Things to Do in Castile and León
On your journey from Segovia’s Roman aqueduct to its Plaza Mayor, you’ll no doubt pass by one of the city’s most intriguing buildings, the Casa de los Picos. One look at the façade and you’ll easily see how it earned its name, the (loosely translated) House of Sharp Points, as its front is covered top to bottom with over 600 granite, diamond-shaped reliefs.
It is believed that the 15th century noble home’s curious façade was created as a possible form of defense given the building’s rather exposed location. Legend has it, though, that the house was well known (famously or infamously) for its previous owners, so when new ones moved in, they chose to cover the façade. These days, the thick-walled structure is home to the Segovia Art School and serves as an exhibition hall, which is open to the public free of charge.
Tucked away in the Guadarrama Mountains is one of Spain’s most decadent treasures: the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso (more commonly called La Granja). Modeled after France’s Versailles, the estate features European palatial grandeur at its best, ranging from an interior packed with all the royal amenities — think mural-covered ceilings, and gilt detailing — and an exterior wonderland of lush, manicured mountain gardens.
The land here previously served as hunting grounds for the kings, after which it was donated to monks, and later purchased back into monarchy hands by Philip V, who built the palace you see today. Once a royal summer residence, it is indeed more than just a mansion; it also comes with some 1,500 acres of glorious gardens laced by paths and dotted by copper-finished fountains.
Once the site of bullfights, Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is the largest square in Spain, and arguably, the most beautiful. These days, the focal point is City Hall, a magnificent Baroque sandstone structure with 247 balconies and an arcade of 88 arches sheltering a lively assortment of ice cream parlors, cafés and restaurants with al fresco seating.
Running 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) around the Old Town of Avila, the Walls of Avila are some of Spain’s best-conserved medieval fortifications. UNESCO-listed along with the old town they enclose, the 12th-century walls look much as they would have in the Middle Ages.
Located in Aranda de Duero on the Ribera del Duero wine route, Bodega Histórica Don Carlos is a historic 15th-century winery. Four miles (seven kilometers) of cellars, originally used for storing wine, run beneath Aranda. In a medieval cellar, this bodega offers tours, tastings, food pairings, and a wine store.
Built in the twelfth century as the first Gothic cathedral in Spain, vila Cathedral was integrated into the medieval city wall, making it look as much a fortification as a church. Laid out in the shape of a Latin cross, the church exhibits both Gothic and Romanesque architectural elements. The interior stained glass windows date back to the fifteenth century, while the cloister and choir were added in the sixteenth century.
Art aficionados will find several notable works within the cathedral, including Vasco de Zarza’s masterpiece "El Tostado" (The Parched One).
With a fairy-tale-like mix of architectural styles, the Alcazar of Segovia is one of Spain’s most distinctive castles. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was built as a Moorish fortress and later converted into a palace by King Alfonso VIII of Castille. Rebuilt after a fire in the 19th century, the castle houses a military museum and archive.
Formally known as Astorga Episcopal Palace of Astorga, the Palace of Gaudi (Palacio de Gaudí) is a modernist Gothic fusion of a cathedral and castle. While other architects helped finish the project over the decades, it’s one of the iconic Catalan architect’s few buildings outside of Barcelona. It boasts turrets, spires, and gargoyles.
The Caves of the Eagle (Cuevas del Águila) site is a grotto complex of limestone stalactites and stalagmites hidden under an expansive oak forest on Romperropas Hill. In the company of a guide, visitors can explore the area and learn about both the history of the caves and their accidental discovery.
One of vila’s most picturesque spots is its Plaza Mayor. Long one of the city’s central meeting points, the square’s formation dates back to around the 11th century when the city was growing. The square is more commonly known as the Plaza del Mercado Chico, or The Small Market Square — and is indeed home to a weekly fruit and vegetable market.
Also home to City Hall with its grand 19th-century façade, the expansive main square is noted for its portico-lined perimeter, along which you’ll find the storefronts of various shops and food establishments. Come here to snack on some tapas at one of the plaza’s restaurants, or to make a bakery stop to sample the city’s signature sweet, theyema de Ávila, an egg yolk-based sugar ball that tastes yummier than it sounds.
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