Pronounced 'queem-bra', Coimbra is Portugal's answer to Oxford and its university is almost as old as its counterpart in England. Coimbra has the oldest university in Portugal. It was founded in Lisbon by Dom Dimis in 1290 and moved back and forth between the two cities before finally moving to Coimbra in 1537. Coimbra had the only university in Portugal until the 20th century. Like Oxford or Cambridge, Coimbra has a network of cobbled lanes leading to the university at its heart. Fine buildings, especially the celebrated Baroque library, are commonplace in this historical town, which is in fact one of the four most historic towns in Portugal.
There are two cathedrals, countless churches and antique mansions, including one that houses the Museu Machado de Castro on Rua de São João. The mansion, once an archbishop's palace, is beautiful in itself and serves as a wonderful setting for hundreds of sculptures, paintings, ceramic objects and items of furniture. The foundations of the museum served as a Roman granary before the palace was built on top of them.
Coimbra served as Portugal's capital from 1143, when Afonso Henriques settled there, until 1255 when Afonso III moved the capital to Lisbon, where it remains today. The town of Coimbra sits on the northern bank of the Rio Mondego and is situated between Lisbon and Porto, in the Beira Littoral. The Romans settled in close proximity at Conimbriga, where you can go on a day trip to see Portugal's finest Roman ruins.
A good place to start when exploring Coimbra is the Velha Universidade overlooking the town. For under €5 you can visit the university, Biblioteca Joanina and Sala dos Capelos. The library dates from the 18th century and the Sala dos Capelos is decorated in the Manueline style, so you will get plenty of architecture for your money.
As for accommodation, you won't find very much choice on the steep streets of the old town but there are lots of pensões between the Coimbra A station and the Praça do Comércio (the more sleazy ones are nearer the station). Between here, Rua da Soto and Largo da Portagem there are plenty of atmospheric cafés and restaurants, especially on Rua das Azeiteiras. Local culinary specialities include chafana, which is roasted kid goat, and Santa Clara pastries.
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