Salamanca is a town that is both young and old at the same time: Young, for the many students who go to the city’s university, a centre of higher learning for hundreds of years. And “old” because of the sea of historic buildings that meet the eye when you look out over the cityscape.
These 15th and 16th-century palaces, university buildings and churches are made out of Villamayor stone, a light beige-coloured sandstone that seems to turn golden when the sun is low. This has given Salamanca the nickname of “La Dorada”, the Golden City.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Salamanca:
1. Old Cathedral
Salamanca’s a city with two cathedrals attached to one another.
The oldest of the two was erected between the 1100s and 1200s, and has an enchanting combination of romanesque and gothic styles, each reflecting the change in fashion as the cathedral was being built.
There’s lots to attract your gaze inside, but nothing quite as beautiful as the 15th-century altarpiece with 53 painted panels depicting the life cycle of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
The chapels within the cathedral contain the solemn tombs of medieval bishops and nobility.
2. New Cathedral
The old cathedral’s newer partner was completed in the 1700s and also has a mixture of styles.
By the time it was built the baroque style was popular, but Salamanca’s authorities wanted the new building to harmonise with the old so they chose a gothic appearance, a long time after this had become outmoded.
The cathedral took heavy damage during the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755, and to commemorate the catastrophe and the subsequent patch-up job locals take part in the Maruquelo on the 31st of October every year, climbing to the cupola of the tower playing flutes and drums.
Inside take a look at the gorgeous baroque retroquire, and the renaissance paintings of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.
3. House of Shells
Home to the city’s library is this wonderful Gothic palace, that encapsulates the Spanish plateresque style.
Plateresque buildings have extremely decorative facades designed to resemble silverware, with nods to Moorish, Lombard and Florentine styles.
In the case of the House of the Shells the outer walls are festooned with scallop shells, and it won’t resemble any building you’ve ever seen.
There are also reliefs of various coats of arms of the noble Pimentel and Maldonado families, which were united by marriage when the building was under construction.
Inside there’s a gorgeous interior courtyard and on the second floor the wooded ceiling are coffered with a hexagonal motif.
As you step through the centuries-old stone streets of the Casco Historico you’ll be taken aback by the volume of renaissance, gothic, baroque and Moorish-style buildings, most looking as good as new.
There more than 20 palaces here, nearly all dating to the Spanish Golden Age and many opening their stately doors to the public for exhibitions.
If you’re seeing the sights with little ones you could make it a bit more fun for them by boarding the tourist train, which sets off from Plaza de Anaya every half- hour in the summer.
5. University of Salamanca
Founded in 1134, this institution is the oldest university in the country and the fourth oldest in Europe.
At one time it was among the most prestigious in the world, and today it’s the main reason why Salamanca is a prime destination for people who want to learn the Spanish language.
You’ll be able to enter a set of the oldest buildings on the square, Patio de las Escuelas, which have stunning plateresque designs and lots of stories to tell.
The main building’s facade has a difficult to spot sculpture of a frog sitting on a skull: It’s supposed to be good luck if you can find it without help.
In the square is a statue of Fray Luis de León, one of the most important writers during the Spanish renaissance and one of the university’s many influential alumni.
6. Plaza Mayor
UNESCO’s report gives Salamanca’s impressive main square special mention.
It was laid out in the mid-18th century and has a baroque design.
On the ground level are 88 arches, belonging to an arcade that runs around the entire perimeter of the square, broken up only by the entranceways.
Above each pillar is a medallion portraying a famous figure from Salamanca’s prestigious history.
The lucky people who live on the Plaza Mayor have 247 balconies to lord it over everyone.
Interestingly, Plaza Mayor isn’t quite a square: All four sides have slightly different lengths.
7. Casa Lis
Poking above Salamanca’s southern wall is a 19th-century mansion that was built for the wealth local businessman D. Miguel de Lis at the turn of the 20th century.
The man certainly had modern tastes, as you’ll tell if you approach the building from the river and see the the lovely art nouveau iron and glass facade with its stained glass windows.
The interior hosts a museum covering design in the early-20th century, with plenty of art nouveau and art deco items including glassware, bronze and figurines.
8. Palacio de la Salina
If you keep your eyes peeled when you admire the medallions in the courtyard, you’ll see a renaissance carving of Cleopatra.
She’s easy to identify thanks to that famous asp on her breast.
This courtyard is the 16th-century palace’s most sublime feature, where a gallery is supported by expertly-carved corbels and an ornate renaissance clock keeps time.
The palace was built by Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón, a vaunted architect from the Spanish Golden Age, active here as well as in Segovia and Salamanca.
9. St. Stephen’s Convent
As you take tour of this 16th-century Dominican monastery you’ll be struck by the opulence and extravagance of the building.
If you have an eye for architecture then you’ll love the stone stairway in the main reredos, which is cantilevered by the walls.
This was the work of Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón, who also built Salamanca’s Palacio de la Salina.
When you step outside to marvel at the Cloister of the Kings, see if you can spot the storks nests overhead.
10. La Clerecía
The three-part facade of this glorious church and ecclestiacial college towers over the House of Shells, which is on the opposite side of Calle de la Compañía.
It’s a baroque building from the early-1700s, constructed under the orders of King Phillip III’s wife, Margarita of Austria.
You’ll be able to see the interior only if you join a guided tour of the Pontifical University that has occupied the building since the 1940s.
One of the best bits is when you scale the Scala Coeli for sumptuous views of the city from the transept between the building’s two towers.
11. Feria de Salamanca
The city’s time to party each year is September, when the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Vega takes place.
The celebrations begin on the 8th and a week of dancing, drinking, feasting and parades ensues.
It’s all in honour of the Virgin Mary, who, legend has it, helped protect the city during the War of The Spanish Succession in 1706. After that the statue of the Virgin was brought to Salamanca’s cathedral from the former Monastery of Vega.
Every year there’s a packed program of bullfights, concerts, dances in traditional costume, a fireworks displays and there’s also a medieval market to browse.
12. Roman Bridge
The Tormes River has a number of crossings, but none are as thrilling as this pedestrian bridge that spans almost 360 metres.
It dates to the 1st century during the reign of Emperor Domitian, but the design that you see took shape around the time of Trajan on the cusp of the 2nd century.
There are 26 arches, 14 of which have remained unchanged since the structure was erected.
The others were rebuilt after a devastating flood in the 1500s.
There’s also an ancient Iberian sculpture of a boar on the north side that predates the bridge and was brought here in the 1300s.
13. Paddling on the Tormes River
Cross the Roman Bridge in the summer and on the south bank of the Tormes River you’ll find parkland with a small playground for little guys and paths that hug the irregular riverbank.
On the left side of the bridge is a small business rent hires canoes and paddle boats by the hour.
A paddle boat can easily seat three (two up front and one sunbathing in the back), and when it’s not too hot many people will bring a picnic with them and spend hours floating beneath the city’s bridges on these serene and shallow waters.
14. Jamón Ibérico and tapas
In a student town like this tapas is an affordable way to dine out.
Nearly every bar will serve a tapa with a drink order, and you’ll get a little platter of anything from manchego cheese to a Spanish potato omelette (tortilla). As this is a pig-rearing region, chorizo, ham and bacon are tapas mainstays.
Salamanca is one of the provinces home to the black Iberian pig.
This breed is usually allowed to roam free and forage for grass, roots and acorns.
After slaughter they’re cured for as long as two years, giving their dark wafer-thin slices of ham a melt-in-the-mouth quality.
Jamón Ibérico doesn’t come cheap, but people are happy to pay extra for this delicacy.
Your magical mystery tour of western Spain’s majestic heritage needn’t end in Salamanca: Not far north of the city is Zamora, famed for an older kind of architecture.
There are an incredible 24 romanesque churches in the city, a higher concentration than anywhere else in Spain.
These buildings are from the 1100s and 1200s, so it’s amazing how many have made it to the 21st century.
Or perhaps not, as Zamora is very well-defended, with a triple ring of fortifications and a defiant castle that commands great panoramas of the city.
You may also like our guide on the best places in Spain.