12 Top Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Salamanca
Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage City of Salamanca feels like strolling through an open-air museum with magnificent historic monuments on display. From the hallowed halls of the ancient university to its glorious cathedrals and soul-inspiring convents, Salamanca takes tourists on a journey back in time. This celebrated university town has been famous since the Middle Ages when it drew students from all over Europe, and it still has a youthful energy. Wander around the old cobblestone streets and quiet squares to discover the rich heritage, while following in the footsteps of Spain's greatest philosophers, scientists, writers, and artists. The town has an almost magical ambience, as the edifices made of Villamayor stone seem to glow a golden hue in the sunlight, and by night, the buildings are beautifully illuminated.
Address: Patio de Escuelas, Salamanca
See also: Where to Stay in Salamanca
1 Salamanca University
In the historic center of town is the world-famous Salamanca University, founded in 1218 as the first university in Spain and modeled after the University of Bologna in Italy. Salamanca University became one of the most important centers of learning in Europe during the Middle Ages. It recognized the Copernican system (the concept that the sun is the center of the universe) at a time when the church still regarded this idea as heresy. Miguel de Cervantes, Spain's most well-known writer and author of the novel Don Quixote, was a student of the university. The buildings of the Escuelas Mayores, built between 1415 and 1433, represent the university proper. Designed around the central courtyard of the Patio de Escuelas, the most interesting feature of these buildings is the elaborately decorated facade. The original building was relatively plain. In 1534, it was enhanced with its lavish profusion of Plateresque ornamentation and is an unsurpassed masterpiece of that fanciful architectural style.
Take time to admire the incredible facade in all its glorious detail. Above the two entrance doorways are finely carved panels separated by pilasters, and in the center at the first level is a medallion featuring likenesses of the Catholic Monarchs. Further up are the coat of arms of Charles V, flanked by the double-headed imperial eagle and the eagle of Saint John; above this is the Pope surrounded by cardinals, with figures of Venus, Priam, and Bacchus to the right and Hercules, Juno, and Jupiter to the left. Look for the figure considered to bring good luck, a little frog in the right-hand pilaster above the image of a skull. Tourists may purchase tickets to view the university, including the Escuelas Mayores (Main School) building and the 16th-century Archbishop Fonseca College, a beautiful Renaissance building west of the Plaza Mayor at 2 Calle de Fonseca. Audio guides are available to get the most out of visiting the university.
Address: Patio de Escuelas, Salamanca
2 Patio de Escuelas
Graced with elegant Renaissance and Baroque buildings, this magnificent courtyard has the characteristic ambience of Salamanca. Several important monuments are found here: the University's Escuelas Mayores (buildings of the university proper) as well as the Escuelas Menores (the university preparatory schools) and the Hospital del Estudio, built in 1533 as a hostel for poor students (now the Rector's Office). Standing beside the main university building, the Escuelas Menores was established in 1428. The Escuelas Menores building dates to 1533 and has a similar architectural style as the Escuelas Mayores, in particular its ornate Plateresque facade. Carvings on the front of the buildings include medallions of Christ, Hercules, and Theseus, the coat of arms of the Empire of Charles V, and busts of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. On the south side of the square is the Sala Calderón de la Barca (the old University Library) decorated with a famous ceiling painting Cielo de Salamanca (Sky of Salamanca) by Fernando Gallego in 1480. The painting illustrates the knowledge of astronomy in the late 15th century, with signs of the Zodiac, numerous constellations, and the four winds.
Another attraction on the Patio de Escuelas is the Museo de Salamanca at #2 Patio de Escuelas. This museum occupies the 16th-century Casa de los Doctores de la Reina (House of the Doctors of the Queen), one of the most impressive examples of civil architecture of the era. With an interesting and diverse collection, the museum organizes its exhibits in three departments: Archaeology, Fine Arts, and Ethnology. Visitors will find art works ranging from religious altarpieces, paintings, sculptures, and Flemish tapestries to archaeological finds and precious metalwork crafts.
3 Plaza Mayor
This beautiful public square at the heart of Salamanca is considered one of the grandest plazas in Spain. The square is lined with arcaded three-story buildings in uniform architectural style. The buildings were begun in 1729 based on the designs of Alberto de Churriguera and completed in 1755. Among the monumental buildings on this square are the Pabellón Real (Royal Pavilion) by Alberto de Churriguera and the Churriguera-style Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) by Andrés García de Quiñones. Historically, this spacious square of Plaza Mayor has served as a setting for ceremonial occasions as well as bullfights until the 19th century. Many cafés and restaurants are found under the arcades, which makes the square an especially lively scene in the evenings. At the southwest corner of the Plaza Mayor, the Calle del Prior leads to the Palacio de Monterrey, a splendid Renaissance palace built around 1540.
4 Catedral Vieja de Santa María de la Sede (Old Cathedral)
The oldest Christian monument in Salamanca, the Old Cathedral was built between 1100 and 1200. This magnificent Romanesque cathedral is one of the most splendid buildings of this architectural period in Spain. Although the Old Cathedral is not as grand as the New Cathedral, it has its own special beauty and a captivating ambience of tranquility. Among the original Romanesque elements is the Mudéjar Capilla de Talavera with sculptures by Alonso Berruguete. In the principal apse is an enormous and beautifully rendered reredos with 53 scenes from the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin, painted by several different artists including Dello Delli. Above this monumental work in the vaulting is the 15th-century fresco of the Last Judgment by Nicolás Florentino. The cathedral also contains beautiful tombs of bishops and of the cathedral's aristocratic patron (owner of the Casa de las Conchas). The 14th-century Capilla de Santa Bárbara was where university students appeared before their examiners for their final examinations.
Other interesting architectural features include the cathedral's Torre del Gallo, a distinctive tower named after the figure of a cock that crowns it, and the 12th-century cloister with its serene setting. The cloister was damaged in the 1755 earthquake and rebuilt after 1785, so little of the Romanesque design has survived. The Diocesan Museum, in the former chapter house, contains fine works by Fernando Gallego (Virgin with the Rose triptych and Coronation of the Virgin painting), a triptych by Juan de Flandes, a 13th-century ivory figure of the Virgin and a Renaissance organ. The cathedral is open daily for an admission fee; guided tours are available. The Old Cathedral adjoins the New Cathedral and is entered from the south aisle of the New Cathedral. The best view of the Old Cathedral is from the Patio Chico.
Address: Plaza Juan XXII, Salamanca
5 Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral)
Presiding over the town from a commanding hilltop location, the New Cathedral is a monumental building that outshines the Old Cathedral in size and Gothic grandeur, although not in history. The New Cathedral was begun in the early 16th century by Juan Gil de Hontañón and completed in the 18th century by Alberto de Churriguera. Because it took two centuries to complete, the building displays a combination of Gothic, Plateresque, and Baroque architectural elements. The Plateresque doorways are richly decorated, especially the west doorway and the north doorway, which features a relief of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. The 110-meter-high tower has a beautiful dome.
Impressive dimensions of 104 meters in length and 48 meters in width give the interior an overwhelming effect of spaciousness. The domed sanctuary soars to a height of 38 meters. The Baroque choir features an image of the Virgen de Loreto and sculptures were created by Churriguera. Various chapels display masterpieces of art, including the tomb of Saint Ánchez de Palenzuela in the Capilla Dorada and the figure of the Virgen de la Cueva, patroness of Salamanca, in the Capilla del Mariscal. In the Capilla del Cristo de las Batallas is an 11th-century crucifix presented by the Cid to his comrade in arms Jerónimo, later Bishop of Salamanca. Open daily for an admission fee; guided tours are available. Tourists arrive here by taking a narrow old street that runs from the university buildings; the cathedral's tower can be seen from the Patio de Escuelas.
Address: Calle Cardenal Pla y Deniel, Salmanca
6 Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells)
Built in the 15th-century, this Renaissance palace was the town house of Talavera Maldonado who was a Knight of the Order of Santiago. The most notable feature of the palace is the facade decorated with carvings of scallop shells, the symbol of medieval pilgrims traveling the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela. Over three hundred shells sculpted from sandstone adorn the outer walls of the building. Depending on the time of day, the sunlight creates an interesting effect on the pattern of the facade. The building also has Mudejar architectural elements, typical of Isabelline art. Notice the Gothic coat of arm on the entrance door and the intricate wrought-iron grilles on the windows. Today the mansion houses the Salamanca Public Library and an information office. Tourists may visit the inner courtyard of the building, which is a lovely two-story space.
Address: 2 Calle Compañía, Salamanca
7 Clerecía: 17th-Century Baroque Church
Opposite the Casa de las Conchas is the Clerecía, a masterpiece of 17th-century Baroque architecture. The large domed church features an imposing twin-towered facade by Quiñones, a magnificent Churrigueresque high altar, and three-floored cloister in ornate Baroque style. Commissioned by Queen Margarita of Austria, wife of Philip III of Spain, the Clerecía was designed by Juan Gomez de Mora as a church and Jesuit ecclesiastic college. It was originally known as the Royal College of the Company of Jesus. The building incorporated a section for the church and classrooms and a monastery space where the monks lived. Today, the Clerecía serves as the headquarters of Salamanca Pontificia University. This monument is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday. Guided tours including an audiovisual presentation are available. Tourists will enjoy seeing the splendid interior of the church and may also visit the Clerecía Towers to take in exceptional views of the city.
Address: 5 Calle Compañía, Salamanca
8 Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum
This exceptional museum of decorative arts is in Casa Lis, a Modernist building constructed in 1905. With almost 2,500 pieces, the collection spans from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Objects displayed include decorative glass, porcelain figures, statues crafted from gold, enamel works, paintings, ivory pieces, furniture, jewelry, antique toys, and even a Fabergé egg. The assortment of paintings is especially noteworthy with works by painters from Salamanca, such as Celso Lagar and Mateo Hernández as well as pieces by 19th-century artists of the Catalonia region. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday with free admission on Thursdays.
Address: 14 Calle Gibraltar, Salamanca
9 Convento de San Esteban
The Convento de San Esteban is near the Old Cathedral, a little way from the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), in a peaceful setting. This Dominican monastery has a splendid church built between 1524 and 1610 with a facade that exemplifies lavish Plateresque decoration. The church boasts a gilded high altar of 1693 by José de Churriguera, one of the sculptor's greatest works, and three side altars created by his pupils. To the left of the high altar is the tomb of the Duke of Alba, governor of the area of the Netherlands that was once under Spanish rule. Be sure to notice above the choir The Triumph of the Church fresco created by Antonio Palomino in 1705. The convent's two-story cloister features exquisite medallions, lovely ornamental figures, and a staircase by Gil de Hontañón. The convent is open to visitors daily; guided tours are available by appointment.
Address: Plaza del Concilio de Trento, Salamanca
10 Convento de las Dueñas
An interesting example of Mudejar (Moorish-Christian) architecture, this lovely 15th-century convent is found just north of San Esteban on the same square at the far side of the Avenida de los Reyes. The Convento de las Dueñas was founded in 1419 as a convent for Dominican nuns. Several special design features distinguish the building: the beautiful tiling characteristic of Moorish decor and the ornate Plateresque facade created in 1533. The convent's church was built in the mid-16th century with a single nave. One of the highlights of the convent is the two-story Renaissance cloister, with capitals depicting fearsome beasts and human figures that seem inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. This monument is still a working convent but is open daily to visitors. Admission is free with a ticket to the university.
Address: Plaza del Concilio de Trento, Salamanca
11 Convento de las Ursulas
The Convento de las Ursulas lies on a shady tree-lined street northeast of the Fonseca College. Archbishop Alonso de Fonseca and Lady Sancha Maldonado founded the convent in the 16th century for the Ursuline order of nuns. Built in the Gothic style with star-ribbed vaulting, the church contains a remarkable marble tomb of Archbishop Alonso Fonseca, a masterpiece of sculpture by Diego de Siloé. The evangelist nave houses the sarcophagus of Francisco Rivas, who was the Archbishop's butler. An interesting mix of Italian and Mudejar decorative styles, the choir features a gorgeous coffered ceiling and a 16th-century altarpiece by Juan de Borgoña. The convent also has a museum with a small collection of religious art including works by Michelangelo, Morales, and Juan de Borgoña. Since 1992, the convent has served as the spiritual retreat for the nuns of the Santa Clara order. It's open to the public for visits Tuesday through Sunday.
Address: 2 Calle de las Ursulas, Salamanca
12 Domus Artium (Museum of Contemporary Art)
This innovative museum was created in 2002 when Salamanca was designated as a European Cultural Capital. The Domus Artium houses a collection of contemporary art in a building that was formerly a prison. The space was completely renovated as well as expanded to display the art works to the best advantage. Much of the collection focuses on avant-garde style works and art created with novel technologies. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday and admission is free. Guided tours are available. Tourists can stop at the museum's café for a snack or light meal.
Address: Avenida de la Aldehuela, Salamanca
Where to Stay in Salamanca for Sightseeing
Inside the encircling streets that replaced its town walls, Salamanca's old town contains its most famous tourist attractions. The colorful market is beside Plaza Mayor, where there are several restaurants, and Calle Mayor leads directly to the university, the old and new cathedrals, and Convento de San Esteban. Palaces, Casa de Concha, and major churches are all close to this route, as are these highly-rated hotels in Salamanca:
- Luxury Hotels: Close to the Casa Lis Art Nouveau museum, NH Salamanca Puerta de la Catedral has modern guest rooms in a historic building, some with balconies or windows overlooking the cathedral. The boutique Hotel Rector is a little farther away from the center, opposite Casa Lis, but still near the university and cathedrals. With spacious rooms and modern amenities, Eurostars Las Claras is a few blocks from Calle Mayor and an easy walk from Plaza Mayor and main attractions.
- Mid-Range Hotels: The large, stylish rooms at the boutique Room Mate Vega, some with balconies, are only a minute walk from Plaza Mayor. NH Salamanca Palacio de Castellanos has views of the Convento de San Estaban from balconies and is opposite the cathedral. Five minutes from the university and 10 minutes from Plaza Mayor, Abba Fonseca has good Wi-Fi and is easy to reach by car.
- Budget Hotels: Just off Rua Mayor between Plaza Mayor and the university, the nicely renovated Hosteria Sara has surprisingly quiet rooms with kitchenettes. Plaza Mayor is just around the corner from Sercotel Las Torres, as are plenty of restaurants and cafés, but rooms are quiet. Although services and facilities are mid-range, rates are budget. Overlooking a park and close to the train station, Ibis Salamanca has secure parking and is about a 10-minute walk from Plaza Mayor.
Day Trips from Salamanca
With its Old World charm and splendid Romanesque churches, the historic town of Zamora makes a wonderful day trip from Salamanca (about 65 kilometers away). Because of its numerous churches of the 12th and 13th centuries, Zamora has been called a "museum of Romanesque art." The cathedral stands on a highpoint of the Old Town surrounded by its defense walls and gates. Built between 1151 and 1174, the architecture is mainly Romanesque. The spacious domed interior features exquisite choir stalls created by Rodrigo Alemán in 1480. Carvings on the stalls depict figures of saints and famous men of antiquity as well as scenes of country life. The cathedral's Capilla Mayor has a beautiful marble retablo. The high altar is flanked by two Mudéjar pulpits.
From the cathedral, the Calle de los Notarios leads to the 11th-century Iglesia de San Ildefonso. In the church's Capilla Mayor are relics of the town's two patron saints, Saint Atilano and Saint Ildefonso. From San Ildefonso, the Calle Ramos Carrión leads north to the little Romanesque Templar church of Santa Magdalena. This 12th-century monument has a splendid arched doorway with lions' and dragons' heads, and the interior has finely carved capitals and reliefs. Calle Ramos Carrión then runs from Santa Magdalena to the Plaza de Claudio Moyano, where the 12th-century Romanesque Iglesia de San Cipriano is found. This church has wonderful relief decorations on the exterior, and the interior boasts a screen in the apse that is considered the oldest in Spain. Outside the town walls, south of the cathedral on the banks of the Duero River, is another Romanesque church, the 11th-century Iglesia de San Claudio de Olivares.
About 24 kilometers from Zamora, on Calle Larga in El Campillo, is a fascinating ancient church. The Iglesia de San Pedro de la Nave is a Visigothic church that dates to the seventh century. In 1931, the church was removed from its original site several kilometers away because the location is now submerged by a lake. The church is renowned for its magnificent carved capitals, which rank among the finest sculpture produced in Christian Spain before the arrival of the Moors.