I don’t know how about you but when I saw photos of Coimbra for the first time, my initial thought was: it looks just like Porto! Colourful houses built on the hill above a river, doesn’t it ring a bell? After visiting Coimbra, though, I wouldn’t compare it to the second largest Portuguese city anymore. Especially because of its atmosphere.
Coimbra had a very specific vibe. Particular parts of the old town are, in my eyes, very different from each other. That is why I started to call Coimbra a three-layered city.
On the base layer, you can find shops with clothes, shoes, souvenirs, food, etc. Many of them look totally identically which causes two things. Firstly, there comes a question - how can these small enterprises survive? Secondly, it makes out of the narrow streets a small labyrinth.
The next layer of the city starts on the main street which crosses the whole old town. Even though it is the main boulevard of the city, it is quite calm. A recommended activity there is to sit in one of many cafés and enjoy a coffee and pastel. In the surroundings, you can find many churches which are (together with the university) the biggest attraction in Coimbra. I have to say that the second layer was my favourite. I found it quite cosy and romantic, especially because of many narrow streets which lead up the hill. On the way to the top, we passed by small shops, cafés and restaurants, and we saw many traditional Portuguese houses. Some of their facades were covered with my beloved azulejos (tiles).
The third layer belongs to the university which made Coimbra so famous.
The university didn’t make the charm
The University of Coimbra was build in the 13th century and that makes it the oldest university of the Portuguese speaking countries. It is a part of UNESCO world heritage and attracts masses of tourist. Honestly, we didn’t visit the city because of the university but I was curious about it anyhow. You can't miss it - its classical structure overlooks Coimbra. With a lot of complaints from my side, we climbed to it to check what's the fuss about.
On the way, I started to think about my own alma mater – being grateful that it doesn’t lie on a hill as well. Don’t worry, though, if you don’t want to make that climb, you can reach the University of Coimbra by public transport.
From the yard of the university, there is a nice view of the city and the river. There is also a possibility to visit the interiors - a baroque library, museum, chapel or auditorium – but we didn’t use this option.
I liked the yard and the university from the outside (it was nothing extraordinary) but I was quite disappointed with its surrounding. For the entrance to two churches there we would have to pay, this didn’t happen anywhere else in the city. What is more, many walls nearby were covered by ugly graffiti. Their general message just strengthens my opinion about this area. To quote some of them: “Dear tourist, I feel like in a ZOO” or “Here comes my vandalism”.
On the other side
When in Coimbra, you need to visit the other side of the river. The view of the city from there is amazing. Once you will be there, you can also reach two monasteries lying on the hill (what a surprise, right?). One might think that seeing Coimbra from a higher vantage point is a good idea... After yet another climb, I wouldn’t sign myself under this sentence. My advice is simple – if you don’t want to see the inside of any of the monasteries, don’t go up the hill.
Sadly, I can’t say that I fell in love with Coimbra but I need to admit that I enjoyed our time there very much. I can think of two main reasons why I was not so amazed by it: I am not a typical tourist and I am not studying in Coimbra. If I would be a typical tourist I would probably visit all the representative rooms of the university or monasteries and be happy to get to know more about all of them. If I would be a student there I would perceive the city from a totally different perspective. Nonetheless, I enjoyed our experience. It is quite difficult to get bored in Coimbra as the city has many faces. You can find there the old and the new, architecture and nature (the botanical garden is one of the highlights). In cafés, you can meet many students as well as older people. And there are many possibilities what to do. For me, from a Sloth's perspective, Coimbra is a perfect place where to slow down, go for a romantic walk and enjoy a cup of good coffee.