When I was recently given the opportunity to visit a Spanish city of my choice thanks to the Spain Tourism board, it was not an easy decision. Spain is filled with delightful cities that weave traditional charm with modern vitality; but in the end, it was stunning Salamanca that most appealed to me. Browsing through photographs of its elegant and unique architecture, and reading about its rich culture, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to experience its beauty for myself.
Salamanca – An Introduction
Salamanca is the largest city in the Castille region of western Spain, about 200 kilometres from the capital of Madrid. It is one of the most important historic and cultural cities in the country; quite the feat when Spain is brimming with rich cultural sites.
The history of Salamanca is particularly fascinating, having been under the rule of many different empires and leaders, each which has left an indelible mark on the city in terms of architecture and feel.
It is not known precisely who founded Salamanca or when they did so (historians think it was probably either the Celtic Vaccaels or an Indo European tribe). However, we do know that it was inhabited by at least 220 BC. This is because, in 220 BC, the city was sieged by the fearsome Carthaginian general Hannibal, one of history’s most effective military leaders.
Eventually, the Romans would overthrow the Carthaginians and take over the city of Salamanca, which was then known as “Helmantica”. It became an important commercial city for the Romans, and evidence of this period in Salamanca’s history is still visible, for example with a First Century Roman Bridge.
Rome too would eventually fall, at which point the city again changed rulers several times, being overtaken by the Alans from modern-day Iran, then the Visigoths of modern-day Germany, and then finally the Moors (mostly North African) in 712 AD. From this date, Salamanca was experiencing conflict as there were ongoing battles for land between the Muslim Moors, and Christian Kingdoms.
The constant fighting took its toll on the city of Salamanca, and its importance wavered. However, in 1102, following a courageous victory of the General of Castille and Leon at Toledo, settlers returned to Salamanca again began to grow in prominence.
In 1218, an event occurred that would shape the character of Salamanca long into the future; the University of Salamanca was founded and given Papal approval. This University remains the beating heart of Salamanca today, drawing visitors from all over the world. It is the oldest university in Spain and the fourth oldest in the western world.
It did not take long for the University of Salamanca to grow to be one of the most important and significant educational institutions in Europe. By the 16th Century, there were more than 6,500 students in a population of 24,000, and this included some of Europe’s most significant thinkers. In particular, the University of Salamanca is revered for its progression of European human rights law. Many of the most basic concepts of human rights in European law (such as the right to life, freedom of religion and freedom of political expression) originated from the University of Salamanca.
The city would continue to thrive, although its luck did dim slightly in the 17th century, as with much of the Castille region. Further, in 1812 the city was damaged by the Napoleonic wars – evidence of the cannon fire can still be seen in the city. Luckily, most of Salamanca’s stunning architectural heritage was preserved for us all to continue to enjoy.
The beauty of Salamanca was officially recognised by UNESCO in 1988, who declared the city’s Old Town a World Heritage site.
My 48 Hours in Salamanca
I couldn’t wait to experience the beauty of Salamanca for myself, with 48 hours in the city.
To reach Salamanca, I took an early flight from London to Madrid. Madrid is a huge hub for Europe, so there are many flights daily from all of the London airports, as well as most European capitals.
Once I arrived in Madrid, I hired a car from the airport and began the two-hour drive to Salamanca. Western Spain was an area that I’d never explored before, so I loved observing the dramatic landscapes from my car. The drive to Salamanca snakes through the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains, which I hear are beautiful all year round, but were particularly so at the time, when the high elevation gave me a spectacular view out over the snow-capped mountains.
My drive coincided with lunch – the most important meal in Spain – so I knew I had to stop for tapas. You simply can’t have boring motorway services or airport food in a country so full of culinary delights! Instead, I stopped in at the picturesque town of Avila, the backdrop for many movies, and enjoyed a delicious lunch overlooking its city walls. As much as I’d have liked to linger in Avila for a bit longer, Salamanca was calling and I continued on to the city.
Reaching Salamanca, I was looking forward to seeing the Convento de San Esteban, a Dominican monastery that occupied the #1 place on my “must see” list of Salamanca. To my delight, I discovered that the hotel I was staying in was part of a monastery just to the rear of the Monastery, and with direct views over its gardens. After spending some time admiring the architecture of my hotel, I walked over to the Convento de San Esteban.
The stunning building is one of the most recognisable landmarks of Salamanca, and its history is closely linked to the entire history of the city. The first Dominican monastery was built on the site in the thirteenth century, however, it was destroyed. Reconstruction began in 1524, and by 1610, the Dominicans had built the incredibly striking Convento de San Esteban, one of the best examples of the Spanish Plateresque architecture styles.
Aside from Dominican devotees, the Convento de Esteban also housed a School of Theology that would become one of Europe’s most well-known and significant religious education institutions.
Although I thought it would be hard to top the beauty of the exterior of the Monastery, the inside is perhaps even more magical. The alter in particular is very extravagant and beautiful, said to be one of the finest masterpieces of architect José de Churriguera. Other features, such as an ornate staircase and ‘Cloister of the Kings’, are also very beautiful.
After spending some time exploring the Monastery, the sunlight was already fading so I decided to head for the city centre for dinner. I made my way towards Rua Mayor, which is the main street connecting the Salamanca Cathedral and Plaza Mayor (Main Square), and it is dotted with various restaurants. It was particularly beautiful as it was decorated with Christmas lights, however apparently 7 PM was much too early for a Spanish dinner.
Luckily, tapas and vino on the Plaza Mayor was a very appealing alternative, so I happily settled in overlooking the Square. Plaza Mayor is often described as one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe, and I certainly agreed. It has such a magical feeling about it, with the grand old buildings as well as the buzz and youthful energy of a student city. I’m sure it is beautiful all of the time, but at night it seemed particularly electric. Although I could have stayed for hours, I knew I had an early start so I retired to my hotel.
I began my second day in Salamanca with a traditional and delicious Spanish breakfast at the hotel. Determined to make the most out of my time in the city, I had meticulously planned out a route to see its main sights – however, to my surprise (and pleasure), I discovered that the city is incredibly walkable, and from my hotel everything was no more than a pleasant 15-minute walk away.
My firsts top of the day was at Casa de las Conchas, or the House of Shells. The name had originally piqued my interest, and the unique house did not disappoint. Built in the 16th Century, the House of Shells is a visual representation of the history of Salamanca, with influence from the Gothic, Moors and Italian styles.
Today it is the Public Library of Salamanca, but the most impressive part is definitely the exterior, which is covered in more than 400 shells. Why they are there is not entirely known; most say it is a symbol of the architect’s devotion either to his love or to his faith. Others still believe they are simply a beautiful addition (and they certainly are).
Not far from the House of Shells are Salamanca’s two famed cathedrals: the Old and New Cathedrals. It was lucky they were close by, as I was excited to see Salamanca’s skyline from them by day.
As the name suggests, the Old Cathedral is more historic, built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, while the “New” Cathedral dates back from between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. I started at the Old Cathedral, which is built in a stunning Romanesque/Baroque Style – however, for me, the highlight was the stunning gold apse inside the Cathedral.
The New Cathedral is constructed in a Baroque/Gothic style, and has a somewhat different façade and feeling to the Old Cathedral, although it is no less beautiful and blends with the Old Cathedral in many ways. One interesting aspect of the New Cathedral is that it is still possible to see evidence of the damage that was sustained by it in the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. In fact, there is still an annual festival at the Cathedral marking the anniversary of this tragic event.
After the Cathedrals, I made my way to Ieronimus, the Medieval towers of Salamanca. After climbing to the top, the view absolutely took my breath away. It surely one of the most beautiful places in all of Salamanca – I must have spent hours exploring every nook and cranny, trying to remember every inch of the beautiful view.
As well as the stunning views, the tour of Ieronimus also allowed me to see inside the beautiful Cathedral and pointed out many of the unique architectural features. It really is a must-see in Salamanca.
After my wonderful stop at Ieronimus, it was time for a lunch break. As a general rule, I try to avoid heavily touristed areas for meals, as they are often inauthentic. This was, however, certainly not the case in Salamanca – all of the restaurants were selling delicious and genuine Spanish food, and I was delighted to choose somewhere to enjoy.
In the end, I selected Las Tapas de Gonzalo at Plaza Mayor; as expected, the views over the square were beautiful. The restaurant itself was also lovely and set inside a historic building. Best of all, all of the tapas plates I tried were absolutely delectable, and I had a wonderful lunch overlooking the square.
After enjoying my elaborate Spanish lunch break, I went on to Salamanca University, perhaps the jewel of Salamanca’s crown. The city is undeniably a student city, with a wonderful atmosphere and students from all over the world filling the many cafes, bars and restaurants.
The university is over 800 years old and is truly magnificent. Wandering around it feels like stepping back in time, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many great intellectuals’ footsteps I was walking in as I wandered, admiring the sandstone architecture and the many intricate statues. Of everything, however, the most beautiful sight was the University Library – the oldest in all of Europe. The amazing room has sky-high dome ceilings and, of course, thousands of books. It is really a spectacular sight.
After the university, my next stop was the Tower of Clerecia, a Baroque-style tower that is part of the Clerecia Church. The Church was once a home and school for Jesuit priests, and remains a place of deep spiritual significance. From the church tower, you get a truly incredible view out over the historic buildings of Salamanca. Between the views and the peaceful atmosphere, it is another magical place.
About five minutes from the tower and university, I headed off to try to find the three carvings at the Escuelas Mayores de la Universidad de Salamanca just in front of the Patio De Escuelas. Finding the carvings is one of the most famous things to do in Salamanca; although it may seem like an easy quest, it is far from it as there are just so many stunning architectural features on so many incredible buildings.
It took me a while, but I did eventually find the three unusual carvings – an astronaut, as well as a gargoyle eating ice cream at the New Cathedral (courtesy of some pranksters who assisted with the 1992 restorations), as well as a frog above the main entrance of the University, La Puerta de Salamanca. Legend has it that students spot this frog to ensure they pass their exams!
After a busy day exploring Salamanca, I returned to my hotel for a quick rest before heading out for a typical Salamancan night, which begins with tapas and drinks before ending with a delicious dinner.
I again returned to Plaza Mayor, and it was not long before I was basking in the festive atmosphere – complete with beautiful Christmas lights – with a glass of beautiful Spanish wine in hand. After my drink, I then wandered over to one of the oldest restaurants on the square, Casa de Comidas Montero.
The restaurant dates back to 1890 and is truly spectacular. There is so much atmosphere, and the simple décor and emphasis on delicious flavours was wonderful. I enjoyed a delicious two-course meal complete with some Castillian classics, which was an amazing way to finish my day in Salamanca. By the time I retired back to the hotel, it felt very late, however, it seemed that the Spanish people at Plaza Mayor were just getting started!
Although I only had a few hours left in beautiful Salamanca, there were still a few places I couldn’t leave the city without seeing.
The first stop was at the Puente Romano, or the Roman Bridge of Salamanca – mentioned earlier as the bridge over the river Tormes, which dates back from the first century. Not only is the bridge very historic and interesting, but it has a beautiful view overlooking the old Salamanca City. I just loved the stunning views from the Bridge, overlooking the Cathedral Towers and Tower of Clercia.
As I headed back to my hotel, there was one final stop at Casa Lis, an art deco museum that’s exterior is a kaleidoscope of colourful glass. Inside, there are many interesting paintings and artworks dating from the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century.
After visiting the museum, I reached my hotel – and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness to be leaving beautiful Salamanca. I’d often thought of Spain as a place to visit in summer when it’s bathed in sun, but I was so impressed by how much there is to do and see in Salamanca, even in the winter. Certainly, the architecture is glorious all year round and the many students give it a festive atmosphere at all times. Nonetheless, I do look forward to returning and seeing how the city looks in the sunshine.
As I packed my bag to depart, the weather became a bit drizzly – a sure sign it was time to start heading back to Madrid! I didn’t mind a few showers as I snaked my way back to the airport to depart, amazing memories of Salamanca fresh in my mind.
Where I Stayed in Salamanca
During my forty-eight hours in Salamanca, I stayed at the stunning Hotel Hospes Palacio de San Esteban. I certainly think that the charming hotel’s architecture, as well as its incredibly central location, helped me to make the most out of my stay in Salamanca.
The hotel is nestled in a unique and historic old convent, meaning that the architecture and atmosphere are really magical. It’s been so tastefully and sympathetically restored, to keep the charm of yesteryear while also bringing the hotel up to date with all modern amenities. As well as its stunning building, the location is also a real draw for Hotel Hospes Palacio de San Esteban; the Convento de San Esteban is just steps away, and all of Salamanca’s attractions are within an easy walk from the hotel.
Overall, if you are looking for a luxurious five-star stay, in the heart of the city so that you can take advantage of all the incredible sights of Salamanca, I highly recommend a stay at this hotel.
Disclaimer: This post has been created as a part of sponsored collaboration with Spain Tourism Board, but all opinions are 100% mine.