Spending almost one year in Coimbra has allowed me to explore every nook and cranny in this city – the old part of the city, with its tiny lanes and timeless tradition, can still prove tricky when navigating from A to B, reminding me of my time in Toledo, Spain, where the city’s old Casco can be explored by simply following one’s nose and getting lost in history.
Coimbra can easily be explored in one (quite full) day, and with the plethora of online guides and lists of attractions, I decided to write down some of the places that don’t receive so much love in the guides but can still provide a moment for the purist. If you are tired of the same old tourist traps, this page might be for you. Below are seven places in Coimbra that, at the time of writing, are all outside of the top 20 things to do in Coimbra on TripAdvisor, and may provide an alternative angle for anyone planning a longer trip here. There are plenty of gems around, and here are just a few:
1) Relax at Miradouro António Nogueira
What do Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra all have in common? Well, the answer could be answered in a number of ways, but spend enough time on foot in these cities and your calf muscles will start screaming an answer at you: they’re all extremely hilly! This geography ensures that these cities provide countless spots to relax while taking in a view and possibly a drink.
Each city is crammed full of lots of ‘Miradouros’ – viewpoints – and this one could very easily be missed. Located on the ‘other’ side/hill of the city from the university, looking across to the older buildings, this particular Miradouro is certainly not much to look at from the outside, but being there can be something of a treat as the sun sets and Coimbra turns a sort of crepuscular orange in front of you. Depending on the time of year, you might even be able to see the sun itself setting beyond the river. Take a bottle of something or a book, park yourself on one of the benches on the edge, and enjoy as the darkness sets in.
Where is it?
On Rua Dr. António José de Almeida, between the Conchada and Celas districts.
2) Have a Francesinha at Atenas
Cafe Atenas, famed for its Francesinhas, is located in the upper part of the city, past Praça da República, and up the hill that runs alongside the Jardim da Sereia. Far fewer tourists find their way this far up the city, and if you want to try out one of the more traditional dishes of central/northern Portugal, this might be a good place to start!
The Francesinha is something of an indulgence at Atenas – it is a combination of various meats (a thin steak, hams, sausages), cheeses, bread, and a fried egg, all topped off with a tomato-based sauce. You have the option of ordering with or without chips (fries), although if you enter with an ‘in for a penny’ sort of attitude, why not order them and mop up any remaining sauce you have left on your plate!
Francesinhas at Cafe Atenas are a hearty plate of tradition; rich, tasty, and worth the walk. Just be aware you might feel like taking a much longer walk afterwards to compensate for the indulgence!
Where is it?
From Praça da República, go the way up Rua Lourenço de Almeida Azevedo, past the football pitch, and Cafe Atenas is on the right before the road bends to the left.
3) Explore Bairro Santa Justa and see Baixa from another perspective
Located just outside the part of the Baixa that most tourists would usually explore, Bairro Santa Justa is unassuming, authentic, and well worth your time. It won’t take much of your time, however, so I highly recommend walking a short circuit from here, heading up the stairs beside the church and heading to a viewpoint of the Baixa that many might miss out on.
Where is it?
Start at the Igreja Santa Justa – this can be found by following Rua Sofia all the way up until it becomes Rua da Figueira da Foz. Head up the slope and explore the area around the church. It can also be approached from the west – walking distance from Coimbra B station and the coach station.
The church has a somewhat neglected charm to it, and this becomes especially apparent as you head further up and see the building up from behind. This area also seems to be home to a number of apparently stray cats – every time I have been past this church there have been a few of them, and some of them appear to live in a makeshift house just next to the building.
Once you have explored this small but sweet neighbourhood, head to the left of the church where you will see a tall set of steps that lead up to Rua Aveiro. Head up them and you’ll see the back of the church, as well as a number of fruit trees (I think I spotted pears, oranges, and figs to name but a few of them) and more of Coimbra emerging from behind the building behind you.
At the top of the steps, turn right and head along the road. To your right, Coimbra sprawls out, and you will be able to see the river as well as the other side of the Mondego, including Forum shopping centre. Keep going along – the next viewpoint is not too far ahead.
Follow the road, keeping right, right up until you reach a building labelled ‘OET’ – the Ordem dos Engenheiros Técnicos. It is here that we stop to find our next viewpoint. Turn right and look for the steps that head down to the right of the road that continues to your left.
From here, you get an uninterrupted view over one of Coimbra’s most popular tourist streets – Rua Visconde da Luz – as well as practically everything else in this direction. It is quiet, relatively free from tourists, and probably the best view of the Baixa bar none.
Following the steps all the way down is probably the best way to get back to near where you started, eventually leading to Rua Sofia again. Alternatively, bear left instead of going down to Rua Sofia and keep walking until you reach Fonte Nova and Jardim da Manga, both of which are excellent additions to any Coimbra walk.
4) Go swinging at the Seminário
And no, not like that.
I only recently found out through a friend of mine that a building I had walked past a number of times was actually open to the public! Not only that, they had recently installed a large swing beside the building that overlooks much of Coimbra and the River Mondego.
The Seminário, located right next to the Jardim Botânico and the military hospital, is very much open to the public. Tours are available of the building for €5, although entry to the grounds (and the swing) is free.
A short walk from Praça da Republica, one would be remiss not to also take in the old aqueduct and the botanical gardens on the way to the Seminário if not already explored. Free of charge and full of wonderful colour and smells, the botanical gardens are a great place to relax on a sunny day, to read, or perhaps to do a little work alongside the university students on one of the many benches.
The swing is located inside the grounds of the Seminário. Passing through the gates, head to the right of the main building. There is a railing from which you can see the swing and some of Coimbra, but you will need to go past the building and the smaller building next to the Seminário and turn right.
There are other benches here and it is a great place to read a book or have a picnic. The view over to the river is great on a clear day, and is also a fantastic spot to watch the sun set.
There are few better views of the Mondego than here – you can see as far south as the Rainha Santa Isabel bridge and all the way north to beyond the Forum shopping centre.
The Seminário stays open until a late enough time that you can see the view at night.
5) Have a few drinks at Praxis
If, like me, you quickly grow tired of the Sagres / Super Bock choice (if that) in most Portuguese bars, head to Praxis straightaway. It isn’t especially common, but some bars in Coimbra do occasionally serve some Praxis beers – however, there is nowhere better to sample their delights than at the brewery itself.
Praxis is simply the best beer to be found in the city. Not only is it delicious, you can sample all of the beers for a reasonable price indeed. At the time of writing, a sampler offers a taste of seven different beers, including a beautiful pilsner, an amber, a wheat beer, a pumpkin ale, a dark ‘dunkel’, and their two ‘sister’ beers Topazio and Onyx. Not only that, the food is pretty decent too, so an evening spent here is an evening well spent indeed.
Where is it?
The Cervejaria Praxis, situated on the ‘other’ side of the river between the end of the Rainha Santa Isabel bridge and the Quinta das Lágrimas complex. It is a pleasant walk from the central area of the city, and equally pleasant to stay at.
6) Walk along river from the Mata do Choupal
Coimbra’s wooded area is popular with dog-walkers and picnickers – it is a peaceful escape from city life, and the river next to the Mata is popular with bathers in hotter months.
If, however, you wish to stretch your legs, there are plenty of walking opportunities that can be taken from the Mata. Head west, following the the river and its parallel canal until you reach a bridge that will take you south to Casais and head east through Espanadeira and Bencanta, following the road that runs near to but not next to the railway line, before heading back to Coimbra via Forum Shopping.
While you may not catch any breathtaking sights, you will see a calmer side to Portuguese life, take a dose of nature that can be most welcome at times here, and reward yourself at any one of the cafes you meet on the way back.
7) Play with the cats at Pet & Tea
With Portugal being one of the most prolific cafe cultures in the world, it takes a lot for a cafe to stand out. Pet & Tea in Coimbra is one such cafe, a place where you can have a drink and a bite to eat, and then go into another room to play with some cats. You can even take one home with you if you are able to!
The cafe hosts regular events and evenings, and they are perfect for any cat lover. The cafe also gives you the opportunity to adopt a cat since the cats they take are often from a local shelter or are cats that have no home.
Where is it?
Not far from the Praça 8. Maio, simply head down the alley furthest to the right (Rua Direita) and keep going until you see the cafe on the left.