Coimbra, University and culture

View of the city and the Mondego River / Flickr
View of the city and the Mondego River / Flickr
1 April 2019, Marilia Poiares

Coimbra is one of the most significant destinations in Portugal if you are looking for history and culture. Still often eclipsed by Lisbon and Porto, the city was Portugal’s capital for 124 years in the 12th and 13th centuries, and its 700-year-old University is among the oldest and most beautiful in Europe.

Coimbra bursts from the landscape with hills that surround the windy Mondego River. On one of those hills, you can find the buildings of Coimbra’s University. Founded in 1290, it is the oldest institution of higher education in Portugal and one of the oldest universities in the world. It was originally established in Lisbon, but the campus moved a few times before finally ending up at The Royal Palace of Coimbra, the family home of Portugal’s first dynasty. In 2013 this beautiful landmark entered the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

The University, the city's beating heart

"Paço das Escolas" at the University of Coimbra / Wikimedia Commons
"Paço das Escolas" at the University of Coimbra / Wikimedia Commons

Coimbra and its University are clear examples of how the old can mix with the new, creating a symbiosis between the traditional and the modern that can allow a city to grow whilst maintaining its essence. In the University you can find ground-breaking technology and contemporary facilities that coexist with medieval buildings that have been around for centuries. With 8 academic faculties, the University is at the forefront in the fields of science, technology, medicine and pharmacy, and is one of the best universities in Portugal.

Students in their traditional uniforms / Flickr
Students in their traditional uniforms / Flickr

If you visit Coimbra you might be a little struck by the appearance of the students. If you are a Harry Potter fan you might even recognise their uniforms, which served as inspiration for J.K. Rowling when she wrote the first Harry Potter book while living in Portugal.

Described as praxe, the uniform, the tradition and the academic laws are used to integrate students while maintaining a sense of equality, respect and humility. And the traditions are in tune with the country’s love for celebrations, so you must make sure to visit during the Festa das Latas or Latada and the Queima das Fitas. The former, at the beginning of the academic year, is a party to welcome the new students as they parade through the streets in costumes with tins tied around their legs, and the latter, in May, says goodbye to graduates who burn their ribbons (with the colour of their faculty) in celebration.

If you are planning to enter the Erasmus Program and you want to study in Coimbra, take a look at these tips.

For a whole week, you can enjoy concerts, religious ceremonies and blessings like the Benção das Pastas. Portuguese religious traditions don’t have the same impact as they once did, but this is a very beautiful celebration that is supposed to bring good luck to the graduates that finish their academic journey. In Coimbra, you can find many magnificent churches and chapels like Sé Nova, Sé Velha and Capela de São Miguel.

The regal Joanine Library / Wikimedia Commons
The regal Joanine Library / Wikimedia Commons

Last but not least, you can’t visit Coimbra and its University without visiting the Joanine Library, an homage to the country’s affinity towards literature and architecture. Built as part of the campus in the 18th century to house the school’s written works, this is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, featured in publications worldwide. And some of the country’s greatest writers are alumni of the University, like Luís de Camões, José Maria Eça de Queiroz and Almeida Garrett.

Don’t hesitate to visit Coimbra when you know that you are (or you are going to be) living in Portugal and learn all the secrets of Portugal’s academic city.

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