11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in León
Steeped in centuries of history, León offers a wealth of attractions and things to do, from visiting historic sites to enjoying the regional cuisine. It was founded in the first century AD as a Roman encampment. Besides a brief stint under the Moorish rule of Al-Mansur in the 10th century, León's heyday was in the 10th to 12th centuries when it was capital of the Kingdom of León. During this medieval period, León was an important stop on the Way of Saint James for pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela.
The monastery where the pilgrims traditionally stayed has been converted into a luxurious Parador hotel, which is also a top tourist attraction in its own right for its architecture and historical significance. Other remarkable monuments include the 11th-century Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore and the city's magnificent Gothic cathedral with its spectacular stained-glass windows. León is famous for its regional gastronomy, and hidden among the city's charming cobblestone streets are lively little tapas restaurants that serve delicacies such as cured meats and croquettes.
Discover the best places to visit in the city with our list of the top tourist attractions in León.
See also: Where to Stay in León
1. Real Colegiata de San Isidoro de León
A masterpiece of Spanish Romanesque architecture, the Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore is considered among the most important Romanesque monuments in Spain. The original 10th-century church was built in the pre-Romanesque style of Asturias, similar to the ancient buildings in Oviedo.
This early church was destroyed in 988 by Al-Mansur and later renovated by Christian Kings Alfonso V and Ferdinand I in the 11th and 12th centuries. In classic Romanesque style, the church was rebuilt with three naves and three apses-although the apses were converted to Gothic style. Because it houses the tomb of Saint Isidore (Bishop of Seville), the church has special importance to Spanish Catholics.
The finest features of the exterior are the two Romanesque doorways: the Puerta del Cordero (Doorway of the Lamb); the main doorway with sculptured figures of Saint Isidore, Saint Pelayo, and the Lamb of God; and the Puerta del Perdón with a relief of the Crucifixion.
A highlight of visiting San Isidoro is the Panteón Real (Royal Pantheon) found on the west end of the church. Decorated with ornate marble columns, this vaulted chamber contains the burial vault of kings, princes, and nobles of the León region. The ceilings and vaulting are covered with superb frescoes depicting Biblical scenes and hunting scenes interwoven with animal and plant designs. These vibrant, masterful paintings have earned the Pantheon the distinction of being compared to the "Sistine Chapel" in Vatican City.
Address: 4 Plaza de San Isidoro, León
2. Catedral de León
With its soaring towers and lavishly decorated facade, the Cathedral of León is a breathtaking sight. The impressive building, constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries, is one of the great masterpieces of Early Gothic architecture in Spain, with a distinct influence from French Gothic cathedrals in Reims and Amiens.
On the west front, the Torre de las Campanas and Torre del Reloj frame a magnificent rose window and three richly sculpted doorways. The finest doorway is the Puerta de Nuestra Señora la Blanca in the middle, with a figure of Santa María la Blanca and a representation of the Last Judgment. On the right-hand Puerta de San Francisco are figures of prophets and the Coronation of the Virgin; on the left-hand Puerta de la Regla are scenes of the Nativity and Childhood of Jesus Christ.
The harmonious interior is equally beautiful, with stunning traceried windows creating an ethereal lighting effect in the sanctuary. The cathedral has more than 1,800 square meters of stained-glass windows dating from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Also notice the magnificent 15th- to 16th-century choir stalls, which were carved by Flemish craftsmen. On the north side of the cathedral is a beautiful cloister in the Plateresque style, built in the 14th century and altered in the 16th. The frescoes in the cloister were created by Nicolás Francés.
The collections of the Museo Catedralicio Diocesano are arranged in the rooms around the cloister. One of the most extensive collections of its kind, the museum displays many exceptional treasures of religious art. Highlights include a 10th-century edition of the Bible, the Castilian and Flemish triptychs, and the assortment of Romanesque art, with around 60 sculptures from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Address: Plaza de Regla, León
3. Monasterio de San Marcos (Parador de León)
On the banks of the Bernesga River, the magnificent former Monastery of San Marcos has been converted into a luxurious Parador hotel. This exceptional attraction has welcomed visitors since the 12th century, when pilgrims stopped here on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The monastery was part of the knightly Order of Santiago.
In the 16th century, the Catholic Monarchs commissioned a new building for the monastery in splendid Spanish Plateresque style. There is a richness and delicacy of the sculptural decorations on the façade, and over the main entrance is a Baroque figure of Santiago (Saint James) in his legendary role as the Moor-Slayer (Matamoros).
At the east end of the Monasterio de San Marcos is the Church of San Marcos (consecrated in 1541), built on a Latin cross plan with beautiful choir stalls dating to 1543. The sacristy and medallions of the cloister are the work of Juan de Badajoz el Mozo. The floral decorations in the cloister by Juan de Juni are also outstanding. The monastery also houses an annex of the Museo de León.
Address: Plaza San Marcos, León
4. Casa de Botines: A Gaudí-Designed Neo-Gothic Palace
This striking Neo-Gothic palace is the work of renowned Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí whose fantastical buildings grace the city of Barcelona. Standing on the charming town square of Plaza San Marcelo, the Casa de Botines has the look of a fairy-tale medieval castle with a few surprising modernist architectural details. Notice the unique stained-glass windows and the sharply pointed turreted towers.
Gaudí started the project in 1891, when it was commissioned by textile merchants of León, who worked with the Catalan sector. Business was conducted on the ground floors, and the upper floors were designed as private apartments. The building was designated a Historic Monument in 1969 and is now occupied by the bank Caja España.
It's also worth exploring the Plaza San Marcelo, which is a hub of activity. Several important historic monuments stand on this square, including the Iglesia de San Marcelo. Built between 1588 and 1627, the church contains a precious reliquary of Saint Marcelo.
Address: Casa Botines, 5 Plaza San Marcelo, León
5. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León
This stunning "cuboid" building offers a hint of the exciting modern art that awaits visitors. Designed by architects Emilio Tuñón and Luis Moreno, the Castile-Leon Museum of Contemporary Art features five galleries, as well as mezzanines, courtyards, a reception hall, educational workshop, library, and shopping area.
The multicolored facade is reminiscent of the stained-glass windows of León's cathedral. With an impressive exhibition space of more than 21,000 square meters, the museum is entirely dedicated to contemporary art. Innovative exhibits focus on the common elements found in diverse works of art and architecture, with an interdisciplinary approach. The museum aims to create an interactive experience, immersing visitors in the world of modern art, while inspiring dialogue about the creations.
Address: 21 Avenida de los Reyes Leoneses, León
6. Centro de Interpretación del León Romano
Located in the historic Casona de Puerta Castillo, this museum is dedicated to the profound impact that Roman invaders had on the region's culture and daily life. Continuous archaeological digs in León and the surrounding area have provided a wide range of artifacts from Roman occupation, and this museum focuses on the military aspects, in particular the early years when the Roman legions first occupied.
Among the exhibits, tourists will learn about the conquest of Spain and details about the two legions responsible for taking over this region, including examples of body armor, shields, and helmets. An especially impressive display shows finds from the permanent camp of the Legion VII Gemina, a permanent Roman installation that dates back to the first century CE.
Address: Plaza Puerta Castillo
7. Palacio de los Guzmanes
Next to the Casa de Botines, this impressive 16th-century Renaissance palace was designed in the style of an Italian palazzo. Designed by architect Enrique Gil de Hontañón, the building has an imposing facade with rounded arches, large corner towers, and wrought-iron balconies. On the lower part of the building's facade are corbels with the Guzman family's coat of arms; the upper part is adorned with iron balustrades.
Once a lovely private residence, the palace is designed around a pleasant courtyard featuring classical columns. The palace was declared a National Monument in 1963 and currently houses the Leon Regional Government. It's open to the public for visits, and guided tours are available.
Address: Palacio de los Guzmanes, 6 Plaza San Marcelo, León
8. Plaza Mayor: León's Main Town Square
A few blocks away from the cathedral, the Plaza Mayor is the main town square of León. This spacious public square is a center of social activity in an elegant historical setting. Beneath its arcaded corridors are many trendy shops and restaurants with outdoor tables. It's a wonderful place to stop for a meal or enjoy sampling tapas, especially on a sunny day when the arcaded patios provide welcome shade.
On the west side of the square is the Consistorio Viejo (former town hall), a lovely twin-towered building that dates to 1677. The Plaza Major has an energetic atmosphere, and on market days it's a bustle of activity.
9. Stroll the Charming Streets and Plazas of the Old Town
At the heart of the Casco Antiguo (Old Town) is the Plaza de San Martín, where the 13th-century Iglesia de San Martín stands. This quaint public square is lined with many shops and restaurants. From the Plaza de San Martín, many lively little streets wind their way around the medieval maze of the Old Town. Locals often take their paseo por la noche (evening stroll) in this area. Tourists will also enjoy wandering the atmospheric cobblestone streets, with stops to sample delicious appetizers at the enticing tapas restaurants.
The historic streets around Plazuela de San Marcelo are also full of charm and interesting hidden corners. The Calle del Cid is an especially pleasant tree-lined street with several sidewalk cafés.
10. Iglesia de San Salvador de Palat del Rey
Dating from the 10th century, the Iglesia de San Salvador de Palat del Rey is the oldest church in León. This fascinating ancient monument was originally built as a convent, then served as a royal pantheon before it was converted into a small church. The Pre-Romanesque building incorporates elements of Mozarabic (Spanish-Islamic) architecture, influenced by the Moorish culture of Al-Mansur's reign.
Although the church was rebuilt in the 16th century, and remains of the early church are limited to the foundation and the transept, visitors still get a sense of its historical value. Many interesting details of the original structure were carefully restored. The church is in an area of León that is famous for its tapas restaurants and is a great area for tourists to sample the best gastronomy of the region.
Location: Between Calle Conde de Luna and Calle del Pozo
11. Museo de León
In an incredibly comprehensive collection, the León Museum presents the history of art from the Paleolithic period to the present day. The main building of the museum is on the Plaza Santo Domingo, and an annex is in the historic monastery of San Marcos, as well as an archaeological annex a few kilometers away in the ancient Roman village of Navatejera.
The collections in the museums give visitors a cultural perspective of the human experience from prehistory throughout various civilizations. Some of the most interesting exhibits focus on antiquities of the classical Roman period and the Middle Ages. The assortment of ancient coins and inscriptions is exceptional.
Address: 8 Plaza Santo Domingo, León
Where to Stay in León for Sightseeing
- Luxury Hotels: The Parador Hostal San Marcos is housed in a historic 16th-century monastery that has been welcoming guests since its construction, originally as a place for pilgrims to the cathedral to stay. The old-world ambience of stone accents, Gothic arches, and antique furnishings combines with the tastefully added updates that make this the top luxury hotel in the León region. Family rooms and suites are available, and there is a restaurant with room service, business and conference facilities, and free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel.
Another luxury hotel in a fantastic location, NH Collection Leon Plaza Mayor is a four-star lodging convenient to the Santa Maria de León Cathedral, Plaza de Grano, and Palacio Del Conde Luna. Housed in a historic building facing the Plaza Mayor, the hotel's interior has been fully restored to feature modern décor and updated amenities. Guest rooms and suites are well-appointed, many of which face the lively Plaza. The hotel offers services including a restaurant, room service, business center, babysitting, and complimentary Wi-Fi, as well as safe underground parking.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Another hotel with deep roots in the city's religious history, Hotel Real Colegiata de San Isidoro is in a converted monastery that has been fully updated and restored to combine warm, rustic elements with modern amenities and furnishings in a tasteful balance. It faces a quiet plaza just steps from the Museo Bíblico y Oriental, the Centro de Interpretacion Del León Romano, and the Basilica de San Isidoro and its museum. Breakfast is included with your stay, as is Wi-Fi and parking; there is also a restaurant on-site.
For those in town on an extended stay or traveling as a family, Apartahotel Exe Campus San Mames is an excellent choice. All the guest rooms are bright, spacious studio and apartment-style accommodations with fully-equipped kitchens. This is a non-smoking hotel throughout and offers basic amenities including free Wi-Fi. The hotel is located adjacent to the campus of the University of León, and is a 15- to 20-minute walk to the main tourist attractions.
- Budget Hotels: Tourists will not sacrifice any quality by choosing the budget-friendly Hospederia Monastica Pax, an affordable three-star hotel that offers modern, bright rooms. Part of an active monastery, nearly all of the rooms and suites face the Plaza del Grano at the southern edge of León's tourist area, less than 10 minutes from Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Del Conde Luna. The hotel has a good restaurant and is just a few minutes from Plaza se San Martin, where tourists can find several excellent local restaurants.
For an inexpensive but romantic getaway, La Posada Regia is a smaller, private hotel that sits in the heart of León's historic center, a two-minute walk from Museuo Gaudí Casa Botines, Placio de los Guzmanes, and Palacio Del Conde Luna. This quaint stone and brick building has flower-filled windowsills, and the upper rooms look out over red-tile rooftops. Guest rooms are cozy and rustic, and the hotel offers free Wi-Fi, self-service laundry facilities, concierge service, and a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating; there are also several good tapas bars surrounding the hotel.
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Santiago de Compostela: Tourists who appreciate the history and religious significance of León will naturally be drawn to Santiago de Compostela, a major pilgrimage destination for Catholics since the Middle Ages. The Catedral de Santiago continues to be a draw for the faithful and tourists alike, and the city's related attractions, such as the Camino de Santiago and the Museum of Pilgrimages are popular stops. Santiago's Old Town and the more modern Centro Galego de Arte Contemporaine are also major attractions.
Beautiful Burgos: Another customary stopping point on the Way of Saint James was the city of Burgos, home to a UNESCO-listed cathedral, which is in fact larger than the one found in Santiago de Compostela, as well as many historic churches and monasteries. Burgos is also home to an annual folk festival during late July, welcoming performers from Spanish-influenced countries around the world.
Zaragoza's Roman Ruins: Those who appreciate León's connection with ancient Rome and early Christendom will want to visit Zaragoza, home to the extensive ruins of a first-century Roman town, including baths, a theater, and a forum. It is also home to the stunning Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, a massive cathedral known as La Seo, and an 11th-century Moorish castle.