Coimbra: A College Town with a 729 Year Old University

“Coimbra is a lesson of dream and tradition . . . . The teacher is a song, and the moon the faculty.” (English translation of lyrics from the Portuguese song, Coimbra)

In the U.S., colleges develop distinct personalities and customs that endure through generations. “Rock chalk, Jayhawk, KU” was started by members of the Science Club at the University of Kansas back in 1886, and it’s still going strong. We’re eager to experience the same dynamic in Portugal and discover the unique character of its oldest university, the University of Coimbra (UC).

Founded in 1290 by King D. Dinis, UC bounced back and forth between Lisbon and Coimbra until settling in its current location in 1537. Today UC has an enrollment of 25,000 students and offers bachelor, master and doctoral degrees in diverse fields of study that include the arts, engineering, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, medicine and health sciences, sports and technology.

Seeing and touring the University is our reason for stopping in Coimbra. After a quick and smooth train ride from Aveiro, we take a taxi to our Airbnb lodging, where we are met by our host, Eduardo. The apartment is super cute and comfy, with many thoughtful amenities. The refrigerator is stocked with an abundance of breakfast foods, including fruit, cereal, coffee, milk, eggs, yogurt, and homemade jam – tomato, pumpkin.  Plus fresh bread will be delivered every morning by 8:00. Why are we staying only two nights in this beautiful place?

And now, onward to the University. Our apartment is just steps away from the Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra, or the University’s botanical garden, so we decide to stretch our legs and check it out without doing any Google pre-visit research.

We enjoy a pleasant stroll through the garden, but it’s not what we expected – it’s more “wild” than landscaped. A few plants here and there are labelled, but other educational exhibits and displays are lacking. Large plots need major weeding and repair work. In short, the garden clearly wasn’t designed with aesthetics or public education in mind, and it looks neglected.

So we’re back in Google mode to do a little post-visit research, and we learn two relevant facts that help to put our earlier observations in perspective: 1) the overarching purpose of university-affiliated botanical gardens in Europe during the Renaissance years was for medicinal research (not aesthetics), while later on the objective was to study plants acquired from faraway lands during the Age of Discovery, and 2) Hurricane Leslie left behind a huge mess after the storm passed through the garden in October 2018. The strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Iberian Peninsula since 1842, Leslie’s center came ashore about 40 miles directly west of Coimbra, and the University is working hard to clean up extensive damage.

University of Coimbra Tour

To say that the UC campus has interesting architecture and décor would be an understatement. When King João III relocated the school from Lisbon back to Coimbra in the mid-1500s, he also transferred ownership of certain land and buildings from the royal family to the University, including the royal palace and a chapel. Those assets form the historical core of the campus and are still in use today.

A self-guided tour of the most significant historical places on campus entertains us for an entire day. We visit four significant buildings for a total sum of 22 euros.

#1: St. Michael’s Chapel (São Miguel Chapel)
#2: Royal Palace (Palácio Real de Alcáçova)

The history of the Royal Palace dates back to the 12th century, when Coimbra was the capital city of Portugal under the reign of King Afonso Henriques. Today the former palace has an educational mission but retains much of the character from its former life.

During our self-guided tour of the Royal Palace, we are fortunate to witness a UC tradition that seems pretty cool, even though we don’t know the whole story.

UC students wear formal academic attire for special occasions – a black uniform and a signature black cape. We see many students dressed in black during our visit in May, and they are obviously celebrating, so we think it’s related to pending graduations.

While in the Royal Palace, we hear voices, guitar music and applause. Naturally we’re curious and decide to investigate. In the courtyard, a lone guitar player is performing for his fellow students, who are watching from above on all four sides.

After playing several pieces, he takes his bows, and another student walks onto the floor. They hug, and the guitar player exits.

Meanwhile, the spectators are enthusiastically applauding. Then someone from the audience tosses his or her black cape to the floor. Then another, and another, and so forth.

Sort of like tossing flowers onto the ice after a figure skating performance perhaps? Not sure, but it’s obviously a complimentary gesture. At any rate, we enjoy seeing the live events unfold.

Also from the Royal Palace – a couple of shots from a wrap around balcony of sorts with good views of the city. Note that the UC campus is situated at the top of a steep hill.

#3: Joanine Library (Biblioteca Joanine)

The Joanine Library, commissioned in 1717, is arguably the crown jewel of the UC campus, both for its collection of important historical works (60,000 tomes published between the 16th and 18th centuries) as well as the splendid surroundings in which they are preserved. The library receives about 750 requests per year to examine one or more books in the collection, which they accommodate if the request is “justified.”

An interesting tidbit from the tour – the library is home to a bat colony that devours insects that find their way into the space. “Naturally the presence of these mammals requires an additional care to prevent damage caused by their faeces in the precious wood of the magnificent tables: every day when the library closes, the assistant covers the tables with leather towels.” (Source:

Photos are not allowed on the top floor of the library – the image below is from the UC website.

We find another interesting place in the basement of the Joanine Library – the Academic Prison, claimed by the University to be the only medieval prison still in existence in the country. In existence, but thankfully not in use! It served as the structural foundation upon which the library was later built.

(Note that the Joanine building is the archival library – students and faculty have access to a general library for routine academic work.)

#4: Science Museum (Museu de Ciências)

The UC Science Museum, established in 2006-2007, co-located the collections of four separate University museums – physics, natural history, astronomy, and earth science – under a unified management strucure. Most items date back to the late 1700s, when scientific study was first deemed to be a critical requirement of the University curriculum.

Similar to the plants in the botanical garden, many museum specimens were collected from across the globe by Portuguese explorers from hundreds of years ago. It’s an impressive collection both in size and scope. We walk through the exhibits at a leisurely pace, spending the most time in the natural history area, which features room after room after room of neatly organized and labelled plants, animals, minerals, and much more.

Compared to other sites included in the University tour package, crowds at the Science Museum are sparse, which suggests that many people forego the opportunity to visit. Too bad – it’s well worth a couple of hours, and likely more for those who are more scientifically inclined than we are.

Coimbra Fado

I introduced Portuguese fado music in an earlier post about our visit to Tavira. The Coimbra version of fado uses a slightly different style of 12 string guitar, and singers are traditionally male. It’s closely associated with students and alumni of UC.

We make reservations to attend an early evening Coimbra fado performance at Fado ao Centro. We arrive early to secure a prime spot in the queue, which means we can snag good seats for the show.

The one hour performance does not disappoint – both the program and the musicians are excellent. Afterwards we enjoy a complimentary (tiny) glass of port wine and conversation with Charles, a fellow traveler who lives in Boulder.

If you can spare a few minutes, check out the YouTube video (below) of some of the same musicians that we saw. It features footage from the city and the UC campus, and the performers are doing the “Coimbra” song, which was also on our program, audience sing-along included.

Enjoy . . . and stay tuned for our next post from Portugal coming soon!

Categories: PortugalTags: , , ,


  1. This is my favorite post so far. imagine a leader leaving such a legacy of education. What a way to be remembered. The video was great, as was your research all throughout,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Marlene! It was a wonderful day of surprises and intrigue – definitely exceeded our expectations.


  3. Loved the video and the black cape applause! Something about heart and soul when it comes to old traditional music of these small towns.

    Liked by 1 person

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