Coimbra is a destination in Portugal that is incredibly easy to add to your plans if you have an extra day up your sleeves. You can visit it as a day trip from Lisbon or as a stop between Lisbon and Porto (it is located on the Lisbon-Porto train line). Or you can do what I did and detour there in order to get to Madrid from Porto.
If you are staying in Porto, like I was and want to catch the overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid, Coimbra is where you’ll need to pick it up. Hence during my last day in Portugal I headed to Coimbra early in the morning to explore Coimbra before picking up the overnight train to Avila (on the Lisbon-Madrid line).
Like many of the small towns or lesser known destinations I’ve found myself in, I discovered Coimbra after checking out Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage List. Coimbra’s old university is one of Portugal’s 14 sites.
Unlike Sintra, Coimbra isn’t a destination that I’d recommend spending more than a day in. It’s quite easy to do Coimbra in a day. This is because the one real site of the city is the university and its surroundings.
Left Luggage in Coimbra
I almost cancelled the Coimbra part of my trip when I realised the night before that there was no left luggage at the station. This seems like a huge oversight given Coimbra’s ability to be a stop between Lisbon and Porto.
However there are a few ways around carrying your luggage around with you while visiting Coimbra. The first is to leave your luggage with Go Walks Portugal for quite a fee. I had left it too last minute and these guys never replied to my email asking to confirm their luggage storage abilities until three days after I’d left Coimbra.
The second option which worked out exceptionally well for me was to message a hostel and ask for a day rate. Being low season I was able to pick up a very cheap room at the Grande Hostel de Coimbra for the day for only €6 which included luggage storage, use of the showers before I got onto my night train and a bed to have a nap in. It worked out brilliantly.
It was also a very walkable distance from the university. Hence after arriving in Coimbra at around lunchtime and dropping my bags off at the hostel, I headed towards Coimbra university.
Coimbra University is still a working university; you’ll see Portugese students standing in front of classrooms waiting for class to begin. As such some of the buildings are incredibly modern. But what is designated as UNESCO listed is the old parts of the Coimbra University that are all located in the same square.
It’s free to see the square and buildings from the outside but if you want to go inside you’ll have to pay an entrance fee.
The absolute highlight and Coimbra University’s most famous building is the old baroque library, Biblioteca Joanina. Being a self proclaimed book nerd, of course I forked out the fee to go inside and check out all of the ancient books and beautiful library. Book related sites are always something I seek out when I travel.
The inside of the library was incredibly. I quickly discovered that while I’m not the biggest fan of the over the top baroque churches, a baroque library is another story.
The ceilings were beautifully painted with historical scenes, the shelves were dark mahogany and lined with thousands of books, many of them over a hundred years old.
No photos are allowed in the library but I managed to sneak a few on my phone (I know I’m a terrible person). But if you want to see more you’ll need to visit for yourself.
Sao Miguel Chapel
Unfortunately one of the other highlights of Coimbra University, the Sao Miguel Chapel was being restored while I was there. Hence I could only see small parts of the building and imagine how brilliant it looks under all of that scaffolding.
Restoration work is common on UNESCO sites and something I’ve come to expect when visiting them. But the historian in me has to respect any activity that is being done to preserve these sites for future generations. I’m sure once it’s restored it will be even more beautiful.
Paco das Escalos
The last building located in the square is the Paco de Escalos. Here you’ll find a beautiful old Grand Examination Room. As a university student of the 21st century, it was interesting to compare the building I usually sit my exams in (sometimes the gym of my university) with this impressive room.
I can’t imagine those wooden pews were awfully comfortable to sit on for hours at a time. Although they did get lots of inspiration (or perhaps fear) from all the portraits of scholars lining the hall.
From this building you’ll also find a balcony where you can get a great view over the city of Coimbra. I managed to brave the strong wind to snap some photos.
This is the highest I was able to get during the tour of Coimbra University because unfortunately the university’s tower was closed to the public on the day I was visiting.
Se Nova (New Cathedral)
My last stop was at the church located adjacent to the university. I didn’t go inside because I was feeling pretty wrecked at this point, and I was pretty sick of churches at the time. But it was pretty formidable from the outside.
Whislt there was more in Coimbra to see, I unfortunately didn’t have the full day so had to content myself with just visiting the UNESCO listed areas.
By the time I finished up at the university I had enough time to head back to my hostel, have dinner, a nap and a shower and jump on my overnight train to the next country on my list; Spain!
More Than A Day?