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Last Updated on April 14, 2021 by Mary Emmer
Coimbra is a medieval town in Portugal that deserves some attention, but a word of warning! Visiting Coimbra, Portugal might just drive you batty!
Well, let me tell you a little bit about this charming place first. We’ll get to the bats a bit later.
Visiting Coimbra, Portugal
First and foremost, Coimbra (pronounced like co-EEM-bra) is a college town.
Located in central Portugal about 2 hours north of Lisbon, Coimbra is the home of Portugal’s oldest university. First established in Lisbon in 1290, the University of Coimbra relocated numerous times during its long history, finally ending up in Coimbra in 1537. This long history makes it one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world, and today it’s also a World Heritage Site.
From beautiful university buildings to chapels, museums, and churches, there is definitely no shortage of amazing historical buildings in Coimbra. Not surprising for a city dating from the 12th century.
I must admit, I didn’t realize the historical richness of this city before my visit.
After all, there were really only 2 reasons I chose to visit Coimbra on a weekend jaunt from Lisbon.
- It was within my “self-designated” 2 hour travel time for a quick weekend trip.
- A dear teacher friend of mine had mentioned Coimbra many times as a place he wanted to visit…just to see the “oldest university in Portugal.”
So when looking for yet another spot that would work well for a weekend away from my month-long stay in Lisbon, I spotted Coimbra on the map and that was that.
I thought, OK, there’s a cool old university. Let’s go have a look!
How To Get To Coimbra From Lisbon
Getting to Coimbra is quite easy, either by car if you have one, or by public transportation.
From Lisbon, Coimbra is about a 2-hour drive north. The fastest route will have some tolls.
There are multiple trains between Lisbon and Coimbra daily Monday-Friday. On weekends, there will still be multiple departures, but the schedules are somewhat reduced in comparison to the weekday schedules.
The journey takes between 1 1/2 hours and 2 hours depending on exactly which train you take and which station you depart from.
Coimbra trains from Lisbon depart from 2 different stations –
Oriente – This station is a bit out of the center and closer to the airport.
Santa Apolonia – This station is located right at the Alfama District of Lisbon and is the closest station to the historic center of Lisbon.
Train schedules and tickets can be found here at Comboios De Portugal.
So, although the train is a faster way to get from Lisbon to Coimbra, the bus is cheaper. The journey on the bus will vary depending on which bus you take and how many stops it makes. Most of the buses take between 2 hours 20 minutes and 3 hours.
Things To Do In Coimbra, Portugal
Yes, there is more to see in Coimbra than the famous university!
Bats, bats, and more bats.
LOL, just kidding! (Not really)…
As I mentioned earlier, Coimbra is a World Heritage Site, and as such, it has historical significance that cannot be ignored.
What else should you see besides the university?
- Machado de Castro National Museum – Named after the sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro, this museum houses the largest collection of sculptures in any Portugal National Museum. The museum also has other works of art such as altarpieces, ceramics, and paintings.
- Monastery of Santa Cruz – Dating from the year 1131, the monastic community life here started shortly thereafter, although the construction of the monastery building lasted until the next century.
- Old Cathedral of Coimbra – Dating from the 12th century, this is one of the most important Romanesque Roman Catholic buildings in all of Portugal, and definitely, a must-see if you’re visiting Coimbra.
- Parks and Gardens – Coimbra has many lovely parks and gardens. Weather permitting, be sure and visit some of these. If you only have time for one garden visit, make it the Coimbra Botanical Garden, which belongs to the university. There are some wonderful surprises for you there. Another favorite of mine is the Parque Manual Braga. This is a peaceful riverside park with a long avenue of plane trees which makes for a very pleasant place to stroll.
- Medieval City Walls – You can see parts of the original medieval city walls of Coimbra in a few different places around the city center. To learn more specifics about the walls, go to the Nucleo da Cidade Muralhada where you can see a short film about the walls and how they protected the city. Then, you can check out the Arco de Almedina (Almedina Gate Tower) for a fab view over Coimbra.
- Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha – These well-preserved Gothic ruins were not excavated until the 20th century. The monastery was built in the 14th century but had to be abandoned by the nuns in the 17th century due to the frequent flooding of its riverside perch. The church section of the monastery has been restored and reopened to the public.
Those few “must-see” items are really just a small taste of what Coimbra holds for you.
The reality is that there are many marvelous examples of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture for you to, well….marvel at while you’re visiting Coimbra.
I visited Coimbra for a short weekend. Just a 2-night stay. And I didn’t come close to seeing everything that I should have while I was there.
After all, you need to take time to eat, right?
For Traditional Portuguese Yumminess – Go See Maria
Coimbra has no shortage of places to eat.
But one place that stood out for me was Maria Portuguesa. We literally stumbled upon this cafe/restaurant while winding our way through the historical center of Coimbra on a drizzly February day.
We were a bit wet, tired, and hungry. I think it was a Sunday, and a lot of things weren’t open.
I’m not entirely sure if there is actually a “Maria.”
And remember, it’s not always wise to judge a book by its cover.
If we had done that with Maria Portuguesa, we wouldn’t have set foot inside this cafe. As you can see, it’s not much to look at from the outside.
But look at the awesome goodness of these traditional Portuguese specialties that someone (maybe Maria?) cooked up for us.
I’m sure glad I didn’t judge this book by its cover. I would have missed out on an awesome meal.
University of Coimbra – The Joanina Library
But, I’ve deliberately left the most marvelously batty location in all of Coimbra for last.
Coimbra is clearly most famous for its famous university.
And while there are many interesting buildings and museums associated with the university, it is the library (or Biblioteca) that is the real gem.
Why The Joanina Library may drive you batty!
To see the inside of the library you will have to take a guided tour. The library offers them at various times of the day. When you purchase a ticket you’ll be given a specific entry time for when you need to appear at the entrance point.
Only a certain number of people are allowed inside the library at the same time. You must not be late for your entry time or you may not be allowed entrance.
Once you are admitted with the rest of your group, you’ll be guided through a series of rooms with a guide discussing the various areas as you get there.
If you’ve ever been to the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome, Italy, the Joanina Library tour reminds me a bit of the Sistine Chapel tour where they guide you through a series of rooms and areas before you get there and you keep hoping and wondering if the actual Sistine Chapel is around the very next corner.
So on the Joanina Library tour, you’ll eventually be allowed to enter the actual library. And believe me, it’s worth the wait.
No pics or video allowed inside but I’ve included a video below that allows you to see the splendor inside this library. It’s in Portuguese! So unless you’re fluent you can turn down your sound. This is for your eyes only.
So, picture this!
You’re standing in this marvelous library, as I was, listening to the tour guide explaining the history associated with it.
And just when you aren’t quite paying attention, just when your mind is starting to drift a little bit, the guide tells you that BATS live in the walls of the library.
Yes, I’m afraid so. Bats have been in residence in the walls of this library since at least the 19th century, and perhaps for longer.
The moment I heard that, while standing right there in the midst of ancient books, manuscripts, antiques, and priceless paintings, I was certain that I felt many pairs of beady eyes staring at me.
Yes, I shivered.
Yes, I thought….YUCK!
And yes, I thought, how unique! How many people would ever experience this?
The truth is, that because of the bats, this library is bug-free. As is one other library in Portugal (the Palace Library in the Palace of Mafra) that also has some resident flying rodents. Personally, I’m not sure if I dislike bats or bugs more.
The word is that the bats sleep during the day (hanging from the highest bookcases).
Are you shivering yet? How about the yuck factor? Has that reached you yet?
The bats then come out at dusk to eat the bugs, therefore protecting the priceless books in the library. And yes, the bats leave bat-do-do. Unfortunately. But I guess it’s worth it to keep the books safe, right?
The library employees have the dubious honor of cleaning the bat-do-do every day. At night before they leave, they cover the original 18th century furniture in the library with animal skin covers, just like they’ve done there for hundreds of years.
And every morning before opening, those same employees must thoroughly sweep and scrub the floor to remove any surprises their little bat friends left during the night.
Are you ready to apply for the job?
How Long Should You Spend In Coimbra?
Coimbra can be done in a day trip from either Lisbon or Porto.
I recommend a slightly longer stay if you have the time. There is plenty to keep you busy for at least 2 days or so, and it’s worthwhile to spend a few nights in Coimbra so you can really get a good feel for what goes on in this charming town.
And, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the beady-eyed bat-do-do leavers staring at you from the top bookshelves, would you? Or, maybe they would be slumbering atop the bookshelves.
Is this your first visit to Still en Route? If so, be sure and check out my about page so you can see what the heck goes on around here.