Alcalá de Henares is a city 30 km northeast of Madrid. Its attractive medieval centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of interesting old buildings. It's a university and religious centre, and famous people born here include Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, and Katherine of Aragon, first wife of England's King Henry VIII. Alcalá is easily visited as a day-trip from Madrid, and because it's so close to Madrid Barajas Airport it makes a good first or last night stop on a tour of northern Spain.
The main Tourist Information Centre Promoción Turística de Alcalá is at Plaza de los Irlandeses 4, phone: +34 91 882 13 54.
|Alcalá de Henares|
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Madrid Barajas airport is 15 km west, with extensive connections across Europe and beyond. A direct bus #824 runs between Alcalá and Terminals 1 & 2, every 30-40 min weekdays and hourly at weekends from about 07:00 to 22:00, taking 40 min. All these buses run from central Alcalá (corner of Via Complutense and Calle Murillo); some of them continue to the University.
Reaching the airport by metro & suburban train involves going into Madrid and changing at Chamartin or Atocha to come out again.
- 1 Estación de Alcalá de Henares (Alcalá de Henares Railway Station), Plaza de la Estación, s/n, ☎ (reservations). Alcalá is connected to central Madrid by Renfe suburban train (cercanias) lines C2 and C7. They run every 5-10 minutes, taking 38 minutes to Madrid's main station Atocha, 47 minutes to Nuevos Ministerios and 52 minutes to Chamartín. Line C7 ends here in Alcalá, line C2 continues NE to the university and Guadalajara. The station is 200 m north of Via Complutense the town's main street.
Buses from Madrid start from Avenida de América, outside the Metro station. Line 223 runs to central Alcalá (Via Complutense) every 15 mins or so between 06:00 and 10:00, then every 30 min. Journey time is 40 min; last bus into Madrid is at 23:00, last bus out to Alcalá is at 00:00.
Bus 227 runs to Alcalá university campus at Escuela Politécnica, M-F every 15-30 min, taking one hour. This circles the northern burbs of Alcalá and isn't convenient for the centre.
Bus 229 runs to Alcalá Virgen del Val bus station, east end of town, M-F every 15-30 min and hourly at weekends, taking 50 min. This bus serves the south edge of town along Calle Ronda Fiscal and isn't convenient for the centre.
Night bus N202 runs to Alcalá between 00:00 and 06:00, hourly Su-Th and every 30 min F Sa & holidays, taking 40 min. It runs through the centre along Via Complutense and east as far as Calle Avila.
Two Alsa buses per day from Madrid stop in Alcalá on the way to Zaragoza (4 hours) and Barcelona (7-8 hours).
The historic centre is compact and easily explored on foot. Alcalá bus service has a flat fare of €1.30 per ride, buy tickets from the driver.
The heart of the old town is Plaza de Cervantes, with all the main sights close by, and storks nests teetering on the rooftops. North side of the Plaza leads into the colonnaded Calle Mayor, with many bars and eating places.
- 1 La Universidad de Alcalá. Daily 09:00-16:00. Founded in 1499 by Cardinal Cisneros, and the centre of academic excellence in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. Visit by guided tour only, hourly in Spanish, in English at 14:00. The tour takes in the ornate plateresque façade, the three interior patios, the mudejar chapel, and the Paraninfo auditorium where the Cervantes Literary Prize is presented by the King annually on April 23. Adult €6, concessions €4.
- Casa Natal de Cervantes (Cervantes birthplace), Calle Mayor 48. Tu-Su 10:00-18:00. This is the house where the famous author of El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha was born in 1547, and lived his early days. The museum recreates life in a Spanish house of that period, though perhaps a more stable, prosperous household than Cervantes' own. His father was a barber-surgeon, so the old shaving & blood-letting bowl foretells Don Quixote's mad helmet. The book was widely translated soon after Part One was published in 1605, and there's an impressive collection of translations and other books and manuscripts from around the world. Free admission but to avoid overcrowding they only let in a dozen or so at a time, so there may be a queue.
Next to the Casa Natal, the Hospital de Antezana is a 15th C charity hospital, probably the oldest in Europe in continuous use. Nowadays it's a care home for the elderly.
The Cathedral or Lonja de la Magistral was originally 15th C, but rebuilt after fire damage in 1939. It's called a "magisterial" cathedral because its clerics were all masters, ie graduate teachers of the university. Contains the Cripta de los Santos Niños, the tomb of persecuted Catholic children. Open M-F 08:00-14:00 & 16:00-20:30, Sa Su 09:00-13:00 & 18:00-20:30.
Archbishop's Palace: built as a fortress in the 14-15th century, turned into an episcopal palace in the 16th century, but much of it burnt down in 1939 during the Civil War. It saw the birth of England's Katherine of Aragón and Germany's Emperor Ferdinand, the death of John I of Castille, and the first interview where Christopher Columbus pitched his idea to Queen Isabel of sailing west to reach India. You can't visit the interior.
However the interview room is recreated, along with other exhibitions, in the nearby House of the Interview (Casa de la Entrevista, Calle San Juan 2). The building was a 16th-century convent for Franciscan nuns. Open Tu-Sa 11:00-14:00 & 17:00-20:00, Su 11:00-14:00.
Archaeological Museum: housed in the 17th C Madre de Dios monastery-college on Plaza de las Bernadas. Prehistoric and Roman finds from the area. Open Tu-Sa 11:00-19:00, Su 11:00-15:00.
Other Roman ruins are the House of Hippolytus, west end of town by Av de Madrid, probably a 3rd- or 4th-century college, with well preserved mosaics (Open Tu-Su 10:00-14:00, and Sa Su 17:00-20:00). 500 m south off Camino del Juncal is the Complutum, near the fragmentary remains of the Moorish fortress of Al Qalat (Open Tu-Su 10:00-14:00 & 16:00-18:00).
See a play or show at Corral de Comedias, the old courtyard theatre at 15 Plaza de Cervantes. In early summer 2018 they're doing "Hamlet"; their 2018/19 programme is not yet posted.
Alcalá is not the place to find dozens of stores teeming with tourist goods. Typical products of the region include ceramics and jewellery.
Alcalá is known for its almendras garrapiñadas, a sugar-coated almond candy. You can buy them at El Convento de San Clarisas de San Diego (Calle Beatas 5), a cloistered abbey where the nuns make the candies with nothing but "almonds, sugar and love."
There are frequent gastronomic events very tenuously linked to passages in Don Quixote, whose woeful hero ate next to nothing, and enjoyed less.
- Barataria (C de los Cerrajeros 18), ☎ . M-Tu Th-Sa 12:00-16:00 & 20:00-00:00; Su to 16:00; closed W. Restaurant & tapas bar. Good for grilled meat; its specialty dish is ribs with honey.
The Parador restaurant Hosteria del Estudiante (Calle de Colegios 3) is excellent.
The main strip for bars is along Calle Mayor.
- 1 Parador de Alcalá de Henares, Colegios, 8, ☎ . 4-star hotel in centre of this University town. Grouped around the 17th-century Dominican Convent of Santo Tomas de Aquino, but the accommodation is modern and spacious. Guest parking €10 per night, no pets allowed.
Heading north & east towards Barcelona, spare a day for Zaragoza, which deserves to be better known.
Most other onward destinations will involve transiting Madrid.