The World Heritage city of Ávila is adored for its formidable medieval walls, an intact fortified ring around the old city.
Gazing down at the city from a vantage point to the west, Ávila will look like something out of a storybook or fantasy movie.
The reason for its appearance is that the city was developed after this part of Spain had been re-conquered from the Moors to stand as a bastion against the Caliphate to the south.
For the next few hundred years it flourished and reached its zenith in Spain’s 16th-century Golden Age when Torquemada was buried here.
Pilgrims also flock to Ávila because of its connection with Saint Teresa, patron saint of all kinds of things, from headaches to chess!
Here are the best things to do in Ávila:
1. The Walls
Ávila’s UNESCO-listed walls are considered among the finest city defences in the world.
They have a perimeter of 2.5 kilometres and are never less than three metres-thick.
The gates (11), turrets (97) and merlons (2,500) date to the 1100s and 1200s, and are part of a sophisticated defence strategy for the city.
Even inside the walls Ávila’s palaces were reinforced to repel an attack should the outer limits be breached.
The eastern side, most vulnerable to attack, is the oldest and most reinforced section, as you’ll be able to tell from the mass of stones that had been quarried from a former Roman necropolis.
2. Los Cuatro Postes
This is a pilgrimage site west of the city although nobody can really agree on its origins.
One story has it that it was chosen after the plague had passed through the city in the 12th-century.
The citizens headed out here to give thanks for their survival, but in their absence the city was looted by the Arabs, and then overrun by army irregulars.
After everything was sorted out they kept the pilgrimage to make sure the events would be remembered.
The other story holds that St.
Teresa was stopped here by her uncle as she tried to head south to spread the Christian word to the Muslims.
Either way the walk across the Adaja bridge and the views of the ring of the walls from this monument are unforgettable.
3. Basilica de San Vicente
This is one of the greatest achievements in romanesque architecture in Spain.
Like many of the medieval buildings the basilica’s granite walls have an eye-catching texture, a kind of mosaic of lighter and darker stones.
Construction began in the 1100s and wasn’t finished until the 1300s.
It’s on the site of the Roman martyrdom of three Christians, Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta after they refused to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods.
The crypt contains the rocks on which their bodies were initially thrown, and all around the church from the pulpit to the organ to the martyrs’ cenotaph are jaw-dropping artistic wonders that will keep you occupied for longer than you might expect.
4. Real Monasterio de Santo Tomas
The Catholic Monarchs Isabella I and Ferdinand II commissioned this monastery, a Spanish National Monument, at the end of the 15th-century.
It’s the resting place of their only son, Don Juan, who died at nineteen.
His beautifully carved alabaster tomb is one of the must-sees inside, as is the tomb of the notorious Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada.
The main nave of the church is wonderful, and unusually there are three different cloisters, one devoted to dead monks, another to the monarchs and finally one for the novices of the monastery.
5. Convento de Santa Teresa
Dedicated to Ávila’s most famous saint and built on top of her former home, there are a few things that make this 17th-century convent unique.
First is that it faces north, and not east as is usually the case.
The reason being that the architect wanted to place the church’s altar on the spot where Saint Teresa’s room once stood, and had to configure the rest of the complex around it.
In the impressive vaulted crypt, the only one of its kind in Spain, there’s a museum devoted to Saint Teresa so you can brush up on this important figure in Ávila’s history.
6. Churches, chapels and more
If your thirst for religious history isn’t quenched by now, you’re in luck, because you’ve barely made a dent in Ávila’s long list of romanesque, gothic and baroque churches, chapels, monasteries and convents.
As much as anything they serve as a solemn and atmospheric scenery for a magical walk around the city’s granite stone streets.
There are four “extra-muros” romanesque churches, San Andrés, San Vicente, San Pedro and San Segundo that belonged to suburbs of the city when they were built.
7. Palacio de los Verdugo
Keep your eyes peeled for a sculpture outside the left tower of this16th-century building.
At more than 2,000 years old, it’s a boar that was crafted by the Vetons, a pre-Roman society of Celtic origin that settled much of what is now Castile- León.
The palace’s slightly austere demeanour and fortified towers show that it was meant to have a defensive role in times of siege.
The courtyard is the loveliest part of the building thanks to its arcades and the coffered ceilings beneath the stairway.
8. Museo de Ávila
For the inside track on how Ávila came to be one of Spain’s great historical cities, and to see how normal people lived during Golden Age, pop into this museum that curates the province’s archaeology, ethnology and fine art.
There are displays of folk costume and antique household items and farming implements, as well as installations that show artisanal crafts down the years like basket-weaving and wool-making.
A really fascinating display here shows a Muslim crematory kiln, from before cremation was banned in the Caliphate of Córdoba.
9. Sephardic Garden
When Ávila was under Moorish control Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side-by-side in relative peace.
Evidence of Spain’s sizeable Jewish population can be hard to find after they were expelled from the country in the 1490s.
The Sephardic Garden (Jardín de Sefarad) is on the site of Ávila’s Jewish cemetery, facing the city walls in an open space intended as a memorial.
At the centre of the garden is a kind of mound, where the remains found in the disturbed tombs were interred.
10. Gredos Mountains
After the cerebral exertion of trawling around the many culturally-significant sights in Ávila’s old-city maybe you’re ready for beauty of a more primitive kind.
Because the Gredos Moutains that rear up to the south of the city are very tempting.
Unless you’re a fearless climber you don’t need to scale the peaks that rise to 2,500 metres; just above the plain the foothills are dappled with birch, oak and chestnut forest and you’ll be able to get all the details you need about the natural park’s walking routes from Ávila’s tourist office.
11. Hearty cuisine
Food in this part of inland Spain is simple and filling.
Winters can be bitter, especially in the mountains, so lots of protein is on the menu.
Summing up this simplicity is the chuletón de Ávila, a veal steak from the Avileña-Negra breed, char-grilled and served with nothing more than a side of French fries and a dollop of mustard.
Stews are in order in winter, and these contain the local judías del barco, plump haricot beans.
If you have a sweet tooth the yemas de Santa Teresa will be up your street; they’re little cakes made with egg yolks and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
An easy choice for a day trip, the gorgeous city of Segovia is just an hour on the road to the east.
Head straight to the city’s UNESCO-listed aqueduct, which is among the most famous Roman landmarks in Spain, and has pride of place in the middle of the city.
Amazingly, this 2,000 year-old structure is still used to channel water, and reaches a height of 29 metres.
You can see where a succession of Kings of Castile lived, at the Alcázar, an Arab fort that became a fairytale royal palace.
13. Medieval Fair
On the first weekend of September Ávila embraces its roots and stages one of Spain’s largest medieval fairs.
The whole city gets into the spirit, and suddenly the historic centre will be filled with damsels, monks, knights, pages and royalty.
At the market you can peruse the produce that has been traded in the region for more than a millennium, like cheeses, incense and wild herbs.
There are also more exotic stalls, including haima tents belonging to Berber nomads.
Kids are also sure to love the horseback demonstrations, puppet shows and jugglers.
You’re close enough to make a day-trip to Spain’s capital a no-brainer.
It’s an art-lover’s paradise with not one or two, but three of the world’s best museums, where you can see the best of Goya’s works or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica for example.
The Gran Vía is the buzzing entertainment district, with nightclubs, theatres and cinemas, and the Royal Palace is the opulent home of the royal family and its endless collection of precious art, furniture and other treasures.
15. Semana Santa
Processions take place in towns and cities across Spain during Holy Week, but only a select few have earned the seal of International Touristic Interest.
Ávila is one, and it’s regarded as one of the most spectacular in Castilla y León.
This has a lot do with the cityscape of course, where the towers and walls provide an appropriately solemn arena for this candlelit ritual.
There are 15 brotherhoods and 14 sororities parading slowly and mournfully through Ávila on Good Friday, and you’ll be able to tell each one apart by the differences in their livery and the large sculptures that they hold aloft on floats.
Further reading: Suggested places in Spain