66 Best Sights in Coimbra and Central Portugal, Portugal

Arouca Geopark

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Covering an area of 126 square miles, this UNESCO-recognized park is famously home to one of the longest pedestrian suspension bridges in the world, the 516 Arouca. The dizzying construction hangs 175 meters (574 feet) over the Paiva River, stretching for 516 meters. The park itself is surrounded by the Freita, Montemuro, and Arada Mountains and crisscrossed by several rivers including the Paiva River, which makes it a great place for canyoning, canoeing, kayaking, and mountain climbing. There are 41 significant geosites—including a collection of giant trilobite (ancient marine animals) fossils, some of which are 465 million years old—and 14 mostly easy hiking trails that take visitors to the sites. The park is also home to the world-famous Paiva Walkways.

Castelo de Sortelha

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Above the village of Sortelha are the ruins of a small yet imposing castle. The present configuration dates back mainly to a late-12th-century reconstruction, done on Moorish foundations; further alterations were made in the 16th century. Note the Manueline coat of arms at the entrance. Wear sturdy shoes so that you can walk along the walls, taking in views of Spain to the east and the Serra da Estrela mountains to the west. The three holes in the balcony projecting over the main entrance were used to pour boiling pitch on intruders. Just to the right of the north gate are two linear indentations in the stone wall. One is exactly a meter (roughly a yard) long, and the shorter of the two is a côvado (66 centimeters, or 26 inches). In the Middle Ages, traveling cloth merchants used these markings to ensure an honest measure.

Convento de Jesus

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In 1472, Princess Joana, daughter of King Afonso V, retired against her father's wishes to the Convento de Jesus—established by papal bull in 1461—where she spent the last 18 years of her life. After the last of the holy sisters died, the convent was closed in 1874. It now contains the Museu de Aveiro, which encompasses an 18th-century church whose interior is a masterpiece of baroque art. The elaborately gilded wood carvings and ornate ceiling by António Gomes and José Correia from Porto are among Portugal's finest. Blue-and-white azulejo panels have scenes depicting the life of Princess Joana, who was beatified in 1693 and whose tomb is in the lower choir. Her multicolor inlaid-marble sarcophagus is supported at each corner by delicately carved angels. Note also the 16th-century Renaissance cloisters, the splendid refectory lined with camellia-motif tiles, and the chapel of São João Evangelista (St. John the Evangelist).

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Costa Nova

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Across the lagoon from Aveiro is a ribbon of small resort towns, the most delightful of which is Costa Nova, which has decked itself out from top to toe in jazzy candy stripes. It's a pleasant place to walk along the ocean and stop for lunch in one of the many seaside restaurants. Hourly buses make the 15-minute trip from Rua Clube dos Galitos in Aveiro.

Espaço Bairrada

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Formerly Curia railway station, this handsome building is now a space for promoting the wines of the Bairrada region. It's run by the Associação da Rota da Bairrada (Rota da Bairrada Association) and is a characterful spot for sampling the fine vinhos of the region, as well as cheeses, conserves, and other delicacies. There's a small bar in the former ticket office, as well as a shop in the azulejo-filled space that once served as a waiting room.

Igreja de Santa Cruz

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This is Portugal's National Pantheon, the final resting place of the country's first two kings, Dom Afonso Henriques and his son Dom Sancho I. The lower portions of the interior walls are lined with azulejos (tiles) depicting various religious motifs. Look a little closer and you'll notice flaws in the design---that's because the tiles were installed in the 18th century, as a quick fix after flooding damaged the 12th-century frescos that were there originally. The 16th-century baroque organ is a sight to behold. From the sacristy, a door opens to the Casa do Capitulo (Silent Cloister); this double-tier Manueline cloister contains scenes from the Passion of Christ, attributed to Chanterene.

Praça 8 de Maio, Coimbra, 3001-300, Portugal
239 822 941
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free. €3 cloisters, Closed Sun. until 4 pm

Jardim do Paço Episcopal

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These 18th-century gardens are planted with rows of hedges cut in all sorts of bizarre shapes and contain an unusual assemblage of sculpture. Bordering one of the park's five small lakes are a path and stairway lined on both sides with granite statues of the apostles, the evangelists, and the kings of Portugal. The long-standing Portuguese disdain for the Spanish is graphically demonstrated here; the kings who ruled when Portugal was under Spanish domination are carved to a noticeably smaller scale than the "true" Portuguese rulers. Unfortunately, many statues were damaged by Napoléon's troops when the city was ransacked in 1807.

Judaria and Museu Judaico

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On steep sloped roads behind the Castelo de Belmonte, a cluster of old houses makes up the Juderia. Belmonte had (and, in fact, still has) one of Portugal's largest Jewish communities. Many present-day residents are descendants of the Marranos: Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. For centuries, many kept their faith, pretending to be Christians while practicing their true religion behind closed doors. Such was their fear of repression that Belmonte's secret Jews didn't emerge fully until the end of the 1970s. The community here remained without a synagogue until 1995. A small museum situated within a former 18th-century Catholic church includes a permanent exhibition about the Jewish period; it is also an important center for Jewish studies in Portugal.

Mata Nacional do Buçaco

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In the early 17th century, the head of the Order of Barefoot Carmelites, searching for a suitable location for a monastery, came upon an area of dense virgin forest. A site was selected halfway up the slope of the greenest hill, and by 1630 the simple stone structure was occupied. To preserve their world of isolation and silence, the monks built a wall enclosing the forest. Their only link with the outside was through a door facing toward Coimbra, which one of them watched over. The Coimbra Gate, still in use today, is the most decorative of the eight gates constructed since that time. Early in the 20th century, much of the original monastery was torn down to construct an opulent royal hunting lodge under the supervision of Italian architect Luigi Manini. Never used by the royal family, the multiturret extravaganza became a prosperous hotel—now the Palace Hotel do Bussaco—and in the years between the two world wars it was one of Europe's most fashionable vacation addresses. Today many come to Buçaco just to view this unusual structure, to stroll the shaded paths that wind through the forest, and to climb the hill past the Stations of the Cross to the Alta Cruz (High Cross), their efforts rewarded by a view that extends all the way to the sea. There's a small fee to enter with a car, but pedestrians and cyclists can stroll or cycle in for free.

Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha

Fodor's choice

The evocative ruin of Coimbra's 14th-century monastery has undergone extensive restoration to reverse centuries of flood damage. For more than 300 years, the ground floor was completely immersed in water, silt, and mud due to its proximity to the Mondego River. Today, you can safely explore the ruin, observing eerie water stains along the walls. Outside are the excavations of the nuns' private quarters, their refectory, and cloisters, some still with their original tiles visible. There's also a kitchen garden and a contemporary museum displaying relics found during the restoration project.

Museu Arte Nova

Fodor's choice

While this museum celebrates the city's rich art nouveau heritage, the main event is the actual building, known as Casa Major Pessoa, a wonderfully flamboyant example of the genre dating to 1909. Notable among the displays are stunning hand-painted tiles decorated with flowers, birds, and animals. The collection itself has a few items of interest, but the biggest plus is that visitors are given a map of various art nouveau landmarks around the city. They're easy to find, marked with silver plaques on the ground.

Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro

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One of the city's most illustrious museums, the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro sits on the site of a vast Roman cryptoporticus (a maze of underground storage vaults). The building above, constructed in the 12th century to house the local bishops, was extensively modified over the centuries and finally converted into a museum in 1912. The Bishop's Chapel, adorned with 18th-century tiles and silks, remains a highlight. The museum is notoriously difficult to navigate, although there are plenty of staffers on hand to point you in the right direction. As you exit the museum, note the large 18th-century azulejo panel depicting Jerónimo translating the Bible.

Largo Dr. José Rodrigues, Coimbra, 3000-042, Portugal
239 853 070
Sights Details
Rate Includes: €6, Closed Mon.

Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela

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Its varied landscape makes the spectacular Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela a favorite in Portugal for outdoor pursuits, including hiking, cycling, and fishing. In the winter the mountains are blanketed in snow, making this an excellent spot for winter sports. Until the end of the 19th century, this mountainous region was little known except by shepherds and hunters. The first scientific expedition to the Serra da Estrela was in 1881, and since then it has become one of the country's most popular recreation areas. In summer the high, craggy peaks, alpine meadows, and rushing streams become the domain of hikers, climbers, and trout fishermen. The lower and middle elevations are heavily wooded with deciduous oak, sweet chestnut, and pine. Above the tree line, at about 4,900 feet, is a rocky, subalpine world of scrub vegetation, lakes, and boggy meadows that are transformed in late spring into a vivid, multicolored carpet of wildflowers. The Serra da Estrela Natural Park is home to many species of animals, the largest of which include wild boar, badger, and, in the more remote areas, the occasional wolf.

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Portugal dos Pequenitos

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Coimbra's best loved family attraction, Portugal dos Pequenitos is made up of scale models of houses, castles, and monasteries that children of all ages can play in. The buildings replicate Portugal's most important buildings and monuments, all built to the scale of a five-year-old. There are also sections devoted to scaled-down versions of typical buildings in the former Portuguese colonies.

Praia Fluvial de Palheiras e Zorro

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Less than 15 minutes' scenic drive from the bustle of Coimbra, this gorgeous river beach attracts sunbathers and swimmers in the June through September summer season. Crystal clear waters sit against a backdrop of deep green hills, and a bar on the sands provides ample opportunity to relax with a drink after a swim. There are lifeguards, plenty of parking, and barbecue facilities for those who fancy grilling a fresh-caught fish. It's a Blue Flag beach, meaning it meets the highest environmental and safety standards. Amenities: lifeguards; food and drink; parking. Best for: swimming. 

Quinta de Cabriz

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Part of the prestigious Dão Sul company, Quinta de Cabriz is among the best-known wineries in the region. Located 39 km (24 miles) south of Viseau in the community of Carregal do Sal, it produces red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines. The hearty Cabriz Colheita Seleccionada red—which spends six months in French oak and uses primarily local Touriga grape varieties—is one notable award winner. Visitors can enjoy tastings in the cellars followed by a meal in the restaurant: local dishes like roasted kid are a strong suit and wine pairings, naturally, are excellent.

Ria de Aveiro

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This 45-km (28-mile) delta of the Rio Vouga was formed in 1575, when a violent storm caused shifting sand to block the river's flow into the ocean. Over the next two centuries, as more and more sand piled up, the town's prosperity and population tumbled, recovering only when a canal breached the dunes in 1808. Today the lagoon's narrow waterways are dotted with tiny islands. Salt marshes and pine forests border the area, and the ocean side is lined with sandy beaches. In this tranquil setting, colorful moliceiro boats glide gracefully along, their owners harvesting seaweed. The best way to see the lagoon is in one of the boats that depart from the canal across from the tourist office. A number of operators line the waterfront, most charging around €13 for a 45-minute tour.

Ruínas e Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga

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At Conímbriga's entrance is a portion of the original Roman road that connected Olissipo (as Lisbon was then known) and the northern town of Braga. If you look closely, you can still make out ridges worn into the stone by cart wheels. The road is just the beginning of the fascinating footprint left behind by the civilization that once dwelled here. A patchwork of mosaics reveals itself as you work your way across the paths. You'll be able to make out the foundations of several villas, including the House of Cantaber, named after a nobleman whose family was captured by invading barbarians in 465. The most extraordinary villa is the 3rd-century House of the Fountains, covered with mosaics depicting Perseus offering the head of Medusa to a monster from the deep. Private baths included a tepidarium (hot pool) and frigidarium (cold pool). Remnants of the central heating system that was beneath the floor are also visible. . Alongside the ruins, an artifact-filled museum chronicles Conímbriga's Iron Age origins, its heyday as a prosperous Roman town, and its decline after the 5th-century barbarian conquests.

Sé Catedral de Viseu

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This massive stone structure with twin square bell towers lends the plaza a solemn air. Construction on this cathedral was started in the 13th century and continued off and on until the 18th century. Inside, massive Gothic pillars support a network of twisted, knotted forms that reach across the high, vaulted roof, and a dazzling, gilded, baroque high altar contrasts with the otherwise somber stone. The lines of the 18th-century upper level are harsh when compared with the graceful Italianate arches of the 16th-century lower level. To the right of the mannerist main portal is a double-tier cloister, which is connected to the cathedral by a well-preserved Gothic-style doorway. The cathedral's Sacred Art Museum has reliquaries from the 12th and 13th centuries. For great views of the cathedral, head a block south to the tiny square of Praça de Dom Duarte.

Sé Velha

Fodor's choice

Engaged in an ongoing struggle with the Moors, the Portuguese often incorporated fortifications into their churches---which is why the 12th-century Sé Velha looks more like a fortress than a house of worship. It's made of massive granite blocks and crowned by a ring of battlements, and the harsh exterior is softened somewhat by its graceful 16th-century Renaissance doorway. The somber interior has a gilded wooden altarpiece: a late-15th-century example of the Flamboyant Gothic style, created by the Flemish masters Olivier of Ghent and Jean d'Ypres.

Seminário Maior de Coimbra

Fodor's choice

Described as the "jewel of the city," this 250-year-old seminary houses one of Portugal's most impressive collections of 18th-century Italian art, a church, and a library with over 9,000 books. There's a museum dedicated to the works of priest and artist Nunes Pereira, housed in the workshop where he crafted some of his finest pieces. Book at least 24 hours in advance if you want to visit. In the upper reaches of Coimbra, near the botanical gardens, the seminary offers breathtaking views of the city. Guided tours are offered in English, but be sure to book at least one day in advance via the website. 

Universidade de Coimbra

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Portugal's oldest university—one of the most august academic institutions in Europe—was founded in Lisbon in 1290. It dominates the city both physically (taking up most of the center of the old town) and in terms of numbers (with well over 25,000 students). Built in 1634 as a triumphal arch, the Porta Férrea marks the entrance to the main courtyard and is adorned with statues of Kings Dinis and João III. Walk to the far end of the courtyard for breathtaking panoramic views of the Mondego River. The 18th-century clock-and-bell tower, rising above the courtyard, is one of Coimbra's most famous landmarks. The bell, which summons students to class and in centuries past signaled a dusk-to-dawn curfew, is derisively called the cabra (she-goat; an insulting term used to express the students' dismay at being confined to quarters).

In the courtyard's southwestern corner is a building with four huge columns framing massive wooden doors. Behind them is one of the world's most beautiful libraries, the baroque Biblioteca Joanina. Constructed in the early 18th century, it has three dazzling book-lined halls and stunning trompe-l'oeil decorative features. Knock to gain entrance to the nearby Capela de São Miguel, where you'll discover the chapel's glorious tiled interior, baroque organ, and rococo side altars in hues of gold and duck-egg blue. There are a set number of daily tickets for the Biblioteca Joanina, so collect your combined ticket early to avoid missing the jewel in the university's crown.

Aliança Underground Museum

A short drive from Curia, this Aladdin's cave of a museum is located in wine cellars that date back some 50 years. Its exhibits—drawn from the private collection of Portuguese billionaire businessman and art collector, José Berardo—include 18th-century Portuguese ceramics, African artwork, and assorted archaeological artifacts. Guided tours are offered in English, but advance reservations are necessary.

Arco de Almedina

On the Baixa district's Rua Ferreira Borges—one of the city's principal shopping streets—the very modest Arco de Almedina opens onto a courtyard. The 12th-century arch is one of the last vestiges of the medieval city walls, and above it are a Renaissance carving of the Virgin and Child and an early Portuguese coat of arms. The sino de correr (warning bell) was used from the Middle Ages until 1870 to signal the populace to run to the safety of the city walls.

Casa do Paço

One of Figueira da Foz's more curious sights is the 18th-century Casa do Paço, the interior of which is decorated with about 7,000 Delft tiles. These Dutch tiles were salvaged from a shipwreck at the mouth of the harbor in the late 1600s. The entrance is a little difficult to find---ask a local to point you in the right direction. 

Casino da Figueira

The 1886 gaming room of the Casino da Figueira has frescoed ceilings, chandeliers, and a variety of table games, including blackjack and roulette. Banks of slot machines lie in wait in a separate room. Within the same building there's also a Belle Epoque show room and a piano bar where you can hear fado music. All visitors are required to show their passports at the door.

Castelo de Belmonte

Of the mighty complex of fortifications and dwellings that once made up the castle, only the tower and battlements remain. As you enter, note the scale-model replica of the caravel that carried Cabral to Brazil. On one of the side walls is a coat of arms with two goats, the emblem of the Cabral family (in Portuguese, cabra means "goat"). Don't miss the graceful but oddly incongruous Manueline window incorporated into the heavy fortifications. The castle ruins are on a rocky hill to the north overlooking town, and you'll find the small visitor information center next door.

Castelo de Montemor-o-Velho

On a hill between Coimbra and Figueira da Foz lies the well-kept castle of Montemor-o-Velho. Climb to the top and you'll be rewarded with some of the best views of the region.

Montemor-o-Velho figures prominently in the region's history and legends. One popular story tells how the castle's defenders cut the throats of their own families to spare them a cruel death at the hands of the Moorish invaders; many died before the attackers were repulsed. The following day the escaping Moors were pursued and thoroughly defeated.

The castle walls and tower are largely intact. But, thanks to damage done during the Napoleonic invasions in 1811, little remains inside the impressive ramparts to suggest this was a noble family's home that once garrisoned 5,000 troops. Archaeological evidence indicates the hill has been fortified for more than 2,000 years. The two churches on the hill are also part of the castle complex; the Igreja de Santa Maria de Alcaçova dates back to the 11th century and contains some well-preserved Manueline additions.

R. Infante Dom Pedro, Montemor-o-Velho, 3140-271, Portugal
239 687 300
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Castelo de Santa Maria da Feira

The fairy-tale Castelo de Santa Maria da Feira sits 8 km (5 miles) northeast of Ovar. Its four square towers are crowned with a series of conical turrets in a display of Gothic architecture more common in Germany or Austria than in Portugal. Although the original walls date to the 11th century, the present structure is the result of modifications made 400 years later. From atop the towers you can make out the sprawling outlines of the Ria de Aveiro.

Castelo dos Templários

At the top of the town's hill are the ruins of the 12th-century Castelo Templário. Not much remains of the series of walls and towers that once surrounded the entire community. Adjoining the ruins is the flower-covered Miradouro de São Gens, which provides a fine view of the town and surrounding countryside.