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Things to do in Cuenca, Spain: a hidden gem full of treasures

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Updated: 17th December 2018

In the UNESCO heritage-listed city of Cuenca, you’ll be hard-pressed not to fall in love with the cobbled streets and houses delicately hanging over the cliff face. I was certainly charmed by the city during my weekend in Cuenca. While my itinerary for a quick visit covers the city itself, there are plenty more things to explore in and around Cuenca that I’ve listed below.

Situated at the heart of the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain, many people simply enjoy Cuenca on a day trip from Madrid. But if you enjoy medieval walled cities and fresh air hikes through unspoilt nature, Cuenca and the surrounding area serve up plenty to keep you busy.

Here are some of the many things to enjoy, admire, and do in Cuenca.

Cuenca is a city of two sides: the new city and the old walled city, which stands high above on a mountain. While there are a few museums in the new, lower part of the city, most of the tourist attractions are in the old town.

Cuenca Cathedral

If you have been exploring Europe for a little while, chances are all churches and cathedrals have started to look the same. Cuenca’s Cathedral is one not to miss, given its vast and varied architectural styles inside. One of the earliest examples of this was built in the Gothic style in Spain, where the modest entrance fee would give you at least an hour of entertainment.

Constructed in the 12th century, it sits on the same spot a Mosque had centuries ago. Inside, you will find the imposing towers of the main hall, basking in the colourful light of the stained glass windows. Leading off from the main hall are many smaller rooms, each with its own style and unique decoration.

Building work, both inside and out, has been ongoing since the day the Cathedral opened, which is why there is such a range of styles, from neo-Gothic to Baroque. This is evident from the outside, but even more so in the smaller rooms. In the courtyard outside and from the terrace of the Cathedral, you’ll find some equally impressive panorama views.

For those who are interested, there are also special nighttime tours of the Cathedral where I imagine the illuminations to add another dimension.

Parador de Cuenca and Espacio Torner

The 16th-century Parador de Cuenca is an effective repurposing of a 16th-century monastery, now serving dual purposes as a hotel and the attached St Pablo Church as a gallery space.

The imposing building, which sits across the St Pablo Bridge from the hanging houses, is either a splurge place to stay or a place to pop your head into to see the hotel and visit the gallery.

The art space is dedicated to displaying the work of Gustavo Torner, who is an artist from Cuenca. While the collection isn’t huge, the area is well laid out, and the imposing high ceilings amplify the collection.

The Casas Colgadas and Abstract Art Gallery

The Hanging Houses of Cuenca are the city’s most famous attraction and thus usually top the lists of things to do in Cuenca.

Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Hanging Houses of Cuenca

The Casas Colgadas, with their wooden balconies, used to line many of the cliffs, but now just a few remain. Dating back to the 14th century, it’s quite impressive that even a few of these can still be admired and even visited inside.

Inside one of the houses, you’ll find an abstract art gallery, which is a beautifully appointed space. The perfect balance of white walls and original features complement the collection of Spanish Abstract Art, and while you can’t get onto the hanging balconies, you can see them from the large glass windows.

Castilla-La Mancha Paleontology Museum

This region of Spain is home to some fantastically preserved fossils, and the museum here is dedicated to showcasing the palaeontology of the area.

While this museum is ideal for kids, the well-put-together collection covering the dinosaurs of the region is a good visit for all age groups. The selection here dates back as far as 125 million years ago, making it a unique attraction to visit in Cuenca.

St. Pablo Bridge

Another of Cuenca’s iconic features is the iron and wooden bridge of St. Pablo, which has ferried people across the gorge for over 100 years. I heard it moves slightly in strong winds, which is always reassuring, but it’s a great spot to admire both sides of the river.

Ruins of the Castle of Cuenca

Constructed in the 8th century, the ruins of Cuenca Castle are a reminder of the Moorish history here in the city. Little remains of the old Arabian wall that surrounded the city, nor of the Christian Fortress which followed. You can find a few turrets and some parts of the wall, all nearby the well-preserved entrance arch and wall to the city.

Science Museum of Castilla La Mancha

The actual building of the science museum is just as interesting as the collection itself. With various structures combined to create the space, the Arabian walls and medieval houses used to store the collection build a unique museum, as do many of those in Cuenca.

While the collection will introduce you to various scientific theories and facts from around the world, the Planetarium really stands out thanks to the over 6,000 projections inside. If you are an astronomy fan and find yourself in Cuenca on a rainy day, you can have a little taste of the Universe here.

Cuenca Spain Food
Hiking in Cuenca, Spain

The Júcar River

Along the Júcar river, one of the two surrounding the old city, you’ll find multiple hiking trails of varying difficulties, providing ample opportunities to marvel at the glowing green river.

From down alongside the Júcar River, you can’t help but look upwards and marvel at the city built onto the sheer rock face. People were rock climbing, and abseiling on the rock faces either side, and the eyes which have been painted towards the top of the rock provide a unique type of art.

Antonio Pérez Foundation Museum

For a rather small city, Cuenca has plenty of galleries and museums, and this museum’s modern art collection is one of them.

Curated by Antonio Pérez, an artist and poet, the 16th-century hall which hosts the exhibition is another gem in Cuenca. Many of the museums in the city are worth visiting for their architecture, as they are what is housed inside.

Mirador del Cerro del Socorro

Although I didn’t make it up here myself, I’m sure some of the city’s best views can be enjoyed from atop the Mirador del Cerro del Socorro.

Easily visible from the city, this statue of Jesus is high above the city and seemingly looking down across the gorge. For those who don’t want to hike, you can also drive up here, and I imagine it would be a breathtaking spot to watch the sunset.

Cuenca Spain
The sun sets on Cuenca

Mirador Barrio del Castillo

For me, this location provided the best views of the city. This viewing platform beyond the castle ruins provides seating to enjoy the sunset. I’d suggest actually walking in front of the platform so you can get a closer look at the unique limestone rock formations around the city.

Treasure Museum Cuenca Cathedral

Attached to the Cathedral and accessible by the side entrance, the Treasure Museum hosts around 180 pieces of treasure across its many rooms. From jewellery to delicate paintings, the museum is another slice of Cuenca history to enjoy.

Fundación Museo de la Semana Santa de Cuenca

This small and fascinating museum brings to life Spain’s unique Easter celebration, the Semana Santa.

If you don’t know much about the holy week celebrations in Spain, this museum will give you some insight into the unique costumes, and huge parades, that take over the country during April each year.

Mangana Tower

Close by is the Mangana Tower, one of Cuenca’s many monuments marking the spot of the old Arabian fortress.

It is one of the city’s most notable monuments. It lies on the site of an ancient Arabian fortress. Built in the 16th century, the tower is in excellent condition. You can explore the small ruins of the fort, which also has a few houses in a similar style to the hanging houses nearby, although without the cliff faces.

Plaza Mayor and the Town Hall

The Town Hall, standing at the entrance to Plaza Mayor, is a unique Baroque building that floats on its three-pillared arches. Dating back to 1762, the colourful red and gold decoration of the arches provides the perfect frame for the Plaza.

Plaza Mayor is awash with colourful houses, and Cuenca Cathedral dominates the square. Many restaurants and cafes are located on the square and in the small cobbled streets leading off it. Come nighttime, the bars and terraces are bustling with people enjoying tapas and drinks before heading off for dinner.

Posada San Jose

The hotel I stayed in for my visit was a serious gem. I relished the chance to sleep in such a historic building that was once a convent and then a choirboys school.

The rooms were immaculate, if a little dated, but this all added to the charm. From crooked wooden beams to the slight creeks of the staircase, the maze-like interior was charming. Of course, the main highlight though is the views from the restaurant or balcony, so be sure to have breakfast or dinner here, or both, which I highly recommend.

Alfonso VIII Street and Tunnels

The brightly coloured Alfonso VIII street winds down the mountain, and the various shades of houses make for a fantastic photo opportunity.

But hidden down here is a collection of tunnels that run underneath the old town. Having served various purposes over the years, from air-raid shelters to aqueducts, you can actually visit a section of the tunnels by purchasing a tour ticket from the nearby tourism office. The tours run in Spanish, though, so be sure to read the history from the leaflet before entering.

Cuenca Spain
The colours of Cuenca

Nearby to Cuenca, Spain

The Cuenca region provides plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy, thanks to the karst limestone rocks surrounding the city and the deep rivers. While you can, of course, couple your visit to Cuenca with some of the other famous cities in Castilla-La Mancha, such as Toledo, be sure to leave some time for its natural offerings.

Ciudad Encantada (Enchanted City)

Around a 30-minute drive from Cuenca, and you’ll arrive at the Enchanted City. During the summer months, daily tours also serve this unique landscape of eroded rock formations

Known as the Ciudad Encantada, thanks to the random collection of rocks which seem to have built their own city, you can admire how this land, which used to be underwater, has formed over the years.

The canyon has been carved throughout the centuries by water and ice, and somehow, these unique limestone rocks, which tower above you, have come to resemble living things such as animals and faces.

Ruta de las Caras

Not far from the Enchanted City, you’ll find the Ruta de las Caras, which is a collection of sculptures that have been carved into rock faces. These have been created by human artists, though, not the elements.

The route takes around 20 different sculptures, ranging from small to huge, 8-metre tall pieces of art.

Serranía de Cuenca

The national park of Cuenca is vast and encompasses both of the attractions below. Here, you can hike, walk or ramble through a diverse collection of trees, flowers, plants and wildlife; it’s exceptionally well known for its bird watching.

In Uña, a small town inside the park you’ll find some lakes reflecting almost mirror-like images, alongside the more bog like wetlands. A full day out, especially with a car, will allow you to make the most of this natural setting while also easily being able to access the enchanted city.

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