A key stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, León is the place to go for Romanesque, Gothic and Gaudí architecture. The past is palpable, but this is a throughly modern, vibrant city
The capital of the ancient kingdom of León is packed with architectural and artistic riches, but it isn’t stuck in the past. A key point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, it is a lively city where the lanes and squares of the old town are lined with tapas bars, quirky shops and pavement cafés.
Where to stay
The family-run Posada Regia is housed in two adjacent buildings, one dating back to the 14th century. Dead central, with bags of character, rooms are painted in bright colours with traditional furniture, and there is a great café and restaurant too. Doubles from €90, weekend deals often available. The Parador here, the Hostal de San Marcos, is one of the grandest in the chain. Originally a pilgrims' hospice and monastery, the magnificent building was begun in the 16th century. Most of the accommodation is in a new section, but you want to be in one of the regal rooms in the old part. Paradors have lots of good offers, so you can stay in splendour from about €150 for a double.
What to do
The focal point of the city is the vast Gothic cathedral, appearing to be built more of glass than stone. Stand inside and let the coloured light from the stained glass stream over you. Walk along the Calle Ancha to Casa de Botines, one of the few buildings by Gaudí outside Catalunya. One block behind is the Basílica de San Isidoro, one of the best Romanesque structures in Spain, with fabulous frescoes in the pantheon of the kings of León.
Where to have lunch
After that cultural overdose, get your feet under the table at the Mesón Nuevo Racimo de Oro (+34 987 21 47 67, www.racimodeoro.com), at Plaza de San Martín 8, for a blowout traditional lunch. Have the Bierzo roast peppers, the León speciality cecina (cured beef) or the morcilla sausage to start, then the roast lamb or suckling pig. About €35 for three courses with wine.
What to see
Head for the river Bernesga and walk along the path through the Condesa de Sagasta gardens to the Plaza de San Marcos. Have a look at the Plateresque façade of the Hostal de San Marcos, then have a coffee inside and look at the hundreds of paintings, sculptures and artefacts adorning the building. Another five minutes’ walk brings you to Musac, León’s futuristic contemporary art museum, a bit out of place in this most traditional of cities.
What to buy
Should you ever get the urge to make your own sausages, you will find everything you could possibly need at La Tripicallería (Azabachería 3). Buy local charcuterie at La Boutique del Embutido (Plaza Conde Rebolledo), and don’t miss Semillas Hiper Calzado opposite, which for reasons best known to the owners has been selling shoes and seeds since 1922. For more 21st-century purchases, trawl the boutiques on Avenida Ordoño II.
Where to have dinner
Instead, eat tapas in the Barrio Húmedo around the Plaza Mayor and Plaza de San Martín. You always get a free tapa when you order a glass of wine or beer, so wait for that before deciding what else to have. Start in El Tizón on the Plaza de San Martín, where you will probably get a chunk of tortilla omelette, pop into El Llar for free garlicky potato salad, then cross the square to El Michi for the battered squid rings. Try the local wines for €1.50 a glass from the Vinos de León or Bierzo appellations. Locals drink small glasses of beer, which makes sense when you are bar-hopping – ask for a corto.
While the tapas bars tend to pack up at about 12.30, there are plenty of places to move on to in the Barrio Húmedo. Try El Divino or Bembe on Calle La Paloma, El Universal on the Plaza Mayor, or La Lola (Ruiz Salazar 22) for Latin music. For a change of scene, cross Calle Ancha to Calle Cervantes, where there is another strip of bars.
The morning after
Take in the scene at one of the pavement cafés on the Calle Ancha, perhaps the Bar León near the cathedral square, one of the most traditional in the city. At Hojaldres Alonso, there is a good range of pastries and sandwiches, which you can also take away. You will see a lot of people having thick hot chocolate rather than coffee, and unashamedly dipping their croissants in it.
You can fly to León via Madrid with Iberia, but fares tend to be pretty steep. It is three hours by train from Madrid or an hour and a half from Valladolid, which is served by Ryanair from Stansted.