The medieval capital of Portugal for over a hundred years, and site of the country’s greatest university for the past five centuries, Coimbra wears its weighty importance in Portuguese history with dignity. Its atmospheric, beautiful historic core cascades down a hillside in a lovely setting on the east bank of the Rio Mondeg: it's a multicoloured collage of buildings spanning nearly a millennium.
If you visit during the academic year, you’ll be sure to feel the university’s influence. Students throng bars and cafes; posters advertise talks on everything from genetics to genocide; and graffiti scrawled outside repúblicas (communal student dwellings) address the political issues of the day. If you can, come during the Queima das Fitas in early May, a raucous weeklong celebration featuring live music every night. Or stroll the streets on a summer evening, when the city’s old stone walls reverberate with the haunting metallic notes of the guitarra (Portuguese guitar) and the full, deep voices of fado singers.
Take a few steps outside the historic centre and you’ll also see the city’s modern side – a modern riverfront park with terrace bars and restaurants, a spiffy pedestrian bridge across the Mondego, and vast shopping complexes offering everything you’d expect in a major European city.
The city also makes a fine base for day visits to the remarkable Roman ruins at Conímbriga, the medieval hilltop fortress of Montemor-o-Velho, or the outlandishly ornate Palace Hotel do Buçaco.