48 hours in Salamanca

It's one of Spain's most ancient, most beautiful cities. And it's now a European Capital of Culture.
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The Independent Travel

The icing on the cake

Salamanca is old and beautiful, but it is refreshing to find something in the city that is relatively modern. The Casa Lis, 14 Calle Gibraltar (00 34 923 12 14 25) is an Art Nouveau building housing the Art Nouveau and Art Deco collections that once belonged to a local industrialist. The stained-glass dome is striking, and there are some beautiful objects in the museum: furniture, glass, statuettes and jewellery, as well as an extensive collection of European dolls.

Bracing brunch

Many of Salamanca's most popular restaurants are in or around the Calle Pozo Amarillo. The best of these, although by no means the cheapest, is the long-established Restaurante el Candil at 14-16 Calle de Ventura Ruiz Aguilera (00 34 923 21 72 39). The menu concentrates on Spanish specialities, both meat and fish, and there are hot and cold tapas in the bar if you are too hungry to wait for your meal.

Why go now?

On 1 January, Salamanca – along with Bruges – takes over the mantle of European Capital of Culture. The city hopes the status will attract visitors to the least-known grand Spanish city. Events during the year include several exhibitions, a season of baroque operas, and a year-long celebration of European film. For more information, tel: 00 34 923 281 601; or www.salamanca2002.org

Beam down

The nearest international airport is Madrid, which is well served by flights from the UK. The cheapest seats are usually on easyJet (0870 6000 000; www.easyJet.com) from Luton and Liverpool; fares from around £60 return. Iberia (0845 601 2854; www.iberia.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555, www.fly-bmi.com) fly from Heathrow, as does British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) – which also has services from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester. The drive from Madrid's Barajas airport avoids the capital, and takes around two hours. If you prefer to use public transport, there are trains from Madrid's Chamartin station, and regular buses (00 34 902 02 09 99) from the bus station on Calle Fernandez Shaw. The quickest way to reach central Madrid from the airport is usually the shuttle bus, but during rush hour, the underground is probably quicker.

Check in

The Gran Hotel at 3 Plaza del Poeta Iglesias (00 34 923 213 5000), is one of the best hotels in the city. It is tucked between the main Plaza Mayor and the Plaza del Mercado. Doubles start at €165.50 (£103), singles at €132.50 (£82); breakfast is extra. For something even more central, try the Hotel Las Torres. Some of its rooms overlook the Plaza Mayor, even though the main entrance is at 4 Calle Concejo (00 34 923 21 21 00). Doubles start at €79.33 (£49), singles at €60.10 (£37), and breakfast is an extra €7.81 (£5).

Get your bearings

The centre of Salamanca is bordered on one side by the north bank of the Tormes river. The remainder of the old town is enclosed within a loop of broad avenues. This keeps traffic out of the centre, and visitors in: the only reason to venture further afield is to look at the Roman bridge. This crosses the river in front of the Casa Lis, and from it there is a lovely view of the city. The Plaza Mayor, the finest main square in Spain, is the hub from which the main streets fan out.

Take a hike

Start in the arcaded Plaza Mayor. Every column is topped by a medallion featuring the bust of one of the Spanish kings and queens or a historical figure. From the square, head south down the Calle San Pablo, and turn to pass the Torre del Clavero on the corner of the Plaza de Colon. Stop to visit the Convento de las Dueñas on the way to the beautifully preserved convent of San Esteban. It is impossible to get lost in the old city, but aim to walk down the Calle de Compania on the way back to the Plaza Mayor, so that you pass the Casa de Conchas, now the public library; it is identifiable by the shell shapes (conchas) that adorn it.

Lunch on the run

The best venue on the Plaza Mayor, unless you are determined to sit outside, is the Meson Cervantes on the first floor of number 15 (00 34 923 21 72 13). The set lunch is good value, but if you fancy something lighter, there are plenty of salads as well as some traditional Spanish favourites. Many of the tables look down on to the square; others, on the opposite side of the building, look towards the Plaza del Mercado.

Cultural afternoon

Salamanca's university is one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1215. Several of the buildings are open to visitors. The centre of the university is the Patio de las Escuelas, a small, quiet square, on one side of which is the main Escuelas Mayores building; its façade is among the city's most striking features. The building is constructed around a cloister, off which are the university chapel and a number of ancient lecture halls. Upstairs is the library, which contains a vast number of priceless manuscripts and books. Outside again is a museum, housed in the Escuelas Menores building.

Window shopping

The liveliest shopping streets are the pedestrianised ones leading north from the Plaza Mayor: Calle Toro and Calle Zamora. Both have a number of stylish clothes shops, chief among them a branch of Zara in each street, and Mango at the top of Zamora. Although these chains exist in the UK, prices in Spain are two-thirds of what we would pay here, so your weekend could start to pay for itself. Other shops worth visiting include the duty-free perfume and cosmetics store, Sephora at 24 Calle Toro, and a number of places selling leather bags and shoes.

An aperitif

Salamanca is a city of students, and there are any number of cheap places to drink. The best place for a glass of wine and some tapas is around the Plaza del Mercado. One of the most typical is Mindo, at number 8, which is usually full of market traders; but the most popular is La Bellota Charra, which has three branches, at 8-10 and 14 Plaza del Mercado, and 2 Calle Obispo Jarrin.

Dinner with the locals

A popular spot is the Meson Chapeau at 20 Gran Via (00 34 923 265 795), one of the city's most elegant thoroughfares. The door opens into a small bar, and the restaurant is beyond it. The menu combines Spanish and international dishes, and the wine is taken very seriously. Expect to dine alone if you turn up much before 9pm. The restaurant is closed on Sunday.

Sunday morning: go to church

Salamanca has two cathedrals, the newer one grafted on to the other. The entrance is through the Catedral Nueva, not exactly modern at more than 400 years old, but newer than the 12th-century cathedral, which originally had the site to itself. This older cathedral is most striking for its Renaissance altarpiece, a series of panels depicting biblical scenes. Opening off the cloisters, there are a handful of beautiful and unusual chapels. The new cathedral is Gothic in design, and it is here that Mass is celebrated, at 9am each day, and at 11am on Sundays.