Bright colours in a mosaic floor

Why the Roman ruins of Conímbriga are worth visiting

The ancient city of Conímbriga in central Portugal is one of the best Roman ruins I’ve ever visited. It’s so good I’ve been there twice and been impressed on both occasions. Even my 13-year-old stepdaughter declared, “It was better than I expected!”

So what makes Conímbriga so remarkable?

For me, it’s mainly the mosaics. Incredibly, the intricate patterned floors of several whole rooms are still intact after 2000 years. The mosaics in the House of Fountains are the best that Conímbriga has to offer in terms of details and colours and are now sheltered from the elements.

Mosaic floor, House of Fountains, Conimbriga
Mosaic floor, House of Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

In the absence of any leaflets or arrows to indicate the best route to take around the ruins, we went straight to the House of Fountains but I think it’s best appreciated if you save it for last. Each significant site within the complex has an explanatory sign in English and Portuguese so there is information around – you just have to look for it.

As you enter the site, you should turn your attention to the ruins to your left and the Roman road that leads to the defence wall in front of you. The houses on this side of the city were torn down and used to build the wall to protect Conímbriga from the invading Swabian armies in the 5th century AD. This drastic measure was in vain. There simply wasn’t enough time or materials to complete the wall, leaving the citizens vulnerable to attack. The Romans were defeated and Conímbrigans fled the city.

Despite centuries of exposure, the unprotected floors of these demolished houses, such as the House of Swastikas and the House of Skeletons, retain their form and bright colours.

Mosaic floor, Conimbriga
Exposed mosaic floor, Conimbriga

Many of the noble houses had interior gardens with sculpted ponds, brick columns and flowers. I love the cheese-like wedges of bricks they used to build the circular pillars.

Interior gardens, Conimbriga
Interior gardens, Conimbriga
Wedge-shaped bricks
Wedge-shaped bricks

There are several ruined bathhouses but the grandest has been partially reconstructed so you can fully appreciate its scale. From here, you can also see the river running through the forested valley and feel envious of the view the Romans had from their public swimming pool.

Only three and a half pillars remain of the Forum but there’s enough here to give you a sense of how impressive it might have been. Underneath the walkways leading off the main square, you can see remains of the pre-Roman homes.

Ruins of Conimbriga, Portugal
Ruins of Conimbriga, Portugal

At one end of the old aqueduct, near the main city gate, there’s now an amphitheatre with a wooden stage and rows of benches. I can’t find any current information about forthcoming shows but it’s worth checking to see if there are any special events during your visit.

Once you’re through the amphitheatre and the city gate, it’s finally time to treat yourself to the House of Fountains.

Don’t leave just yet!

If you’re feeling a bit  ruined out by now, have a coffee if the café is open and don’t leave without popping into the Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga. Hundreds of artefacts found in Conímbriga are grouped and displayed according to their purpose. It’s an easy museum to navigate and even if you’re not that into history, you’ll find something of interest, especially the scary implements in the medical section.

You might also want to go back to the ticket office and watch Senhor Melro painting ceramic bowls and plates by hand. He’s been doing it for over 30 years so this is your chance to see an expert at work. You can, of course, buy the finished products as a more meaningful souvenir than an anonymous piece from a gift shop in the city.

Sr. Melho painting pottery by hand at Conimbriga
Sr. Melho painting pottery by hand at Conimbriga
hand-painted ceramics by Sr. Melho
hand-painted ceramics by Sr. Melho

Practicalities:

The site is open every day (except a few major holidays) from 10 am to 7 pm and a standard ticket costs 4 euros. The official website appears to be down at the moment but you can get more details (in Portuguese) from the Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga.

Bear in mind that the majority of the site is outdoors so you’ll need suitable protection from the weather depending on the time of year.

The easiest way to get to Conímbriga is undoubtedly by car. Keep your eyes peeled for the brown signs when you get near Condeixa.

You’d get a much deeper and more rounded appreciation of the Roman presence in this area if you also visit the Roman Cryptoporticus in the Machado de Castro Museum. Better still, go on a full day guided tour with includes the cryptoporticus and the new museum in Condeixa as well as Condeixa. Use this code: JULIE5 to get 5% discount.

If you haven’t got your own transport, there are a couple of buses that go to Conímbriga from Coimbra – ask at the tourist information office for details. Alternatively, there are more frequent buses between Coimbra and Condeixa and you can take a taxi from there to the ruins.

BEFORE YOU GO...

If you're interested in visiting or moving to Portugal, why not subscribe for free insider tips and resources?

No spam. Unsubscribe any time Powered by ConvertKit

19 Comments

  1. Thank you Julie, I have decided to go from Coimbra.

  2. Julie,
    I have searched and searched, but can’t seem to find a way to get from Fatima to Conimbriga is there a way to do this instead of going to Coimbra and doubling back? I wouldn’t mind staying in Leiria. I did find that trip from Fatima, but can’t find how to get to Conimbriga from there either. Do you know what my best option would be?
    Obrigada,
    Barbara

    1. Hi Barbara, Unless you drive, I don’t think there is a direct way of getting to Conimbriga from Fátima. There are only a couple of buses going to the site from Coimbra each day so other cities’ public transport won’t link to it.

  3. I’ve visited those ruins more times than I can remember! I’m from Bairrada and studied in Coimbra. The ruins are indeed beautiful. Two of the most memorable times I was there, were both to sing, first with the girl’s choir from my school and second with Drama class to perform the opera Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck. Truly amazing place for both performances and I was lucky enough to be a part of.

    1. Author

      Hi Zee. How wonderful to actually perform there! I’d love to attend an opera in such an evocative setting.

  4. WOW. Those floors and the rest of the ruins are amazing. I haven’t been to many Roman ruins and certainly none with mosaic floors, these must have been incredible to see in person!!

    1. Author

      They were, Michelle. The amount of work that must have gone into them is astounding as is the fact that they are so well-preserved.

  5. I have not been to Portugal, but it’s been #1 on my wish-list for a long time. I’m glad I found this post because I didn’t know about this place until now. Saving it for when I can plan my trip there someday 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks, Jenna. You should definitely come to Portugal, there’s so much to see and do, and such diversity.

  6. I absolutely would have to have one of Sr. Melho’s pieces. They look fab, Julie. I’ll be up that way some day, hopefully while he’s still painting. 🙂

    1. Author

      They are lovely. You can buy similar pieces in souvenir shops all over Portugal but I’m sure he’d much prefer to sell his work directly to you 😉

  7. I still remember the first time I visited Conimbriga, when I was in my teens on a holiday from Mozambique.
    It is a beautiful place, amazing tiles and colours.

    1. Author

      I’m glad you got to see it. It really is a special place.

  8. Another interesting place to visit while in Portugal, Julie. My list is getting longer and longer! Those mosaics and that pool are fantastic! 🙂

    1. Author

      Happy to help. I’m curious about your list. Hope you get to do all of the things on it although if you’re anything like me it will be overambitious.

        1. Author

          I’ve just got back from a trip to the north of Portugal and managed to fit in a bout a third of the things I had hoped to do. Had a great time though so if you can squeeze in a bit of time up north, it’s worth the journey.

  9. On my list of places to visit. We have ‘Tonginbriga’ here just 10 minutes away from us – but although it has baths, forum, etc it is not as beautiful as this.

  10. This place looks quite far away from where I live which is a shame because it is the kind of tourist attraction that I like! Those ceramics are gorgeous.

Over to you. Please share your thoughts in a comment.