In the 12th and 13th centuries Coimbra was the capital of Portugal; these days it’s a huge university town attracting students from around the world. The reasons to visit are its deep history and/or its lively student culture. Coimbra is poised on a hill next to the river Mondego. The university perches on top of the hill and it’s a lovely walk up the zig-zagging narrow streets to get to the campus’s mix of historic and modern buildings. This is the Portuguese-speaking world’s oldest university and one of the oldest of the whole world. The library, the Biblioteca Joanina is an early 18th century building with a wonderful sculpted interior in gold and wood, definitely worth seeing. The chapel also has a lavish interior as do many of the other historic buildings on campus which contain important paintings and sculptures.
Near the university in the upper part of town is the Baroque New Cathedral (Se Nova de Coimbra) with its gilt altarpieces in the ‘national’ Portuguese style. Further down the hill, the Old Cathedral (Se Velha) is Romanesque in style and looks more like a castle with its topping of battlements, while the New Cathedral in contrast is crowned like a wedding cake. Few of the Romanesque cathedrals have survived in Portugal so this one in Coimbra is worth seeing.
When you’ve had enough of architecture and learning, the many churches, the Roman ruins, head to the waterfront cafes by the river or to one of the bars for some music, especially Fado de Coimbra, this region’s special version of the national Fado music. If you’re here in May be aware that Europe’s largest student party will swirl around you for eight days as the university year comes to an end. It’s claimed that more beer is consumed here at that time than during Munich’s Oktoberfest – you have been warned.