Beautiful buildings, green city parks, relaxing river walks, two cathedrals and one of the oldest universities in the world. All in a city that has a comfortable small town feel to it. Located in the West of Spain, a little over two hours from Madrid and barely 100km from the Portuguese border, Salamanca is a city with many highlights. Visitors travel from Madrid, Seville, Segovia and even Porto across the border, not to mention the wider world. Here is the complete guide on what to see in Salamanca and the best way to get the most out of your visit to the city.
Visit the university
The University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain and the third oldest in the world, behind only Oxford and Bologna. It was founded in 1134 and has seen such world-renowned alumni as Miguel Cervantes (Spain’s answer to William Shakespeare). Salamanca is well-known as a university city and one of the most popular universities in Spain for foreign students. Many Erasmus students choosing to do their semester abroad in the historic city. The student population is so big that it’s one of the few cities in Spain that actually become quieter during the summer. A perfect time to come and visit.
The university’s faculties are spread all over Salamanca and into the neighbouring towns. However, the oldest buildings are found in the city centre. There are many tours to take you further into the heart of the university. Alternatively you can easily admire the ancient facades just by wandering through the twisting streets of the city centre.
Try to find the frog
One thing you can’t leave Salamanca without doing is finding the frog. It’s a popular activity among many visitors to the city and a tradition completed every year by new students. It’s said finding the frog will grant you good luck, which the students hope will help them in their exams. However, it’s not so easy to find.
Whilst wandering the streets you’ll see many buildings adorned by intricate stone decorations. The frog is part of an impressively detailed façade on Calle Libreros. You’ll often find a large group gathered around staring upwards as they search for the little stone frog. It’s not easy to spot and may take some time to locate it. There are plenty of places on the internet telling you where to look. However, I’m going to leave it to you to find. If you don’t find it yourself, then you don’t get the good luck.
It’s not just the frog that visitors are attracted by as among the many shapes and creatures you might also spot an astronaut and a lion eating an ice cream. Unsurprisingly, these are not original works and were added recently when the stonework was renovated.
Wander the old streets
The old town of Salamanca is so easy to walk around. Among the narrow, twisting streets you can admire all the old buildings, many of which have impressively intricate facades. It’s difficult to lose yourself in Salamanca as the area isn’t too large and the cathedrals provide an easy reference to aim for.
You may also come across some of Salamanca’s popular attractions as you wander, such as Casa de las Conchas (the House of Shells) which is decorated with over 300 shells, the symbol of Spain’s famous Camino de Santiago. Salamanca also has many museums. Casa Lis is a beautiful building by the old city walls and is home to many decorative art exhibits. Nearby in Plaza del Mercado Viejo is the Museum of Automotive History. A combined ticket for both museums will cost you just €5.
Step inside the cathedral
There are two cathedrals in Salamanca. The old (Catedral Vieja de Santa María) and the new (Catedral Nueva). The original was founded in the 12th century while construction of its more modern counterpart began in 1513, although it wasn’t completed until 1733. Both cathedrals have since been joined together into one impressive structure.
Inside the cathedral is a massive open space with more gothic style murals and an remarkable central altarpiece. Hidden away in the alcoves are smaller chapels, each decorated by beautiful works of art and detailed carved figures.
General admission to the cathedral is €6, with discounts for children, students, locals and seniors. In the summer months (April to September) the cathedral is open between 10am to 8pm, whereas in the winter (October to March) it closes at 6pm. For an extra €4 you can access the rooftop tour and climb to the very top of the cathedrals to get a view of Salamanca from above.
Look up at the sky of Salamanca
Hidden away inside a small building at the back of a secluded square is the entrance to Cielo de Salamanca, or ‘Sky of Salamanca’. As you may have guessed, this is not just gazing up into the sky above the city but rather a mural painted by Francisco Gallego in 1474.
The painting was created on the ceiling of the old university library and depicts the stars combined with the signs of the zodiac in a beautiful display. Gallego’s work had actually been hidden behind a wall until it was rediscovered sometime in the mid-20th century. The lights have been dimmed inside to protect something that has lasted for over 500 years, so it may take a few minutes for your eyes to adjust.
The building is located in the corner of Patio de Escuelas Menores and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 2pm and 4pm to 8pm, as well as on Sundays between 10am and 2pm. Entrance is free meaning you can’t afford to miss this lesser known highlight of Salamanca.
Walk around Plaza Mayor
Around many cities in Spain you’ll find large squares such as this one. Most of which are uninspiringly named ‘Plaza Mayor’, or the ‘Main Square’. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is surrounded by beautiful old buildings similar to those you’ll find elsewhere around this historic city centre. Around the edge are bars and restaurants. A popular spot either during the day when grabbing lunch or at night when many locals come out for a bite to eat or to have a few drinks.
Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is said to be the most beautiful in Spain, even more so than its counterpart in Madrid. The square holds many events throughout the year, such as book fairs, markets or religious festivities and is the place to come for any local or national celebration. The local fair, Feria de Salamanca, happens every September for two weeks, with Plaza Mayor playing a huge part in the city-wide celebrations and parties.
Try the local food
Many regions of Spain have their typical local dish and in Salamanca the most famous is Hornazo. A salty pastry filled with cooked egg and meat such as pork, chorizo, bacon or sausage. There are many restaurants around Plaza Mayor, although they’re generally a little more expensive. If you’re looking for the freshest food then stop by Salamanca Central Market in Plaza del Mercado. Here you’ll find many stalls selling fresh meats, fish, cheeses and vegetables. Lots of locals shop here too and it’s a great place to grab a snack as you wander around.
For something away from the main tourist areas try Café Bar Mario on Calle Obispo Jarrín. Popular with the local student population, Mario’s is just two minutes from the central market. They operate similar to the popular Spanish chain restaurant ‘100 Montaditos’ with a range of tapas style options. Best of all, the portions are sizeable and prices low.
Take a break in Salamanca’s parks
Throughout the city you’ll find many parks and gardens of all shapes and sizes. Just a two minute walk from the cathedrals, hidden down a narrow street, is Huerto de Calixto y Melibea gardens. A secluded spot open until midnight each day with views of the surrounding area. On the edge of the city centre, close to the Roman bridge, is a large grassy area with running and cycle tracks, skateboard ramps and other sports facilities. To the east of the city is Parque de los Jesuítas, a spacious area with treelined pathways, grassy areas to relax with friends, duck filled ponds and even some tennis courts.
Somewhere less well-known among visitors is Paseo Fluvial, a footpath which follows the banks of the River Tormes as it runs around the city centre. With a dedicated cycle path alongside, it’s a nice area for a run or relaxing stroll. Or even just sitting back and enjoying the views over the river.
Lookout across the city
There are many great places in Salamanca to get a view of the city. The roof of the cathedral mentioned above is one of the most popular. Not only do you get a close-up of the carved stone figures, but you can also see out across Salamanca’s old town and towards the Roman bridge with the River Tormes winding beneath it. However, if you want to get the best view of the cathedrals themselves a better option is Scala Coeli. Or the Stairway to Heaven (in case you don’t speak Latin). From the top you’ll have a panoramic view of Salamanca, including the cathedrals. You’ll also likely spot the storks who nest up there throughout the year.
You’ll find Scala Coeli on Calle Compañía and access is €3.75. The stairs are open from 10am and close at 8pm most of the year, except December to February when the doors close a little earlier at 6pm.
For somewhere less well-known, Jardín de la Merced close to the Faculty of Science is a lovely spot overlooking the river and surrounding area. It’s a little harder to find away from the more popular older buildings of the university, but this secluded little park is worth searching for. Entrance is off Plaza Merced, just a four minute walk from the cathedrals.
Walk across the Roman bridge
Spain has many famous bridges, with the most popular built by the conquering Romans from around the 1st century. The bridge in Salamanca is seen as such a symbol of the city that’s it’s actually included in its coat of arms. Surrounding the bridge is a large park area intersected by the River Tormes, while looking back towards the city you’ll see the cathedral looming above everything looking very impressive and majestic.
On the approach to the Roman bridge from the old town you’ll come across a tall stone monument named Cruz de los Ajusticiados. It was here in the past that the heads of executed prisoners were hung. As the Roman bridge was the main entry point into Salamanca, the heads would be the first thing a traveller would see and serve as a warning to any new arrivals with bad intentions as to the strict laws that governed the city.
Explore the Convents and monasteries
Among Salamanca’s impressive culture, beautiful buildings and rich history you’ll find the convents and monasteries. There are several around the city, the largest of which is the Convento de San Esteban monastery. Occupying a large complex just a few minutes walk from the cathedrals, you are first greeted by a huge entrance way with incredible carved stonework façade. Inside the convent you’ll find a large cloister, several chapels, a garden and museum.
Entrance to the convent is €4 and it’s open between 10am and 2pm then again from 4pm until closing at either 8pm (March to November) or 6pm (November to March). Across the street is Convento de las Dueñas. Another beautiful building with its own impressive cloister at the centre. Opening times are similar and entrance costs just €2.
Enjoy the Salamanca nightlife
Being a popular student city Salamanca has plenty of distractions when it comes to the evening. The area to the north of the city centre, just a few minutes walk from Plaza Mayor, has the liveliest bars playing an assortment of music depending on what you prefer. Rock, dance or the Spanish favourite reggaeton are all catered for and being a student area the drinks are cheap.
Every December the student population swells as 35,000 from around Spain descend on Salamanca for the end of term New Year’s Eve party. With the universities finishing for the holidays around mid-December, this is when the students hold their ‘end of year’ celebration. Plaza Mayor becomes rammed with people and they even hold a countdown as the clock reaches midnight before performing the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes in the final moments of the year. (Apparently liquified grapes don’t count)
How to get to Salamanca
Alsa Bus travel from Seville in the south of Spain three times each day with the journey taking six to seven hours. Tickets are a little over €37 one-way. From Madrid, Avanza run several buses a day, each taking around two and a half hours and costing €25. Alternatively there are regular trains from Madrid’s Príncipe Pío station with similar times and prices. If travelling from the north you can take a bus from Valladolid to Salamanca for around €11. The journey is an hour and a half with trains again similar.
The bus station in Salamanca is a little out of the city centre and around a 20 minute walk to the cathedral. Alternatively a taxi will get there quicker but may not be able to take you all the way to your accommodation as much of the centre among the historic buildings is pedestrianised. Salamanca has two train stations, both of which are further away from the centre. The main station is roughly 2km from the cathedral, while the smaller La Alamedilla station is about half a kilometre closer.