10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in León
Steeped in centuries of history, León was founded in the first century AD as a Roman encampment. The town's name evolved from a reference to its title as the Seventh Roman Legion. 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 stayed has been converted into a luxurious Parador hotel. Other remarkable monuments include the 11th-century Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore and the 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.
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, reflects the work of various architects. This cathedral 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 equals the exterior in its incomparable beauty. Stunning traceried windows create 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. The oldest windows are the rose windows and those in the middle choir chapels. 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 cathedral museum collection is 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. Notice the richness and delicacy of the sculptural decorations on the facade. 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.
Housed in the historic monastery is one of the most monumental hotels in Europe, the Parador de Leon. Guests are able to relax in the cloister area and visit the chapter house. The monastery also houses the annex of the Museo de León.
Address: Plaza San Marcos, León
4 Casa 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, focusing on 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 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
7 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, 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.
8 Charming Streets and Plazas in 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.
9 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
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 the monument's 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
Where to Stay in León for Sightseeing
We recommend these great-value hotels in León, near top attractions like the cathedral and Plaza Mayor:
- Parador "Hostal San Marcos:" historic luxury, 16th-century building, Gothic arches, stone accents, antique furnishings.
- NH Collection Leon Plaza Mayor: mid-range hotel, fantastic location, helpful staff, modern decor.
- Hotel Real Colegiata de San Isidoro: affordable converted monastery, modern room decor, excellent service, breakfast included.
- Hospederia Monastica Pax: budget-friendly rates, bright rooms, friendly staff.