Blog: Where to eat in Coimbra: the best restaurants, bars & sweets

Explore Coimbra’s gardens: Jardim de Manga, Jardim da Sereia & Botanic Garden

To reach the beautiful Botanic Garden without climbing up and over the steep Coimbra hill via the university, we decided to cut a longer lap around the city. We’d read that when this garden first opened in 1772 it was considered the best in the world. 

On the way you pass via a number of gardens and sights. The first is Jardim de Manga with the incredible yellow fountain. The garden and structures date back to 1528, when it was the monastery’s fountain, inspired by Arabic architecture. Between there and Jardim da Sereia we passed via the market, which takes you along a wall covered with blue-and-white illustrated tile panels that show the landmarks and highlights of Coimbra’s architecture. Enter the arch of Jardim da Sereia to admire the 18th-century playground with a stunning baroque fountain and two round tile panels.

Finally, pass under Coimbra’s aqueduct (which dates from 1570) and step into the Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra. These days it’s still a beautiful garden to visit filled with rare and exotic species. Wander around the huge greenhouse and admire the sculpted garden before sloping downhill through the forest. Among the 13 hectares there is one entirely dedicated to a bamboo forest.

Wander by the Rio Mondego

Starting in Serra da Estrela and ending in the ocean at Figueira da Foz, the Mondego River is the longest that flows entirely within Portugal’s borders. Beautiful manicured gardens dot both sides of the riverfront, the perfect peaceful start or end to any day. South of Parque da Cidade Manuel Braga on the old city side, there’s a precinct with a number of cafes and bars to soak up sunshine and Super Bock. If you wander down this far you can cross the Ponte Pedro e Inês, named after the tragic love story and legend.

So, that’s how to spend 36 hours in Coimbra.

Where to eat and drink in Coimbra

With 36 hours in Coimbra up our sleeves, we managed to squeeze in a lunch at the unmissable Zé dos Ossos, a chic date night dinner at Refeitro da Baixa, coffee and gelato at DOPPO, and a hearty homely meal at A Cozinha da Maria. Dive deeper into Coimbra’s restaurant and food scene with my guide on where to eat in Coimbra.

More things to do in Coimbra

  • Machado de Castro Museum: Coimbra’s former Bishop’s Palace became the most important national museum in 1913.
  • Portugal dos Pequenitos: a miniature theme park from 1940 with recreations of Portugal’s great landmarks
  • Join a kayak tour on the Mondego River
  • Visit more amazing churches: Like the Santa Clara-A-Velha Monastery, or the  Santa Clara-A-Nova Monastery. The New Cathedral, or the Old Cathedral (Sé).
  • Bissaya Barreto Museum: This house museum is opposite the botanic gardens.
  • Take a self-guided audio tour of Coimbra’s historic highlights
  • Conímbriga: One of Europe’s best Roman archaeological sites with incredible mosaics, 16km south of Coimbra.

Where to stay in Coimbra

Hotel Astoria €€

“It turns out dilapidated grandeur is my favourite type of hotel,” my partner Jorge exclaimed after our stay at the very belle epoque Hotel Astoria. This three-star Art Deco hotel sits in an iconic spot on the Coimbra waterfront, and while its greatest days and big parties are behind it, the place is very special. I treated us to a Superior Room, which meant staying in the curved corner of the flat-iron style building. Very cool! With antique furnishings and views of the river and city, it was one memorable spot to spend the night for our 36 hours in Coimbra.

See availabilty & rates

Quinta Das Lágrimas €€€

This is the scene of Portugal’s real-life Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy. In 1355, King Afonso IV forbade his son from marrying Inês, but they married in secret and so the king had the princess murdered. The spring water coming from the park is said to be her tears, hence the name:  Quinta Das Lágrimas (estate of tears). Now the quinta is Coimbra’s most luxurious hotel and you can stay in the 18th-century palace and dine at top-rated Arcadas. If you’re looking to #treatyourself for your 36 hours, this is the spot to stay in Coimbra

More information & booking

How to get to Coimbra

From Lisbon: The train from Santa Apolonia station to Coimbra B takes less than 2 hours with the AP or IC services. Driving takes around 2 hours. You could also book a coach service like Flix bus or Rede Expresso.

From Porto: Trains going to Lisbon stop at Coimbra B and take just over 1 hour. Coimbra is a 75-minute drive from Porto.

There are coin-operated luggage lockers at the train station if you need to store your luggage.

Questions about how to spend a weekend or 36 hours in Coimbra? Leave me a comment below…

More Coimbra: Where to eat in Coimbra and inside Capela de São Miguel

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Daniela Sunde-Brown

Daniela Sunde-Brown

I'm an Australian travel and food writer who has called Lisbon home since 2018. To help others explore Portugal, I write deep stories about Portuguese traditions, regional dishes, local artisans, and sustainable fashion and ceramics
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Headshot of Daniela Sunde-Brown in a tiled dress with a straw hat on

Olá, I'm Daniela

I’m an Australian travel and food writer who has called Lisbon home since 2018. To help others explore Portugal, I write deep stories about Portuguese traditions, regional dishes, local artisans, and sustainable fashion and ceramics 🙂

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