One of the early public universities, the University of Perugia was founded in 1308 and was immediately recognized by the pope at the time, Pope Clement V. Before that, it had already existed as a place of study, but this recognition raised it to a studium generale. Numerous popes have studied within its walls, and it can count Luca Pacioli, the father of accounting, as one of its more well-known former faculty members. Nowadays, it has an enrollment of about 28,000 students.
Given its date of founding, it’s no surprise that the Sapienza University of Rome has racked up its fair share of Nobel laureate alumni and professors. In addition to its place as the 12th oldest university in the world, Sapienza was also the first pontifical university, created by Pope Boniface VIII. It wasn’t entirely for selfless purposes—he wanted a university where he could keep a closer eye on the theological teachings, as the universities of Bologna and Padua (you’ll find them below) had escaped his control.
Two hundred years after the founding of the first university, Portugal decided to get in on the action with the University of Coimbra. Originally established in the capital city of Lisbon, it moved around a few times before settling in Coimbra, a city located in central Portugal. The student body is about 24,000, and the university hosts thousands of international students every year. Thanks to its age and impressive campus, the university was awarded a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2013.
Moving just a little bit east to Spain, we get to the University of Valladolid. It was founded in what is now the autonomous region of Castile and León, and today has seven campuses stretching across the whole region. At the time of the university’s birth, Spain did not exist as the political entity it currently is, so like all of the universities mentioned here, it has lived through many changes.
Siena is a small town, with the 20,000 students at the University of Siena making up almost half of the town’s population. The university’s student population grew massively in 1321 after a number of University of Bologna students switched to the University of Siena following major protests at the former.
The University of Naples Federico II, founded in 1224, is the seventh oldest university in the world and yet only the third oldest in Italy. It is, however, the oldest publicly funded university in the world. Founded by Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, the university was not connected in any way to the Church, which was a rarity at the time.
The University of Padua actually owes its existence to the University of Bologna, as a number of teachers and students felt ideologically restricted at the latter, so they broke off to create a new university where they would have more intellectual freedom. The university’s list of alumni and former faculty includes famed astronomers Copernicus and Galileo.
One of the most storied universities in the world, the University of Cambridge was founded when a number of scholars decided to break away from the University of Oxford. Now, over 800 years later, Cambridge ranks among the top universities in the world for scholarship and funding (it has the largest endowment of any university outside of the U.S.), as well having a stunningly beautiful campus.
The University of Salamanca was the first university founded in what would eventually become Spain, and like the aforementioned University of Valladolid, it is also located in Castile and León. While its origins are a bit hazy, teaching began here sometime around 1094, and it was officially recognized by the king of León in 1164. One particularly notable discussion to have taken place within the walls of the University of Salamanca revolved around Christopher Columbus—first about whether his proposed trip west from Spain would be feasible, and second about how he and his men should have treated the Native Americas.