Right in the centre of Portugal there’s a medium size enchanted city, called Coimbra. I’m suspicious to talked about it since it’s my hometown, but in this post I intend to talk about some off the beat places and activities and, hopefully, show that Coimbra deserves to be more than a pass by destination!
THE UNIVERSITY AND ITS ACADEMIC TRADITIONS
Coimbra is a city filled with history and an ancient charm. Here the university always have had and still has a huge importance. This year, 2016, the university celebrated 725 years of history and the students make sure to keep its tradition alive. In fact, as students in Coimbra we breath academic traditions. Many may say it is only an excuse to party and drink, but, trust me, it means much more than that. So, if you come here make sure you talk to some students and ask them to explain you why we use our academic garment, why we have initiation “rituals” for freshmen or why we cry when we listen to students fado. Anyone of us will be pleased to tell you all about what being a university student in Coimbra means! And tourists can easily identify us when we are wearing our academic garment.
Still about the university it can also be interesting to try to visit a students republic. It may not sound fascinating, but that’s because I believe there are no student republic like ours! I may be wrong, but at least, I have never seen, or heard about, traditions anything close to Coimbra’s (similar is not the same!). One year ago I developed an itinerary, with two friends of mine, about the academic traditions, for which we had to visit some republics, and let me tell you, they are very receptive to visitors, to show them around the house and to tell them all about their history and traditions! Therefore, I have reasons to believe they will be more than ok to receive tourists as well.
To finish the academic traditions topic I just want to give you a sneak peek on Queima das Fitas and show you why visiting the city in the beginning of May is a good idea. Literally translated Queima das Fitas means Burning of the ribbons, which has a symbolic meaning for the students who are one year from finishing their courses. Those are the ones who actually burn ribbons with their course colours as a “passage ritual” to become finalists. This week is also very important for 1st year students since it’s the time when they are allowed to wear their academic garment for the first time, during the monumental serenade on the first night of Queima das Fitas. I could keep on writing and writing about all this week’s meaningful moments, but it’s better to come to Coimbra and see with your own eyes! One of the high points of this week is the student’s parade, which occurs always on a Sunday and that completely stops the city.
Maybe I got to enthusiastic talking about our academic traditions, but it’s something I’m truly passionate about! Now, another suggestion of of the beaten places to go:
BREATH IN AND BREATH OUT
For sure you’ll visit the botanical garden, Jardim da Sereia and the City Park (Parque Verde) and these are all beautiful places. But Coimbra has more to offer. Therefore I would like to show you other parks, in very different parts of the city, where you can spend a very pleasant time and get away from the city confusing for a while.
It’s very nice to go for a walk in Choupal. It is a national forest, about a 15/20 minute walk from the downtown. You can easily spend 1 to 2 hours walking the trails, playing a game on one of the courts or doing a picnic. Getting lost in this woods allows you to totally forget you are so close to the city and clean your lungs with some pure, refreshing air.
Another nice place to visit is Penedo da Saudade. This small park is close to the modern part of the city. From the university or the botanical garden it will take you around 10/15 minutes to walk here. It is a good viewpoint of the newer part of the city and also a good way to get there, always through the woods. The name has the Portuguese word that only exists in our language, Saudade, which means missing something. I would dare to say that in Coimbra this is one of the strongest and most common words among university students. This park is quite famous for it’s stones where you can find engraved poems written by students from different courses and years about their love for Coimbra and their university years.
If you are into sports there are some activities you can do both in the city and in the surroundings! While walking at Parque Verde it is possible to rent stand up paddle boards and see Coimbra from a different perspective. I find it very relaxing to just rent the board and paddle for a while up and down Mondego river. Also, the people who are running this business are very friendly!
Coimbra is also very close to some beaches, the closest one is Figueira da Foz, with great conditions for surf, windsurf, kit-surf and body board. Therefore there are many school to try these water sports.
Another good great activity is to travel from Penacova to Coimbra by kayak in the Mondego river. There are many company doing this route. I would advice Capitão Dureza since I already did it twice with them and I really enjoyed it!
For nature lovers Lousã ou Bussaco are both quite close (by car) and are really good places to go hiking! Lousã mountain is particularly famous for the schist villages.
HAVE A SIT AND RELAX
Galerias de Santa Clara is a funky cafe located on the left side of Mondego River, close to Portugal dos Pequenitos, the convention bureau and Quinta das Lágrimas hotel. It is quite popular among residents for its good vibe. You can choose from three different rooms inside (one of them for smokers) or choose to go outside. From time to time they held concerts and art exhibitions.
After a walk in the old city Casa de Chá (Tea house) is a very nice place for a break. This little cafe is located in the heart of Jardim da Sereia, an inviting garden adjacent to Praça da República (one of Coimbra’s main squares and where everyone gets together at night). It has a very relaxed atmosphere and it’s emerged in a perfect setting.
Aqui Base Tango stands out for being quite trendy with it’s “weird” and vintage decor. The building has three floors and multiple rooms you can choose from, all with a different vibe. It is a nice place, in the centre of the city, not far from Casa de Chá, to stop for a drink or a snack. Regularly they organise thematic parties and live music concerts!
WANDERING AROUND COIMBRA
Whenever I travel to a new destination I love to get lost! I normally end up in residential neighbourhoods or business districts without even knowing how I got there. For me there’s something very special and beautiful about seeing the true life and rhythm of a city, town or village. So I created this category to show you some random places I find quite neat in Coimbra, but that I couldn’t insert in any of the categories above.
When to visit: I strongly advice you not to come on July or August, Coimbra still lives a lot from the University and during those months the students go back home. So, to see the city with its normal life it’s better to come from September until June, being September, October and May the months when there’s more student activity!
How long should you stay? I would say there are different scenarios. If you just want to do cultural tourism and sightseeing one night is enough. If you will use the opportunity to visit the surrounding than you can easily spent 2 to 3 nights in Coimbra.
Must Do & See: All the places mentioned above, plus: The University, Joanina Library, Climb the University Tower, the New and the Old Cathedral, the Botanical Garden, Quebra Costas, Go see a Fado concert (you can see it in many places, but Café Santa Cruz, which is within a church, is nice place to see it for free), walk around the downtown and the uptwon, Quinta das Lágrimas (the gardens are quite famous because of a love story), Santa Clara-a-Velha convent (this is super worth it!), Conímbriga (this is a roman site in the outskirts of Coimbra of an enormous importance and totally worthy of a visit).
Information: In Portugal all the museums close on Mondays and are free on the first Sunday of every month; when travelling by train, if you are under 25 years old, ask for the youth discount! It only applies to the IC and AP, the fastest trains, but sometimes the cashier “forgets” to ask if we want to use the discount.
Curiosity: Some Portuguese newspapers reported that Coimbra is still the official capital of Portugal. It was the capital and the main city for many years, until 1255 when Lisbon started to grew due to commerce and the Portuguese king and its court moved to Lisbon, which turned into the capital of Portugal because the king lived there. But, apparently, no one remembered to write a document to formalise this change. To sum it up, on paper Coimbra is still the capital!