A Lonely Planet Editor's Guide to Portugal's Medieval Capital

Updated 03/23/18
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There are countless reasons to visit Portugal. Between the creative capital of Lisbon, the wine country in Porto, and pink-sand beaches in the south, it's difficult to choose just one destination. And we're about to put another gem on your radar: Coimbra, Portugal. To learn more about this lesser-known beauty, we tapped Tom Stainer, Lonely Planet's Iberian Peninsula and Turkey destination editor. "Coimbra as the medieval capital of Portugal for over a hundred years. Like many places in Portugal, it's perfect for lovers of history and architecture, but the city has a modern side, too," he says. Get his insider tips and find out all the best places to visit in and around Coimbra.

Coimbra, Portugal
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City Spotlight: Urban Center

What to Do Here: Even wandering around the side streets is a fun activity where beautiful architecture and views abound. "Coimbra is famous for its distinctive hand-painted pottery depicting whimsical, stylized hunting scenes with twirling tendrils and graceful animals. Watch a painter at work, and pick up some ceramics is the studio-shop of Carlos Tomás."

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City Spotlight: The Vistas

What to Do Here: "Coimbra's picturesque hillside position means there are some great spots to enjoy magnificent views," says Stainer. His picks for vistas include Loggia, a café inside the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, Café at the Museu da Ciência, the top of the tower at Paço das Escolas, and the Belvedere of Convento de Santa Clara-a-Nova.

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City Spotlight: Igreja de Santa Cruz

What to Do Here: Thanks to all the breathtaking architectural details, you'll get a feel for the history of scholarship and art in Coimbra at Igreja de Santa Cruz. Stainer says you should also check out fado while in Coimbra, which is a folk genre of music native to Portugal.

Things to Do In Coimbra, Portugal
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City Spotlight: University of Coimbra

What to Do Here: "Coimbra has been the site of the country's greatest university for the past five centuries," Stainer tells us. And even if you aren't a student there, it's worth visiting the campus. "The city's high point, the university nucleus, consists of a series of remarkable 16th- to 18th-century buildings, all set within and around the vast Páteo das Escolas," Stainer notes.

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City Spotlight: Rio Mondego

What to Do Here: Take a stroll along the river, and then enjoy all the great food Coimbra has to offer. Stainer's recommendations? "Tapas Nas Costas, a sophisticated small-plates joint, [and] Zé Manel Dos Ossos, a little gem papered with scholarly doodles and scribbled poems that serves all things cooked off the bone." When it comes to accommodations, stay at Serenata Hostel; Casa Pombal; Aqua Village Health Resort; Quinta de Lágrimas; Buçaco Palace; Sapientia Boutique Hotel; Sophia Residences; or Casa da Alta.

Things to Do In Coimbra
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City Spotlight: The Streets and Squares

What to Do Here: "The academic heritage is still felt keenly in Coimbra," Stainer notes. "The first week of May marks the end of the academic year with Queima das Fitas, a weeklong party that serves as the country's biggest and best excuse to get roaring drunk. A good time [to visit] is during the stretch from early May, when Queima das Fitas fills Coimbra's streets with students in dashing capes, through June, before summer crowds descend."

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City Spotlight: Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro

What to Do Here: This museum is a must-see. "It's built over the Roman forum, the remains of which can be seen and cover several levels," Stainer explains. "Part of the visit takes you down to the vaulted, spooky, and immensely atmospheric galleries of the cryptoportico that allowed the forum to be level on such a hilly site."

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District Spotlight: Casal de São Simåo

What to Do Here: This tiny village in Coimbra is a special gem. It's surrounded by mountains in every direction, and there's a majestic river at the edge of town canopied in trees where locals go to cool off during the warmer months.

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District Spotlight: Casal de São Simåo River Beach

What to Do Here: Once you've explored the winding pebble roads in the village São Simåo, you can get some sun on the rocks or float in the flowing crystal clear rapids.

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District Spotlight: Figueira da Foz

What to Do Here: Right at the central point of Portugal's coast, Figueira da Foz is an ideal spot for anyone who likes midsize beachfront cities. Aside from its urban beach resort, Praia da Claridade, it's also known for its large casino. You should also check out some of the salt ponds and the Forte Santa Catarina, which dates back to the late 1500s.

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District Spotlight: Lousa

What to Do Here: This scenic road is just one of many in the central town of Lousa. Come here for breathtaking hiking trails and taste of the quaint country lifestyle.

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District Spotlight: Foz D'Egua

What to Do Here: Here's another charming historic town in the Coimbra district. With winding rivers and small footbridges around every corner, this is what fairy-tale vacation fantasies are made of. So if you're staying in Coimbra for a while, plan a day trip here, or pass through if you're doing a road trip.

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District Spotlight: Penacova

What to Do Here: Take a day trip here to see the idyllic Gavinhos windmills overlooking the river town of Penacova. Plan a picnic, or simply pass through to take in the quiet, calming landscape. 

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District Spotlight: Praia de Mira

What to Do Here: Right at the end of the Coimbra district, you'll find Mira. Though it boasts charming small-town vibes, it's actually full of bustling activity and culture. Laze around at the cafés, and go swimming in the Atlantic Ocean or in the lagoon.

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District Spotlight: Montemor-o-Velho Castle

What to Do Here: This national monument will take your breath away. Standing over picturesque rice fields and Rio Mondego, the Montemor-o-Velho Castle is older than Portugal itself, dating back to 1139.

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