Coimbra, Portugal

Jason R. Matheson
7 min readDec 6, 2022


I’m roughly halfway between Portugal’s two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto, in the university town of Coimbra. It’s a beautiful location with the old town and campus perched on a hill overlooking the serene Mondego River.

Prior to driving north to Coimbra, I explored the ancient stone aqueduct in Tomar. Incredibly, you could access the top and walk a narrow path alongside the elevated water channel. There was a low ridge of sorts along the edge but it had crumbled in spots. Eventually I reached a point where it felt too high and I cautiously turned around to retrace my steps.

It amazes me how accessible historical sites are here in Portugal. A bit further down the road, I explored the Roman ruins at Conímbriga. Although a few of the areas were roped off, you could mostly roam free and walk directly on 2,000-year-old steps, roads and floors. Blew my mind.

I was immediately drawn to Coimbra when I arrived in the afternoon. My hotel was located on the riverbank opposite the old town. It was just a short, scenic walk over a bridge to begin exploring.

The University of Coimbra, founded in 1290, is among the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world. With 20,000 students, including some 15% of whom are international, this university town is a lively place.

I’ve learned that university towns back home in the States and here in Europe tend to be some of the most interesting places to live because of the educational emphasis and youthful influence. Coimbra was no exception.

The town was also full of inexpensive, quality restaurants. I used Google Maps to filter down options and wasn’t disappointed. I even stumbled on what I finally deciphered was a faculty buffet. The lunch lady took my card and swiped it without hesitation so I enjoyed seafood and wine with the professors. At least I think it was seafood (those are tentacles, right?).

I started climbing the steep cobblestone lanes to visit the university campus situated at the top of the hill. The academic buildings were completely integrated aesthetically with the old town.

I wasn’t actually sure I was on campus until students passed me wearing black cloaks. I learned these academic uniforms originated from a tradition that started nearly 500 years ago.

Definitely a different look than what I’m used to on American college campuses. Another interesting angle was my tour of the university’s science department and its “Cabinet of Curiosities”.

Beginning in the 1700s, European nobility gathered and displayed exotic objects in a special room in an attempt to recreate the work of God. Of course, it was also to amaze and impress their visitors with the cosmopolitan vision of the owner.

The university had assembled its own Cabinet of Curiosities in a darkened space with dramatic lighting. Shelves overflowed with stuffed creatures, strange things preserved in jars and weird objects from around the world. There was no logic to the displays and no signs to explain. The idea was to recreate the wonder felt by visitors back then and to spark imagination.

Back on the street, I explored the areas surrounding campus. Evidently there are specific apartment buildings completely run by the students themselves. Called “Republics”, rules are set by the students living in each building with no outside oversight.

Predictably, there was plenty of “atmosphere”. I wandered through the narrow lanes and absorbed the often humorous graffiti and wry commentary on our modern world. With the language barrier, I didn’t fully grasp everything but it was fun to guess.

With so many years myself working on college campuses and living in university towns, I enjoyed noting the similarities and differences here in Portugal.

Ultimately, you learn people are basically the same around the world.

It may not have been the football I was used to, but the students dropped their studies and focused intently on the national team in the World Cup match this evening. They had plenty to celebrate: Portugal thrashed the Swiss 6–1.

After the big city bustle of Lisbon and the quaint villages of Tomar and Óbidos, I was extremely pleased I had the opportunity to visit Coimbra. It would be among the first places I’d recommend to anyone visiting Portugal.

As I started back across the river after watching the soccer match with the happy Portuguese crowds, I looked back at this shimmering Christmas display in the town plaza. Boas Festas translates as Happy Holidays.

That’s it from pleasant Coimbra. I’m headed for Porto in the morning.


Thanks for coming along on the trip. If you have questions or suggestions, tweet @JasonRMatheson. Missed an entry? Click here.



Jason R. Matheson

I prefer to travel slow. Enjoy history, design, architecture, cars, sports digital. Auburn alum, Sooner born.