Alcalá de Henares – a UNESCO site and a native city of Miguel de Cervantes

Alcalá de Henares is a city in the Community of Madrid, Spain.

It was declared a World Heritage City by Unesco in 1998. Thanks to the historic site and the University Rectorate, it is one of the nine cities in Spain that Unesco has classified as unique. It is famous for its University, built thanks to Cardinal Cisneros on April 13, 1499, but after languishing during the 18th century, through the Royal Order of the Regent Queen of October 29, 1836, its abolition was decreed in Alcalá and transferred to Madrid, where it was renamed the Central University.

For much of the late middle-ages and the early modern period before becoming part of the province of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares was a seigneurial estate of the archbishops of Toledo.

It is the native city of Miguel de Cervantes.

Alcalá is well known for its population of white storks. Their large nests can be observed atop many of the churches and historic buildings in the city, and are themselves a significant tourist attraction.

Tourism and main attractions

Cisneriana University or University of Alcalá

It is made up of a set of major and minor colleges dating from the Renaissance founded by Cardinal Cisneros in 1499. This set of monuments contains important vestiges of the Modern Age, for which UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

Calle Mayor

Built around the 12th century, following the layout of the Caesar Augusta Roman road that passed through Complutum, it was part of the old Jewish quarter of the city, and one of its main commercial hubs.

Archbishop’s Palace

It is a fortress palace located in the historic center of the city, its construction begun in 1209, in which numerous protagonists in the history of Spain have been born, lived and died. It is currently the seat of the Diocese of Alcalá de Henares. It is located in the Palace Square and is part of the monumental complex declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Cathedral-Magistral of the Holy Children Justo and Pastor

This cathedral, together with the church of San Pedro de Louvaina (Belgium), is the only one in the world that has the title of Magistral. This means that all its canons should be, since the time of Cisneros, professors at the University of Alcalá. Its construction belongs to the late Gothic also called flamboyant. The slender tower and Renaissance cloister of Herrerian design stand out. Inside are the remains of the founder of the university, Cardinal Cisneros.

Birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes

Modern reconstruction of an old 16th century house on the site of the house where, according to tradition, the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, was born in 1547. The different rooms of a typical Spanish noble house from the Golden Age: work room, kitchen, dining room, ladies’ stage and the medical equipment room that could well have belonged to Cervantes’s father. Its interior is decorated with interesting period furniture and one of the best collections from different editions of Don Quixote.

Corral de Comedias de Alcalá (1601)

The Corral de Comedias de Alcalá is one of the oldest theaters in Europe, its construction dates back to 1601. Inside you can distinguish the different transformations that the European theater has undergone. Visiting the different rooms you can see the arrangement in which the men and women of the Spain of the Golden Age and later stages were situated, as well as the changes in the scenery, the stage set and the spaces in which the sets were prepared and “special effects” of each era.

Laredo Palace (Neo-Gothic-Mudejar)

Originally built in the mid-nineteenth century as a private home in the Neo-Gothic-Mudejar style. It is currently the headquarters of the Cisneriano Museum where we can find different archaeological pieces incorporated into the architecture and decoration of the building. The museum’s collection has works as important as an original edition of the Complutense Polyglot Bible, the Antwerp Bible or historical documentation related to the University of Alcalá.

Antezana Hospital

Founded in 1483, it has been kept in operation since its foundation until today, making it one of the oldest hospitals in Spain. According to tradition, Rodrigo de Cervantes, father of the great writer, worked as a surgeon in this hospital. Its architecture stands out for the double Mudejar eaves and the central patio with columns and wooden corridors to which the room where Saint Ignatius of Loyola was recovering after his long journey on foot from Barcelona to Alcalá.

Chapel of the Oidor and Tower of Santa María

The old church of Santa María closed the Plaza de Cervantes but was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. From its remains – the Capilla del Oidor, which is an exhibition center. From the bell tower there is one of the best panoramic views of the city.

Puerta de Madrid (18th century)

The current construction replaced the medieval gate in the 18th century. It was built in 1788 ordered by the Archbishop of Toledo Francisco de Lorenzana, under the plans of the architect Antonio Juana Jordán. It is located near the Plaza de los Santos Niños, a very visited square where the Magistral is also located. As a curious fact, it is worth mentioning that the monument appears in the film Espartaco (1960) by Stanley Kubrick, as well as the walled enclosure and the entire surroundings of Andrés Saborit street.

Castle of Alcalá La Vieja

It is a medieval fortress, of Arab origin, whose first references date back to the 10th century. Of the old fortification, only a defensive tower, recently restored, and different remains of some towers. The castle stands on a clayey promontory, close to the witness hill known as Ecce Homo (836 m), in the valley of the Henares river. In its vicinity is the hermitage of Nuestra Señora del Val.

Cervantine city

The city celebrates the birthday of native son Miguel de Cervantes on 9 October every year and organizes an annual Cervantes festival, the Semana Cervantina (Cervantine Week).

Every year on 23 April, the anniversary of Cervantes’ death, the city of Alcalá hosts the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most prestigious award for lifetime achievement in literature. The award is presented by the king of Spain at the University of Alcalá’s historic Colegio de San Ildefonso. Speeches about the importance of the Spanish language are customarily given by the king, the minister of culture and the laureate.

The ceremony attracts a wide range of dignitaries to the city including members of the royal family, the prime minister, and others. During this ceremony the citizens of Alcalá can be heard singing the city’s song, entitled “Alcalá de Henares.”

Alcalá de Henares is a member (and promoter) of the Red de Ciudades Cervantinas (Network of Cervantine Cities).

Best restaurants

There are two Michelin list restaurants in the city:

  • Ambigú, Cervantes 7, 35 – 45 EUR • Modern Cuisine, Creative
  • Ki-Jote, San Diego de Alcalá 3, 15 – 70 EUR • Japanese, Fusion

How to get to?

From Madrid 50 min (41.8 km) via A-2

From Guadalajara 27 min (26.8 km) via A-2

Main information

Area: 88 sq. km

GPS coordinates: 40°28′55″N 3°21′51″W

Language: Spanish

Population: 197 562

Currency: Euro

Visa: Schengen

Time: Central European UTC +1, in summer +2

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