Salamanca’s Old Town boasts one of the largest and most beautiful town squares in Spain. Its labyrinth of pedestrian streets is a stroller’s paradise.
Story and photos by Randy Mink
Two of my favorite things to do in Europe are: 1) communing with the past in historic city centers with rambling pedestrian zones and 2) watching the world go by while noshing away at an outdoor cafe. For me, life doesn’t get better than this.
In west-central Spain, the perfect place to pursue both passions is Salamanca, a medium-size city just 100 minutes away from Madrid by high-speed train.
Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, one of the most magnificent town squares in Spain, is ringed with cafes serving up tapas, those delectable little bites craved by locals and tourists alike. Steps away, cobbled, car-free streets invite carefree wanderers to travel back centuries, as distant as the Middle Ages. Giving this outdoor museum a youthful vibe are students from around the world who attend the University of Salamanca, Spain’s oldest. It’s all there for a true European experience in this UNESCO World Heritage City.
Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is one of the largest and most beautiful central squares in Spain. The Baroque architecture dates from the 1700s.
Salamanca is not exactly on the way to other big destinations—you have to seek it out. That gives the city a feeling of being undiscovered.
Tourist-friendly but not too crowded, the historic core is compact and manageable. The number of sights is not overwhelming, so there’s time to pause, reflect and loll about eating tapas on the Plaza or Calle Rua Mayor, the main pedestrian artery. Salamanca’s Old Town, to my mind, is Spain in a nutshell.
Salamanca’s Majestic Plaza Mayor
From your umbrella table on the Plaza Mayor, once a bullring and now criss-crossed by constant foot traffic, you can take in the sweeping expanse of Baroque architectural grandeur dating from the 1700s. Cement benches provide seating in the middle of the square, and three floors of stately, balconied apartments rise above the archways that rim its perimeter.
In the arcades, you’ll find not only cafes but restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shops and the tourist office as well. The flag-bedecked clock tower building, a common meeting point, houses the Town Hall. Stone medallions on the colonnades depict great Spanish writers, kings and queens, and explorers like Columbus and Cortes. (After years of controversy, the image of former dictator Francisco Franco was taken down in 2017.) Sort of a community living room, the Plaza Mayor is the heart and soul of Salamanca.
Tapa Tasting in Salamanca’s Old Town
On a bright spring day, I surveyed the splendor from my perch at Las Torres, nibbling on items from the tapas menu at the venerable cafe/bar, a Plaza Mayor fixture since 1927. My favorite was hornazo, a meat lover’s dream. This Salamanca province specialty consists of layers of pork chorizo, pork loin and ham wrapped in lattice-crusted yellow dough, and sometimes includes bits of hard-boiled egg. I also indulged in fried eggplant slices drizzled with honey (crujiente de berenjena-miel in Spanish), more of an Andalusia specialty (from that region’s historical North African influences).
“Hornazo,” a specialty of Salamanca province, consists of layers of pork chorizo, pork loin and ham wrapped in lattice-crusted yellow dough. It is served as a tapa at cafes and restaurants, and sold at bakeries and food shops in larger quantities.
During my two days in Salamanca, I had other memorable tapas:
- At the Plaza’s Cafeteria Los Escudos, I chose two classics—Iberian cured ham (jamon iberico), thinly sliced on the spot, and a wedge of Spanish omelette (tortilla de patatas), a simple egg-and-potato dish.
- On a visit to Los Escudos the next day, I tried ensaladilla rusa—called paloma in Salamanca—a mayonnaise-y tapa with potato, peas and tiny bits of tuna, carrot, olive and hard-boiled egg, served with a wavy, shell-like crisp.
- On Calle Rua Mayor, another prime spot for people-watching, I stopped at Cuatro Gatos for revuelto de farinato, a pretty orange-yellow concoction made of farinato (pork fat mixed with bread crumbs and paprika) and fried egg. Flavored with onion, salt, anise seed and other seasonings, farinato is called the “poor man’s chorizo.”
- At several places, I ordered ham, chicken or Roquefort cheese croquettes. A favorite of mine, the croquette (croqueta) is a diminutive, deep-fried log of mush filled with the hot, creamy goodness of bechamel sauce (olive oil, butter, flour, milk). Yum.
- For dinner at Lilicook Gastropub, I started with a plate of patatas bravas from the menu’s tapas section. The hefty portion of fried potatoes in spicy tomato/mayonnaise sauce could have been my whole meal.
(left) Among the many tapa choices in Salamanca, Spain is “revuelto de farinato,” a mixture of farinato (pork fat with bread crumbs and paprika) and fried egg. (center) Wedges of Spanish omelette, or “tortilla de patatas,” are popular with tapa lovers throughout Spain. This beauty is a creation of Cafeteria Los Escudos, a cafe on Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor. (right) Iberian cured ham (“jamon iberico”), a favorite tapa in Spain, is thinly sliced on the spot at Cafeteria Los Escudos, a cafe on Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor.
Seeing Salamanca From on High
In Europe, whenever the chance arises, I climb to the top of a major landmark—for bird’s-eye views and just the challenge and bragging rights of making it to the summit. Salamanca’s Old Town presented me opportunities at two buildings a short walk from the Plaza Mayor.
At La Clerecia Church, I ascended the wooden Scala Coeli, or “Stairway of Heaven,” on a 200-step trek to the passageway connecting its two bell towers. Setting my sights even higher, I then took the spiral, bell ringer’s stairwell for a look at the big iron bells. Besides enjoying panoramas of the city’s ancient churches, convents and palaces, I spied migratory storks nesting on the dome of the colossal Baroque church, which began life in 1617 as a training school for Jesuit missionaries and now is home to Pontificia University, a private Roman Catholic school.
I also tackled the 328-foot-tall bell tower—and tried my hand at bell ringing—at Salamanca’s somewhat quirky double-cathedral complex. Built centuries apart, the Old Cathedral and New Cathedral are actually attached—they share buttresses. In fact, you can’t visit the 13th century Romanesque church (Cathedral of Santa Maria) without going through the Cathedral of La Asuncion de la Virgen, or New Cathedral, which isn’t new at all—it was built hundreds of years ago in the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The bell tower is the highest historic tower in Spain after La Giralda in Seville.
From a viewing platform, visitors can admire the Gothic-style nave of Salamanca’s New Cathedral.
For those who don’t make it to the bell room at the top, lower-level terraces offer fine views of the town and the cathedrals’ exteriors. A cell phone tour of the interiors, a cool activity on a hot day, highlights sumptuous wood carvings, murals and a massive organ.
The University Plays a Big Role in Salamanca
For its first 200 years, the University of Salamanca was in the Old Cathedral. Founded in 1218 by King Alfonso IX of Leon, it ranks as one of the oldest universities in Europe, and, though its prestige peaked in the 16th century, clearly enhances the city’s image.
On a walk through the Old Town’s student quarter, it’s not uncommon to hear English spoken, as many American study-abroad programs take place at the university, which includes both historic buildings—some from the 15th century—and modern ones. Besides Spanish language courses, foreigners take classes in Spanish culture and literature.
(left and center) Cafes in the student quarter give Old Town Salamanca a youthful vibe. The University of Salamanca, Spain’s oldest, dates back to 1218. (right) The University of Salamanca, the oldest university in Spain, is among the many points of interest in Old Town, a warren of pedestrianized streets filled with examples of architectural splendor.
Intricate stone carvings on the facade of the main university building (Escuelas Mayores, or Upper Schools) provide the focal point for tourists exploring the hallowed streets of academia. The decorative style of ornamentation, popular during the late Spanish Renaissance, is called Plateresque because the filigree-like carvings resemble fine silver jewelry, plata being the Spanish word for “silver.” At any time of day, you’ll see people craning their necks trying to spot the “hidden” frog sitting on a human skull. (Vendors sell croaking toy frogs, and souvenir stores are full of frog trinkets.)
Frescoes and intricate stone carvings impress visitors touring Salamanca’s 13th-century Old Cathedral, a lovingly preserved survivor of the Middle Ages.
Also gracing the splendid facade are carvings of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who financed the university; their grandson, Hapsburg Emperor Charles V; and the pope at the time, plus mythical heroes, religious scenes and coats of arms. (This type of tapestry in sandstone, an Arabic influence, also is found adorning the New Cathedral, St. Stephen’s Monastery and other Old Town buildings from the period.) For an admission fee, tourists can go inside the academic shrine and see the original classrooms and lecture halls, now museum exhibits.
Savoring Salamanca’s Old World Splendor and its Golden Glow
The sandstone used in Old Town’s buildings, quarried in nearby Villamayor, takes on a golden cast as it ages, giving Salamanca a special patina and the nickname Golden City. New buildings constructed with the same stone exhibit a lighter shade.
The best place for photographing the Old World splendor from a distance is the Roman Bridge, a pedestrian span over the River Tormes. Located just outside the city walls, this 1st century relic comprises 26 arches, 15 of them originals. Standing by the bridge is the oldest monument in Salamanca—a weathered stone bull created by pre-Roman settlers about 2,300 years ago. From the bridge you see that the New Cathedral is much bigger than the Old Cathedral. A riverfront park has benches, bike paths and boats for rent.
The Roman Bridge, a walkway spanning the River Tormes, affords fine views dominated by the church towers and domes of Salamanca’s Old Town.
Salamanca Invites Strolling Day and Night
Salamanca’s Old Town doesn’t roll up the sidewalks after dark. Floodlit church towers, domes and facades cast a romantic spell, and ornate iron lampposts illuminate the stone streets. Strolling around this enchanting labyrinth one night around 11:30, I witnessed people thronging restaurants and cafes, lining up at ice cream stands, and sitting on park benches and church steps as they watched the crowds parade by. (I’ll never get used to the Spanish penchant for late-night dinners.) There were even families out with young kids, and a few souvenir stores were open as midnight approached. I loved the ambience—lively but relaxed.
Why was I pounding the pavement well past my bedtime? Having been seduced by the Golden City, I just wanted to soak up every last drop of magic before I had to leave by train the next morning for Madrid and my flight home to Chicago. Salamanca is truly a treasure to savor.
Floodlit buildings cast a romantic spell on Salamanca’s Old Town, a lively district that stays open late.