A real education in Coimbra, Portugal

My kind of place: The photogenic university city is a hub of learning, with a wealth of other sights.

Why Coimbra?

Portugal’s equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge, Coimbra is home to the country’s oldest and arguably most-prestigious university. And while there’s life outside academia, the university dominates the old town.

From the banks of the Mondego River, the old town seems to clamber up the river in a disjointed mess, with houses on top of each other, all facing at different angles. But once there, handsome yet weather-worn buildings take over, laced together by slippery, narrow streets made of tiny cobbles.

The air is of a venerable place of learning rather than rowdy student town, but among the photogenic department buildings and cathedrals are some fascinatingly compelling oddities.

A comfortable bed

Surrounded by sumptuous gardens and a golf course, the Quinta das Lagrimas (www.quintadaslagrimas.pt) is an atmospheric treat. Historically, it was the setting for Portugal's version of the Romeo and Juliet story, and all the heritage detail inside gives it a strong romantic retreat vibe. Rooms costs from €115 (Dh457) per night.

Distinctly contemporary rather than old-school swoony, VilaGalé (www.vilagale.com) plays it safely neutral in the rooms, but the outdoor pool is a massive bonus. Rooms cost from €95 (Dh378) per night.

At the budget end of the scale, the Moderna (www.residencialmoderna.com.pt) has recently modernised, adding a lift and 24-hour reception to its modest but hard-to-pick-holes-in rooms. It's closer to the heart of Coimbra than most of the four-star joints, has the requisite heating/air con/Wi-Fi combo, and is solidly comfortable for bargain rates of from €38 (Dh151) per night.

Find your feet

The old town and the narrow warren of alleyways beneath it, called Baixa, are marvellous to stroll around and get lost in, but prepare for a lot of slugging up hills and steps. Once at the top, the first stop should be the university's Museu da Ciência (www.museudaciencia.org). It has some generic science-museum stuff on things such as how eyes process light and colour, but its strength is the idiosyncratically curated selection of discovery and invention stories. Who knew the colour purple was more valuable than gold until an Englishman came up with a synthetic mauve? Or that the first batteries were piles of metal discs?

Amble towards the centre of the jumbled hilltop, and you'll hit the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro (www.museumachadocastro.pt), which is impressively enormous and utterly confusing to navigate. The large collections of pre-19th century paintings and sculptures are occasionally impressive, but the lower sections in the Roman-era "cryptoportico" are astounding. That's largely because it's like wandering around newly discovered underground archaeological ruins – it's a multilevel series of vaulted, bare-stone galleries and hidey-holes, many of which host video art, composed of unsettling projections.

Meet the locals

Fado, the mournful, soulful music that's Portugal's artistic signature, has a very distinctive flavour in Coimbra. Here, it's sung by only men, usually wearing black capes. It's also a bit more upbeat than elsewhere, although still hardly laugh-a-minute. àCapella (www.acapella.com.pt), a dramatically converted medieval chapel, is an excellent place to decide whether you like it or not.

Book a table

Calado & Calado (Rua da Sota) is a pleasant local joint, but with few frills, specialising in grilled meats and fish. However, the chanfana (€9.50 [Dh38]) – an on-the-bone goat stew cooked for hours – is phenomenally good.

On the other side of the old town, A Taberna (www.atabernarestaurante.pt) is a classier affair, with dark-wood panels on one side, and decoratively tiled walls on the other. It offers hearty, proudly traditional fare with an emphasis on quality, something that shines through in the deliciously meaty cod (€13 [Dh52]) .

Shopper’s paradise

Most locals shop in malls way outside the old town, but there are a few decent finds – mainly jewellery – to be found on Rua Visconde da Luz and the adjoining Rua Ferreira Borges. The latter is also home to De Amador, which sells an enterprisingly large variety of things made from cork – including shoes and bags – as well as other gift-worthy knick-knacks.

What to avoid

There are two main train stations – Coimbra A (often just referred to as Coimbra) by the river in the city centre, and Coimbra B, which is a couple of kilometres to the north-west. Most – but not all – longer-distance services arrive at Coimbra B. Make sure you know which station you’ve pulled into, or else you’re likely to get horribly lost and confused.

Don’t miss

The unquestioned star of the university (www.uc.pt) campus is the Joanina Library, a baroque masterpiece where hugely decorative wooden shelves climb towards the sky, and lavish ceiling paintings celebrate the wonders of human knowledge. Timed entry tickets are required, as part of the €9 (Dh36) fee to get into the uni's key buildings.

Getting there

Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Lisbon, from Dh3,725. From Lisbon airport, take the Metro three stops to Oriente Station, then catch one of the regular trains to Coimbra. Journeys are about 90 minutes, and cost from €19 (Dh76).


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