3 minute read

As college towns go, Coimbra has to be one of the most special. Sure you’ll see the same student types you see in most every college town. Even though Coimbra’s student body comes from all over the world you’ll find even the most studious among them flocking to the coffee shops, going out with their friends, laughing and enjoying their carefree college days. Coimbra seems an easygoing town for everyone, student, resident and visitor alike.

But this university town is remarkably unlike any other you’ve ever been to. It’s really quite magical. Let’s dive into captivating Coimbra, shall we?

So Much to See and Do in Coimbra

The riverfront town of Coimbra is the fourth largest town in Portugal and was once Portugal’s capital, from 1131 to 1255 AD. Its place as a city of note, however, was cemented when King Denis I established the university.

There’s plenty to do in Coimbra. You can wander the old town’s labyrinthian streets, lined with shops and cafes. Of course no one can really experience Coimbra without seeing the stunning masterpiece that is the beautiful campus of the University of Coimbra.

The University’s Beginnings

Of course one of the main attractions of this cosmopolitan college town is the university itself. The University of Coimbra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 and it’s not hard to see why. High atop a hill overlooking the Mondego River the University of Coimbra occupies a storied parcel of property that’s been in the hands of a few different rulers, beginning with the Romans.

The prime real estate was overtaken by the Visigoths in the 6th century and then by the Moors in the 8th century and recaptured once more in 1064. The ruler was King Alfonso VI of Léon and Castile, who passed it over to Henry of Burgundy who became Alfonso’s son-in-law. 

Henry and Alfonso’s daughter, Theresa, had a son, Alfonso I who became ruler of Portugal. It was under his rule that Coimbra was established as the capital of Portugal and seat of the great Monastery of Santa Clara, next to which he built his castle.

The University came into being after Coimbra was no longer the capital and was a cultural center from the beginning. Students came from all over the world even then for an opportunity to wander the hallowed halls of higher learning. The Joanine Library was built at the University and is one of the oldest libraries in the world. In 1537 the University moved to the palace grounds where it remains today.

A Legend of A Library

The library itself is a marvelous place to lose yourself. It serves as one of the major draws for visitors to Coimbra because of its stunning architectural style and equally impressive interior. Construction on this gorgeous building began in 1717 and wrapped up 11 years later. The three-story building is built completely in the Baroque style with the ground floor a museum of sorts. You’ll find many historical objects on display representing the history of the University’s past dating back several centuries.

As the Biblioteca Joanina is such an historic site you’ll rarely see students doing any actual studying on the second floor. Students only gain access with permission and even that is a rare occasion.

The sweeping black capes worn by the students on campus and even around town may have you thinking you stumbled into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If you haven’t figured it out yet the celebrated J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto for a number of years, was absolutely inspired by these magical surroundings.

The third floor absolutely transports you back through the centuries. Impressive ceilings rise 30 feet above the floor and massive rolling wooden ladders gain access to the highest shelves. Three interconnected rooms make up the cavernous third floor and it’s safe to say you may find yourself looking for Harry or Hermione around each corner.

The Rest of The Magnificent Campus

Touring the campus will not disappoint. The Palace is quite impressive. While most of the rooms are given over to professors’ offices The Great Hall of Acts is where the University’s doctoral candidates defend their theses, in full view of the life-size portraits of the Kings of Portugal that adorn The Hall’s 30 foot high walls. Talk about adding to your stress! Even empty The Great Hall evokes a sense of pomp and circumstance.

The Palace architecture is truly a marvel. And be sure to check out the views of the Mondego River from the second floor.

A Mesmerizing College Town

As you make your way back to the main part of Coimbra you may note students performing fado for your pleasure and to boost their student budgets. It’s always charming to see the caped crooners perform about the town.

Be captivated by Coimbra’s charm, history and magical beauty. It’s simply one of Portugal’s wonderful treasures.