The ancient town of Coimbra is a great day or weekend trip from the wine-focused cities of Porto or Lisbon, as it is located midway between the two. It sits right on the Mondego River and is served by regular train service from Porto and Lisbon.
This beautiful, ancient walled city is also close to a national park called Bussaco, which is home to a great old hotel with its own vineyards. The Bussaco Hotel is being revitalized and still has a lot of its old school glamour in its elegant dining rooms and terraces that jut off the building.
I spoke to Nuno Sequeira, the hotel’s food and beverage director, about highlights of the hotel and its vast, green national park, as well as the charming city of Coimbra where he grew up and now lives. He worked at a handful of different northern Portuguese hotels before taking over the food and beverage program at Bussaco Palace. Here are some of his insights, along with some from other food and wine professionals from the region.
What is Unique about Coimbra
For Sequeira, Coimbra, is a place known for its lovers and miracles. The University of Coimbra—founded in 1290 in Lisbon—is one of the oldest in Europe and its streets are full of students both day and night. The city’s little alleys and steep streets wind up to the University on the top of the hill. The city, like neighboring Porto, is also an UNESCO heritage site.
The edges of Coimbra stretch out along the banks of the Mondego River, where you can take a free dip in the summer and walk around its tree-shaded pathways. You are never far from a good coffee in this town, or a charming place to have wine by the glass. Little street carts serving sandwiches and gin and tonics have also popped up alongside the banks of the river in recent years. What is more, the cocktail craze, and the city’s residents love for oversized gin and tonics, has arrived in full force in this part of Portugal.
The city is also known for its affordable little sandwich places, called Bifanas. These little snacks might be stuffed with pork, cod or eggs. One of the best is Mijacão, which is right in the town center and you can belly up to the bar for a quick snack. Most Bifanas serve a curated selection of local beer and wine as well.
The city is also home to a number of traditional fado places, where both men and women perform traditional—and usually sad—soulful songs. Many are the haunts of local students and some of them come back as adults to perform. One of the most charming is The Fado ao Centro which features the music of former Coimbra University students.
If you are looking for lunch with a great view of the city, follow the steep hill up the river to Passporte, which is a gorgeous bar with a great selection of local wines. Another good bar with a charming downtown view can be found on the Hotel Olso’s roof deck.
Portugal is still relatively affordable for tourists and a three-course prix fixe at a beautiful place with a view, like Passporte, can run just 11 to 12 Euros. The wine-by-the bottle selection is also stellar and many cost just 20 Euros a bottle.
Some of Sequeira’s favorite restaurants here include Zé Manel dos Ossos, Zé Neto, Cozinha da Mari and Tapas nas Costas. Refeitro da Baixa is a fun, and swank, dining experience in located in a renovated old bakery in the center of town.
In and Around Bussaco
This stunning old hotel has 60 rooms, and a handful of suites, and is surrounded by multiple hiking trails in the forest. It feels mysterious when it rains at night and the property can get blanked in snow in the winter. The restaurant is home to an abundant cellar, where it also stocks wine made under its own label that sources fruit from both the Dão and Bairrada regions, both of which border the hotel.
The Bairrada is the best-known region for sparkling wine in Portugal and many of its wines are stunning, crisp and great values. One of my favorites is Caves São João Brut sparkling. The region is close to the Atlantic, so cool night breezes generally give the wines great acidity.
The region also home to some of the longest-lived red wines in Portugal. Most of them are made with the local grape Baga. The cellar at the Bussaco Palace is home to dozens of them from the 1970s and 1980s that are still drinking beautifully and are served nightly a dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. These pair well with the local, roast suckling pig, called Leitão, as well as heartier dishes like steak.
I advise hightailing it to the Bussaco before the the older vintages of Baga have all been consumed!