Dead in centuries of history, León was founded in the first century AD as a Roman encampment. The city’s name evolved from a reference to its title as the Seventh Roman Legion. Besides a brief period under the Moorish rule of Al-Mansur in the 10th century, León’s heyday was in the 10th to 12th centuries when it was the capital of the kingdom of León. During this medieval period, León was an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela for pilgrims. The monastery where the pilgrims stayed has been converted into a luxurious Parador hotel. Other notable monuments include the 11th century Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore and the beautiful Gothic cathedral with its spectacular stained glass windows.
1 Royal Collegiate Church of San Isidoro de León
A masterpiece of Spanish Romanesque architecture, the Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore is considered one of the most important Romanesque monuments in Spain. The original 10th-century church was built in the pre-Romanesque style of Asturias, similar to the old buildings in Oviedo. This early church was destroyed in 988 by Al-Mansur and later renovated by Christian Kings Alfonso V and Ferdinand I in the 11th and 12th centuries. In classical Romanesque style, the church was rebuilt with three naves and three apses – although the apses were converted to a Gothic style. As it houses the Tomb of Saint Isidore (Bishop of Seville), the church has a special focus on the Spanish Catholics.
The most beautiful features of the exterior are the two Romanesque doorways: the Puerta del Cordero (Doorway of the Lamb); the main doorway with carved figures of Saint Isidore, Saint Pelayo and the Lamb of God; and the Puerta del Perdón with a relief of the Crucifixion. A highlight of a visit to San Isidoro is the Panteón Real(Royal Pantheon) found on the west side of the church. Decorated with ornate marble columns, this vaulted room contains the burial vault of kings, princes and nobles from the León region. The ceilings and vaults are covered with beautiful frescoes depicting biblical scenes and hunting scenes intertwined with animal and plant designs. These vibrant, masterful paintings have earned the Pantheon the distinction of being compared to the “Sistine Chapel” in the Vatican City.
Address: 4 Plaza de San Isidoro, León
2 Cathedral of Leon
With its towering spires and richly decorated facade, León Cathedral is a breathtaking sight. Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, the impressive building reflects the work of several architects. This cathedral is one of the great masterpieces of early Gothic architecture in Spain, with a clear influence from the French Gothic cathedrals in Reims and Amiens. On the western side, the Torre de las Campanas and Torre del Reloj frame a beautiful rose window and three richly carved doorways. The most beautiful door is the Puerta de Nuestra Señora la Blancain the center, with a figure of Santa María la Blanca and a representation of the Last Judgment. On the right Puerta de San Francisco are figures of prophets and the Coronation of the Virgin; on the left Puerta de la Regla are scenes of the birth and childhood of Jesus Christ.
The harmonious interior equals the exterior in its incomparable beauty. Stunning tracery windows create an ethereal lighting effect in the sanctuary. The cathedral has more than 1,800 square meters of stained glass windows from the 13th to the 20th century. The oldest windows are the rose windows and those in the middle choir chapels. Note also the beautiful choir stalls from the 15th to the 16th century, which were sculpted by Flemish craftsmen. On the north side of the cathedral is a beautiful cloister in the Plateresque style, built in the 14th century and altered in the 16th century. The frescoes in the monastery were created by Nicolás Francés. The cathedral’s museum collection is arranged in the rooms around the cloister. One of the most comprehensive collections of its kind, the museum displays many exceptional treasures of religious art. Highlights include a 10th-century edition of the Bible, the Castilian and Flemish triptychs, and the Romanesque art assortment, which features around 60 sculptures from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Address: Plaza de Regla, León
3 Monastery of San Marcos (Parador de León)
The beautiful former convent of San Marcos, on the banks of the Bernesga River, has been converted into a luxurious Parador hotel. This exceptional attraction has welcomed visitors since the 12th century when pilgrims stopped here on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The monastery was part of the Order of Knighthood of Santiago. In the 16th century, the Catholic Monarchs commissioned a new building for the monastery in a beautiful Spanish Plateresque style. Note the richness and delicacy of the sculptural decorations on the facade. Above the main entrance is a baroque figure of Santiago (Saint James) in his legendary role as a Moor-Slayer ( Matamoros ). On the east side of the Monasterio de San Marcos is the Church of San Marcos(consecrated in 1541), built on a Latin cross plan with beautiful choir stalls from 1543. The sacristy and medallions of the monastery are the work of Juan de Badajoz el Mozo. The floral decorations in the Monastery of Juan de Juni are also excellent.
Housed in the historic convent is one of the most monumental hotels in Europe, the Parador de Leon. Guests can relax in the monastery and visit the chapter house. The monastery also houses the annex of the Museo de León .
Address: Plaza San Marcos, León
4 Casa Botines: a neo-Gothic palace designed by Gaudí
This striking neo-Gothic palace is the work of the famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí, whose fabulous buildings grace the city of Barcelona. Located in the charming village square of Plaza San Marcelo, the Casa de Botines has the appearance of a fairytale medieval castle with some surprising modernist architectural details. Note the unique stained glass windows and sharply pointed turreted towers. Gaudí started the project in 1891 when it was commissioned by textile merchants from León, who worked with the Catalan sector. Business was conducted on the ground floor and the upper floors were designed as private apartments. The building was declared a Historic Monument in 1969 and is now occupied by the Caja España bank.
It is also worth exploring the Plaza San Marcelo , which is a hub of activity. Several important historical monuments stand on this square, including the Iglesia de San Marcelo . Built between 1588 and 1627, the church contains a precious reliquary of Saint Marcelo.
Address: Casa Botines, Plaza San Marcelo 5, León
5 Museum of Contemporary Art of Castilla y León
This beautiful “cube-shaped” building offers a touch of the exciting modern art that awaits visitors. Designed by the architects Emilio Tuñón and Luis Moreno, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Castilla-León features five galleries, mezzanines, courtyards, a reception area, an educational workshop, a library, and a shopping area. The multicolored facade is reminiscent of the stained glass windows of León Cathedral. With an impressive exhibition space of more than 21,000 square meters, the museum is entirely dedicated to contemporary art. Innovative exhibitions focus on the common elements found in diverse artworks and architecture, with an emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach. The museum wants to create an interactive experience,
Address: 21 Avenida de los Reyes Leoneses, León
6 Palace of the Guzmanes
Next to the Casa de Botines , this impressive Renaissance palace from the 16th century is designed in the style of an Italian palazzo. The building was designed by architect Enrique Gil de Hontañón and has an impressive facade with rounded arches, large corner towers and wrought iron balconies. On the lower part of the facade of the building are window frames with the family coat of arms of the Guzman; the upper part is decorated with iron balustrades. Once a fine private residence, the palace is designed around a pleasant courtyard with classical columns. The palace was declared a national monument in 1963 and currently houses the regional government of Leon. It is open to the public for visits and guided tours are available.
Address: Palace of the Guzmanes, Plaza San Marcelo 6, León
7 Plaza Mayor: León’s main city square
Plaza Mayor: León’s Hoofdplein Prigalla / fotomodia
A few blocks away from the cathedral, the Plaza Mayor is León’s main town square. This spacious public square is a hub of social activity in an elegant historic setting. Beneath the arcaded corridors are many trendy shops and restaurants with outdoor tables. It’s a wonderful place to stop for a meal, especially on a sunny day when the arcaded patios provide welcome shade. On the west side of the square is the Consistorio Viejo (former Town Hall), a beautiful twin-towered building dating back to 1677. The Plaza Major has an energetic atmosphere and bustles with activity on market days.
8 Charming streets and squares in the old town
At the heart of the Casco Antiguo ( Old Town) is the Plaza de San Martín, where the 13th century Iglesia de San Martín stands. This quaint square is lined with many shops and restaurants. From the Plaza de San Martín, many lively streets wind their way through the medieval maze of the old town. Locals often take their paseo por la noche (evening stroll) in this area. Tourists will also enjoy a stroll through the atmospheric cobbled streets, with stops to sample delicious snacks in the attractive tapas restaurants. The historic streets around Plazuela de San Marceloare also full of charm and interesting hidden corners. Calle del Cid is a particularly pleasant tree-lined street with several terraces.
9 Museum of Leon
In an incredibly extensive collection, the León Museum presents the history of art from the Paleolithic period to the present day. The museum’s main building is located in the Plaza Santo Domingo , and an annex is located in the historic Convent of San Marcos, as well as an archaeological annex located a few kilometers away in the ancient Roman village of Navatejera . The collections in the museums give visitors a cultural perspective of prehistoric human experience in different civilizations. Some of the most interesting exhibits focus on antiquities from the classical Roman era and the Middle Ages. The assortment of old coins and inscriptions is exceptional.
Address: 8 Plaza Santo Domingo, León
10 Church of San Salvador de Palat del Rey
Dating back to the 10th century, the Iglesia de San Salvador de Palat del Rey is the oldest church in León. This fascinating ancient monument was originally built as a monastery, then served as a royal pantheon before being converted into a small church. The Pre-Romanesque building contains elements of Mozarabic (Spanish-Islamic) architecture, influenced by the Moorish culture of Al-Mansur’s reign. Although the church was rebuilt in the 16th century and the remains of the early church are limited to the foundations and transept, visitors still get an idea of the historical value of the monument. Many interesting details of the original structure have been carefully restored.
Location: tussen Calle Conde de Luna in Calle del Pozo
Where to Stay in Leon for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels in Leon near top attractions like the cathedral and Plaza Mayor:
- Parador “Hostal San Marcos:” historic luxury, 16th-century building, Gothic arches, stone accents, period furnishings.
- NH Collection Leon Plaza Mayor: mid-range hotel, great location, helpful staff, modern decor.
- Hotel Real Colegiata de San Isidoro: affordable renovated monastery, modern room design, excellent service, including breakfast.
- Hospederia Monastica Pax: great rates, bright rooms, friendly staff.