Situated in Castilla y León just a couple of hours away from Madrid, Salamanca is a magical city bursting with character, both modern and historic. It’s a joy to wander the cobbled streets and take in the sandstone buildings, often with intricate carvings. In fact – Salamanca is actually known as La Dorada (the golden one) due to the sunlight hitting the sandy-coloured buildings. I have been lucky to spend two separate weeks there, both times staying with a friend at a lovely host’s house and attending lessons at the ISLA language school, and I’d go back in a heartbeat. In this post I’ve vaguely outlined a 3-day itinerary as an example of how you could spend your time here, and be sure to scroll down the page for more information on each attraction!
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Getting there + getting around
The nearest airport is Madrid, about 130 miles away, but you can get to the city via taxi, train or bus, all from the airport. Avanzabus run coaches directly from Madrid airport to various cities, including Salamanca, which you can book ahead. Other companies to check are ALSA and Renfe. Once in the city, most people will find it easy to explore on foot, especially in the old quarter, but you can also catch a bus from the station or a taxi from the taxi rank.
Part 1: Example Salamanca Itinerary
So how exactly should you spend your limited time in this beautiful city? Here is an example of a 2-day itinerary, but as always, keep your plans open and flexible! You never know when something will catch your eye and make you want to change plans.
Get out and explore the old city! Find the most important landmarks – the Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral, and the University. Take in the beautiful buildings and perhaps enjoy a coffee if you’re jaded from the journey. A visit to the Cathedrals is a good place to start. Then take yourself to the University and see if you can spot La Rana – the elusive stone carved frog on the facade of the building. One of the prettiest sights in the whole city is the Cielo, simply meaning sky, which is a gorgeously painted blue ceiling complete with breathtaking illustrations of the constellations and the gods. If you’re in the grounds of the university you simply can’t leave without taking a look!
You can wrap up what has surely been a tiring day with a meal in out in a restaurant of your choice. It’s been too long since I visited to feel comfortable giving recommendations, but you will not struggle to find good food here!
Start with a lazy breakfast of tostada con tomate, or chocolate con churros if you have a sweet tooth, in a cafe of your choice. Coffee drinkers will love the cafe culture here, although the early-risers might be surprised at how late a Spanish day starts. You could take the morning to enjoy the numerous shops on offer around the city, or get straight into sightseeing.
Museum lovers will find plenty to keep occupied here; for history, try the Civil War archives or the bullfighting museum. There is also the History of Automotion museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. And as the sun sets, walk along the Roman Bridge to the other side, and watch night fall over the skyline.
Tapas, anyone? There are tons of tapas bars in Salamanca, and restaurants also serving tapas. You can buy several dishes and share around, or buy a dish and a drink in each bar like the locals – a “tapas crawl”, if you like. To soak up the atmosphere, it’s easy to watch the night go by in a cosy cafe – especially in the Plaza Mayor – or, if you’re more uptempo, check out the trendy bars and clubs – it’s a student city after all!
The one thing I’ve never done is visit Casa Lis, the Art Nouveau museum. I’ve seen it from the outside and it’s a truly beautiful building. It would be ideal to spend a morning there, then relax in one of the many public parks and gardens. If you just can’t get enough of the city views and history, then a quick visit to the cave of Salamanca might be right for you. You can read up on the legend surrounding the cave and then climb the remains of an old defensive tower nearby and look over the neighbourhood. If you enjoy Spain’s wealth of religious buildings, head towards the bridge again and see El Convento de San Esteban with its impressive gilded altar. Or, for Mudéjar architecture, you’ll want El Convento de las Dueñas.
For your last night in this gorgeous place, definitely sit in the Plaza Mayor for a drink and soak up the relaxed atmosphere as late into the night as you want. There are numerous bars serving cold and sometimes hot drinks and light snacks until gone midnight – this is Spain, after all. Depending on how busy you like to be and where your interest lie, a trip to this city could be jam-packed with culture, or much more relaxed, but regardless of how I spend my days, this is the best way to pass an evening in Spain in my opinion.
Part 2: The details
It would be an injustice to leave you with all these place names and churches and cathedrals and omit all of the history they represent. Here is a closer look at everything I’ve mentioned above, complete with website links and visitor information where possible, to give you all the knowledge you need to plan your visit.
La Plaza Mayor
This Baroque square is the heart of the old quarter of the city. It’s surrounded on all sides by shops and restaurants and is the perfect place to sit with a drink and watch the world go by. Construction of the plaza was completed in 1755, and it was used for bullfighting for 150 years after that. The real beauty of the plaza becomes apparent as darkness falls and the lights come on, so be sure to hang around for that! It’s still buzzing with life until late into the evening, making it the perfect location to have a few drinks on a summer night.
La Casa de las Conchas
The House of Shells is a historical building whose construction ended in 1517. It is so-called because of the 300 scallop shells carved into the exterior of the building, a symbol of the religious and military Order of Santiago and of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimmage. It was once owned privately, but now houses the public library.
Salamanca is home to not one, but two beautiful cathedrals joined together. The newest was consecrated in 1733, and both can be visited throughout the week, taking into account the regular services, of course. The old cathedral was founded in the 12th century, and showcases the Romanesque architecture style. The new cathedral favours the Renaissance style, but does include some Gothic features to allow it to blend with its counterpart. When I visited, my attention was drawn to a carving of an astronaut, lost among the ornate facade of the cathedral unless someone points it out. It seemed the case at the time that people were happy to let it be a strange mystery – perhaps a conspiracy even – how could a space man have ended up on a building from the 18th century? But, according to Wikipedia, this was added during a 1992 restoration.
You can visit the cathedral for 6 euros (including an audio guide), with discounts for groups, residents, students, the elderly and children. If you can climb the towers you’ll be treated to the juxtaposition of being up close and personal with the architecture, whilst taking in panoramic views of the city. You can find more information here.
What I still don’t know though, is why the second one was built in the first place. If you visit and find out, or if you already know – do tell!
Founded in 1218, the University is as old as the likes of Paris, Bologna and Oxford, and the University buildings are nothing short of stunning. Be sure to search the facade and its mani intricate carvings for the elusive rana – the frog. Students – if you find it without being shown, legend says you’ll pass your exams! In the Escuelas Menores courtyard, you might spot some peculiar graffiti – these arrangements of letters spell “victor” and were daubed on the walls of the university by students upon reception of their doctorate degree (it was also later adopted by Francisco Franco’s party, but some subsequent examples still hold the original significance). And nearby is a museum housing El Cielo, a stunning hemispheric mural depicting the night sky which you simply cannot miss. Entrance is free and photography is prohibited, giving you all the more reason to visit yourself!
The Art Nouveau & Art Deco museum houses not only examples of each design style, but also one of the largest collections of porcelain dolls in the world. Entry is 5 euros for adults, with discounts for children, students, groups and the elderly. The building alone is worth visiting, with is glorious stained glass facade! The Automotion History Museum has a permanent exhibition of more than 150 vehicles from various periods and tells the story of car engineering and manufacturing, from the first combustion engine, to examples of recent Formula 1 cars. Again, general entry is 5 euros, but a discounted ticket is available to various groups. For a more sombre visit, the Civil War Archives are open to the public free of charge and are a fascinating and poignant insight into life during those years. And finally, the Bullfighting museum depicts the history of bullfights in Spain, as well as information about famous fighters, a collection of the intricate trajes they wore, and a room of bull-related art.
Are you convinced? It’s clear that Salamanca has plenty to offer – indeed, so much more than three days can cover! There are attractions for families, couples and lone travellers alike, whatever your interests. If you’ve been to Salamanca before, leave a comment with your favourite activity there.