The pretty and historic city of Alcalá de Henares is located approximately 35 kilometers from Madrid. Its historical center, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, fans out around the Plaza de Cervantes and the long, pedestrian Calle Mayor. It has a decidedly medieval feel, with winding cobbled streets and inviting plazas lined with centuries-old buildings.
It's one of Europe's oldest university towns, as the city rose to prominance thanks to the Complutense University, founded at the end of the 15th century by Cardinal Cisneros. From that point on, the city took on its role as a seat of learning, attracting students as well as scholars from around the world.
Around the same time, the city was home to the first meeting between Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs, where they discussed the possibility of financing what would become quite an important voyage. Another of Alcalá de Henares' claims to fame is having been the birthplace of Spain's famous Golden Age writer Miguel de Cervantes, and references and dedications to him abound throughout the city.
Below, we'll go into a handful of the sights that you can see in Alcalá de Henares during your visit!
As we mentioned, Cardinal Cisneros founded a university in Alcalá de Henares towards the close of the 15th century. The university quickly sparked prosperity in the city , giving Alcalá an air of academia and a reputation as one of the country's most prestigious seats of learning. The original university was moved to Madrid - the capital city's important Complutense - but another university, which now occupies the beautiful, historic and impeccably restored buildings of the original, was founded in the 1970's.
Alcalá's cathedral, the Catedral Magistral de los Santos Justo y Pastor, is dedicated to two young boys - Justo and Pastor - who were martyred near the city in the year 304 during the religious persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian; the boys' remains are interred beneath the high altar. The cathedral was built between 1436 and 1517 in the Isabelline Gothic style, though a Renaissance tower was added in the mid-16th century and the cloister and chapel of Saint Peter were added in the 17th. Inside you can admire its Gothic heights and decoration, as well as the elaborately decorated tomb of Cardinal Cisneros.
Plaza de Cervantes
The spacious and tranquil Plaza de Cervantes has been the heart of historic Alcalá de Henares since the 16th century. It began as the Plaza del Mercado (Market Square), where vendors sold their goods, and also hosted bullfights and fairs during Golden Age celebrations. It took on its present appearance and layout in the 19th century. The square is fittingly dominated by the monument to Cervantes, a bronze statue raised in the center of the square.
Santa María la Mayor Church
The beautiful Santa María la Mayor Church is another of Alcalá's appealing sights. Built betwen 1567 and 1620, with the exception of the high Baroque façade added later, architects drew their inspiration from Rome's Church of San Giacomo degli Incurabili. The façade is pleasant enough to look at, but you'll experience the church's true grandeur once you pass through the doors, as beautiful adornation complements the church's soaring heights, luminous dome and sense of space.
Museum - Birth Home of Miguel de Cervantes
One of the most popular attractions in Alcalá de Henares is the Museum - Birth Home of Miguel de Cervantes. The museum, a recreated home at the address where the famous author was believed to have been born, is filled with period furniture and items relating to his life. It gives a great idea of the lifestyle into which Spain's literary giant was born as well as an interesting peek into the 17th century. The house itself, a courtyard surrounded by outbuildings, is a construction typical of Castilla region. Definitely a must-see!