Coimbra, one of Europe’s most ancient university cities, has plenty to offer, namely the century-old University of Coimbra and its “Paço das Escolas” and Science Museum, Machado de Castro’s National Museum and, on the other bank of Mondego river, the Convent of Santa-Clara. In the surroundings of Coimbra, it is worth to visit Conimbriga, Lousã, Penacova, Buçaco, Luso, Curia, and the coastal city of Figueira da Foz with its casino and beautiful beaches. The following subsections present more detailed information about these tourism interest points.
Paço das Escolas – University of Coimbra
The University of Coimbra is one of the main portuguese touristic destinations. Every year, the Paço das Escolas is visited by about 200 thousand tourists from various backgrounds.
This institution is not composed merely of a compilation of the historical periods in general of the Portuguese nationality for which it has greatly contributed. Its passing from the adventure of the Discoveries to its European integration and to the present, in parallel with the evolution of Portugal, make the University of Coimbra living evidence of what the country has best to offer, as far as science, art, technique, knowledge and culture in general are concerned.
In Portugal, and a little around the rest of the world as well, the idea of the institution University of Coimbra is closely connected to the Main University Area, a heterogeneous architectural ensemble where the constructions of the so-called New State are put in relief, especially the Pateo and the Paço das Escolas looked down upon by the famous University Tower.
In 1544, it was the Paço das Escolas which agglutinated all the Faculties of the University of Coimbra, after the final accommodation of the University in this city in 1537 and a true itinerant path of almost three centuries between Lisbon and the Mondego urban area. During this period in Coimbra, the General Studies (later known as University) functioned in a building referred to as the Old Studies, more or less where the Main Library is to be found today, and were then distributed to various areas, putting into relief the Santa Cruz Monastery and the Paço das Escolas itself.
When visiting the Paço das Escolas, the following monuments shouldn't be missed:
Sala dos Capelos;
Porta Férrea and Via Latina;
Saint Michael’s Chapel.
The “Sala Grande dos Actos” is the most important room of the University of Coimbra. It is also known as “Sala dos Capelos”. When visiting the Sala dos Capelos, the Private Examination Room and the Arms Room may also be visited.
The Private Examination Room was an integrating part of the royal wing of the palace. It was a royal chamber, that is, the place where the monarch stayed overnight. This was also the first room where the first “meeting” was held between the vice-rector D. Garcia de Almeida and the University professors on October 13, 1537, which is the date of the final transfer of this institution to Coimbra.
The Arms Room was part of the royal wing of the old palace. It accommodates a full array of arms (halberds) of the Academic Royal Guard, which are still used today by the Halberdiers (guards) in the formal academic ceremonies (solemn “honoris causa” doctorates, the rector's investiture, formal beginning of the classes).
Sala dos Capelos.
The Casa da Livraria, the name with which the Joanine Library was known, received its first books after 1750 and the construction of the building is dated between 1717 and 1728. The building has three storeys and it accommodates around 200.000 books. The noble storey houses 40.000 books.
As a result of the privileged condition of the University, from 1593 it would be established in two ancient rooms, underneath the Sala dos Capelos. It remained here until 1773, being then transferred to the substructures of the Joanine Library which, in its turn, had incorporated, during its construction, the ruined remains of what had once been the ancient prison of the Royal Palace, documenting the only space of mediaeval jail still existent in Portugal.
Joanine Library (left) and Academic Prison (right).
With the intent to honor the entrance into the court of the University, the Porta Férrea is the first important work undertaken by the School after acquiring the building thus idealized as a triumphal arch with a double façade (in the tradition of the military fort door), apologetic of the institution, evoked in the sculpturesque programme, allusive of the four faculties – Theology, Law, Medicine and Canon-Laws – and of the two important monarchs in its history – King Dinis, who founded the University, and King John III, who had it transferred to Coimbra.
The Via Latina, erected during the second half of the eighteenth century, constitutes in its essence, a mass of grandeur addorsed (leaning) on the northern internal elevation of the school palace, as a skilful solution to facilitate the access between the vice-rector's court, the Sala dos Capelos and the Main Areas.
Porta Férrea (left) and Via Latina (right).
The University Tower was built between 1728 and 1733, replacing another famous tower which John of Rouen had built in 1561. It was designed by the roman architect Antonio Canevari, creating the matriarch of the European university towers. In addition to the clocks, it accommodates the bells which regulate the ritual functioning of the University.
The Saint Michael’s Chapel was built in the beginning of the 16th century, replacing another chapel, probably from the 12th century. Its architectural structure is Manueline with a visibly decorative style, especially in the huge windows of the main nave and in the transept arch. The chapel has a single nave and altarpiece. It is worth admiring the 17th-century main retable, in gilded woodwork and with fine Mannerist paintings; the side altars from the 18th century; the 17th-century pulpit; the Baroque organ, from 1733, with «chinoiserie» painted decoration; the panels of tiles of the nave and altarpiece, made in Lisbon and Coimbra.
Saint Michael’s Chapel.
Science Museum of the University of Coimbra
Science Museum of the University of Coimbra displays the most important science and art collections of the different museums of the University of Coimbra. Situated in the former Chemical Laboratory, the building recovery was carried out by architects Joao Mendes Ribeiro, Carla Antunes and Desiré Pedro. This project has won the Architecture Award given by International Association of Art Critics (AICA).
Science Museum of the University of Coimbra.
From the mid-sixteenth century, the University of Coimbra became the greatest commissioner in the Portuguese artistic field, immediately after the Crown. Over the generations, its artistic heritage has been accumulated, leading to a remarkable collection of historic and aesthetic of the past that stands in the national and international levels in various fields, especially architecture, sculpture, painting, tiles and tapestries.
This rich heritage is constantly updated, adding to it every day new evidence and points of interest. The University of Coimbra has shaped this heritage and devotes special attention to in the service of all. At the Museum of Science, the University of Coimbra is developing a museum project, without equal in our country, to bring together the scientific collection spread over several museums and the university faculties, in addition to the collections of the Astronomical Observatory and the Geophysical Institute, thus creating way, a modern Museum of Science and integrator, the level of the best in the world. The aim is thus to create a space for dissemination of science to as wide an audience as possible.
According to several international experts, the University of Coimbra has an estate in the area of museology unparalleled in Portugal that sets up a museum of international capacity. The generality of these museums is a consequence of Pombal, which led to a thorough restructuring of the field and the construction and adaptation of new institutions engaged in experimental research.
The visit to the museum runs from Tuesday to Sunday in the schedule 10:00-18:00.
Machado de Castro’s National Museum
The Machado de Castro’s Museum opened to the public in October 1913, and became a national museum in 1965. The museum’s buildings were declared a national monument in 1910. The former Bishop’s Palace was built on top of the cryptoporticus – the foundation of the forum of the Roman city of Aeminium. Dating from the 1st century A.D., this is most important surviving Roman building in Portugal. The various buildings that we see today were constructed between the 12th and the 18th centuries as a residence for the bishops of Coimbra. Notable among many changes over the centuries are the remains of part of the Romanesque cloister of the Condal period (c. 1100-1140), the graceful classical loggia from the late 16th century, and the baroque church of São João de Almedina, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Machado de Castro’s National Museum.
The museum’s name pays homage to one of the greatest Portuguese sculptors, Joaquim Machado de Castro (1731-1822), who was born near Coimbra and was sculptor to the royal house in the reigns of José I, Maria I and João VI. The Museum’s collections show the wealth of the Church and the importance of royal patronage, seen in important works of art and in religious vestments, enriched with a variety of acquisitions from private donations.
Of particular interest here are the statues in stone and wood, both monochrome and painted, including several fine pieces from the workshops of well-known Flemish masters, as well as the evolution of Portuguese schools from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The collections of jewellery, painting, ceramics and textiles are also important and representative as regards both importations and national production. The museum also has significant archaeological and Oriental collections.
Its architectural and museological spaces were recently refurbished and expanded, in a project signed by architect Gonçalo Byrne. As a result of this renovation, it is now possible to visit one of the most remarkable works of Roman architecture in Portugal, the cryptoporticus.
The visits to the museum runs from Monday to Sunday can be visited in the schedule 10:00-12:30 and 14:00-18:00.
Convent of Santa Clara
Queen Saint Isabel ordered the construction of the gothic Convent of Santa Clara-a-Velha, located on the left bank of Mondego river. Its construction began in 1286, being under the supervision of Master Domingos Domingues. It is the resting place of the remains of Queen Santa Isabel who is revered as a Saint.
Convent of Santa Clara.
The Convent of Santa Clara can be visited every day in the schedule 10:00-16:30.
Conimbriga is one of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal, and is classified as a National Monument. Conimbriga lies 16 km from Coimbra and less than 2 km from Condeixa-a-Nova. The site also has a museum that displays objects found by archaeologists during their excavations, including coins and surgical tools.
The name Conimbriga derives from an early, possibly pre-Indo-European element meaning "rocky height or outcrop" and the Celtic briga, signifying a defended place. Others think that the element coni may be related to the conii people. Although Conimbriga was not the largest Roman city in Portugal, it is the best preserved. The city walls are largely intact, and the mosaic floors and foundations of many houses and public buildings remain. In the baths, you can view the network of stone heating ducts beneath the now-missing floors. Archaeologists estimate that only 10 percent of the city has been excavated until the early 2000s.
Conimbriga: on the left, house of the fountains; on the right, Horsemen, one of several elaborate mosaic floors at Conimbriga.
Like many archaeological sites, Conimbriga was built in layers. Some of the earliest layers date back to the first Iron Age in the 9th Century B.C. The Romans arrived in 139 B.C., Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus was the general who lead the Roman legions in the conquest of western Iberia after the death of Viriathus, conquering the Celtic inhabitants and establishing a city that grew, flourished, and then fell victim to barbarian invasions until Conimbriga's residents fled to nearby Aeminium (now the city of Coimbra) in 468.
The archeological museum of Conimbriga can be visited every day in the schedule 10:00-18:00.
Lousã, Penacova, Buçaco, Luso and Curia
Just outside Coimbra, there are several picturesque mountain towns such as Lousã and Penacova, and spa towns and villages such as Luso, Buçaco and Curia. Buçaco, Luso and Curia means Bairrada wine along with an exceptional gastronomy, with the iconic Bairrada suckling pig, as well as thermal stations: Termas do Luso and Termas da Curia. Also worth to visit is the breathtaking Buçaco Forest with its century-old trees, extremely rare species, the unique Buçaco’s Palace Hotel, one of Portugal’s most charismatic hotels, and Bairrada Wine Museum in Anadia.
Picturesque villages just outside Coimbra: by lines, from top left, houses made of schist near Lousã, Mondego river in Penacova, Luso town, Buçaco’s Palace Hotel, and Curia spa.
Figueira da Foz
Figueira da Foz, also known as Figueira for short, is a city of the district of Coimbra, in Portugal. It is located at the mouth of the Mondego river, 40 km west of Coimbra, and sheltered by hills (Serra da Boa Viagem). It is the second largest city in the district of Coimbra.
According to the legend, the place’s name is due to a fig tree, which stood at the quay of Salmanha, where the fishermen used to tie up their boats. The historian Nelson Borges said, however, that Figueira comes from the word "fagaria", which means "opening, huge mouth". Foz comes from the Latin word "fouces" ("mouth of a river"), and Mondego comes from the pre-romanic expressions "mond" ("mouth") and "aec" (“river"). That means, Figueira da Foz would be "the river’s mouth opening". Some historical traces show that people were settling in this region since the Neolithic age. The oldest known document, however, dates from the year 1096.
Figueira da Foz.
Knowing the great importance rivers had in the development of cities and of ancient civilizations, the mouth of the Mondego must have played a central role for the fixation of men in this region and for the formation of settlements, which were the beginning of the city of Figueira da Foz. Figueira da Foz had a huge development during the 18th and 19th centuries due to the immense port movements and the expansion of the shipbuilding industry, supplying the city with new communication routes, housing and other facilities. It was elevated to “vila” (small town) on Mar. 12, 1771 and turned “cidade” (city) on Sep. 20, 1882.
Discovered as a sea resort by the end of the 19th century, it gained great reputation in the 1920s and 1930s. The city had the Portuguese nickname of Rainha das Praias (Queen of the Beaches). Figueira da Foz owns several beaches, summer and seaport facilities in the Atlantic Ocean coast. As a city of tourism, it plays an important part in the centre of the country. A zone of legal gambling, one can find in Figueira one of the biggest casinos of the Iberian Peninsula – the Casino Peninsular.
The municipality has some noted landmarks like the Sotto Mayor Palace, the old fishing village of Buarcos, the Serra da Boa Viagem – a small forested mountain by the Atlantic Ocean –, several beaches, and its large seaside promenade paved with typical Portuguese pavement. Figueira da Foz has several Churches, many of them in the rich Baroque style, a Municipal Museum with archaeological, ethnographic and artistic collection, the Santa Catarina Fort and the old Buarcos Fortress, the Relógio Tower by the main sandy beach, several archaeological vestiges throughout the municipality, several Palaces and Manor Houses, as well as several green spaces and small gardens like those in the area of Abadias.