After Lisbon, Coimbra is possibly the most historically significant city in Portugal. This is the birthplace of six Portuguese monarchs as well as the home of the country’s oldest university, the University of Coimbra.
Early History of Coimbra
Coimbra was founded during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus. At that time, it was called Aeminium but later the name was changed to Conímbriga. Over the centuries, Conímbriga’s importance grew as a commercial hub. Like most urban settlements in Portugal, the city came under the sway of the Moors in the 8th century and remained so until it was taken back decisively by Ferdinand of Castile in 1064.
In the decades that followed, the Conímbriga (now Coimbra) became part of the new nation of Portugal. The country’s first King, Alfonso I, moved his court here in 1139 and made the city his capital. Coimbra retained this position until 1256 when the capital was moved to Lisbon, partly due to the latter’s good harbor and easy access to the sea.
For these and other reasons, Coimbra has always held a special place in the hearts of the Portuguese people.
Sites to see in Coimbra, Portugal
The city of Coimbra revolves around the Mondego River, with most of the city’s historic sites within walking distance of each other. The Old Town district is on the river’s northeastern bank. It is here that you’ll find the famous University of Coimbra, a few good museums and the city’s two most famous cathedrals, Sé Velha and Sé Nova.
The section of the city known as the “Lower Town” contains some trendy restaurants, shops, bars and the like. Here you’ll find the city’s Praça do Comérico (commerce plaza) and the Church of St. Tiago (São Tiago). Just to the north of these is the Church of Santa Cruz, the final resting place of Portugal’s first two kings, Alfonso I and his son and successor, Sancho I. If you walk just to the northwest along Rua da Sofia, a.k.a. the “street of Wisdom,” you’ll arrive at the Carmo Church (Igreja do Carmo) and the Church of Grace (Igreja da Graça). During the 15th – 17th centuries, this street held many theological seminaries, though now only these two great churches from that time period remain.
University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra)
The University of Coimbra was actually founded in Lisbon in 1290 but was transferred here in 1537 into a former palace of Portugal’s first king, Alfonso I. Initially, the curriculum was restricted to Christian theology, medicine, law, grammar and some philosophy.
There are many interesting things to see here, but for a bookworm like myself, the Biblioteca Joanina, a.k.a. the main library, is the most fascinating. The library was commissioned by King João V and contains at least 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts within its collection.
The next most impressive room is the Sala Grande dos Actos (some call it the Sala dos Capelos). Along with its ornate decorations and portraits of Portuguese monarchs, this room is currently used for hosting important functions and events.
The Chapel of St. Miguel (Capela de São Miguel) is also worth seeing if you’re into baroque art and walls lined with fancy azulejos.
Coimbra University also holds the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage site.
University of Coimbra
Paço das Escolas
Church and Monastery of Santa Cruz (Igreja de Santa Cruz)
Along with being a pretty nifty religious structure, the Church of Santa Cruz is the final resting place of Portugal’s first two kings, Alfonso I and Sancho I.
Largo da Se Velha
Sé Nova (New Sé)
Sé Nova means “new Sé” in Portuguese. Founded by Jesuits in 1598, Sé Nova as it is now called was meant to be more spacious than its cousin down the road (see Sé Vehla above). The building’s two bell towers and façade, with its statues of four Jesuit saints, are interesting enough, but possibly the best parts of the cathedral are its 17th and 18th-century wooden altarpieces.
Largo de Sé Nova
Praça do Comércio and Church of São Tiago
Praça do Comércio is Coimbra’s busiest square and the most important center of commercial activity in the city. It’s surrounded by some of Coimbra’s best cafés, restaurants and shops. From a historical perspective, Praça do Comércio’s main attraction is the 12th-century Church of São Tiago. The church looks especially nice on night when it’s lit it up.
Praça do Comércio
Machado de Castro National Museum
Named after the famous Portuguese artist Joaquim Machado de Castro, this world-class museum is dedicated primarily to the art of sculpture. Once the palace of the city’s bishop, the walls of this 16th-century building contain some of Western Europe’s finest works of sculpture (ancient, medieval and contemporary). The museum also contains an exquisite collection of paintings from the 12th-20th centuries, the most famous probably being Sardoal’s Assumption of Mary Magdalene.
Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha
This is a really fascinating site and stresses the importance of proper planning when choosing a place of construction. The Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha (Old Monastery of Santa Clara) was built by Santa Isabel, the widow of Portugal’s King Denis I. It was to be her personal place of solace. When she passed away in 1336, she was also interred here.
The funny thing is that her solace and eternal slumber perhaps didn’t last too long because almost immediately after her death, the structure suffered from constant flooding. The water wore so deep into the building’s foundation that its upkeep was deemed to be futile. The decision was finally made in 1677 to abandon Santa Clara altogether. However, the remains of Santa Isabel stayed in the church for a few more decades until they were moved to a new (and better-planned) church nearby, Santa Clara-a-Nova (New Santa Clara).
Moral of the story? Be careful where you build.
Rua Parreiras, 3040-266
Arco de Almedina
The Arco de Almedina is pretty much all that remains of Coimbra’s original gateway to the city. It was built during the Moorish rule of the city with the oldest parts of it dating back at least to the 9th century. It’s worth a peek and sometimes there are some exhibitions held within its vicinity.
Patio do Castilho
Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botánico)
The largest of its kind in Portugal, the Botanical Gardens of Coimbra were created in 1772 for the University of Coimbra’s Natural History Department. There are roughly 50 acres here that contain over 1,200 species of flora and fauna, many of which are considered rare. Though initially used for research purposes, today the gardens are primarily for the enjoyment of Coimbra’s citizens.
Calçada Martim de Freitas
Portugal dos Pequenitos
Portugal dos Pequenitos is an eclectic theme park that houses miniature versions of Portuguese monuments, famous landmarks and exhibits depicting various former Portugese colonies. It’s actually a pretty interesting place.
Rossio de Santa Clara
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