Discover the best things to do in Toledo, Spain's former capital, with a few days in this UNESCO World Heritage City.
With bold, block arches above ground and hidden passageways beneath, Toledo is a city designed to surprise.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN TOLEDO, SPAIN
Perched on a steep outcrop from the days when capitals needed to defend themselves, you'll find plenty of medieval walls, cobbled streets, gates and the sense of a fortress.
Former wealth and power exude from the delicate carvings and imposing facades, as well you might imagine from other similar cities across Europe.
But Toledo really stands out for its former tolerance. Its role in shaping the arts. And its new role as an emerging culinary destination.
Most visit as a day trip from Madrid but the best way to enjoy this craggy peak of cobbled streets and the twisty history is to stay for a couple of days. As one of Spain's capitals of gastronomy, your tastebuds will thank you.
What to do in Toledo, Spain - Quick Facts
The medieval city of Toledo sits proud on the plains of Castilla-La Mancha, only 30 minutes from Madrid by high-speed train.
Toledo's top attractions include the Old Town and Cathedral, the medieval synagogues of Santa María La Blanca and El Tránsito in the Jewish Quarter, the Roman Baths and the museum dedicated to former resident and art superstar El Greco.
Such rich pickings reflect Toledo’s capital status until it was unceremoniously overtaken by Madrid in 1563.
Come the European summertime months, the hordes descend on these tiny cobbled streets as daytrippers seek to notch up those sights before zipping back to Madrid before the purple night clouds fall.
You can avoid all of that by making Toledo, and her surrounding La Mancha, the focus of your visit.
Toledo: City of Three Cultures
Everyone loves a good nickname and Toledo goes by the term "City of Three Cultures." This refers to its mix of Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations who lived side by side for centuries.
The real charm, for me, came at night when the tourists faded into the shadows and dissolved back to Madrid. Spain’s famed inability to ever go to bed at a reasonable hour emerged at a gentle, almost twinkling pace.
Echoing courtyards, wine tasting via computer game, chattering beneath floodlit cathedrals.
More tired than usual due to my then-hidden-ish pregnancy, I walked home alone, reflecting on those who had lived together, harmoniously, for a time on these steep, moonlit cobblestones.
And perhaps that was the most magnificent view of all. A glimpse into the past that teaches us, once again, that good things are possible. Always.
For now, goodnight Toledo.
CLASSIC ATTRACTIONS IN TOLEDO
Catedral de Toledo
With doorways nestling into each other like Russian dolls, the Toledo Cathedral displays all the flamboyant features of medieval Gothic architecture. Rose windows, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointy arches. Inside, you'll find works by the greats like Velazquez, Goya and El Greco.
The life of the cathedral is as complicated as that of Toledo itself. From church, to mosque, to cathedral, today's highlight includes its baroque golden high altar with heavenly light pouring in from a strategically placed window.
MONASTERIO DE JUAN DE LOS REYES
In a country overflowing with beautiful religious buildings, this one stands out. Inextricably linked with those most famous monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, the spires and arches combine with the gardens to give a sense of both grandeur and tranquility. Even if you're experiencing architectural fatigue, make the effort to visit the San Juan Monastery.
THE SYNAGOGUE OF EL TRÁNSITO
Conjuring up memories of the ridiculously beautiful Alhambra in Granada, the Synagogue of El Tránsito stands out on its own and with its story. Built in 1356 for Samuel ha_Levi Abulafia, the treasurer to the king, it defied the rule that synagogues should stand no taller than churches and should not be as beautiful.
Permission was granted as a gesture to atone for the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1348 during the Black Death. However, the good times didn't last for long.
The treasurer was executed and the synagogue converted into a church following the expulsion of Jews by Isabel and Ferdinand in 1492.
It became a military headquarters during the Napoleonic wars before becoming a National Monument and transforming into the Sephardic Museum.
THE MOSQUE OF CRISTO DE LA LUZ
This mosque, or Mezquita, reminds us all that for centuries, the Islamic Moors ruled this part of the world. Like many of Spain's mosques, it was later converted to a church, but the architecture links back to the type seen in Al Andalus (now Andalusia.)
The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz is one of the best preserved Moorish mosques in Spain and even beneath that (quite literally) are the remains of a Roman road.
THE ALCÁZAR OF TOLEDO
This stone fortress bookends the Toledo Cathedral to create the distinctive skyline of the city. Back in the 3rd century, the Alcázar functioned as a Roman palace but such glamour switched to military practicalities as history marched on. The Alcázar played a key role during the Spanish Civil War and became an icon for many.
THE ROMAN BATHS
These stone remains and underground water systems remind us of yet another layer of history. While they are interesting to visit, they are not on the grand scale of, say, the Roman Baths in Bath Spa, England. So if you find yourself short on time, this might be one to skip.
THE SYNAGOGE OF SANTA MARIA LA BLANCA
As possibly the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe, Santa Maria la Blanca carries a beautiful sense of peace. Built in 1180, its white arches with decorative stone seem to reach up to the sky.
TOP MUSEUMS IN TOLEDO
THE SANTA CRUZ MUSEUM
Located in the grounds of a 16th century hospital, the Santa Cruz Museum cloaks its contents in Mudejar and Renaissance coffered ceilings. The museum divides itself into three areas: archaeology, fine arts and industrial arts.
It's another place for cool cloisters and a walk through the past.
EL GRECO MUSEUM
Not for nothing did El Greco get his nickname. Born in Crete, he spent most of his adult life in Spain as one of the most prominent painters of the era. History has raised his work even higher than that.
For many years, he lived in Toledo and the El Greco Museum aims to recreate his home and showcase his work. The museum combines a 16th century house with an early 20th century building to exhibit not only the work of El Greco but also that of other 17th century artists.
THE CAVES OF HERCULES
Head underground to the caves of Hercules, the Roman vaults that still live under the foundation of the city.
THE BEST FOODIES THINGS TO DO IN TOLEDO
SHOP FOR MARZIPAN
The distinctive almond confectionery is the big taste in town. The Santo Tomé brand is the most well known and easily found across Toledo. If you're looking for more direction, check out the dedicated shop on Plaza de Zocodover or the Mazapanes Santo Tomé shop on Calle Santo Tomé. Jacinta & Maria Chocolates in Calle de Santa Fe is another good bet.
To add a clandestine thrill to proceedings, shop for marzipan made by the nuns at the Convento de Santo Domingo el Antiguo. It's sold through a rotating mechanism to protect the nuns from the sins of the outside world.
CREATE A DIY FOOD SAFARI
See if you can track down the typical dishes in Toledo:
- Ciervo en salsa (venison stew),
- Partridge stew,
- Queso de overjaor (aged sheep’s milk cheese)
- Carcamusas (slow-cooked pork stew served in a clay dish).
TOLEDO: CAPITAL OF GASTRONOMY
Toledo has ratcheted up the prestigious title of Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy 2016, expanding on its traditional marzipan treats into Michelin-starred dining, wine tasting for beginners, underground bodegas and chorizo-laced migas.
BEST SHOPPING THINGS TO DO IN TOLEDO
The medieval centre of Toledo makes shopping an atmospheric pleasure, rather than a harried chore. Numerous arts, crafts and antique shops line the steep, uneven streets. Keep your eyes looking for the following:
- Ceramics with gorgeous Arab-influenced motifs.
- Striking damascene souvenirs (black steel with intricate gold inlays.) You'l find them as medicine boxes, jewellery, swords and plates.
- Religious and medieval artefacts. Some high quality. Some less so...
- Toledo steel knives are famed for their high quality alloy. I'm thinking cooking here, rather than more nefarious purposes. Do think through whether or not you will be able to get this through airport security on your way home. Stay safe and sensible, guys.
BEST VIEWPOINTS IN TOLEDO
MIRADOR deL VALLE
For a deliciously sweeping view of Toledo, head to Mirador del Valle. If you're driving there yourself, make this your first stop before you head into the city.
The viewpoint provides postcard-perfect or drone worthy (depending on your age) views of this incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital.
THE PUENTE DE SAN MARTIN BRIDGE
When a city's natural geography gives it the feel of a castle, it befits the place to have an appropriately grand gate and stone bridge entrance across the moat.
The Punte de San Martín Bridge crosses the Tagus River with squat, stone mini-castles guarding either end.
PLANNING A TRIP TO TOLEDO, SPAIN
You can either slot Toledo into a broader Spanish itinerary or relish all the things to do in Toledo by making it the focus of your trip.
If you are only travelling to Toledo, rather than the rest of La Mancha, then take the train from the airport to Toledo and explore by foot. Alternatively, you can join a group tour to see Toledo as a day trip from Madrid, like this.
- For a place to stay, explore the cream and gold elegance of the Fontecruz Toledo.
WHAT TO SEE BEYOND TOLEDO: EXPLORING LA MANCHA
Toledo’s surroundings include the infamous windmills of Don Quixote, the UNESCO biosphere reserve of the Tablas de Daimiel and the house and former acting grounds of Shakespeare’s contemporary: Cervantes.
For a trip like this, you are best off hiring a car and staying in one of the smaller villages for a truly authentic trip.