The imposing modern structures that make up the main university – mostly built in the 1940s and 50s – give little hint of the riches hidden away behind the white facades of the broad Paço das Escolas square. Accessed via the seventeenth-century Porta Férrea (the “iron gate” that once stood here), the Velha Universidade is housed in the former royal palaces. You’ll need to buy a ticket to look round it, though you’re free to enjoy the city views from the terrace to one side of the square.
Biblioteca Joanina and the Academic Prison
Highlight of the Velha Universidade – and indeed all Coimbra – is the Biblioteca Joanina, a Baroque confection of cleverly-marbled wood, gold leaf, imposing frescoed ceilings and elaborate trompe-l’oeil decorations. The ancient library was installed in 1717 by Dom João V, whose portrait surveys his legacy from the library walls, which are lined with some 250,000 books dating back to the twelfth century – though these do fade into the background a bit against the backdrop of all the Baroque elaboration. The library only opens every twenty minutes – your time will be written on your ticket. With luck you won’t be hemmed in by a big group, but at busy periods, you’ll be ushered on from the library after a few minutes to the so-called Academic Prison in the basement below. This proved that studying was once no laughing matter: until 1832, the windowless cells were used to punish students found guilty of the heinous crimes of disrespect, book damage and contestation (arguing with teachers). The prison’s upper levels were used as a book store.
Capela de São Miguel and Sala dos Capelos
After leaving the library, glance into the adjacent Capela de São Miguel (knock for entry), a sixteenth-century chapel with a splendid eighteenth-century trumpet-adorned Baroque organ clamped to the wall and floor-to-ceiling azulejos. Leave the chapel and from the square outside head up the grand double stairway to the Sala dos Capelos. This grand hall was once part of the royal palace and then became an ornate venue for students to sit their exams, beneath the portraits of former monarchs and university rectors and an impressive ceiling of over a hundred wooden panels. The rooms are still used to award degree certificates and for students to defend their PhD theses. Previous graduates include epic poet Luís de Camões, writer Eça de Queiros and twentieth-century dictator Salazar. Don’t miss the narrow, vertigo-inducing balcony outside that affords breezy city views.
The clock tower
Those with a head for heights can climb the somewhat claustrophobic 184 steps that spiral to the top of the eighteenth-century clock tower for spectacular views over the entire area. The tower is nicknamed cabra (the goat), an unaffectionate term lamenting its role in summoning students to lessons.