Visitors to Salamanca go to see one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and one of the oldest and most important university towns in the world, comparable to Oxford, Cambridge, Paris or Bologna. Sitting on the banks of the Tormes river, with its roman bridge and narrow cobblestone roads giving it a medieval appearance, it’s no wonder the city centre has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988. It’s a compact city but there’s much to see, so here’s our guide to making the most of even the shortest visit.
Coffee in Plaza Mayor and a visit to the old town
Every corner of the old town of Salamanca has historical value and the best place to start your visit is from Plaza Mayor, the main square and a popular meeting point for residents and university students. Plaza Mayor is overlooked by the town hall clock tower and encircled by no fewer than 88 arches.
Under each arch you can see an example of the famous ‘medallion’ of Salamanca, each representing one of the notable people to have passed through the city. This includes nobles, kings, writers like Cervantes, and even the dictator Franco.
Choose one of the many cafés under the arches, such as the ancient literary Café Novelty, to enjoy a coffee, admire the splendid baroque architecture of the plaza and soak up the atmosphere. On a sunny day, you’ll see plenty of people sitting around here and enjoying the surroundings.
After that, walk from Plaza Mayor along Rùa Mayor until you reach La Casa de las Conchas, (the house of shells) so called because the facade is decorated with hundreds of shells. Inside there is a public library, but before leaving look closely at the building – legend has it that there’s a piece of treasure hidden under one of the shells.
Visit the cathedrals
Walking on from La Casa de la Conchas you’ll see the two cathedrals of Salamanca. They sit next to one another, but are completely different, being built in different periods. The new cathedral is the more imposing of the two; in fact it’s one of the biggest buildings in the city. It was built in a mix of baroque and gothic style, while the old cathedral alongside it features Roman and gothic architecture. Both cathedrals are linked internally, so from inside it seems as if there’s only one. You can also climb the 110-metre tower, from the top of which you can admire the city and countryside beyond – an excellent photo opportunity!
One curiosity is the cathedral’s astronaut – how can there be an astronaut depicted on the gothic relief of the Cathedral’s Puerta de Ramos? Could the cathedral’s architects have seen the future? The answer lies in the Spanish sense of humour; the astronaut was added during restorations in 1992, probably to confuse visitors like us.
Another curiosity can be found at the famous university, a short walk from the cathedrals. If students can spot the frog sculpted on the front of the university building, local superstition has it that they’ll pass their exams with flying colours. Duck inside the building to check out the beautiful courtyard filled with arches, the painted ceiling frescoes, and the Old Library, where time seems to have stood still.
Try the local cuisine
Evening is time for tapas in Salamanca and most streets in the historic centre have a bar or two serving a tapa with your drink. Try the local specialties, like jàmon de guijuelo (a type of ham from a town near Salamanca), chorizo or various types of cheese. Sampling a few of these tapas is the way to dine out in the evening here. Locals have something more substantial at lunch, which is from about 1pm to 4pm, but keep it light in the evening.
Wait for sunset to see the ‘Golden City’
The buildings in Salamanca are made of a warm brown sandstone which glows with golden tones at sunset and sunrise, giving the city its nickname. Buildings like the Convent of Saint Esteban or Palacio de la Salina are especially stunning at sunset, and you can carry on until the roman bridge – one of the most beautiful places in the city – to take some last photos. You’re sure to take home some beautiful memories, even with a short visit to Salamanca.