Guide To the Stunning Coimbra University in Portugal

Here’s my complete guide to visiting the UNESCO-listed Coimbra University in Coimbra Portugal, with must know tips for visiting.

Coimbra is the perfect midway stop between Lisbon and Porto and well worth a visit.

The fortress-like university on the hilltop is one of Portugal’s most impressive UNESCO sites. You’ll be awed by the splendid architecture and perhaps a tad jealous of the students in their black Harry Potter cape uniforms.

Coimbra University

History of Coimbra University

Perched on the town’s hilltop, Coimbra University is an ancient site. It’s one of the oldest universities in the world, older than Oxford University.

Coimbra itself is known as the “Athens of Portugal” for its knowledge and culture. Its university was founded by royal charter in 1290 in Lisbon.

King João II transferred the university to Coimbra in 1537. He was a dedicated king, and even got into hot water for overspending on the university instead of foreign conquests.

But he attracted great masters from all over Europe, making Coimbra University a prestigious school.

entrance to the Royal Palace at Coimbra University vis the Via Latina staircase.
entrance to the Royal Palace at Coimbra University

How To Get to Coimbra University

Coimbra University sits on top of the Alcaçova hill. the classic approach is up a back breaking flight of stairs starting at the Arco de Almedina, the town’s old Moorish gateway.

If steep hills aren’t your thing, no problem. You can hop on a bus to the university.

Take the one marked “Botanica,” directly across from the tourist office on Avenida Emidio Navarro.

It only costs 1.60 euros. We took the bus up and then walked back down. But if you like climbing, it’s a steep 30 minute walk down narrow winding streets past beautiful sites.

Royal Palace at Coimbra University
Royal Palace at Coimbra University

Tickets & Tours

Once there, you queue up to purchase your ticket at the ticket office near the clock tower. Get Program 1, which includes all sites.

No other ticket includes the Joanina Library, and you can’t miss that. It’s the highlight. 60 people are admitted every 20 minutes to the library, so pay attention to your admission time.

You can’t purchase tickets online for Coimbra University. But you can book a guided tour that will include skip the line tickets. Which wouldn’t be a bad way to go for this historic site.

This 1.5 hour small group guided tour covers all the top attractions at the university. This 3 hour guided tour gives you a tour of the city and the university.

If you don’t book a tour, that’s fine. There are placards, at least in the palace rooms, giving you information on what you’re seeing. You’re also given a couple brochures with descriptions of the many wonders.

Porta Ferrea, or the Iron Gate, the entrance to the university
Porta Ferrea, or the Iron Gate, the entrance to the university
Minerva mosaic in front of the Porta Ferrea.  Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom.
Minerva mosaic in front of the Porta Ferrea

What To See At Coimbra University

Here are the top attractions and things you can’t miss at Coimbra University.

1. Porta Ferrea

You first pass through the ornate Porta Férrea into a large courtyard called the Pátio das Escolas.

The grand architecture of the place is immediately apparent. The colossal scale was intended to symbolize the power of the caliphate of Cordoba.

A muscular statue of João V statue lords over the entire place.

Porta Férrea was built in the 17th century and is decorated with symbols of the university. It’s topped with two female figures of wisdom and images of King Dinin and King João III.

the Joao III statue, which struck me as similar to a tubby Henry VIII
the Joao III statue, which struck me as similar to a tubby Henry VIII
corridors of the Royal Palace off the courtyard
corridors of the Royal Palace

2. Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is a real treat. It’s Portugal’s oldest palace and was inhabited until the 15th century. It became part of the university in 1537.

The first room you enter is the Hall of Arms, or the Sala dos Archeiros. This room houses the weapons of the Royal Academic Guard. 

Today, the weapons are used only by Halberdiers during formal ceremonies, such as the beginning of classes or the investiture of a new rector.

weapons in the Hall of Arms
weapons in the Hall of Arms

3. Great Hall of Acts

The palace’s showstopper is the Sala dos Capelos, or the Great Hall of Acts, whose current design dates from 1655. The word “capleo” refers to the black capes the students wear.

This grand room was originally meant to be the throne room, and it still feels palatial. The wooden ceiling is fantastical and dates from the 17th century.

The upper walls are decorated with fabric representing the monarchs of Portugal.

the Great Hall of Acts
the Great Hall of Acts

Notably missing are the Hapsburg monarchs from 1580-1640. That omission is the result of a political rift where the university threw its support behind João IV, then a Duke of Braganza, not the Hapsburg kings.

This room held the most important academic ceremonies, and still does today. In particular, it’s where doctoral theses are defended.

It seems difficult enough to defend a PhD thesis without intimidating monarchs watching you. Perhaps the black capes serve as a bulkwark against intimidation.

This is a room full of history and power. It felt very solemn and significant to me.

the ceiling of the Great Hall where PhD defenses take place
the beautiful wooden ceiling of the Great Hall where PhD defenses take place

4. Private Exam Room

You then move on to the Salo do Exame Privado, or Private Exam Room.

This was another stunning room. It’s where students took oral exams, in secret, and always at dusk.

the Private Exam Room in the Royal Palace
the Private Exam Room in the Royal Palace
the gorgeous ceiling of the Private Exam Room
the gorgeous ceiling of the Private Exam Room

It also has a fantastical painted ceiling dating from 1701. How I love those; they’re so unique.

The room is lined with 38 rather stiff portraits depicting the rectors from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The lower walls are lined with blue and white Coimbra tiles.

view of Coimbra from the bell tower
view of Coimbra from the bell tower

5. Palace Tower

Don’t forget to climb the palace’s Tower, erected between 1728-33. It has two bells.

One is nicknamed the “Caber,” or bitch, because it wakes students up and calls them to classes (that’s pretty much how I feel about my iPhone alarm). The other is called O Cabrão, or old goat, and is used for ceremonies.

The 184 step climb is not for the claustrophobic, with an exceedingly narrow stone staircase. The tower has a separate 1 euro fee.

But you have unrestricted panoramic views of Coimbra and the Mondego River. If you don’t want to climb, you have similar views from the palace balconies.

view from the palace balconies where you can see Coimbra's old 12th century Cathedral
view from the palace balconies
my daughter lounging outside the chapel's Manueline door while we wait to enter the library
my daughter lounging outside the chapel while we wait to enter the library

We couldn’t go inside any lecture halls because classes were still in session on May 3. There are over 20,000 students at Coimbra University, from 80 countries.

6. Saint Michael’s Chapel

Our next stop was St. Michael’s Chapel.

You enter through an intricate Manueline doorway, bordered by two pillars and intertwined with sea symbols. At the center is the Portuguese royal crest.

the absolutely gorgeous painted ceiling of St. Michael's Chapel
the absolutely gorgeous painted ceiling of St. Michael’s Chapel

I had never seen Manueline style architecture before Portugal, and I confess that I love the curving romantic style.

The chapel is small but richly decorated. It was built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It’s dedicated to the Archangel Michael.

It was originally conceived as a palace chapel in the reign of King Manuel I. The walls are spectacular, clad in “azulejos de tappet,” carpet tiles forming a repeating pattern.

the massive organ with 2,000 pipes
the massive organ with 2,000 pipes

The 1605 main altar is a gaudy Mannerist affair, dating from the 17th century and dedicated to Our Lady of Light.

And there is an equally gaudy gold organ with 2000 pipes and trumpet blowing angels, built in 1733 by Manuel Gomes.

Some of the pipes jut straight out right into the room. They aren’t just parallel.

I thought the gaudiness actually detracted somewhat from the incredibly unique hand painted ceilings and the tile covered walls.

the Noble Floor of the magnificent Joanina Library
the Noble Floor of the magnificent Joanina Library

7. The Magnificent Joanina Library

And now for the main event. The chapel is just a warm up for the extravagance of the university’s over-the-top library.

Think Baroque delirium. The Joanini is one of the world’s most beautiful libraries.

You enter the library on the left side of the main entrance via the Minerva Stairs where you’re greeted by a statue of Minerva, holding a book and sceptre.

You must enter during your designated time slot, no exceptions. So queue up a little early to make sure you have some uninterrupted views.

There are three floors, the most famous being the Noble Floor, or the third floor.

arches on the second floor of the library
arches on the second floor of the library

The first floor of the library features the “Academic Prison” or student jail. It dates from when the university ran its own police force, wholly apart from the legal code of the country.

If a student broke a rule or damaged a borrowed book, he was sent to the prison. However, that didn’t mean he skipped lessons. The prisoner went to lectures in the morning and then returned to his cell.

It’s the only remaining medieval prison in Portugal. But imprisonment ended in the 19th century, and it then served as a book deposit.

The second floor is a basic library. Originally, access to students was denied. It was only for the use of professors and librarian. If you look closely, you’ll see an ancient copy of Don Quixote.

one of the magnificent ceilings in Joaninna Library
one of the magnificent ceilings in Joaninna Library

The magnificent Nobel Floor is jaw dropping. The tour guide opens the grand double doors and you are ushered in, as if entering a sacred temple. I gasped, and my first impression was that there was gold everywhere.

The famous library was built from 1717-28 during the reign of Joao V. It was designed by Gaspar Ferreira in Baroque style and is known as the Baroque Library.

It has a large central hall with a nave like structure divided into three main rooms. Slender columns hold up beautiful gilded bookshelves. It looks and feels more like a museum than a library.

There are arches between each grand room, topped with shields showing different university schools. The walls are two inches thick to protect the books.

the portrait of King Joao V on the Noble Floor of Joanina Library
the portrait of King João V on the Noble Floor of Joanina Librar

Each room has a beautiful tromp l’oeil ceiling with an intricate allegory. Tromp l’oeil is a technique that makes a flat ceiling look domed. They are the work of Portuguese artists Antonio Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes.

The ceiling of the first room depicts the library itself and bears the legend “Bibliotecae Imago.”

In the central ceiling (shown above), the university is depicted, surrounded by the attributes of honor, virtue, fortune, and reputation. The ceiling in the third room represents the synthesis of universal knowledge.

In the third room, there’s also a large portrait of King Joao V, founder of the library, by an unknown artist. I was honestly too besotted with the ceilings and surroundings to give it more than a second glance.

In each room, there are long tables, made of and inlaid with tropical wood. They were designed and built by Italian woodcarver Francesco Gualdini, who also constructed the sumptuous bookshelves.

the stacks on the Noble Floor protected by carved wood columns in the Chinese style popular at the time.
the stacks on the Noble Floor protected by carved wood columns in the Chinese style popular at the time

The library has a collection of 200,000 ancient books and a collection of illuminated manuscripts.

Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto grabs a lot of publicity as the inspiration for Harry Potter. But you certainly get a Hogwarts’ vibe here. You can easily imagine teenage magicians nosing around trying to find old spell books.

The books are maintained mostly by bats. Yes, bats!

The library is infested with a colony of small pipistrelle bats and that’s what it intends. They are welcome guests.

pipistrelle bats in Joanina Library. image source:
pipistrelle bats in Joanina Library. image source:

Their task?

They emerge at nightfall and consume flies, gnats, and other bugs that might threaten the priceless books or manuscript pages. A tiny bat can eat up to 500 paper eating insects a night.

They may have taken up residence approximately 300 years ago when the library was built. The librarians at least trace them to the 19th century.

The library still uses special fabric to cover the inlaid wooden tables to protect them from the bats. You won’t see them while visiting. They reportedly only come out at nightfall or on rainy days.

my daughter chatting with some black caped Coimbra students
my daughter chatting with some black caped Coimbra University students

8. Black Capes

And those black Harry Potter type capes?

My daughter stopped a couple Coimbra students to ask about them. Students can wear them whenever they want, not just for special occasions.

Some have frays or tears on the hem. The left side of the cape has tears made by family members. The right side has tears made by friends or lovers.

If the relationship ends, the tear is stitched up with bright thread. “Tears” is an important word. The capes are wool and extremely sturdy, and the tears have to be made with hands or teeth, no scissors or knives.

the burning of the ribbons ritual at Coimbra.  image source:
the burning of the ribbons ritual at Coimbra. image source:

We just missed the student festival known as the Queima das Fitas, or the Burning of the Ribbons. It’s a week long celebration marking the end of university life for graduating students. It’s is one of the biggest student parties in Europe.

The week kicks off with a Fado serenade by the old cathedral. The students then participate in a ritualistic burning of the ribbons. There are 8 different colored ribbons representing the different academic programs.

9. Botanical Gardens

When you’ve had enough of books, black capes, and magic, take a stroll in the Botanical Gardens.

They were created in 1772 by the Marquess of Pombal. The purpose of the garden is to supplement the studies of medicine and natural sciences at the university.

Botanical Gardens at Coimbra University
Botanical Gardens at Coimbra University

Practical Information for Coimbra University:

Address: Kargei da OIrtga Ferrea 3000-447 Coimbra

Hours: November 1 to March 18: Weekdays – 9:00 am to 5:30 pm, Weekends – 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, March 19 to October 31: Daily 8:30 am to 7:00 pm

Entry fee: Ticket office is in Edifício da Biblioteca Geral, Largo da Porta Férrea, € 12.50, entrance is free to the Botanical Gardens

Pro tip: If you plan to visit Convent of Christ, Alcobaça Monastery, and Batalha Monastery on your own, you can buy a combined ticket for €15 at any of the sites.


map of Coimbra Uniervsity

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