In the shadow of Spain’s capital, is Alcalá de Henares, a city rich with history, culture, charm and ambiance. The streets are bustling with activity, but very few foreign tourists.
Spaniards know that Alcalá de Henares is where Miguel de Cervantes was born, and where, at the Archiepiscopal Palace of Alcalá de Henares, Christopher Columbus had his first meeting with Spanish Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Many people from Madrid make the 40 minute journey by commuter train to visit the city for a day trip.
I recently had the chance to get to know the city better than most, staying two nights in Alcalá for a conference for Writers and Bloggers About Spain. My eyes were opened to the all of the history, culture and activities it has on offer. Here are five reasons why you should check out this hidden gem right under Madrid’s nose.
It’s full of history
Alcalá is thought of as a medieval city, because Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quijote, was born there in 1547, and put it on the map. But in fact it’s history goes back much further. It has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and there was a Carpetanian settlement, called Iplacea there before the Roman’s conquered it and build their own city of Complutum there in the 1st century BC, making it the only Roman city in the Madrid region. To learn more about the region’s ancient history, be sure to visit Alcalá’s Archeological Museum.
Today, the town is more known for being home to one of the world’s oldest university campuses. The city was completely rebuilt and planned as a university city in the 15th century. Many of the buildings from that era still in use today. While Alcalá’s University of Complutense was moved to Madrid in 1836, today it is a university town once again. The University of Alcalá opened there in 1977 and brought many of the original university’s buildings back to academic use.
While many buildings have had to been rebuilt over the years, many historic buildings remained and the city maintains is rich character. From the hotel, to the meeting rooms, to the streets and restaurants – every place I stepped into during my weekend in Alcalá was filled with historic charm. I stayed at the Evenia Alcalá Boutique, a three-star hotel housed in a 16th century building with a charming courtyard located near the city’s Cathedral. The pedestrian Calle Mayor is a main street of shops and restaurants that connects the Cathedral to the city’s main Plaza de Cervantes. Its cobble stones and wood-framed buildings take you back in time. It is on this street that the birth house of Miguel de Cervantes can be found, right next to the medieval hospital where his father used to work. Alcalá was named an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
Great food, drinks and nightlife, for any budget
There are few places in Spain that still offer free tapas (small plates) with each drink. Granada, in Andalucia, is famous for being one of them. But, thankfully for those of in Madrid, we can just pop over to Alcalá de Henares to get our fix, as several places in Alcalá still take part in this fabulous tradition, the most famous being the iconic Indalo. For sit-down meal options, it was difficult to choose. We ended up having lunch at El Hemisferio Loft where we had a fantastic, upscale menu del dia (set menu) with excellent food and service. Another night we ate at the cute wine bar El Tempranillo, with a great wine selection and dinner menu. Also at the top of my lists were the restaurants Lucrecia and Martilota, which came highly recommended.
By staying overnight in Alcalá I was able to discover how bustling the place is after dark. I didn’t expect for their to be so much happening at night, but people in Alcala definitely know how to party. The most emblematic of Alcalá’s night spots is The Green Irish Pub. With two floors of music and a concession area, there’s something for everyone. If you’re looking for a more upscale evening, you can check out the Hanoi House, which offers both an indoor and outdoor bar atop Alcala’s market, with nice views. I only went out one night in Alcalá so there were many other bars I didn’t get to try. Other places that looked interesting were La Champa 2.0 Karaoke Bar, Mi Niña Lola and Bar TDK.
Storks, storks everywhere!
In addition to everything else, Alcalá is also famous for being home to more storks than any other Spanish town, owing to its conservation work which has greatly increased the number of breeding pairs, which is now well over 90. The best time to see them is between mid-October and the beginning of August, although it’s said that each year they stay longer and more and more arrive. They love this place, thanks to the many steeples that are perfect for building their nests. The large birds circling over the city and perched atop buildings have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The the city’s tourism office has even created a special “Storks Route” touristic itinerary that features the birds’ most notable nesting spots.
An amazing selection of sweet treats
You can’t leave Alcalá without trying the candied almonds served up by the cloistered nuns at Convent of the Clarisas of San Diego. They sell them from behind a little door, and don’t show their faces. Alcalá is also filled with cute traditional pastery shops whose window displays include typical local goodies, like costrada and rosquilla de Alcalá. Definitely check out Pastelería Salinas in La Plaza de Cervantes or one of the locations of Pastelería Lupe. Definitely try the costrada, a puff pastry with sweet cream filling, covered in meringue and topped with crushed sugared almonds. Want to know more? Check out this more detailed write up of Alcalá’s best sweets.
Many cultural events on offer
Before planning your trip to Alcalá, make sure to check the city’s cultural calendar and find out what may be going on at that time. Among the most well known events is the city’s Mercado Cervantino, or Medieval fair, where the Calle Mayor is filled with old-fashioned stands and people dressed in period attire. Definitely worth checking out if your timing lines up. Although, keep in mind that local events may impact hotel availability and pricing. Especially watch out for the Alcalá Film Festival, which takes place in November and fills the city with visitors. I visited the first week of December, when I didn’t expect much to be going on, and I still caught a Christmas parade, and celebrations for the 20th Anniversary of Alcalá being named a World Heritage site. With it’s large population and concentrated city center area, there are events happening in and around the iconic Plaze de Cervantes nearly every week.
How to get to Alcalá de Henares
Alcalá de Henares is in the Madrid metropolitan area, so chances are you might make a stop in the big city before heading to Alcalá. The easiest option is to take the Cercanias commuter train (Line 2 or Line 7) from Atocha Station to the Alcalá de Henares train station. During rush hour, trains depart every 5-10 minutes, and the journey lasts about 40 minutes. Once you arrive in Alcala it’s about a 15 minute walk to the main attactions from the station. There is also a bus that leaves from Avenida de America bus station. It is line 223 run by Continental Auto, Line 223, and tickets are sold near the bus stop. The bus ride takes about one hour.
If you are coming directly from the Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport, the best option is a taxi or hired car. While it’s more expensive, it’s worth the time savings of over an hour. There is no direct public transportation line from the airport to Alcalá. You’d have to first go into the city of Madrid, and then take the aforementioned bus or train, which would take over an hour and a half, compared to just 25 minutes by car or taxi.
Alcala de Henares is extremely well connected, making it an easy option as a day trip from Madrid or for a longer visit. This charming, historic town has a lot of competition in a country as rich and diverse as Spain, but if you’re in the region it’s definitely worth a stop.