Coimbra, the former capital of Portugal in the 12th and 13th century, is nowadays the most notorious university city in Portugal and a perfect weekend destination if you find yourself either in Lisbon or Porto. The city has an intriguing and tragic love story behind it, that of Infante Pedro and Inês de Castro (a Spanish lady in waiting to Pedro´s wife, Constança). You see, Pedro and Inês were in love, so after Pedro´s wife died, they stopped hiding their love affair, a thing that enraged Pedro´s father, the king. He was so angry, that he had Inês killed, a thing that in return turned Pedro incredibly angry. One thing led to another, an uprising against the king started, and Inês´ killers basically ended up with their hearts ripped out, earning Pedro the name of “the Cruel”. Had Shakespeare known about Coimbra, Romeo and Julia would have been an entirely different story.
But Coimbra´s streets are full of so much more history. Its university dates back to the 13th century and the whole city´s architecture is breathtaking at every waking step. You won´t need to use public transportation but I do recommend good walking shoes as it can be quite hilly. So here´s what to do if you find yourself there for a day.
Walk through Coimbra´s botanical garden
When you have two dogs, like we do, you go to parks a lot. Botanical gardens are usually off-limits since they´re pretty much never dog friendly. Except for the one in Coimbra. With a gorgeous view over the river and tall standing trees of all kind, we absolutely loved walking through the garden all the way to the river. Best to be visited on a warm sunny day, with a furry friend. You can easily spend a couple of hours easily inside the garden, so go early to not have to rush it.
Visit the Sé Velha cathedral
From the botanical garden head over to the centre of the city and stop to visit the Sé Velha cathedral for the mere price of 2.5€. If you´re lucky, there might be some Coimbra fado being sung outside. Also known as student fado, the Coimbra fado is unlike any fado you might have heard in Lisbon´s fado houses. It has a rich tradition amongst the students in the city and is up to the this day being taught at the Coimbra Academic Association. One of the best known Coimbra fado singers is Zeca Afonso, a major figure of resistance against Salazar´s dictatorial regime, whose house is right next to the Sé Velha. Music is a big part of Coimbra´s heritage so make sure you listen to it while there!
Have lunch at Zé Manel dos Ossos
This is the main restaurant I want to recommend in Coimbra, because of its quaint interior, great food, lovely staff and good prices. But if it´s a weekend day you´re spending in Coimbra, make sure you get to Zé Manel dos Ossos around 12 – 12:15 as they do not take reservation, and the place is not only popular but also very small, so you want to make sure you get a spot. Their speciality is wild boar, so I recommend going straight for that, along with a bottle of the house wine.
Marvel at the Joanina Library
Burn off your lunch by walking up the steep stairs of the city again and head towards the university campus. There you´ll find the Joanina Library. Called one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, the Joanina library inspired the latest Beauty and the Beast movie´s library and many many other stories, since it has a rather unique peculiarity: it houses a colony of bats that get out at night and clean the books of insects. The bats are kept in the walls of the library and if that isn´t amazing, I don´t know what is! The only other library in the world that has such an odd modus operandi is the library of Mafra (also amongst my top five favourite libraries in the world), a bit more to the south of Coimbra. You cannot take pictures inside the library and only have ten minutes to marvel at its three rooms. The ticket will give you access to several other buildings such as the Royal Palace, the São Miguel Chapel and even some museums and it costs 12,50€. Book in advance online to avoid long queues. I strongly recommend you at least visit the chapel while there as it´s something utterly unique. The palace is quite nice too, but if you´re short on time you can skip it.
Inspect the Zoology Museum and the Chemical Laboratory
As you traverse the campus, some mere five minutes from the Joanina Library you can step right into “Night at the Museum” as you walk up the stairs of the Zoology museum, walk through its auditorium and reach a series of rooms with wonderfully weird animals. There´s an absolutely enormous common whale, some gorgeous and yet terrifying ostriches in glass cages, a lion family that came out slightly wrong and looks more funny than it does scary. You can see plenty of monkeys, zebras, a huge crocodile and even penguins! I admit it´s been a while since I´ve been in a natural history museum, but I seriously didn´t remember how fun this could be! Plus, the entrance is free if you choose to visit the Joanina library. And while you´re at it, drop by the chemical laboratory across the street. It´s small, but always has some interesting exhibitions going on.
Have a sunset drink at Passaporte
As you´re wrapping up your day, have a sunset drink at Passaporte, a gorgeous rooftop overlooking the town and the Modengo river. Locals will tell you Passaporte is more on the expensive side, and I tend to agree, so I recommend going there for just a drink, and not for an actual dinner. While you´re there you´ll be able to snap some gorgeous shots though. And if you´re still up for dinner, go to Loggia, a great restaurant on top of the city.
Bonus tip: The Brain Maze Escape Room
An alternative to all the touristy things you´ll find listed in your little pocket guide, this escape room is a great way to get to know the history of the city! The puzzle you´ll need to solve has to do with the story of Infante Pedro and Inês and as per usual, you have 60 minutes at your disposal. The room has a 30% escape rate, 100% of difficulty and 100% suspense. We were four people, escaping in 54:00 and loved the out of the box riddles the game introduced us to.
How to get to Coimbra and where to stay:
This second time around we didn´t drive to Coimbra, but took a Flixbus ride instead. It takes about three hours, and having booked it only two days in advance, the round trip cost 17€ . The last time we were there we went by car and stayed the weekend at the Casa São Bento.