Historic colleges, ornate libraries, decorative gardens and stone cloisters: Europe’s oldest universities are among the most beautiful examples of architecture and design on the continent.

Here are 20 of the oldest and most beautiful universities in Europe – from Portugal to Poland and everywhere in between!

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20 most beautiful universities in Europe

University of Bologna, Italy

Stone cloisters at the oldest university in Europe, the University of Bologna in Italy.
Bologna University is the oldest university in the world. Photo: fotokon/Depositphotos.com.

Steeped in history, Italy’s University of Bologna (Università di Bologna) is the oldest continuously operating university in the world. In fact, the very term ‘university’ was coined at the time of its founding in 1088.

Europe’s most famous educational institution was developed by a student guild and in 1158, earned a charter from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The physical campus is every bit as storied and rich as the university’s history, making it a must-do when in Bologna.

Don’t miss the Palazzo Poggi, Collegio di Spagna, or the sprawling Botanical Garden that is attached to the campus. The Archiginnasio is where it all began: The first seat of the university is a two-storey building with a gorgeous courtyard, inscribed loggias and vaulted staircases. The university’s Anatomical Theatre is also a sight to behold, with its fir-lined walls and statuettes.

From touring the university buildings to hanging out with the students on the colourful Via Zamboni, the University of Bologna is all-encompassing and inescapable when visiting this beautiful city. Entrance is free, and most buildings are open during the week (closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays).

University of Coimbra, Portugal

Inside an ornate library at the beautiful University of Coimbra in Portugal.
The University of Coimbra is a must-do in Portugal. Photo: eunikas/Depositphotos.com.

Instantly recognisable for its Baroque bell tower, white facade and arched cloisters, the University of Coimbra is one of the prettiest campuses in Europe and a must-visit in Portugal.

The university was first established in Lisbon in 1290 before relocating to the smaller Portuguese city of Coimbra in 1537. This makes it one of the longest continuously operating institutions of higher education in Europe, and the oldest university in Portugal. The campus has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013.

A visit to the Universidade de Coimbra begins at the Main Library, built on the spot where the Estudos Velhos (the oldest part of the campus) stood. But the highlight is undoubtedly the Joanine Library. Often named as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, it holds more than 70,000 books in its collection. The architecture and decoration of the building itself, which was completed between 1717 and 1728, reflects Portugal’s global reach and features materials and techniques collected from around the Empire.

Coimbra is a convenient day trip from Lisbon and can be combined with other small towns in the region. To make the most of your visit, book in for a guided tour of the campus that includes the Joanina Library and the Academic Prison.

University of Salamanca, Spain

A stone courtyard at Salamaca University in Spain.
One of the most famous universities in Europe, the University of Salamanca.

Spain’s University of Salamanca is the fourth oldest university campus in the world. King Alfonso IX founded it in 1218, and since then, the university has been in continuous operation.

The scholars of Salamanca University were known for their progressive thoughts. One example of this is a discussion on equal rights for the indigenous after Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the Americas in 1492. The university has given the world many notable students, including one of the Hispanic world’s most famous writers, Miguel de Cervantes, who graduated from the University of Salamanca.

Highlights of the campus include the Old Library, the school courtyard, the Sky of Salamanca mural, and the Hall of Fray Luis de Leon. The impressive library holds more than 900,000 volumes, 62,000 of which were printed between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

Nowadays, Salamanca University is one of the top-rated universities in Spain. It is a popular place to do a Spanish language course, attracting thousands of foreigners every year.

The spring months of April and May are the best time to visit Salamanca, when the weather is pleasant and there are students on campus. The easiest way to get to Salamanca is by bus from Madrid. The journey takes 2.5 hours.

The main building of the university can be visited from Monday and Saturday. Admission costs €10.

By Alya from The Algarve Family

University of Oxford, England

Trinity College at Oxford, one of the most beautiful universities in the UK.
The iconic Trinity College at Oxford University in England.

Oxford is one of the most famous university cities in the UK, rivalled only by Cambridge.

Oxford is the older of the two college cities, established in 1096. During this era, tensions broke out between the students and townsfolk, resulting in violence and even death.

Because of this, the first colleges were walled to protect the students. This tradition has continued to this day, with most of the colleges having gates and entrance desks – meaning you can’t freely stroll onto campus.

When taking a day trip to Oxford, the university is all around you. There are 38 colleges within the small city centre, not to mention countless university buildings including libraries and concert halls.

When planning how to see Oxford University, you’ll have to do a bit of research. There’s not a central point or ‘main’ university.

One option to explore the university is by visiting one or more of the colleges. These all have different opening times and entry fees, so you’ll need to check their individual websites. The most famous is Christ Church, known for being a film set for the Harry Potter films and for its impressive dining hall.

Smaller (and cheaper) colleges that are equally charming include Balliol, Merton and New College.

Other famous university buildings to visit include the Radcliffe Camera, synonymous with the city and visible on every postcard. Adjacent to this photo-worthy library is another spot of interest: the Divinity School, an ornate hall featured in Harry Potter that can be visited for just £2.50. Touring the Bodleian Library as part of a guided tour is also a popular option with tourists.

There’s no right time to visit Oxford, but it’s best to avoid weekends and peak summer months as the small city becomes overwhelmingly busy. Spring is a lovely time as the golden stone soaks up the sunshine and purple wisteria starts to grow across the college walls.

By Rose from Where Goes Rose?

University of Zadar, Croatia

A statue greets visitors to the University of Zadar, the oldest university in the Balkans.
The rectorate at the University of Zadar, the oldest university in Croatia.

One of the oldest universities in the Balkans, the University of Zadar was established on the Dalmatian Coast in 1396 when Croatia was part of the Republic of Venice. Beautiful Zadar itself is a must-visit, famed for being the country’s oldest continuously inhabited city.

When the Dominicans first established a theological seminary here in 1396, it acted as an extension of the University of Dyrrachium on the coast of present-day Albania. After many twists and turns, the campus regained its status as an independent university in 2003, continuing traditions of education laid down six centuries previous.

The university comprises a series of stately Venetian-style buildings that hug the waterfront, their white stone reflected in the inky blue waters of the Adriatic. The campus is relatively small and best-enjoyed by simply strolling along the harbour and admiring the palm-fringed facades.

On the harbour in front of the university, a statue of Spiridon Brusina, founder of the Croatian Society of Natural Sciences in Zagreb, greets visitors.

University of Belgrade, Serbia

The Misa Anastasijevic Mansion, now part of the University of Belgrade in Serbia.
Misa Anastasijevic Mansion, now the rectorate at the University of Belgrade. Photo: Nedomacki/Depositphotos.com.

The largest and the oldest public university in Serbia, the historic University of Belgrade is also one of Europe’s largest universities, with almost 90,000 students walking its halls in any given year.

The university was established in 1808 by Dositej Obradovic and had just three departments: Philosophy, engineering and law. It underwent heavy development in the 1960s and 70s when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, training students from around the globe.

The campus is located in the city centre, close to the castle, and is a striking contrast to the concrete jungle that defines the newer part of Belgrade (though some buildings do have a distinctive Brutalist character, having been added in the post-war years). The gorgeous Kapetan Misino zdanje is the heart of the campus, with institutes and student dormitories spread out all across the city in Dorcol, Zemun, New Belgrade, and beyond.

Other buildings that were originally part of the university have been transformed for other purposes, including the Museum of Vuk. Don’t miss visiting the Belgrade University Library (open Monday to Saturday), a beautiful landmark with more than 1.5 million items on display and in storage.

Jagiellonian University, Poland

A red brick building at the Jagiellonian University in Poland.
The beautiful Jagiellonian University. Photo: agneskantaruk/Depositphotos.com.

Jagiellonian University in Krakow is not only the oldest university in Poland, it’s also one of the oldest universities in continuous operation anywhere in the world. It was founded in 1364 by King Casimir III the Great (one of the greatest rulers in the history of Poland), and ever since, it’s been a prestigious place to get a higher education. Still today, the Jagiellonian University is considered to be among the best institutions in the country, attracting thousands of students every year.

The oldest part of the Jagiellonian University is Collegium Maius, located only a few steps away from the Main Square in Krakow’s Old Town. Visiting it is one of the must things to do in Krakow!

Collegium Maius is hidden behind what looks like a random door at Jagiellonska Street, so it’s easy to miss the place. But once you step inside, you will feel like you have moved back in time to when the university was founded. There is a picturesque brickyard with arcades and a well in the middle. Here you will also find a museum dedicated to the Jagiellonian University.

Collegium Maius is a popular place for school trips, so aim to visit in the early afternoon when students will most likely be gone and you will be able to fully enjoy the atmosphere.

By Kami from Kami & the Rest of the World

KU Leuven, Belgium

Mist shrouds a historic building at the University of Leuven Campus, one of the oldest Catholic Universities in the world.
The Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

The University of Leuven has been churning out some of the best and brightest scholars since 1425, making it one of the oldest, still surviving, Catholic universities in the world. Sprawled across the charming university city of Leuven are numerous lecture halls and libraries. Sadly, many of the original university buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged during WWI.

Do not let that deter you in the slightest: what is left to see (or has been expertly reconstructed), combined with the medieval historical centre of Leuven, is well worth exploring. Visitors are welcome to visit the Arenberg Castle, the University Library, and the University Hall, all of which are alive with a never-ending stream of bleary eyed students on their way to class.

The University Hall is free of charge, and visiting hours run from 8am. Inside, you will find a small cafe that serves a variety of beverages and some delicious homemade cakes. It also happens to be a prime location to catch a glimpse of student life in Leuven.

Arenberg Castle and Park are slightly outside of the historical centre, a pleasant 30-minute stroll from the main square to be precise. The inside of the castle can only be visited on a guided tour, which is held every Sunday of the year.

That brings us to the crowning jewel of the University of Leuven: the impressive library on the Ladeuzeplein. A Renaissance facade, five-storey looming bell tower, and massive oak reading room replete with thousands of dusty books.

Despite outward appearances, the building is in fact relatively new, dating back to 1920. The reading room is open for visitors over the weekend from 10am until 5pm, while the belltower can be visited (and climbed) daily during the same hours. The combined entrance fee for both is €7, with tickets to be purchased online.

Leuven is the perfect day trip from Brussels. Multiple direct trains run hourly with a journey time that lasts a mere 23 minutes door to door.

By Caroline from Veggie Wayfarer

University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen University at dusk.
Copenhagen University in Denmark.

Founded in 1479, the University of Copenhagen (Kobenhavns Universitet) is the second-oldest institution of higher education in Scandinavia. Its main campus is an intriguing mix of old and new architecture, the result of an extensive rebuilding project in the early 19th century.

Many of the university’s buildings were razed In 1807 during the British Bombardment of Copenhagen. Three decades later, some of the university’s most iconic elements were added: The University Library, the Zoological Museum, the Geological Museum, and the Botanic Garden. They now sit harmoniously side by side with historical structures such as the Round Tower (Rundetaarn), which was used as an astronomy observatory, and newer glass-and-steel buildings.

If you’re looking for a local experience in Copenhagen, take a stroll around the campus grounds and through the gardens, brushing shoulders with students and faculty. Guided tours of the old university buildings at Frue Plads include a visit to the Senate House, the oldest building in Copenhagen. For a special experience, visit in October for the annual Culture Night, where different faculties open their doors to the public for a range of events and activities.

University of Aberystwyth, Wales

Sunset on Aberystwyth University, a historic college on the waterfront in Wales.
Aberystwyth University in Wales. Photo: adwo/Depositphotos.com.

If you are searching for historic universities to visit, the UK is full of them. But if you are looking for beauty and history combined, you need to visit the old college at the University of Aberystwyth.

This incredible building towers over the sea in the coastal town of Aberystwyth, Mid-Wales. There are so many reasons why this old college is so special, but the view alone makes it well worth the visit.

The Old College in Aberystwyth was the first university in Wales. Since being built in 1795 by John Nash, this impressive Grade 1 listed building has been an iconic part of the Aberystwyth promenade.

Aberystwyth University opened its doors in 1872, and you can see why this location is still such a popular place to study today. The Old College, with its conical spires and gargoyled parapets, is truly one of the most beautiful universities to visit in Europe.

You can stroll the grounds of the Old College for free. However, if you want to tour the interior, you are best arranging a tour with the university via their website. All guided tours are free, and will provide you with everything you need to know about Wales’ oldest university. As teaching still continues at the Old College, you may want to arrange a visit outside of the academic year.

By Lowri from Many Other Roads

The University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Students walk in front of a round building on the Edinburgh University campus in Scotland.
Edinburgh University in Scotland. Photo: fotokon/Depositphotos.com.

The University of Edinburgh is another of the oldest universities in the world. Having opened in 1583, it is one of the four ancient universities in Scotland and the sixth-oldest university where students are taught in English.

A visit to such a reputable university and cornerstone of Scottish history and culture should be added to any Scottish itinerary. The University of Edinburgh is free to visit for potential students and their friends or family. However, you should book your slot in advance due to the limited number of daily tours.

The university tour includes exploring the King’s Building Campus and Central Campus. If you would like to walk around without a guide, you can also try a self-guided audio tour. Just be sure to wear comfortable shoes and waterproof clothes because the tour is mainly outdoors and weather in Scotland can be unpredictable.

You might recognise parts of the university campus from the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth or the British series Case Histories. The university has produced many Nobel laureates in physics, history and medicine. One of the most famous is Richard Herdenson, who received the prize in 2017.

By Paulina from ukeveryday

University of Seville, Spain

An old tobacco factory transformed into a university building, part of the Seville University in Spain.
The Royal Tobacco Factory building at the University of Seville, a famous university in Spain.

The University of Seville is spread out over numerous campuses, including the famous Real Fabrica de Tabacos (Royal Tobacco Factory), an 18th-century building that took 42 years to be constructed and was the largest commercial building at the time.

Seville University’s history dates back far further. It is believed that the idea for a university was first dreamed up in 1254 under the rule of King Alfonso X, who was the king of Castile and Leon at the time. However, it was not established as a university then. It began as a Major college in 1502, and was recognised by the papal bull in 1505. It achieved the status of a university only in 1551.

Like the city of Seville itself, the university is very unique and has a lot of historic importance attached to it. It is one of the oldest universities in Spain, and has been running continuously for five centuries. An interesting fact is that the design of the university was developed by military engineers.

The best part is that you can enter for free and roam the university as you please. Do explore the prison, the Real Fabrica de Tabacos, the large courtyard, the moat, and other nearby attractions.

Opening hours differ between summer and winter, so check before you go. Stay for a few days at one of the best resorts in Seville as beyond the university, there is so much more to see in this beautiful Spanish city.

By Paulina from Paulina on the Road

University of Wroclaw, Poland

An ornately painted hall at the University of Wroclaw in Poland.
An ornate interior at the University of Wroclaw. Photo: Dudlajzov/Depositphotos.com.

Pronounced vrots-wahf, Wroclaw is a riverside city in western Poland. Its abundance of Gothic and Baroque architecture showcases its rich history, and lively atmosphere charmingly intertwines with days gone by. Perhaps overlooked as a destination for a short city break, there are many things to do in Wroclaw, with one of the best being a visit to the Uniwersytet Wroclawski.

The modern University of Wroclaw was first established in 1702 as Leopoldina University following the efforts of the Jesuits. Initially, it began as a two faculty University before expanding to five faculties in 1811 when a state university was created. By 1951, Wroclaw became a university city and by 1989, after periods of merging, the academic establishment regained its autonomy and was known as the University of Wroclaw.

The University of Wroclaw is situated at the northern end of the Old Town, adjacent to the Odra River. Surrounding the university are cobblestoned streets and fountain-adorned squares, with beautiful architecture in every direction.

Atop the university you’ll find the Mathematical Tower, which is one of the best spots for panoramic views across Wroclaw’s Old Town and beyond.

If you are into the weird and wonderful, then take some time to visit the museum, which is on the ground floor of the main university building. Amongst the exhibits (some of which date back to the 15th century) you can see human remains, arts and handicrafts, geological pieces and scientific collections.

Consider visiting the university early, to avoid crowds.

By Michelle from The Scrapbook Of Life

The Siena Academy of Sciences, Italy

The Academy of Sciences in the Italian city of Siena – also known as Accademia dei Fisiocritici – is one of the oldest scientific institutions in all of Italy. On top of that, it’s an interesting and somewhat hidden place to visit in Siena.

The university was founded back in 1691 by the physician Pirro Maria Gabbrielli (1643-1705) and other faculty members. At that time, members of the association met here to discuss scientific topics and to study nature through experiments. Since 1761, the results of their research has been published in the journal Atti, which continues online as the Journal of the Siena Academy of Sciences.

Of particular interest for tourists is the Museum of Natural History inside the Academy of Sciences. It is a small jewel away from the tourist crowds. Some of the exhibits even date back to the collections of Giuseppe Baldassarri (1705-1785), a physician and professor of natural history of Siena. During a tour, you will be amazed by the numerous curiosities, with the large whale skeleton in the courtyard always a highlight.

Visiting the University of Siena is completely free, but feel free to leave a small donation. The museum can be visited at any time without reservation, but it’s better to go on weekends because during the week, some sections might be closed.

By Martina from PlacesofJuma

University of Vienna, Austria

Stone corridors at the University of Vienna in Austria.
Vienna University in Austria.

The University of Vienna was founded in 1365 in the heart of the Austrian capital, making it one of the oldest universities in all of Europe and the oldest in the German-speaking world.

As of 2022, there are more than 175 degree programmes and around 95,000 enrolled students. The university also offers the most diverse range of studies in Austria – from Law, Philosophy and Political Science, to Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Meteorology and Sport Science. 

The biggest attraction for visitors of the university, and one of the hidden free things to do in Vienna, is the main library. The building has a capacity of 350 and is where students of the university spend hours on end preparing for their next exam. Interestingly, the library can easily be mistaken for a set from the Harry Potter movies – the resemblance is so strong.

The library is free to visit, but it has strict regulations: one cannot bring a jacket or bag inside, and visitors are only allowed to take a look, but not to roam around freely.

The inside garden of the university is a great spot to chill, as in the summer one can find lounge chairs spread around. Surrounding the garden, you can observe sculptures of people who played an important role in the history of the university.

By Lyubomira from Bulgarian On The Go

The Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland

The historic Queen's University in Belfast.
Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland.

The iconic sandstone and soft red-brick facade of Queen’s University has become a figure of Belfast tourism, and is found on banknotes, billboards and tourist posters. It is also the historic centre piece to the university area of the city.

The buildings are an attraction in themselves in Belfast and Northern Ireland, having been constructed back in the 1800s. The main feature of the Lanyon Building (1849) on the Lanyon Quadrangle is named after the famous local architect and designer, Sir James Lanyon.

Similarly influenced red-brick architecture can also be found in and around central Belfast. One of the more dramatic spaces is the Great Hall, which houses portraits of the many influential and inspiring people associated with Queen’s University.

The university is found in the Belfast Botanic area, named after the 28-acre park and botanical gardens that the university connects to. There’s a lot to see and do in the surrounding grounds, including the botanical Palm House conservatory, which predates both Kew Gardens and the Irish National Botanic Gardens. It also connects to the Ulster Museum (1929), which is a free-to-visit tourist attraction, and is the largest museum in Northern Ireland.

Queen’s University is the central university for wider Belfast as well as commuters from the neighbouring city of Bangor. Summer days are the best time to visit, when the students are out and the botanical garden hosts all sorts of entertainment and events.

By Allan from It’s Sometimes Sunny in Bangor 

Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

The Long Room at Trinity College, part of Ireland's oldest university campus.
The Long Room at Trinity College. Photo: Foto-VDW/Depositphotos.com.

Trinity College Dublin is Ireland’s oldest university and is located right in the centre of Dublin. One of the city’s most-visited landmarks and an icon of local culture, it doubles as a great Dublin date idea if you are travelling with your partner.

It is not rare to find beautiful historical university buildings in Europe – but Trinity College Dublin stands out both for its architecture and the stunning museum it hides. The university was built between 1592 and 1700. The oldest building on campus is called the Rubrics, the iconic red building behind the bell tower.

There are quite a few things to do at Trinity College. First, you will want to visit the campus itself and admire the buildings that resemble Hogwarts. Once you have entered through the heavy wooden doors, you will see the Campanile, a famous bell tower standing right in the centre of the main area. The bell tower was donated by Lord John Beresford and was finished in 1853. It is said that any student who walks under the bell tower will fail their exams, so beware!

Second, you will want to visit the Book of Kells and the Long Room of the library for a stunning experience. The Book of Kells is a museum setting out illuminated illustrations of the Christian Gospels from 800 AD. The visit is very interactive and fun for all ages.

The Long Room, with thousands of books and hundreds of shelves, is what visitors usually come to see. For a minute, you will feel like you are either in a Harry Potter movie or in Belle’s library!

It is recommended to book your visit to the Book of Kells online in advance to avoid waiting in line for hours. Entrance to the campus is free. 

By Mary from Be Right Back by Mary

University of Pecs, Hungary

University of Pecs, a beautiful university in Central Europe.
The University of Pecs in Hungary. Photo: Csorfoly Daniel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons (changes made).

Hungary’s fifth-largest city, Pecs, is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the country thanks to its Hungarian Baroque and Gothic architecture. The main building of the University of Pecs sits in the centre of the city and forms a crucial part of the city plan.

The university was founded in 1367 by King Louis I of Hungary. The campus is relatively modest in size, with just 20,000 students, and can easily be explored on foot. Highlights include the grand Faculty of Humanities building and the adjacent Botanical Garden, a 6.8-hectare green space with a collection of more than 8,000 plants.

University of Alcala, Spain

The historic University of Alcala in Spain.
The historic Alcala University in Spain.

Another of the most beautiful and historic universities in Europe is the Universidad de Alcala in Alcala de Henares, a community within Spain’s capital city, Madrid. The city of Alcala de Henares’ biggest claim to fame is that it is home to Miguel de Cervantes, author of the novel Don Quixote.

Founded in 1293, the university was originally a studium generale, which was the term used for a medieval university. This ancient institution has been ‘refounded’ many times over the years as it has changed its course offerings. The most famous refounding was in 1486 by Cardinal Cisneros, which transformed the campus into the official university it is today.

To visit this university, you can take a short local train ride from Madrid to Alaca. The university is located in the city centre, just blocks away from the home of Cervantes.

Tours are offered throughout the day. The best time to go is on a weekday as weekends can get busy. Alcala is a perfect day trip from Madrid or stop on a road trip around Spain.

By Shannon from Adventuring With Shannon

University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

The University of Amsterdam on a canal in the Netherlands.
The University of Amsterdam. Photo: CaptureLight/Depositphotos.com.

The University of Amsterdam dates back to the year 1632, when it was called the Athenaeum Illustre. During that time, the university mainly focused on medical teaching. From the year 1877, it became the Municipal University of Amsterdam and since 1961, the university has been known by its current name.

You can find the main campus of the university in the city centre of Amsterdam, with many historic buildings belonging to it. What’s interesting is that the university has many different locations throughout the city, instead of being centralised in one spot. For example, the Oudemanhuispoort is more than 400 years old. The Agnitenkapel, a Gothic chapel that dates back to the 15th century, also belongs to the university. Another historic building of the university is the former headquarters of the Dutch East India Company.

If you want to explore the campus of the University of Amsterdam, you can do a self-guided tour using the university’s app. It allows you to walk through the university campus and learn about the history along the way.

By Dymphe from Dymabroad

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