The city of students.
Coimbra is a large historical city right in the middle of Portugal, most famous for its university. University of Coimbra is the oldest university in Portugal and also among the oldest in Europe, which is why it looks like something out of the Harry Potter books and has a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The university was also the reason for my recent return trip to Portugal in September 2021. During my first trip to Portugal with a friend, we stopped in Coimbra for about a day, but this time I was there for about a week on work business and had the chance to explore the city in more detail.
So, the university in question was first established in Lisbon in the 13th century and permanently moved to Coimbra in the 15th. Since then it has spread all over the city. The Mechanical faculty I was visiting is in a different, newer part, but the original campus still dominates the city hill and looks more like a palace than a university, which is because it was actually moved to a palace. As such, it also had an academic prison during the Middle Ages, when the universities were organised more like independent corporations and had the privilege of self-governance. The prison was used for faculty staff and students who stepped out of line, so that they didn’t need to share the regular prison with common criminals during their punishment. It was abolished in the 18th century and is now only a curiosity, but the large Baroque Joanina library from about the same time period, is still very much in use.
The library, and also the university chapel next door, are the perfect examples of European baroque architecture, with lots of decorations and gold (they don’t allow photos of the library, but you can see the chapel below). There are about 60.000 old books in the collection, which can still be consulted today with a special permission, as well as a very old colony of bats that was kept in the library for pest control. As you may know from my Salzburg posts, I’m not a huge fan of baroque, but the library is absolutely worth a visit and I’d really recommend that you take the whole university tour, because the details they will tell you about are fascinating.
University of Coimbra
Among such details are all the crazy student traditions and the red PhD room. Since University of Coimbra is so old, a lot of their more ritualistic parts of academia have survived until today, which includes a very formal, fancy PhD defence in a large hall with ornate chairs and where the head examiner gets to seat on a throne. Honestly, this should be a thing everywhere.
Since I was there in September, I got to see all of their freshers’ week student traditions and let me tell you, Portuguese people know how to party. My apartment was apparently right on the way from one party spot to another and I could hear drunk, screaming students passing by every single night of the week. Although it was a bit annoying, I was mostly just impressed by their stamina and dedication. I did witness a guy pouring water down on the singing students from his balcony at about 1am as if they were feral cats and shouting like a madman, because I guess he got even less sleep per night than I did. No one was particularly concerned until he threatened to start throwing bricks, so I imagine he wasn’t the first to do that.
The Coimbra students have these ceremonial black robes that were what inspired the school uniforms in the Harry Potter movies, so it feels like stepping into Hogwarts when you see them rushing around town in suits and capes. Apparently the full set of robes is quite expensive, so anyone can rent them to try out for a day. Obviously they also have different societies, complete with banners and all sorts of public initiation ceremonies with lots of shouting, humiliating dances and traditional songs, so it gets pretty crazy and it’s called Praxe altogether. There’s also a special parade at the start of the year and a graduation tradition called Queima das Fitas, the Burning of ribbons, which you can read more about here.
Another university thing that has survived the course of time are the Republicas, a sort of autonomous student community houses that were first built in the 14th century. You can easily spot them around the city with their colourful graffiti and distinct appearance, and they remain important centres of student political and social activity.
Republicas and robes
Besides the university, the Botanical gardens and the São Sebastião aqueduct are well worth a look, as well as all the major churches and cathedrals. I visited Igreja de Santa Cruz and Sé Velha, the old cathedral, and thought it was worth paying the extra few euros to see the inner cloister in both. Personally, I’ve found Portuguese churches to be quite the experience, because there are ceramic tiles mixed in at the most unexpected places and their religious art is often rather amusing. You can see for yourself in the gallery below.
Churches and tiles
You can take a walk by the Mondego river, or even go to one of the beaches in the south part of Coimbra. I found a giant bear statue at the playground in park Verde, next to the Pedro e Ines bridge, a beautiful pedestrian bridge named after the tragic and controversial romance between a royal heir and his wife’s maid (you can read the full story here). The ruins of the old Santa Clara monastery across the river are also quite interesting and there’s a miniature theme park called Portugal dos pequinitos close by. It shows all the important monuments and sights in Portugal in miniatures, so it’s fun to visit, but I’ll warn you that the first, older part is rather in-your-face colonial, because it was built in 1940 as the first educational theme park in Portugal. I rather liked it the first time I visited, so I went again to recreate the same photo after 6 years, but more on that here.
Portugal dos pequinitos was actually devised by dr. Bissaya Barreto, an important social figure for Coimbra, and you can visit his house near the university, which is now a fine arts museum. I didn’t go in, but it is worth taking a peek at the gardens, because it’s a gorgeous building. I did get to see the Machado de Castro national art museum, but besides the Roman remains in the basement, it was not exactly my piece of cake. What I really liked was Miradouro do penedo da saudade, a park full of stones with quotes from people who studied in Coimbra. It’s a bit further from the city centre and offers a great view over the city.
Impressions of Coimbra
Of course I also found some very nice food places and cafes, such as the old cafe Santa Cruz, Salatina for a delicious brunch, Fangas Veg for an amazing vegetarian lunch and Maria Portuguesa for traditional local dishes. If you need more ideas, I marked a couple of others on my Google Maps list. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go to Passaporte, a restaurant with a view that was highly recommended by a friend, so give it a try if you’re ever there. Plus, if you’re looking to party, Praça da República is the place to go and the park there is also worth visiting. Oh, and I also found a rather kitschy Comur sardine shop, full of the fanciest cans of sardines ever.
All in all, Coimbra has a lot to offer for a 2-3 day tourist visit, and it’s a youthful, student city, so there’s always something going on. There are also several other attractions nearby, such as the ruins and museum of Conimbriga, a large Roman city, or Casal Novo, a once abandoned village that you can visit if you take one of the hiking trails.