Often overlooked by guide books and travel companies, Coimbra is Portugal’s third city. Two hours north of Lisbon, or an hour south of Porto, Coimbra sits on the banks of the river Mondego.
Coimbra is a beautiful, charming city. The University dominates the skyline, with its Manueline tower visible from most parts of town. The old town is a warren of narrow, enticing streets, full of boutiques, shoe shops and pastelarias where you will find the divine pastries of Tentúgal and Santa Clara.
Coimbra is worth a couple of days of anyone’s time and there is plenty to do and see, restaurants to suit all budgets and a smattering of good hotels or basic pensões. Coimbra is also a great place to experience Fado, the soulful, Portuguese folk singing that in this city can only sung by men!
Remember, many, many museums have free entry on a Sunday morning as well discounts for those over 55.
These are my top 5 Coimbra museums, in no particular order.
Mosteiro da Santa Clara-a-Velha
A recent addition to the museum trail in Coimbra, the Convent has recently undergone renovations to bring it back to life. An award winner with several European accolades, and deservedly so, the site now houses a museum, the resorted convent, 2 small auditoriums (showing very interesting films) and the obligatory café (with a great view of the convent) and shop.
Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro
Years ago, the Museum Nacional de Machado de Castro housed a great sculpture collection in the old Bishop’s Palace. Then, seemingly without warning or reason, the museum closed. It had been closed for nearly 10 years and then in 2008, the museum partially reopened. But not as a sculpture museum. Underneath the Bishop’s Palace and unbeknownst to most of us, the Director of the sculpture museum had excavated a Roman Cryptoporticus. Incredibly, there is an enormous cryptiporticus and forum beneath the Bishop’s Palace, dating from the 1st Century AD, or from the time of Emperor Claudius. It’s an incredible space and well worth the climb up the hill.
Conimbriga & Rabaçal
Not officially in Coimbra, but only a few minutes drive away, are the Roman sites of Conimbriga and Rabaçal. Conimbriga was a fully functioning town, even before the Romans arrived in the 1st Century. There are incredible mosaics on show, baths, Forum and the museum has a large selection of the sculptures, stucco and wall paintings that have been excavated.
Rabaçal is further along the valley and was the setting for a manor house. The Romans knew location was everything even then and the situation is beautiful, looking towards hills now covered in olive and pine trees.
Both sites are still undergoing excavation, so you may occasionally stumble upon an archeological student up to her armpits in dirt.
Library at the University
The University of Coimbra is one of the oldest in Europe. Founded in 1290 by King Dinis, the University was officially and permanently transferred to Coimbra in 1537, occupying the buildings of the Paço Real Medieval .
The construction of the Biblioteca Joanina began in 1717 under the guidance of King John V and it is the most famous library in Portugal, mainly for its unique style. On the upper floor, the library is made up of 3 rooms, connected by highly decorative arches. The walls are covered in red and green lacquered shelving, decorated in gold chinoiserie. Ornately Baroque, the library holds over 300,000 books dating from the 12thC. The library also has its own colony of bats!
Telo de Morais Collection
Housed in the Edifício do Chiado, the Telo de Morais Collection is made up of 19th & 20thC sculpture, painting, porcelain and furniture, with temporary exhibitions of Portuguese artists. However, it’s the building that is really the star of the show. The Edifício do Chiado is probably the most important iron structure in the city. The name derives from the department stores, Grande Armazéns do Chiado, that were prevalent through the first part of the 20th C. through the major towns and cities in Portugal. Opened in 1910, the building is now part of the series of City Museums.