Coimbra’s national museum opened its doors to the public in 2012 after years of renovation. It’s a uniquely fascinating space with underground treasures and life-size chapels that was incorprated into Coimbra’s UNESCO World Heritage area in 2019. Here are five very good reasons why you should incorporate a visit to Museu Nacional Machado de Castro into your trip to Coimbra.
1. The views over medieval Coimbra
For a great view of the old cathedral, the higgledy-piggledy houses that spill down the hill from the university and a glimpse of the River Mondego, just stroll through the courtyard and onto the decking of Loggia restaurant /café.
You don’t have to pay the museum entrance fee to get to the terrace so it’s not a bad place to take a welcome break from walking on cobbled streets and grab a coffee or come for sundowners.
2. Cool off in the Roman cryptoporticus
Head down the stairs to an underground labyrinth of tunnels and partitions which formed the original city of Coimbra during Roman times. Impressive at any time of the year with layers of brick and stone and soft lighting, it’s also refreshingly cool, making it a great place to escape the heat of the summer.
3. Marvel at stunning stonework
I’m not usually bothered about stone sculptures, especially the religious kind, but the incredibly intricate and well-preserved collection of carved white limestone is well worth inspection.
To enter the sculpture exhibition, you walk past the well-lit remains of an 11th century cloister and gradually progress through the ages and into the main room.
This area is particularly well laid out, with part of an elaborately decorated chapel at one end which rises beyond the level of the second floor.
4. Be bemused by odd reliquaries
Among Queen Saint Isabel’s jewels and the bling of ostentatious religious metalwork, there are a few reliquaries. These are shrines or containers for religious relics, such as bones of saints.
One that caught my eye was a fancy gold box with a bone inside which came from the monastery at Lorvão. Note the gruesome decapitations!
5. Contemplate a range of ceramics
As well as a selection of plates, bowls and vases, you’ll find panels of hand painted wall tiles with some strange-looking animals on them such as dragon-cats.
Tiles were not just for decoration or amusement in Coimbra; some of them were used for educational purposes and painted with mathematical principles and equations.
My favourite ceramic, however, has to be the boar’s head tureen.
There are plenty more fantastic exhibits, such as the obscenely ornate bishop’s carriage and some amazing furniture and textiles and there will be a series of temporary exhibitions to complement the already extensive permanent pieces. Well worth 6 euros in my opinion!
Practicalities for visiting the Machado de Castro Museum in Coimbra
Museu Nacional Machado de Castro is on the corner of Rua São João and Rua do Norte, opposite Largo de Sé Nova.
Buses 28, 34 and 103 stop nearby.
Opening hours: October to March 10:00 to 12:30 and 14:00 to 18:00, April to September 10:00 to 18:00
For more information about the museum, here’s the website.