Climbing the College Campus – What to do in Coimbra, Portugal

The hilltop campus of Coimbra’s old university sits perched above the town and river as it has for centuries. The history of the town isn’t limited to just the university though as there’s a ton to see around the cobblestone streets of the old town. Much quieter than Lisbon and Porto, Portugal’s third largest city has a relaxed air with plenty to do. We had a fantastic visit with our twin boys in this town, even if touring the sights meant pushing a stroller up and down some tough cobblestone streets. At least the bouncing kept the boys calm.
On our way into town, we stopped at Praxis, a craft brewery with a fairly large operation including a restaurant. When we visited, it appeared to be hosting several family get togethers focussed around college graduations taking place. We were still able to find a decent table thanks to the large space and sampled a generous flight of all eight of their beers; six regulars on rotation and two seasonal brews. I found the amber most refreshing in the Portuguese air and others must have agreed as we found it most other places in town.
Once in town, we got situated at our residence for the time in town, Casas de Allegre, a beautiful modern two floor apartment overlooking the town. Our favorite feature, other than the fantastically friendly service who even carried our bags up half the town, was the balcony off the bedroom where we sat with some local wine and enjoyed watching the late sun set over the river each night. Years from now I’ll most likely remember Coimbra for this as well as our boys dancing at the local festival.
We discovered the Coimbra town festival right after arrival when the music drifted up the hill to our apartment. A celebration of the art, food, music, and even beer of the town, it was our favorite spot to visit while in town. While local musicians played traditional songs, our boys learned how to dance Portuguese style while we sampled food from a region rich in meat and delicious cheese. Plates of cheese stuffed sausage and sandwiches overflowing with ham and melted gooey cheese became our dinners each night in town and the Praxis beer truck was our go to refreshment. One night we even found a grilled wild boar stand where there was most certainly a wild boar on a grill. The boys also enjoyed exploring the town’s display of transportation including a bus and trolley.
Exploring town, we started off in Old Town Coimbra. In the center we found the Cathedral, literally where a handful of roads all met. Around it featured a large square with restaurants and cafes to sit in the square and enjoy the weather. We stopped for lunch at Restaurante O Trovador, a slightly touristy, but tasty spot for seafood, wine, and all the bread our boys could stuff themselves on while we enjoyed people watching in the square.
From the cathedral, we made it over to the campus of Coimbra University, Portugal’s oldest university. In the center of the campus we found the Patio das Escolas, and what a splendid patio it was. A massive courtyard in the middle of several academic buildings, it overlooked a great view of the surrounding area too. While several tour groups milled about, we let the boys run around to work off some of their energy and bread.
On one end of the courtyard sat the university library, Bibloteca Joanina. The interior and decor certainly lend credibility to the age of the library as it feels like something monks would be running. The medieval ambiance showcases a plethora of ancient looking books and probably manuscripts and even scrolls. If Portugal was the inspiration for Harry Potter, it’s a certainty that this library influenced part of it.
On the other end is the Chapel of San Miguel, a baroque chapel with equally impressive design. The gilded decor along the walls and ceilings make the space feel bright and open and the sky blue ceiling does make one believe they are looking up into the heavens.
We continued through the university and made it to what felt like the edge of the town, literally. A small terrace overlooked a pretty sheer drop down to the river toward the last building. Just around the corner was the “new” cathedral. No less grand than the old one, it felt even bigger inside. No one was around though and the boys were getting hungry again, so we trekked back toward the main square.
Leaving the old town, we passed under the Arco Almedina, one of the original gates in the city’s fortifications. The scale of these huge walls was obvious as we descended under the arch and tower while Fado played from nearby tourist shops. Portugal’s traditional folk music, Fado is an art form that captures the lament of the country’s days of exploration when explorers would leave and return only after years, or sometimes not at all. Coimbra created and invented the musical style though it can be heard across the country.
On the other side of the arch we discovered the New Town. Stretching out along wider avenues, there were more pedestrian areas and squares to explore there. Along one such avenue, we found the Igreja de Santa Cruz, a church with a noticeable baroque facade overlooking the square. We explored more of the shopping streets and small alleys, but after a couple of hours of stroller pushing and switching to carriers, our legs were shot.
So naturally, we crossed the river to the more modern side of Coimbra and walked around the ruins of Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha. This former convent is now largely ruins that are sinking into the ground. We walked the surrounding area, peering down into the ruins while we munched on gelato cones from a nearby store. The boys enjoyed a game of stroller-running on the catwalks while we looked through the old convent.
We did eventually make it back into town and to our apartment, but only after visiting the festival one more time. While we enjoyed the historical sights of the town and the exercise of carrying two toddlers up and down the steep city made us feel less guilty for how much meat we ate, our favorite part was the time spent as a family at the festival, just living like locals for a few hours. As we left and the boys started waving and yelling “ola” at everyone, we realized the best moments traveling can be these unplanned ones.

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