Settled by Celtic peoples even before the Romans ruled the peninsula they called Hispania, the capital of today’s autonomous community of Castile and León holds a special place in this country’s history. It was the first capital of Castile, then after the game-changing “Catholic monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabella tied the knot here, also the newly united Spain. Cervantes and the notorious inquisitioner Torquemada lived here as well, and it’s where Christopher Columbus sailed off this mortal coil.
A drive of just over two hours (and high-speed rail ride of less than an hour) from Madrid, Valladolid, with a population of around a half million, is located at the meeting point of two rivers, the Río Pisuerga and the Río Esgueva, and it can make a great base for wine tourism, as it’s part of no fewer than five winegrowing regions: Cigales, Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Tierra de León, and Toro. Despite this, and some major historic architecture and culture, as a tourism destination it’s relatively low-key, and other industries are the ones which tend to power the local economy.
Valladolid’s very walkable Casco Viejo is a classically impressive time capsule of a Spanish Old Town, full of grand palaces, townhouses, churches, plazas, and parks. At its centre, as in most old Spanish cities, is the rectangular Plaza Mayor (top), one of Spain’s largest, surrounded by arcades and dating to the 16th century – but whose Casa Consistorial (city hall) in its current encarnation is a Beaux-Arts bit of business dating merely from 1908. Another lovely and historic space near the heart of town is the large, triangular Campo Grande (1787), with a lovely woodsy feel and plenty of birds (including an aviary, even). And the handsome University of Valladolid, established in the 13th century, is one of the world’s oldest as well as among Spain’s first major Renaissance masterpieces.
The other main traditional seat of authority, of course, is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, a grandiose affair designed by the architect of the Madrid region’s famous El Escorial and inaugurated in 1668 (yet – fun fact – technically not even completely finished). Beyond that, there are about as many remarkable churches to see as you can stand, most notably the early-15th-century Gothic San Benito and the also Gothic Santa María la Antigua, with an unusual pyramidal tower from the 12th century.
There are some marvelous museums here, as well, starting with the National Museum of Sculpture, housed in a magnificent onetime theological college of the 16th century; the just as magnificent collection within covers images and well as sculptures – many of them religious in nature – from the 13th through 19th centuries. The Patio Herreriano museum of Spanish contemporary art, housed in the lovely Renaissance cloister of San Benito, boasts a superb collection including stars such as Eduardo Chillida, Miquel Barceló, and Antoni Tapies. Perhaps the biggest surprise is housed in another splendid Renaissance building, the Royal College of the Philippine Augustine Friars: the Museo Oriental, awash in priceless art and artifacts, especially from China and the Philippines, dating as far back as the 2nd century BC.
Other remarkable draws here are the homes-turned-museums associated with distinguished personages who lived in Valladolid, most notably the Casa de Cervantes, where the Shakespeare of Spain Miguel Cervantes lived with his family from 1603 to 1606 and finished his magnum opus, Don Quixote, and the Casa-Museo de Colón, thought to be the palazzo where Christopher Columbus lived out his final days; these days it’s got a variety of exhibitions relating to the European exploration of the Americas.
A final note: If you want to experience Valladolid during the highlight of its year, one of the most colourful and majestic Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Spain (above) takes place here every Easter.
More information in English: Tourspain.org/Valladolid.