Known as Spain’s university city par excellence, Salamanca offers tourists a lot more than student nightlife. Its incredible cultural and architectural wealth is enthralling, and its medieval streets will transport you back to an era of historic tales, or to one of the many films that have used the city as a backdrop (1492: Conquest of Paradise, or Goya’s Ghosts, for example). This city will surprise you - it has managed to preserve its valuable past, combine this with a dynamic present, and plan for a promising future.
Start your journey through Salamanca in its main square, the Plaza Mayor, considered to be the most beautiful in Spain. This square, with its arched colonnades, was built between 1729 and 1755 by Alberto de Churriguera. You’ll be able to count 88 rounded arches built atop pillars adorned with plaques featuring notable figures from Spain’s history. Besides the tourists wandering the square in search of a picture postcard photo, you’ll also find that this is the usual meeting place for Salamancans (or charros as they are called locally), who drop by to have a coffee and a chat. If you do the same, you will feel part of the city’s rhythm, and not just a mere spectator.
One famous bar located in the square is Café Novelty, where you can sit and have a coffee, an ice-cream, or perhaps something a bit more substantial, such as some of their succulent cold meats. This was the place where, in past times intellectuals used to gather to discuss all sorts of important topics. With over a hundred years of history behind it, it is the oldest café in the city. The bohemian spirit that inspired the academics who used to visit it is still as strong as ever. The current owners organise literary talks and discussion sessions of all types, and they also host painting exhibitions.
Your next steps will take you towards Calle Libreros, where you have a date with the University of Salamanca, the oldest in Spain and one of the four oldest universities in the world. There is a game often played here, which is to search the plateresque façade (a intricately ornamented style peculiar to Spain) for a series of figures that have a significance for both students and visitors. On the right-hand column you will see a skull with a frog on top. The legend says that the student who finds the frog will be blessed with success in his or her exams; whilst for tourists it means they will return to Salamanca one day.
Enter the university building, where, apart from breathing in six centuries of knowledge, you can see the various teaching rooms belonging to famous academics such as Miguel de Unamuno and Francisco de Vitoria. Head towards the chapel, which has a Mudéjar ceiling. This is the final resting place of Fray Luis de León, the Augustinian friar and lyric poet of Spain’s Golden Age. Another jewel is the university library, which holds around 400 books from the 15th century, as well as an almost infinite number of books and manuscripts.
No doubt that coming into contact with such a concentration of knowledge within the university’s walls will have given you an appetite. For a short rest to gather your strength, go to the restaurant La Antigua (9, Calle de Sánchez Barbero), right in the heart of the historic centre, a short walk from the Plaza Mayor. We recommend trying some typical Salamancan dishes, particularly one of the various types of rice dishes (in broth, dry, or risotto style). Their rice and lobster is truly impressive, as is their star dish: rice in broth with Galician tetilla cheese, octopus and mango. Not only is the food marvellous, but the service is excellent and the atmosphere is really welcoming. The building itself is of original Villamayor stone (typical of Salamanca’s old buildings) with wooden beams.
To learn more about this city, which has so much history and so much charm, set off again along Calle de Rúa Mayor, until you reach the Calle Compañía, where you’ll find La Casa de las Conchas. Built in the 15th century, it mixes a Gothic style with Renaissance and Mudéjar elements; a visit is an absolute must. The legend says that under each of the scallop shells decorating the building’s façade is an ounce of gold. Optimists and dreamers hope that there really is gold behind each of the three hundred and seventy-three shells.
It seems that this story was circulated by the Jesuits, who wanted it to be knocked down in order to have a better view of La Clerecía church, so they created a hoax to tempt anyone wanting to get rich to start the hunt. At that time it was the custom to hide a gold coin in the building’s structure during construction, as a symbol of good luck, so the idea of treasure hidden in the façade quickly took hold. Originally built for the marriage between Don Rodrigo Arias and Doña María de Pimentel, it now houses a public library.
Although you’ve already visited one of Salamanca’s universities, you’ve still got the city’s second seat of learning to visit, the Pontificia. It is part of the architectural ensemble known as La Clerecía and was built on the instructions of Philip III of Spain. The building was finished in the 18th century and became a Jesuit College. The whole complex is an extraordinarily beautiful Baroque monument. It’s hard to see the whole of the main façade because the building is so large that you’ll find it difficult to find a view point from which to admire its full splendour. Today the building is home to the Pontificia University, with its outstanding Claustro de los Estudios (study cloister), the work of Jerónimo García de Quiñones. The support columns are gigantic and from its balconies you will have a fantastic view, it is one of the most beautiful Baroque cloisters in the world.
Before rounding off your first day with a taste of Salamanca’s night life, stroll through the shopping area frequented by Salamancans on a daily basis. Head towards Calle del Toro, it starts at the corner of the Plaza Mayor. It is a very pleasant pedestrian street, so why not indulge in a few purchases. You can pop into the large fashion chain stores as well as charming boutiques, as you slow down to the customary pace of this very popular area.
As you walk back towards the old centre of the city, you might start to hear music. It’ll probably be a tuna (a traditional student music group) from the Faculty of Medicine, who put on a show really worth seeing, so enjoy! Salamanca is also famous for its tuna groups who stroll the streets hoping to conquer the hearts of the women they surround, singing songs from European and Latin American folklore. Their old-fashioned, cavalier-style clothes are eye-catching - each university fraternity has their own style, and for someone who has never seen them before they come as quite a surprise. When they finish singing they go around the crowd with a tambourine for anyone who wants to offer a ‘contribution’ to thank them for their singing.
As night falls, Salamanca offers up another side to the city. The monuments and buildings that you’ve seen during the day are majestically reborn at night, thanks to the carefully designed warm lighting. You might lose yourself among these paved streets, and you may even get the impression that a famous fictional character might cross your path just around the next corner. However, you can relax, because Salamanca nightlife is such that there are always a lot of people in the street, making it a fun-filled, lively place.
For dinner, head towards the restaurant Ruta de la Plata, also known as El Patio Chico (13, Calle Meléndez), located very close to Pontificia University. It is a very welcoming place, decorated in the Baroque style, and offers a huge variety of home-made dishes on its menu. The portions are large and you can try typical Salamancan dishes, such as: chanfaina (a type of stew with lamb and rice), patatas meneás (potatoes with bacon and paprika), paella, green beans, asparagus with two sauces, consommés and soups, and various salads. You could also try their barbecues or grilled meats, very typical of the cuisine in this region.
After dinner, you’ll want to experience some of the student nightlife that you see in the streets all around the city centre. It’s really easy to find a bar or pub for a drink, because the tide of people will drag you along to the most popular spots. There are lots of places open, all with very different styles. One of the nicest places is the Café Bar Mustang (3, Calle Escultor Martínez Montañés), with a decor based on the legendary Ford Mustang. It has a terrace away from the noise of the street, where you can enjoy speciality coffees or liqueurs of all types. The music is really good and it is the perfect place to relax after such an intense day.
Salamanca is a very special city, as you have probably been able to see for yourself during the first day. It is also exceptional because it has two cathedrals, which makes it a practically unique. This is because the “new” cathedral of Asunción de la Virgen (4, Calle del Patio Chico), the seat of the Salamanca diocese, was built next to the old cathedral of Santa María. A larger church was needed to accommodate the growing population of this university city. The initial idea was to destroy the old religious building once the new cathedral was finished, but, in the end, they kept both.
Start with the new cathedral, with its Gothic style and Baroque details, for which entrance is free of charge. If you look along the left side of the Puerta de Ramos doorway, you’ll see the sculpted figure of an astronaut. This modern addition to a façade full of religious figures and carved vegetation is a touch of artistic licence from the restorers, a nod to the modernity of the 20th century. Once inside, walk the length of the huge aisle (100 metres) and look up to enjoy the amazing spectacle of this building replete with stained glass windows.
The old cathedral, where you’ll need to pay to visit the cloisters and museum, has a transept with three aisles and three apses, two of which have pointed arches, making it a solid, fortress-like building. The restored interior is amazingly beautiful and the exhibitions offered by the museum tend to be of historic or artistic interest, but not necessarily of a religious nature.
On your second day in Salamanca, you have two, very different options for lunch. You could go for tapas, which is what many Salamancans and students choose, going from bar to bar trying small portions of typical dishes with every drink you order. But, if you are tired of pounding the streets, you could try a good restaurant to sit down, relax, and gather your strength. The Chez Victor restaurant (26, Calle de Espoz y Mina) is famous in Salamanca, and you won’t be disappointed. It specialises in the most delicious French cuisine, and is an ideal place for those of a romantic disposition, because it is decorated in a welcoming, rustic style. One peculiar thing about this restaurant: it houses an amazing collection of bottles filled with earth from all over the world.
It’s getting late and you are coming to the end of your trip. What better way to say goodbye to this city than with a picture-perfect image burned in your memory... If you cross to the other side of the Tormes River via the Roman bridge, you can walk along the river bank and view the city from this exceptional position. This vista, together with the calm atmosphere of this spot and the sound of the water flowing along the river, is a situation on which wonderful memories are built. It is a scene and a feeling you will want to return to, whenever you want to visit Salamanca again.