Three days in Coimbra, the real cultural heart of Portugal

After a few busy days of wandering Lisbon’s vast city stretches, Coimbra comes as a welcome treat. Arriving here is a journey back in time and deeper into Portugal’s rich heritage, with the 726-year-old university the undisputed nucleus of the city.

In the first few side streets you walk, you’ll come across students in full traditional garb, most commonly a pair of girls – most likely first years – with black skirts, white shirts, and floor-length black cloaks. Tradition is everywhere, not least in the different coloured patches showing off a student’s affiliations.

Coimbra is a small, cosy city that exudes the character which Lisbon lacks a little with its size. Wandering the city reveals political graffiti on every corner, sparked by the full gamut of reasons for angst (police, authority, and patriarchy just for starters). One Wednesday, male chanting started after lunchtime, the source being students-turned-drill-sergeants shouting at several young men sustaining plank exercises in the main square. After a few hours of their shouts echoing through the city, the girls took over the chanting as night fell.

You can’t avoid the students, nor can you avoid the university buildings. It would also be a shame if you did: the University of Coimbra is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in Portugal. You can wander the main square for free, but it’s in the region of €8-10 to see the real architectural treasures within.

The Joanina library is likely Coimbra’s main attraction, and it’s not hard to understand why. There is a no photo rule, but I couldn’t help myself. You can also make your way down a staircase to see the student prison. And, while you’re in the library, keep your eyes peeled for Coimbra’s most literary bats.

If you’re going to fully immerse yourself in Portuguese culture and enjoy a fado performance, Coimbra is a better place than any for it. Book the 18:00 performance at Fado ao Centro and enjoy fifty minutes of fast-fingered magic on a twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar accompanied by Spanish guitar and male singer.

Fado in Coimbra is an all-male affair for students and ex-students of the university. The origins have a multitude of contenders, but what’s certain is the heritage of young men serenading a special woman outside of her window at night. If the girl appreciated his efforts, she would turn her bedroom light on and off three times. If passers-by on the street also appreciated his music, they would cough discreetly. Traditionally, one does not clap to appreciate fado, as our host at Fado ao Centro explained. The performance is a mix of traditional and original music compiled by the performers, and it’s followed by a complimentary glass of port and some crackers in their courtyard. It’s worth booking ahead.

We stayed at the Luggage Hostel & Suites while in Coimbra, which was hard to compare to other hostels, really – it was a better standard than many a hotel. In November it was quiet, as was the case across most of the country, and we paid a little extra for a roomier space and a better view of the city; namely, the whites, colours and metallics of the university buildings.

Some of the best food we had in Portugal was in Coimbra, and a worthy first stop is Pastelaria + Tapas Marques for a tasty and cheap evening tapas meal in what’s by day a popular bakery. Food in Portugal is incredibly cheap, and even more so in Coimbra than the bigger cities. We had five tapas between two people for no more than twenty euro (and with a glass of port we couldn’t say no to after leaving a tip). 

Tapas Nas Costas is another good choice for tapas, focaccia, and other light eats, nestled in right next to the Fado ao Centro building for a handy post-performance munch. Or, if you’re in the mood for a chance from the typical national cuisine (it happens), wander down to Língua – Restaurante Lusófono for a delicious foray into cuisines from ex-Portuguese colonies.

The cocktails at Língua are worth a taste at only €5.50, each named after a famous Portuguese figure with heritages spanning Cape Verde, Mozambique and Brazil. I went for the cocktail compared to a mojito and with a healthy dose of mint, ginger and gin. For food, my choice was limited to the one vegetarian dish, although when my meal arrived I was perfectly happy about that. Plantain, peppers, coconut milk and other vegetables with a heap of rice made for a much-appreciated break from carb-heavy tapas. For dessert, an intriguing mix of coconut and passion fruit was brought to our table. And from when we walked in up until we shook hands with the owner, everything was served with a smile and a story of the food’s origin. 

When you’re not enjoying the city’s good food or touring the university, make sure you just head out and explore. Coimbra is a joy to wander, and one of the few places where I’ve actually looked forward to seeing what the graffiti has to say. Get lost in the side streets and see where you end up; you probably won’t get too far, but there’s still so much to stumble upon. Coimbra is a place with a soul, albeit a somewhat anguished one.