11 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in León
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Steeped in history, León has the monuments to prove its rich heritage. 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 for pilgrims on the Way of Saint James route to Santiago de Compostela.
The old monastery that lodged pilgrims over the centuries is now a luxury hotel and is an important landmark of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Other remarkable buildings include the 11th-century Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore and the city's magnificent Gothic cathedral with its spectacular stained-glass windows.
León's renowned gastronomy is part of its rich cultural heritage. Tourists enjoy sampling regional culinary specialties at the city's authentic eateries. Hidden within a maze of narrow cobblestone streets are lively little tapas restaurants that serve delicacies such as cured meats and croquettes.
Discover the best places to visit in this fascinating historic city with our list of the top attractions and things to do in León.
See also: Where to Stay in León
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
1. Real Colegiata de San Isidoro de León
The Royal 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. 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.
On the west end of the church is the 11th-century Panteón Real (Royal Pantheon), a vaulted chamber that contains the burial vault of kings, princes, and nobles of the León region. The Royal Pantheon features intricately adorned capitals and exquisite frescoed ceiling known as the "Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art."
The Panteón Real houses the Museo de San Isidoro that features exhibits about the historic Kingdom of León. The collection contains artifacts from the region, including ancient Roman gravestones, medieval manuscripts, and Romanesque artworks.
The church and museum are open to the public for visits (with an entrance fee) every day year-round. Guided tours are available.
Part of the Royal Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore complex has been converted into a three-star hotel.
Address: 4 Plaza de San Isidoro, León
2. Catedral de León
With its soaring towers and ornately 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 awe-inspiring, 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.
The north side of the cathedral features 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.
Arranged in the rooms around the cloister, the Museo Catedralicio Diocesano de León displays exceptional treasures of religious art. Highlights of the museum's collection include a 10th-century edition of the Bible, the Castilian and Flemish triptychs, and the assortment of Romanesque sculptures from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Address: Plaza de Regla, León
3. Convento de San Marcos (Parador de León)
On the banks of the Bernesga River, the magnificent former Convent of San Marcos has been converted into the Parador de León, a luxurious five-star hotel with a fine-dining restaurant and a peaceful garden. Guest rooms are decorated in an upscale contemporary style.
This historic convent has welcomed visitors since the 12th century, when pilgrims stopped here on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The convent was part of the knightly Order of Santiago.
In the 16th century, the Catholic Monarchs rebuilt the convent in splendid Spanish Plateresque style. A jewel of Renaissance architecture, the convent has a lavish facade with richly detailed sculptural decorations. 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 convent is the Gothic 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 Convent of San Marcos also houses an annex of the Museo de León.
Address: 7 Plaza de San Marcos, León
4. Museo Casa Botines Gaudí
This striking Neo-Gothic palace is the work of renowned Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Standing on the spacious town square of Plaza de San Marcelo, the Museo Casa Botines Gaudí 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 today houses a Museum of Fine Arts that displays works by Francisco de Goya, Joaquín Sorolla, and Salvador Dalí among others. The museum is open Friday through Sunday.
A highlight of the Casa Botines is El Modernista, a gastronomic restaurant that serves traditional cuisine in a chic Art Nouveau-inspired dining room
It's also worth exploring the Plaza de 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 de San Marcelo, León
5. Linger at the Plaza Mayor
A few blocks away from the cathedral, the Plaza Mayor is the main town square of León. This historic square is a center of social activity and has a bustling atmosphere, especially on market days.
The Plaza Mayor is a wonderful place to stop for a meal or to sample tapas. Within its arcades are many trendy restaurants. On warm days, the covered passageways provide welcome shade at patio tables. For those who prefer, outdoor terrace seating on the plaza allows for dining in the sunshine.
On the west side of the square is the Consistorio Viejo (also called the Consistorio Antiguo), which formerly was the Town Hall. This impressive twin-towered Baroque building dates to 1677.
6. 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.
7. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León
With a multicolored facade reminiscent of stained-glass windows, this stunning "cuboid" building offers a hint of the exciting modern art that awaits visitors. The Castile and León Museum of Contemporary Art features five galleries of innovative exhibits in a 21,000-square-meter space.
Diverse works of art are presented with an interdisciplinary approach. The museum aims to create an interactive experience, immersing visitors in the world of contemporary art, while inspiring dialogue about the creations.
The museum also has a library that specializes in books on contemporary art, and an auditorium that hosts concerts, film screenings, and other cultural events.
Address: 21 Avenida de los Reyes Leoneses, León
8. Centro de Interpretación del León Romano
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.
Located in the historic Casona de Puerta Castillo, this museum is dedicated to the profound impact that Roman invaders had on the region's cultural heritage.
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 findings from the camp of the Legion VII Gemina, a 1st-century AD installation of Roman army legionaries.
Address: Plaza Puerta Castillo, León
9. Palacio de los Guzmanes
Next to the Casa Botines, this impressive 16th-century Renaissance palace was designed in the style of an Italian palazzo. Created by architect Rodrigo 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. At the center of the building is a courtyard featuring pleasant arcades adorned with classical columns.
The palace currently houses the León Regional Government offices. Listed as a National Monument, the Palacio de los Guzmanes is open to the public for visits (free admission). The site also has a café/restaurant.
Address: Palacio de los Guzmanes, 6 Plaza San Marcelo, León
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 Iglesia de San Salvador de Palat del Rey is open to the public for visits (free admission) Monday through Saturday.
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
Through its comprehensive collections, the León Museum presents the history of art from the Paleolithic period to the present day. The collections provide perspective on the human experience during key historical periods.
The main building of the museum is on the Plaza de Santo Domingo, and an annex is in the historic Convento de San Marcos. A few kilometers away at the Villa Romana Navatejera, the archaeological site of an ancient Roman village, is another exhibit of the museum.
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.
The Museo de León is open year-round every day except Mondays. The museum has a boutique and a café/restaurant. Throughout the year, the museum hosts classical music concerts.
Address: 8 Plaza de Santo Domingo, León
Where to Stay in León for Sightseeing
- A top luxury hotel in the León region, the 5-star Parador de León is housed in the Convento de San Marcos, a historic convent and pilgrims' hostel. The old-world architecture of stone accents, Gothic arches, and antique furnishings blends well with the tasteful modern decor. Family rooms and suites are available. Amenities include a 24-hour front desk, concierge, café, and gastronomic restaurant.
- The NH Collection Leon Plaza Mayor is a 4-star accommodation near the cathedral. Housed in a historic building facing the Plaza Mayor, the hotel's interior has been fully renovated, and guest rooms feature minimalistic contemporary-style decor. The hotel offers excellent amenities: a 24-hour front desk, concierge, restaurant, café, and breakfast buffet.
- A wing of the Royal Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore complex is now occupied by the 3-star Hotel Real Colegiata de San Isidoro. Part of the historic building was entirely restored and converted to modernized guest rooms decorated in minimalistic style. Some of the rooms feature views onto the cloister. Accommodations include breakfast and parking. The hotel's gourmet restaurant serves traditional cuisine of the region.
- For those in town on an extended stay or traveling as a family, the 3-star Apartahotel Exe Campus San Mamés is an excellent choice. The bright, spacious apartment-style accommodations feature fully equipped kitchens. Double, triple, and quadruple studio apartments are available. The hotel is located next to the University of León, and is a 15- to 20-minute walk to the main tourist attractions.
- About a 10-minute walk from the Plaza Mayor, the 3-star Hospedería Monástica Pax offers contemporary-style guest rooms in a restored historic (and still active) monastery. Most rooms overlook the picturesque Plaza del Grano. The hotel has a restaurant that specializes in regional cuisine. There are also many restaurants on the nearby Plaza de San Martín. A breakfast buffet is available.
- La Posada Regia offers cozy accommodations in the Casco Viejo near the cathedral and the Museo Casa Botines Gaudí. This 3-star hotel brims with old-world character; the renovated 14th-century building has a flower-bedecked brick facade and traditional wood-beamed ceilings. Top-floor rooms look out over red-tile rooftops. Amenities include a concierge, restaurant, and complimentary breakfast. The area around the hotel is known for its tapas restaurants.
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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, which ranks high on the list of the best places to visit in Northern Spain. A pilgrimage destination for Christians since the 9th century, the Cathedral of Santiago continues to be a draw for the faithful and tourists alike. Santiago de Compostela has many interesting places to visit in its Old Town, while the modern Centro Galego de Arte Contemporaine and the Cidade da Cultura de Galicia are also major attractions.
Beautiful Burgos: Another customary stopping point on the Way of Saint James was the city of Burgos, which is about a two-hour drive or train ride from Bilbao. Burgos is renowned for its UNESCO-listed cathedral, which is larger than the one found in Santiago de Compostela. Burgos also hosts an annual folk festival during late July, welcoming performers from Spanish-speaking countries around the world.
Exploring Ancient Roman Sites: The influence of Ancient Rome is seen beyond León throughout Spain, especially in Zaragoza, home to the extensive ruins of a 1st-century Roman town (including baths, a theater, and a forum); in Segovia, which has a UNESCO-listed Ancient Roman Aqueduct; and in Tarragona, which boasts an impressive ancient amphitheater and other Roman ruins.