Home to the third oldest existing university in the world, one of the Top 10 cathedrals in the country, and one Spain’s most beautiful plazas, Salamanca might be called “La Dorada”, aka Golden City, for the color of its famous sandstone buildings. But a visit to this vibrant city in the Castile-Léon region of Spain shimmers for its culture, art, history, architecture and venerable institutions too.
Here’s what not to miss.
Spain´s Oxford: University of Salamanca
Located just two and a half hours by train from Madrid, Salamanca is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and has UNESCO World Heritage Site status, which was granted in 1988 for its monuments as well as the oldest university in Spain, founded by the Spanish King Alfonse IX in 1218, making it the Iberian equivalent of Cambridge or Oxford.
Thanks to the university’s roughly 26,700 students registered, Salamanca a lively city with the pulse of young energy. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, studied here, and the University of Salamanca became the first Spanish university to offer language courses to foreign students when it inaugurated its Spanish language program in 1929.
If you only have one day in Salamanca, then you don’t want to miss the enormous and eye-catching Plaza Mayor. Designed by Alberto Churriguera and built between 1729 and 1755, this exceptional public square is widely considered to be Spain’s most beautiful plaza, and is a good spot for a coffee or beer, to admire the architecture, and to people watch, day and night.
Its orderly Baroque display of arches stand out, but look closer for the the medallions placed around the square that bear the busts of famous Spanish writers, philosophers, royals, and other figures from history.
Bullfights were once held in Plaza Mayor and the last one took place here in 1992.
Leave through the Corrillo and go along Calle Meléndez, you will soon reach the Clerecía Church or El Colegio Real de la Compañía de Jesús, an imposing building commissioned by Queen Margaret of Austria who was the wife of Philip III. Its construction began in 1617, six years after her death. This landmark is now the headquarters of Salamanca Pontificia University.
Salamanca’s Casa de las Conchas is named after the hundreds of scallop shells clinging to its facade
Casa de las Conchas & Clerecia
House of Shells & Legends
The Casa de las Conchas is a stately mansion from the time of the Catholic Kings where late Gothic, Mudejar and Renaissance styles marry. It is unknown why there are rows of more than 300 shells on the exterior walls, but give history long enough to whisper and a few theories and rumors swirl like the wind between streets and houses.
One says it’s because the Maldonado family belonged to the Order of Santiago (the shell being the symbol of the Camino de Santiago) and the other says that the decor was a token of love from Don Rodrigo to his wife Juana, whose family, the Pimentel, had the shell as a noble symbol. The outside is what most want to see but step into the courtyard too, where you’ll find a well along with typical columns with Mudejar decoration and gargoyles.
Another legend has it that under one of the shells there is a gold coin, while another version is that the family kept treasure behind one of the shells and whoever finds it can keep it. While we discourage scaling walls to find hidden treasure, it is fun to dream A further story says that the Jesuits offered a gold coin for each one the shells on the façade because they wanted to buy it and demolish it to make room for the construction of the Clerecía.
Frog Spotting at Salamanca University
Every visitor to Salamaca will undoubtedly hear about the fabled frog, a symbol of the city that strangely no many are able to see. But unlike Salamanca’s grand and looming landmarks, this one is carefully hidden in the stonework above the university’s main entrance called La Puerta de Salamanca.
A popular activity is not to move on until you find it. And for students, there is more at stake. The superstition is that when students arrive for the very first time at the renowned institution, they’re faced with this frog-finding challenge. If they can find the tiny frog amidst the intricate stonework, they’re sure to have great academic career.
If it sounds easy, give it a try!
Salamanca is home to other curious stone carvings too. Find them at the nearby New Cathedral (not exactly “new” as it was built between the 16th and 18th centuries) where there’s a gargoyle eating an ice cream and an astronaut, both carved onto its centuries-old intricate facade.
Salamanca’s Baroque Plaza Mayor is a beloved gathering place
Art Deco Museo-Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Dèco
Take in the fabulous Casa Lis, an Art Deco mansion built in 1905 on the city wall by the architect Joaquín Vargas Aguirre for the industrialist Miguel de Lis, now home to the Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Dèco and huge stained-glass windows on the south façade, facing the river.
Inside are more than 2,500 pieces to admire, porcelain figures, statues, paintings, ivory pieces, furniture and jewelry, and even a Fabergé egg. Visitors can also admire paintings by 19th-century Catalonian artists and painters from Salamanca.
There’s a café in this room with its coloured glass wall. It also looks down to the Museo Historico de Automoviles, an amusing museum brimming with spectacular vehicles from the past.
Car Museum – Museo Historico de Automoviles
Walk along the river to the 176-metre-long pedestrian Roman Bridge with its 26 round arches that cross the widest part of the River Tormes. Once part of the Roman Silver Road that linked Merida and Astorga, it’s now a rather impressive way to enter and leave Salamanca.
Plan your next visit to Salamanca
BeSeeingYou In: Salamanca, Spain
Good to know: It is known as the “Golden City” because of the colour of the sandstone used in the construction of the buildings.
Wow! Factor: Art Deco Casa Lis when the sun streams through the multi-coloured glass windows, especially at the café.
Tip: Visit at night to see the floodlights illuminating the landmarks as well as in the daytime for museum to be open. Check the opening hours as often there are different summer and winter timetables and museums are often closed on Mondays.
Author Bio: Rachel Webb