Salamanca in northwest Spain is not only a beautiful city packed with ancient monuments; it also offers a fabulous introduction to Spanish cuisine and nightlife
The approach to Salamanca, in Castilla y Leon, northwest of Madrid, is across the Rio Tormes, where the city climbs upwards and is topped by dramatic cathedrals silhouetted against the sky. It is incredibly easy on the eye: churches, convents, ancient university buildings and other historical buildings vie with each other to fill the narrow streets.
The centre of Salamanca is compact and easy to navigate despite the random nature of the streets. However, be aware that the streets are often cobbled and some are steep. The first stop is the true centre of Salamanca, the Plaza Mayor - a large terraced square, arguably the most beautiful in Spain, ornately shuttered and balconied all around, broken only to make room for stately arches and its magnificent clock. Rows of gaily coloured terrace tables from cafés and restaurants line the plaza, a perfect place to enjoy some people watching.
You have to see the famous cathedral – in fact there are two – one “old” (12th century) and one “new” (16th century), which are built against each other. You can go up the two cathedral towers - by walking all the way to the top and out onto the dizzying platforms you get an idea of the enormity of the cathedrals, as well as their different styles. The views across Salamanca are second to none.
Back on the ground, why not try out Salamanca’s legend of the frog? Hidden in the intricately engraved façade of one of the university buildings is a tiny frog. It is said that if you can find it unaided it will bring you marriage or five years of good luck!
Near the cathedrals are some of the other key sights worth seeing: the Casa de las Conchas with its ornate courtyard, and Convento San Esteban with its wonderful tree lined plaza leading up to the incredible façade of the convent itself.
A walk down to the river to cross the old Roman bridge is well worth the effort to capture the view of the city, the cathedral looming high above. Cross over at the correct hour – just after twilight – and you will catch it when the bridge and the entire town are lit up. Take a left on the other side and walk to the next bridge along the river, where it is possible to photograph the cathedral perfectly reflected in the river.
Across the river again is Casa Lis on Calle de El Expolio 14 (www.museocasalis.org), the museum of Art Noveau and Art Deco. It is housed in a building the entire length of which is a huge Art Deco stained glass frontage. It has exhibits both strange (the collection of scary dolls sporting facial hair) and beautiful (the assorted Lalique and Gallé glass).
Salamanca is a different city at night, showing its origins as an ancient university town. As well as the huge variety of bars and clubs, Salamanca also celebrates Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve) in mid December to allow the students to join in. Plaza Mayor once again becomes the centre of attention as thousands of people crowd in to celebrate. Salamanca certainly offers a little bit of everything.
Where to eat and drink
Chocolate and churros is a Spanish institution, particularly for breakfast or for the afternoon gossip with friends. My favourite cafe is Valor, on c/Liberos just south of Plaza Mayor – share a portion though as they are huge.
Salamanca offers a good range of tapas, often different in every place you visit. A good place for a beer and pre-dinner tapas (free with a drink) is Bambu, on c/Prior on the west side of Plaza Mayor. For somewhere out of the central area and frequented by the locals, check out c/ Van Dyke, north of Avenida de Mirat. There is a great range of bars with tapas here.
For something more formal, why not go to Rio de la Plata (923 210 005) on Plaza del Angel, reputedly the best restaurant in Salamanca. Or Plaza 23 (923 27 13 53; www.restauranteplaza23.es) on the south side of Plaza Mayor for a wonderful, but pricey, modern experience with dazzling views of the plaza below.
One of the key areas for lively bars and clubs, particularly those catering to the many foreign students in Salamanca, is between c/Prior and c/Bordadores to the west of Plaza Mayor. La Chupiteria has a great selection of shots and Camelot is good for the latest pop and dance music. The bars and clubs around Plaza de San Justo tend more towards rock and indie music, particularly Paniagua and Potemkin. Gran Via also has some decent clubs, usually with special nights on during the week, try Cafe Moderno on a Thursday for HipHop.
Where to sleep
A good choice is Le Petit Hotel, just behind Gran Via on Ronda Sancti Spiritus (36 euro - 59 euro). It has clean and modern rooms, some of which have cute balconies.
Try Hotel San Polo on Paseo Rector Esperabé near to the river (50 euro - 90 euro). It is on the main road so can be noisy - ask for a room at the back. However, it has a great sunken terrace for the summer in the ruins of an old church.
Hotel NH Palacio de Castellanos on c/San Pablo opposite the stunning San Esteban Convento (150 euro - 200 euro) has tastefully decorated rooms and a great breakfast selection, not an easy thing to find in Spain!
How to get around
The train from Madrid takes two hours, forty minutes and leaves from Chamartin Station. Tickets need to be booked in advance (www.renfe.com).
There are also regular buses to Salamanca, taking two and a half hours and leaving from Estación Sur de Autobuses (Méndez Álvaro Metro Station). Book tickets at www.avanzabus.com.
You can drive easily from Madrid Airport (journey time two and a half hours). Be aware, though, that parking in Salamanca is difficult, so you will need to park a little way out of town or in one of the expensive large underground car parks.