León’s historical and architectural heritage, as well as the numerous festivals hosted throughout the year (particularly noteworthy are the Easter processions) and its location on the French Way of the Camino de Santiago, which is ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, make it a destination of both domestic and international tourism.
Santa María de Regla de León Cathedral is a Catholic church, the episcopal see of the diocese of León in north-western Spain, consecrated under the name of the Virgin Mary. It was the first monument declared by the Royal Order of Spain on August 28, 1844 (confirmed by the Royal Order on September 24, 1845).
Initiated in the 18th century, it is one of the greatest works of the Gothic style, with French influences. Also known as the Pulchra Leonina, which means ‘Beautiful Leonese,’ it is located on the Way of Saint James, or Camino de Santiago.
The León Cathedral is mostly known for taking the “dematerialization” of gothic art to the extreme, that is, the reduction of the walls to their minimum expression to be replaced by stained glass, constituting one of the largest collections of medieval stained glass in the world.
The main façade has two towers. The southern tower is known as the ‘clock tower’. The Renaissance retrochoir contains alabaster sculptures by Jusquin, Copin of Holland and Juan de Malinas. Particularly noteworthy is the Plateresque iron grillwork screen or reja in the wall behind the sepulchre of King Ordoño.
It has three portals decorated with sculptures situated in the pointed arches between the two towers. The central section has a large rose window. Particularly outstanding is the image of the Virgen Blanca and the Locus Appellatione, where justice was imparted.
The church has nearly 1,800 square meters of stained glass windows. The great majority of them date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century: a rarity among medieval gothic churches.
The Basílica de San Isidoro de León is a church located on the site of an ancient Roman temple. Its Christian roots can be traced back to the early 10th century when a monastery for Saint John the Baptist was erected on the grounds.
In 1063 the basilica was rededicated to Saint Isidore of Seville. Isidore was archbishop of Seville, and the most celebrated academic and theologian of Visigothic Spain in the period preceding the Arab invasions. With the agreement of Abbad II al-Mu’tadid, the Muslim ruler of Seville, Isidore’s relics were brought to Leon where they could be interred on Christian soil. The tomb of the saint still draws many visitors today. An equestrian statue of Saint Isidore dressed as a Moor-slayer is visible, along with many other sculptures, high on the facade.
In 1188, the Cortes of León were held in here. It was the first sample of modern parliamentarism in the history of Europe, according to the UNESCO and John Keane’s book “The Life and Death of Democracy”.
The Convento de San Marcos is today an operating luxury parador 4stars hotel. It also contains a consecrated church and museum, and is one of the most important monuments of the Renaissance in Spain. It is one of the greatest architectural jewels of León, together with the Cathedral, the Basilica of San Isidoro and la Casa Botines.
It has a highly ornamental plateresque facade. The darkest period in the monastery of San Marcos’s five centuries of history is concentrated in just four years. During the course of the Spanish Civil War cells, rooms, stables, cloisters, church, choir, museum and every fast corner of the building were transformed into impromptu dungeons or jailers’ offices.
Between July 1936 and the end of 1940, up to 7,000 men and 300 women were imprisoned at the same time. It is estimated that, over the entire war and the period immediately following, the number of Republican militia members and political prisoners that passed through its cells totaled some 20,000. In the province of Leon, around 3,000 deaths are recorded due to the repression, and a good number of these came from the dungeons of San Marcos.
San Juan y San Pedro de Renueva was built in the mid-20th century in Neo-Renaissance style by will of the local bishop, Luis Almarcha Hernández. Its main artistical feature is the entrance gate, in Baroque style, taken from the ruined monastery of San Pedro de Eslonza, located 22 km outside León in the municipality of Gradefes.
It dates from 1711 and was designed by the architect Pedro Martínez de Cardeña. It has three orders, the first characterized by four Ionic columns over pedestals, the second similar to the former, apart the use of Corinthian columns and the narrower length. It is sided by two circular windows, and surmounted by another one over a coat of arms. The façade ha five niches, now empty, but originally housing statues of saints.
In the historic center we have to highlight the churches of the Palat del Rey, Our Lady of the market and the church of San Marcelo.
The Church of San Salvador de Palat del Rey is the oldest temple in the city of León, it was founded in the 10th century by Ramiro II de León and, as its name suggests, it is the temple of the King’s Palat (Palace). Its past as a royal oratory of the Leonese monarchy gives a good account of its own choice of dedication, San Salvador, recalling the Oviedo main temple, or its use as a monarchy pantheon, before the construction of what would be the great Isidorian mausoleum. Few remains of the original pre-Romanesque temple can be seen today, although it has recently been restored and made a museum.
The Church of Our Lady of the Market is a church with a basilica plan in the shape of a sepulcher, being narrower at the foot. It has a Romanesque doorway with a blind arch, two Romanesque apses also decorated with a furnace vault, capitals and impost lines with checkered pattern. The feet of the building are closed with a ribbed vault. The tower is the work of Felipe de Cajiga (1598), having been finished off by Fernando de Compostiza. Of what was the church dedicated to the Roman centurion Marcelo, nothing remains but a Gothic doorway. The current temple is in the Herrerian style, completed at the beginning of the 17th century. From the outside, the square tower of the church stands out, covered with characteristic bricks, which overlooks the Plaza de Santo Domingo.
Other ecclesiastical ensembles of relevance could be the church of San Francisco, the church of San Juan and San Pedro y Renueva and the convent of the concepcionistas.
The church of San Francisco, whose current construction dates back to the second half of the 18th century, built with classical forms and dedicated to San Francisco. It is associated with the Capuchin convent and is located opposite the park to which it gives its name.
The Convent of the Conceptionists, founded in 1512 by Leonor de Quiñones, has a Romanesque façade of the old building and corridors with Mudejar paintings. Its church has a single nave, with a 16th century headboard, the work of Juan del Ribero. Artistic furniture, baroque altarpieces, paintings and goldsmiths are preserved inside.
Special mention should be made of the Neo-Romanesque chapel of Christ of Victory, built at the end of the 19th century by Demetrio de los Ríos, one of the main restorers of the Cathedral of León. The cover imitates the door of Forgiveness of the Basilica of San Isidoro de León. Inside there is a Gothic sculpture of the crucified.
The Casa Botines (built 1891-1892) is a Modernist building designed by Antoni Gaudí. It currently houses a museum dedicated to Gaudi, Spanish art of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the history of the building itself.
After being built for a fabrics company, it was adapted to serve as the headquarters of a local savings bank (first Caja León, later Caja España).
The Palacio del Conde Luna is a monument from this old 14th-century palace, built by Pedro Suárez de Quiñones and his wife Juana González de Bazán, the central body of the façade is preserved, with three shields, the central one of the Quiñones and the sides of the Bazán. It is built of ashlar stone and is about eleven meters wide. The façade is Gothic with a lintel over modillions, a large pointed arch covers the tympanum, and is framed in wide molding.
The Palacio de los Guzmanes is a Renaissance building; it is the seat of Provincial Government of León.
The architect Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón built the palace in the 16th century, commissioned by the aristocratic family of Guzman, one of the city’s powerful and influential families. It is three-story high with square towers at the four corners and is arranged around a two-story courtyard. The façade has a round arches gallery on the top floor.
In “la Plaza de Santo Domingo”, the palace stands tall, right next to “la casa de botines” and is one of the prize possessions of “El Casco Viejo (antiguo)” of Leon.
The wall of León is the Roman fortification, whose origin dates back to the 1st century, by the medieval fences or wall, from the 14th century, and by the León castle, today the seat of the provincial historical archive. The walls were built by Legio VI to control the Asturian population of the area and rebuilt by Legio VII in stone in 74 AD. The first draft reform was carried out in the tetraarchic period, still under Roman rule.
The repopulation of the city in the 9th century by the kingdom of Asturias led to the repair of the wall using the methods of the time. The first expansion to the south of the city was carried out due to the increase in the number of villages outside the walls, something that would finally also lead to Alfonso XI having the fences built to protect the new borough.
Main square, located in the heart of the old town, was completed in 1677 according to plans by Francisco del Piñal, following the example of other Spanish main squares, in particular, Madrid. The Consistory building that presides over the square is in the Baroque style and was designed by Francisco del Piñal himself as a balcony for the municipal corporation to preside over the events in the square.
The square was the great commercial center of the city during the Middle Ages and until the 19th century, dedicating itself to the market twice a week and with the existence of all kinds of shops in its arcades, with supremacy of food products, but also drugstores, hardware stores, silver stores, crafts, etc. Today the market in the square continues to exist, held every Wednesday and Saturday.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, better known as the MUSAC, is a contemporary art museum inaugurated in April 2005 by Felipe, Prince of Asturias, this cultural institution aims to be a “Museum of the Present”, in the words of its curator Agustín Pérez Rubio, and thus only collects artworks from the latest generation of artists, between 1992 and 2012.
The museum has won international prestige for its 21st-century collection and innovative programming, being labelled, for example, as “one of the most astonishingly bold museums to hit the Spanish cultural landscape in years” by The New York Times.
The Museum of León is the oldest in the province and is dedicated to narrate its history through Archeology, Art and Ethnography. Inaugurated in 1869, although founded from the activity of the Provincial Commission of Monuments of León in the context of the nineteenth-century Confiscation, since 2007 it has been located in what is known as the Pallarés Building, in the center of the City. It also has two annexes: the Roman Villa of Navatejera, in the neighboring municipality of Villaquilambre, and the old convent of San Marcos, in the same capital, which is also the historical headquarters of the Museum.
The Museum of the Royal Collegiate Church of San Isidoro stands out for the Pantheon of the Kings, which is called the Sistine Chapel of the Romanesque for its elaborate frescoes. Other relevant pieces are the San Isidoro casket, the Doña Urraca chalice, from the 11th century, the Ivory Chest and the Pantocrator Portapaz, from the same century, and the Limoges Chest, among others.
Within the wide range of Leonese cuisine the following dishes are the most representative: cecina (cured, smoked beef meat), morcilla (a blood sausage), botillo (a dish of meat-stuffed pork intestine), garlic soup, el cocido leonés (a mix of meat with vegetables and chickpeas, served after a vegetable-vermicelli soup) and mantecadas (pastry).
Another very important part of the gastronomy of León are the tapas, which are usually given free with drinks, unlike in the rest of Spain. It is very common to go “de tapas” or “tapear” i.e. to go for a few drinks (“un corto”, which is a very small beer, “una caña”, which is roughly half a pint of beer or “un vino”, a glass of wine) just before lunch but more normally as a light form of dinner.
There are no Michelin list restaurants in the city.
How to get to?
León Airport is located approximately 6 kilometres away from the city centre. It offers mostly domestic flights within the country. Currently two Spanish airlines operate in it: Iberia/Air Nostrum and Air Europa.
Air Nostrum offers flights from and to Barcelona. During the summer months the number of available destinations increases, and flights are also offered from and to Palma de Mallorca, Tenerife, Ibiza, Menorca, Málaga, and Gran Canaria.
León has two railway stations, León railway station on the RENFE line, and León-Matallana on the FEVE lines. There are high-speed services that connect León to Madrid in approximately two hours. Other destinations directly reachable from León are Galicia (to the West), Asturias (to the North) and Valladolid (to the South-East, in the same route as Madrid).
Distance by car to other main cities of Castile and León and Madrid
Madrid 3 hr 29 min (337 km) via A-6
Valladolid 1 hr 46 min (140 km) via N-601
Ávila 2 hr 37 min (264 km) via A-6
Palencia 1 hr 26 min (132 km) via CL-615 and A-231
Burgos 1 hr 43 min (179 km) via A-231
Salamanca 2 hr (205 km) via A-66
Segovia 2 hr 46 min (262 km) via A-601 and N-601
Soria 3 hr 13 min (311 km) via N-234 and A-231
Zamora 1 hr 28 min (142 km) via A-66
Area: 39 sq. km
GPS coordinates: 42°35′56″N 5°34′01″W
Population: 124 028
Time: Central European UTC +1, in summer +2