The historic capital of the Kingdom of Castile, Burgos is picture book city packed with Gothic and renaissance architecture. These lovely 15th and 16th-century buildings are built with local white limestone, which gives the Burgos cityscape its own regal character.
You can visit the resting place of several kings and queens and see where Christopher Columbus was granted a royal audience in the 15th century. There’s history of a different kind just outside the city, where Europe’s earliest human fossils have been discovered and date back 350,000 years.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Burgos:
Burgos’ 13th-century Cathedral of St. Mary is UNESCO-listed, and stands out as the only cathedral in Spain to earn this status without being grouped with other buildings.
The best way to approach the building is from the west, where you’ll be greeted by impossibly ornate twin spires, modelled on the gothic cathedrals in Paris and Reims.
But from any direction there’s something beautiful to catch your gaze, whether it’s the medieval carvings on the Door of the Coronería or the stunning octagonal tower on the east side.
All this, and you haven’t even entered yet! Of the many must-sees inside is the tomb of the fabled 11th-centiury commander, El Cid.
2. Monasterio de Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas
It’s also difficult to sum up the historical importance of this next monument, just beyond the western edge of the city.
The abbey is the final resting place of nine kings and queens, and you can gawp at the opulence of these burials at the Museo de Ricas Telas, which presents a set of tapestries, including one that decorated the tent of Al Nasir, the Almohad Caliph.
Also part of the monastery’s archive is the Codex Las Huelgas, an extremely rare music manuscript from the 1300s.
On a thrilling guided tour of the abbey you’ll the place where Pedro the Cruel was born and where Edward 1 (Longshanks) was wed to Eleanor of Castile in 1254.
3. Burgos Castle
On the west side of the city banking up high behind the cathedral is the tallest hill in Burgos. This was the first part of the city to be settled, as far back as the Iron Age, and it’s the site of the city’s castle.
The outer walls and towers of this fortress are still standing, but there would be a lot more to see had the French forces under Napoleon not blown the whole thing up when they withdrew from Burgos in 1813.
A little way down from these ruins is the Mirador del Castillo, a scenic lookout on a stone ledge with the entire city laid out in front of you.
4. A Walk Through the Historic Centre
Take the weight off at a cafe on Plaza Mayor with a cold beer or cup of cafe con leche and see the town hall and irregular jumble of painted old buildings on all sides.
A few steps will take you down to Plaza Mio Cid, where there’s a statue of the Spanish hero on horseback and pointing across the River Arlanzón.
You can dwell a couple of minutes on the Puente de San Pablo to contemplate the river and its green banks, before ducking back into the oldest part of the city and browsing the boutiques and local amenities in Calle Paloma and Calle de Lain Calvo, both with a twin curtain of painted apartment buildings that occasionally gives way to an old stone arcade.
East of Burgos is the largest archaeological site in the world. You needn’t be an anthropologist to be enthralled by what you’ll find at Atapuerca, where the oldest hominid fossils in Europe have been discovered.
These date back as far as 350,000 years and were first discovered when a deep trench through these mountains was dug for a mining train in the late-1800s.
It wasn’t until the discovery of Sima de los Huesos in the 90s that researchers realised the great age of the remains. The site is still being excavated, and draws archaeologists from around the world.
On a tour you’ll be led by an expert guide past sections cut from the limestone, each representing a different stage in man’s evolution.
6. Museum of Human Evolution
Make a day of it by coming to this attraction before or after Atapuerca. The museum was opened in 2010 and has an innovative layout, recreating parts of the Atapuerca landscape in the basement, including a 3D model of the Sima de los Huesos.
As you move up you’ll be filled in about the Darwin’s theory of evolution and what we’ve learned from Atapuerca about human evolution. You shouldn’t miss ten highly-detailed sculptures of early man through different stages of its development.
Higher up you’ll see the ways we’ve changed since prehistory and then enter an accurate reproduction of the environment in which Atapuerca’s early humans lived.
7. Miraflores Charterhouse
A short drive in the countryside east of Burgos is this beautiful historical site that you can also reach on foot by following the course of the river.
The monastery dates to the 15th-century and was adapted from a former hunting lodge belonging to King Juan II and built by his father Enrique III. It is still occupied by monks and is a stunning piece of late-gothic architecture replete with gothic and renaissance art.
Inside feast your eyes on the extravagant high altar, gilded with the first shipments of gold from the American continent. Also wonderful are the tombs of Juan II and Isabel of Portugal, carved from alabaster.
8. Camino de Santiago
Pilgrims have been stopping at Burgos on the historic Way of St. James for many hundreds of years, as they head for the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.
The route into the city isn’t worthwhile as it goes through Burgos’ industrial zone, but you could definitely walk a portion of the trail as it leaves Burgos and winds east through rolling wheat fields on the way to León.
The course is marked by the distinctive scallop shells, and of course it’s not just for Christians: Many people of all backgrounds take on this mammoth challenge every year.
9. Casa del Cordón
On Plaza de la Libertad is this 15th-century palace built for the High Constable of Castile. Its name comes from the Franciscan cords that are carved in stone above the building’s front door.
Today the palace is home to a bank on the ground floor and an exhibition space on the upper levels.
This sort of belies the building’s vast historical significance: Not long after it was built the Catholic Monarchs Fernando II and Isabel I received Christopher Columbus right here on his return from his second voyage to the New World in 1497.
Later King Felipe I died in the palace after a suspected poisoning , while the Kingdom of Navarre was officially incorporated in the Kingdom of Castile here in 1515.
10. Paseo del Espolón
Often described as “El salón de la ciudad”, this distinguished landscaped walkway on the north bank of the Arlanzón connects Burgos’ Teatro Principal with the city gate, Arco de Santa María.
On Sundays especially it will be filled with extended local families, elegantly dressed and taking a turn on the paved promenade.
This has a twin column of pollarded plane trees, 19th-centrury iron gas lamps and sculptures at intervals. Cafes and bars line the upper edge of the walkway, and about halfway along there’s a lovely old carousel, ideal if you’re walking here with little ones.
11. Arco de Santa María
One of the 12 original medieval gateways to the city, the Arco de Santa María guards the southern entrance at the bridge of Santa María.
It’s an imposing 15th-century triumphal arch with turrets at the top. Beneath these are six alcoves, each devoted to a key figure from the city’s past. Inside is a chamber with a coffered ceiling and an arcade and gallery, where the Council of Burgos met until 1780.
It is used for exhibitions about Burgos’ history: There’s a delicate fragment of Muslim plasterwork from the castle, a Castilian banner embroidered in gold and several artefacts relating to El Cid.
12. Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari
This early-15th-century church is right next to the Camino de Santiogo, on Calle de Fernán González. The marquee attraction inside is the altarpiece, held as one of the masterpieces of Castilian renaissance art.
You’ll need a good ten minutes to take in every little detail of its carvings. It was designed by the workshop of Simón de Colonia, who was responsible for some of the monuments you can still see around Burgos, including the Charterhouse of Miraflores.
Much of the interior was paid for by the wealthy Polanco family whose highly decorative gothic tombs you can also view. Also make time for the Flemish tapestries in the church’s museum.
13. Fadrique de Basilea Book Museum
Fadrique de Basilea was probably the most renowned printer in Burgos in the 15th and 16th centuries. The museum named in his honour opened in 2010 and showcases facsimiles of the most seminal books of all time.
You’ll embark on a journey through the written and printed word, beginning in antiquity, leading through the codices and manuscripts of the middle ages, up to one of history’s great turning points: Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.
14. Bodegas Portia
This winery an hour north of Burgos is part of the Ribera del Duero D.O.. It’s a destination in its own right, as the winery’s building was designed by British architect Norman Foster.
You normally have to book ahead for a tour of the facility, but on quieter days it’s possible to just show up. Portia is a real contrast from the usual bodega experience: Everything here is ultra-modern in terms of both the building design and the way they make the wine.
You’ll see the large metallic vats, the oak barrel ageing room and the bottle storage area where thousands of bottles are stacked to the ceiling. Rounding the experience off is a tasting session with delicious tapas.
15. Regional cuisine
For most Spanish people the food that comes to mind when you mention Burgos is morcilla, a kind of blood sausage that is enjoyed all over Spain.
It’s made of pig’s blood, butter, onion and rice, and here is often simply cut into thin disks, fried and served on a slice of crusty bread as a tapa. Inland, meat is a big part of the Spanish diet and in winter roasts of suckling pig or lamb are a good way of fighting off the cold.
Burgos Cheese is also well-known: It’s a white, almost-gelatinous sheep’s cheese that goes well in salads or as a dessert with honey and quince.