10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Avila
Inside the perfectly preserved walls of Avila, visitors are transported to a world where time seems to have stood still. The ancient ramparts guard many historic attractions - Romanesque churches, medieval convents, and Renaissance palaces. The wealth of exceptional monuments and the Old World ambience make UNESCO-listed Avila one of the most interesting cities in Spain. Throughout the early medieval period, Avila alternated between Moorish and Christian rule until the Reconquest by Alfonso VI in 1085. Many noble families settled here beginning in the 11th century. With its numerous aristocratic palaces, the town became known as Avila de los Caballeros ("Avila of the Nobles"). However Avila's real heyday was in the 16th century, when the mystical spirit of Santa Teresa de Jesús made it an important pilgrimage destination. Equally inspiring is the natural setting, as the town stands on a high plateau sheltered by the rolling hills of the Sierra Gredos Mountains.
See also: Where to Stay in Avila
1 Catedral de San Salvador
This spectacular monument holds the distinction of being Spain's oldest Gothic cathedral. One of the most visible landmarks in Avila, the cathedral is integrated into the ancient town wall. Construction of the cathedral was begun in 1091 in Romanesque style, but the building wasn't completed until the 14th century and the dominant architectural style is Gothic. The enormous granite structure has a fortress-like aspect. Notice the figural decoration on the Apostles' Doorway on the north facade that dates from the 15th century.
A striking feature of the interior is the red and white granite stonework from the early building phase. Other highlights are the 15th-century stained-glass windows in the transepts and the richly carved choir stalls with reliefs in Plateresque style. Be sure to admire the impressive altarpiece by Vasco de la Zarza in the Capilla Mayor (main chapel) along with renowned paintings by Pedro Berruguete and Juan de Borgoña. The Capilla de San Antolín is noteworthy for its magnificent retablo. An interesting monument to El Tostado by Vasco de la Zarza is found in the ambulatory. A group of alabaster sculptures by Isidro Villoldo and Pedro de Salamanca is displayed in the sacristy.
Address: Plaza Catedral, Avila
2 Murallas (Town Walls)
The ancient walls, which still enclose the heart of Avila's old town are the best preserved in Spain. After the Christian Reconquest of Avila, the ramparts became an important line of defense against the Moors. Raimundo de Borgoña, son-in-law of Alfonso VI, built the massive circuit of walls between 1090 and 1099. With a rectangular shape following the circumference of the town, the circuit extends 2,557 meters. The imposing stone wall was ideally designed to defend the city from attacks; it features an average height of 12 meters along with crenellated towers and round turrets (every 20 meters) for observing oncoming invaders. Nine entrance gates provided access to the city. The most spectacular gates are the Puerta de San Vicente and the Puerta del Alcázar, which incorporate repurposed Roman-era stones. Between these two gates is the apse of the cathedral. Known as the Ciborro, the cathedral's tower forms part of the town's defenses. Next to the Puerta del Carmen, on the north side of the town, is a slender tower topped by storks' nests (common all over the Castile region). Visitors can begin a self-guided walking tour of the wall at the Puerta del Carmen gate, by taking the steps leading up to the walking path.
3 Convento de Santa Teresa
The Convent of Saint Theresa lies opposite the Puerta de la Santa on the site of Santa Teresa's birthplace. Designed by the architect Fray Alonso de San José and founded in 1636, the Convento de Santa Teresa de Jesús was built as a convent for Carmelite nuns. The church has a lovely although relatively plain Baroque facade, with a statue of Saint Teresa over the doorway. The main feature of the interior is the room in which Santa Teresa was born, converted into a lavishly decorated Baroque chapel. The altar displays a statue of Saint Teresa by Gregorio Fernández, depicting the moment of her vision of the Cross. The work is richly ornamented and adorned with jewelry and precious fabrics. In the naves of the church are splendid sculptures by Gregorio Fernández. The convent allows tourists to visit the church, the relic room, and its museum. An exceptional historic hotel, the Parador de Avila, is on Calle Marqués Canales de Chozas within walking distance of the Convent of Santa Teresa.
Address: 2 Plaza de la Santa, Avila
4 Real Monasterio de Santo Tomas
The Dominican monastery of Santo Tomás lies outside the town walls in a peaceful setting. With an endowment from the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, the Royal Monastery of Saint Thomas was founded in 1483 by María Dávila and Tomás de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor of Spain. The Catholic Monarchs also used the monastery as a summer palace. The church facade has an austere appearance, and its interior is somber, except for the high altar and choir featuring richly carved stalls. Tribunals of the Inquisition once met in the choir, and the Catholic Monarchs attended mass seated in the choir. The high altar displays a wonderful retablo, a masterpiece of art by Pedro de Berruguete, illustrating scenes of the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Despite its weighty history, the monastery is a place of serenity with three beautiful cloisters: the simple Claustro del Noviciado (Cloister of the Novices), the peaceful Claustro del Silencio (Cloister of Silence) with steps leading into the choir, and the two-story Claustro de los Reyes (Royal Cloister)
Address: 1 Plaza Granada, Avila
5 Basilica de San Vicente
Outside the town walls beyond the Puerta de San Vicente, the Basilica of San Vicente is Avila's most important church after the cathedral. The Romanesque church stands on the spot where Saint Vincent is believed to have been martyred in AD 300. Much of the church was built in the early 12th century, including part of the nave, the apses, and transepts; the rest of the building was completed in the 14th century. The south doorway dates from the 12th century and features exceptional Romanesque reliefs depicting the Annunciation story.
Address: Puerta de San Vicente, Avila
6 Barrio Judio (Jewish Quarter)
During the Middle Ages, the town of Avila had a large, flourishing, and influential Jewish community. The Jews lived in two areas within the town walls: in the northeast corner around the Puerta de San Vicente, and in the southwest corner between the Puerta de la Mala Dicha and the Puerta del Puente. Medieval cobblestone streets and hidden squares hint at the legacy of the past. The former Calle Andrín, renamed the Calle Reyes Católicos, once had many shops and craft workshops run by Jewish owners. One of the town's synagogues, the Synagogue de Belforad, was on this street where the 16th-century Chapel of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves now stands. South of the chapel is a hostel called La Sinagoga that occupies the former House of the Rabbi and is full of Hebrew references. The Calle de los Zapatero (Street of the Cobblers) was named after one of the main trades of Jews who lived in Avila. Researchers believe that a house (with a brick arch) on Calle del Pocillo is the site referred to in 15th-century documents as the synagogue "built by Don Simuel" in the old Jewish quarter of Santo Domingo. On Calle Telares, the Garden of Moshé de León is dedicated to the author of Sefer ha-Zohar (the Book of Splendor).
7 Capilla de Mosén Rubí de Bracamonte
This historic chapel is found in a quiet part of the old town, north of the Plaza Mayor, between the Puerta del Carmen and the Puerta de San Vicente. Mosén Rubí, a converted Jew who belonged to an aristocratic family of Avila, dedicated the chapel in 1516 as a mausoleum for his aunt María Herrera and her husband; the alabaster tomb was created by Vázquez Dávila. The Chapel of Mosén Rubí now belongs to a Dominican nunnery. The richly decorated interior features beautiful art works and a particular highlight is the Cristo de las Batallas, a 17th-century polychrome figure of Christ. Some scholars believe that the church was originally constructed in 1492 as a synagogue.
Address: Calle Marqués de Benavites, Avila
8 The 16th-Century Convent of Las Gordillas
This lovely convent is known as "Las Gordillas," after the farm that used to be located nearby in an area that was on the outskirts of Ávila (outside the town walls). Declared as a National Monument, the Renaissance convent was built in the 16th century, although much of the building was renovated later. Constructed from brick, the church has an inspiring sanctuary with only one nave. The most remarkable feature of the interior is the choir, featuring delicate tiercerons (diagonal rib vaulting). The high chapel displays an exquisite Neo-Baroque reredos.
Address: Calle Santa Clara, Avila
9 Convento de Santa María de Gracia
The convent of Santa Maria was founded in the 16th century by Lady María Mencía de San Agustín. It lies outside the town walls near the chapel of San Justo and San Pastor. Although the church was built during the Renaissance period, it was designed in Gothic style. The sanctuary was later enhanced with Baroque plasterwork details. The high altar features a Renaissance reredos by Juan Rodríguez and Lucas Giraldo. Tourists can only visit the exterior of the convent or may attend a mass at the church during hours of worship.
Address: Calle Jesús del Gran Poder, Avila
10 Iglesia de San Andrés
Listed as a National Monument because of its historic value, this Romanesque church was constructed in the late 11th century around the same architectural period as the Basilica of San Vicente. Typical of Romanesque design, the church has a simple floor plan with three naves and a central apse with its silhouette on the exterior. The apse features decorative abutments that provide support for the structure. The interior is barely decorated except for its capitals. The somber sanctuary has an ambience of sacredness.
Address: Plaza de San Andrés, Avila
Where to Stay in Avila for Sightseeing
We recommend these highly-rated hotels with easy access to the attractions of Avila's atmospheric old town:
- Parador de Avila: 4-star historic hotel, 16th-century palace, inside the city walls, many stairs, beautiful garden, courteous staff.
- Palacio de los Velada: mid-range pricing, historic stone palace, old town location, atrium-style restaurant, spacious rooms.
- Hotel las Leyendas: affordable rates, next to city wall gates, upstairs restaurant with tapas, modern room decor, stone walls.
- Hotel Las Moradas: budget hotel, friendly staff, central location, clean rooms.