Beautifully set on a cliff top surrounded by the Tejo River, Toledo is known as the city of the three cultures and the home of the artist El Greco. In the old town, you can walk the streets that Christians, Muslims and Jews have shared for centuries, see historic architecture and, not least, El Greco’s masterpiece.
Christian churches, Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues sit side by side behind the old city walls and well-preserved city gates in the winding streets of Toldeo, the capital of Castilla-La Mancha. The city’s old centre is a great museum of thousands of years of history, and Toledo is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the city you can see fine examples of Mudéjar architecture. Mudéjar means “those who remained”, referring to the Muslims who remained in Spain after the Reconquista and a term that lived on in the architecture of Spain. This can be seen in Arabic decorative art such as ceramic tiles, pseudo-calligraphy and the characteristic arches.
One of Spain’s oldest and most well-preserved city centres, Toledo was the country’s capital from 569 until the walls took it in 712. Toledo is best known for having been the spiritual and intellectual centre of the 12th and 13th century, when three cultures lived peacefully together, and the city opened the famous translators’ school Escuela de Traductores. However, the city’s status declined when Madrid became the capital in 1561.
Today, in addition to its historic monuments and charming narrow streets, Toledo is also known for the paintings of the artist El Greco, its craft production of steel swords, good food and, not least, the production of marzipan.
Just half an hour by train (70km) from Madrid, Toledo is a great cultural day out if you’re holidaying in the capital. Here are tips for a day in the fascinating city.
9 am Tour of Toledo station
If you’re arriving by train, don’t deprive yourself of a tour of Toledo’s beautiful station before heading up to the city centre. The station dates from 1919, created by Spanish architect Narciso Clavería y de Palacios, and is a beautiful example of the Mudejar style.
Take a tour of both the platforms and the waiting area. from the inside. You can see the fine old original ticket windows, beautiful stained glass windows and coloured tiles on the floor and walls.
Toledo Station (show on map)
9.30 Enter Toledo’s old town via the Alcántara Bridge
There are buses from Toledo Station to the centre of the old town, but it’s worth the walk (20 minutes), which is very beautiful and where you cross the Tejo River via the old Puente de Alcántara. From the bridge you have the most beautiful view over the Tejo River and towards the city. The old Alcázar fortress, now a military museum, sits atop the city’s highest peak.
The Alcantara Bridge dates back to the 13th century and was built by the Romans.In the Middle Ages, goods and people were transported through the bridge into the city to keep track of who and what was entering the city.
When you need to go further up into the city, you can choose to follow the road that goes up steeply, or go into the car park by the bridge, where there is an escalator up to the city.
Puente de Alcántara (show on map)
10.00 Fuel up in the city’s central plaza
Toledo’s young and old and tourists from outside meet in Plaza Zocodover from early morning until late evening. Especially in the evening and at weekends, the square is bustling, surrounded by houses with beautiful facades, cafés and restaurants.
Sit down in one of the cafés and soak up the atmosphere and folk life over a coffee. In the square you will also find the tourist information, where you can get maps of the city.
Plaza Zocodover (show on map)
10.30 Visit Toledo Cathedral
A visit to Toledo Cathedral is a must when you’re in town. If you walk from Plaza Zocodover down Calle Comercio, you’ll get beautiful views of the church tower in the background on the way there.
The Gothic cathedral, one of the world’s finest, was built between the 12th and 15th centuries on the site of a former mosque. The cathedral bears witness to Toledo’s history as a home to skilled craftsmen and is built in a mishmash of styles, including Mudejar and Renaissance. In the sacristy you can see works by El Greco, Velazquéz, Raphael and Titian.
The most precious object is La Gran Ostensoria de Toledo, which is in the treasury. The 17th-century monstrance is over 10 metres high and made of 18 kg of pure 183 kg silver gold and silver with precious stones. It is used for the annual Corpus Christi celebration in Toledo.
Also look into the sala capitular with the old Mudejar wooden ceiling and portraits of all the bishops.
11.30 The Synagogue of the Three Cultures
The Santa Maria La Blanca synagogue is the smallest of Toledo’s two preserved synagogues, and in my opinion the most beautiful symbol you’ll find in the city’s Jewish quarter. Santa Maria La Blanca was commissioned by a Christian kingdom, created by Arab architects for Jews and a beautiful example of the coexistence of the three cultures in Toledo.
Built in the late 13th century, the synagogue served as Toledo’s main synagogue until it was converted to a Christian church in the 15th century. When the synagogue became a church, however, it kept its name and no major alterations were made. Santa Maria La Blanca is Europe’s oldest synagogue and today a museum owned by the Catholic Church. It is built in the Mudéjar style and has five central naves with columns supporting the horseshoe-shaped arches.
Sinagoga Santa Maria La Blanca
Calle de los Reyes Católicos 4 (show on map)
12 noon Go to the Catholic monastery
A few hundred metres from the synagogue you will find the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. Built in was commissioned in 1477 and the plan was for the church to be the mausoleum of Queen Isabel. Instead, she was buried in Granada, which became more important to her as she drove the Moors from the city.
The monastery was completed in 1496 and is dedicated to the Apostle John, of whom the Queen was a devoted admirer. In the church you can see the coat of arms of the Catholic monarchs, which dates from before 1492, when the pomegranate symbol is not present and Granada was not reconquered. The nave, on the other hand, is decorated in the Mudejar style, referring to the conquest of Granada.
The square two-part monastery is considered a late Gothic masterpiece, combining Gothic and Mudéjar elements. Franciscan monks lived here until they were expelled in the 19th century. The monastery cannot be visited, but you can have a look in the monastery courtyard with orange trees.
Notice the chains hanging outside the monastery church. The chains are a symbol of the triumph of Christianity, and they symbolise the Christian prisoners freed by Ferdinand during the long Granada battles.
13:00 Take a closer look at El Greco’s masterpiece
The artist El Greco (1541-1614) lived in Toledo, and his paintings – of Toledo’s landscapes in particular – helped make the city famous. El Greco’s masterpiece, however, is El entierro del conde de Orgaz (The Burial of Count Orgaz) from 1587, which hangs in the chapel of the small church of Santo Tomé. You will find the entrance at the back of the church.
Count Orgaz died in 1313 and left a considerable sum of money, which was used to finance a rebuilding of the church in the 14th century. El Greco was commissioned to depict Orgaz’s funeral, and the painting has hung as a tribute in the chapel ever since.
It is remarkable that the artist has had his own portrait inserted into the painting. He is seen as number seven from the bottom left in the line of mourners.
Read also the guide to El Grecos Toledo.
Iglesia de Santo Tomé
Plaza del Conde 4 (show on map)
13.30 Lunch in the Jewish Quarter
Toledo’s Jewish quarter is definitely the nicest in town and a great place to stop for lunch. The bars and restaurants are like pearls on a string, but be aware that those closest to the synagogue and monastery are very touristy. Make your way up the winding streets around Santo Tome church. Here you’ll find the typical Spanish tapas bar Gambrinus, which is a good option if you’re not looking for a big lunch menu. Sit at the bar and choose a couple of tapas from the platters on the counter and a caña (draught beer). The bar also has a terrace, but the experience is most authentic with the locals inside the bar.
After lunch, I recommend you go further into the neighbourhood and allow yourself to get lost for a while in the small streets where few tourists come. The small winding streets are deserted in the afternoon, but very charming with lush plants on the balconies and Jewish symbols on the streets and house walls.
Calle Santo Tome 10 (show on map)
15:00 Toledo’s last mosque
The Mezquita Cristo de la Luz is the last remaining mosque of the 10 that once stood in Toledo, and one of the oldest Arab monuments in Spain. An Arabic inscription on the façade says it was built by Musa Ibn Ali in 999, and the mosque remains largely intact today. In the 13th century, the mosque was consecrated as a Christian place of worship and a Christ figure was hidden behind bricks.
The mosque, located in the city’s wealthy quarter – the medina – has a square ground plan and is about 8 metres wide and 8 metres long. The brick façade is decorated with a series of arches, and inside columns and horseshoe-shaped arches form nine rooms.
The Mudéjar-style apse was added after the mosque became a church, and it was decorated with Christian symbols.
Behind the mosque, there is a nice garden with a fountain where you can enjoy the view of the city walls and the Puerta del Sol.
Mezquita Cristo de la Luz
Calle Cristo de la Luz 22 (show on map)
15.30 Travel back to the past at the old city gates
Toledo has some very well preserved, beautiful city gates. Right next to the mosque you will find the Puerta de Valmardón, also called Bab-al-Mardum in Arabic.
The gate was the city’s entrance to the medina and less steep than the nearby Puerta del Sol. The gate was built in the 900s and is probably the oldest in the city. The primitive tower was built in the 16th century and the gate has been used as a defence, prison, hospital and private residence.
Moving further downhill, away from the centre, you’ll find yourself at the city’s main gate, the Puerta de Bisagra, which was the main entrance to the city centre during the Moorish reign. The Puerta de Bisagra was built in the 10th century and rebuilt under Charles V and Philip II. The imposing gateway forms a triumphal arch on the outside with a coat of arms flanked by two towers. Inside there is an arch with spire towers.
16.30 The best cup of coffee in town
There are plenty of cosy cafés in Toledo, but the best coffee is brewed in the small café Il Cappucino. The café is owned by young Italian Andrea, who sells freshly brewed fair trade coffee that is a hit with locals and tourists alike.
You can choose from all types of coffee, including espresso, macchiato, latte, cappuccino and mocha. The coffee beans are ground while you wait, and the coffee is brewed with great love and care on the best machines.
The café also sells organic Arabic coffee beans to take home. There is little standing room in the small coffee bar, but you can bring your coffee and sit in a small square in the sun to enjoy it.
17.00 Shopping for souvenirs from Toledo
Throughout Toledo you’ll find a wealth of souvenir shops, brimming with swords, knives, armour and shields, and the displays in the shop windows look like something out of Lord of the Rings. Toledo has been producing swords and knives since Roman times, and metalworking has historically been Toledo’s economic base. From the 15th to the 17th century, Toledo’s metalworking was considered the best in Europe. Today, the things are sold only as souvenirs. Here you have a good opportunity to find a gift for the child with a penchant for fantasy and role-playing games.
At the other end of the scale you’ll find Toledo’s other speciality, Marzapan de Toledo (marzipan), a protected title and, due to the many almond trees in the area, produced on a large scale.
Toledo has plenty of shops selling the sweet marzipan in all colours, shapes and sizes. I think the natural marzipan one tastes best, but if you’re bringing home a gift for the kids, the little shapes in bright greens and reds are sure to go down well. Go for the specialty stores, which have the best of the kind.
18.00 Greetings to Don Quixote’s father
Author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) made Castilla-La Mancha world famous with his book Don Quixote, so of course Toledo has a statue of the author. To find him, go through the archway at Plaza Zocodover (on the same side as the tourist information).
In 2016, Toledo paid tribute to the author on the 400th anniversary of his death with a giant marzipan figure of him. Don Quixote is the most translated book after the Bible, and the windmills of Consuegra outside Toledo and the region’s food in particular have become famous via Cervantes’ book.
18.30 Panoramic tour in the evening ring
A ride on Toledo’s little tourist train gives you a great overview of the city. The tour goes around the old town and the train goes outside the walls, so you also get to see the beautiful landscapes that surround the city and the river. Along the way, the train stops at a viewpoint offering spectacular panoramic views of the city and the Tejo River. From this vantage point, the city looks best in the evening twilight, so wait for one of the late train departures.
The train leaves from Plaza Zocodover and you can buy tickets at the small ticket office in the square. The last train leaves at 8pm, but make sure you buy tickets early as seats are scarce on the late trains.
20:00 Dinner at La Clandestina
The food is good in Toledo, and the best restaurants are usually tucked away in the narrow side streets. La Clandestina is one of them. The restaurant is set behind a discreet facade of neatly painted flowers in a winding side street close to the university.
You can choose to sit inside the restaurant or under the trees in the cosy courtyard. The décor is elegant, vibrant and colourful. Tables and menus are elaborately designed, and tables and chairs colourful with retro and classic elements.
The menu is classic Spanish with a creative twist, and it varies with the seasons. I chose to trust the waiter’s recommendations, and I didn’t regret it. I had fresh white asparagus with smoked pork and a white herb sauce for starters, and the main course was white fish with mussels, spring onions and a green sauce. Both dishes sent me into food heaven.
How to get to Toledo
Full and half day bus tours from Madrid:
You can take several guided full and half day tours from Madrid to Toledo. Read more about the tours to Toledo and book them here (advertising link)
By bus on your own:
You can also take the bus to Toledo from Plaza Eliptica. The ticket costs about 8 euros and the trip takes about 50 minutes.
See departure times here. Tickets cannot be purchased online.
Take the LAV high-speed train from Atocha station in Madrid. Trains leave Madrid from 7am and the last train from Toledo to Madrid leaves at 9.30pm. Price about 10 euro per way. You can view the timetable and buy tickets online.
If you want to drive yourself, the trip takes about 1 hour via the A-42 motorway.