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 linked to the town include Miguel Cervantes (baptized and almost certainly born here), author of Don Quixote, Cardinal Cisneros (refounder of the University of Alcalá, the current Complutense University of Madrid) and Katherine of Aragon (born here), 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.
There are two tourist information centres: one in Plaza de los Santos Niños (near the Cathedral) and another in Capilla del Oidor (the place with a tower in Plaza de Cervantes).
Alcalá is placed in a flat field on the right side of Henares River, while the left side is a natural space with high hills. The historical centre is at 500 metres from the river, to avoid the frequent floods; however, the last overflow happened in the 1940s and new neighbourhoods have been built in the river banks since then.
Alcalá de Henares goes back to a Roman settlement by the name of Complutum (hence the tendency to name stuff related to the town "Complutense" according to Latin grammar) while its current name goes back to a Muslim fortress (compare the word "alcazar" for former Muslim fortresses). Both the Roman and the Muslim settlement had their cores somewhat outside the modern urban core of present-day Alcalá.
The town has a strong connection to Cardinal Cisneros, the confessor of the "Catholic Monarchs" and perhaps the most powerful non-royal in the Spain of his era. His coat of arms contains swans (cisne in Spanish) and they can be seen all through the town. Cardinal Cisneros is linked to the university, which he transformed into a proper university in 1499 (often given as the foundation date as the previous institution did not teach the full range of early modern university subjects).
Prior to the Alhambra Edict, Alcalá had a large and prosperous Jewish and Muslim community. The edict was passed by the Catholic Monarchs on the urging of Cisneros. It banned Jews and Muslims from living in Spain. Today, buildings in the historic city centre are marked according to the part of town they belonged to.
Alcalá de Henares was also the site of the baptism of Miguel de Cervantes, the best known author in the Spanish language. He was almost certainly also born here and a house that was linked to Cervantes in the 20th century is presented as his birth house. Although he and all his siblings for whom baptismal records survive were baptized here, there are those who doubt his birth occurred here, in part because his birth house is to be found in the Jewish quarter. Cervantes went by a second last name that was not that of his mother. (In Spain and Portugal people usually have two last names, the first from the father, the second from the mother.) Some argue that he did this to conceal possible Jewish ancestry.
Another famous son of the town was Manuel Azaña, the last President of the Second Spanish Republic. He resided just across the street from the "Cervantes house", although Azaña was not aware that Cervantes had lived there.
The University of Alcalá was moved to Madrid in the 19th century (hence the name "Complutense" of Spain's largest, most prestigious university) but a new university claiming the tradition of the old institution was founded in the 20th century.
Alcalá has suffered a great deal during several Spanish wars, since it occupies a strategic position. The city was occupied by both sides of the conflict during the War of the Spanish Succession, the Peninsular War (in which the Napoleonic troops made the population suffer because of its support to guerrilla fighters) and the First Carlist War. The Civil War was especially tragic: the local military garrison sided with the rebels in the first days of the war, and the troops brought from Madrid to put down the rebellion also burned some churches; then during the war the city was repeatedly bombarded by the Luftwaffe at the orders of Franco, which killed many people and destroyed many buildings; after the war the Francoists imprisoned thousands of Republicans (including local poet Marcos Ana, whose father had died during a bombardment in the war) and killed hundreds of them; in 1947 an arsenal exploded by accident, but it was blamed on "marxist terrorism" and several people were shot. Given the anti-clerical tendencies of the Second Spanish Republic, it should not surprise that one of the churches has a blatantly pro-Franco inscription regarding the Civil War, but it might surprise you to hear that it is still there unaltered and not put into any context by additional plaques or the likes.
In the 1960s and 70s many factories were established and the population grew from 25,000 in 1960 to 140,000 in 1980, attracting many migrant workers from Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and Andalucía. Since the 1990s the city has become a magnet for foreigners and nowadays Romanians make up 10% of the population.
Madrid Barajas airport is 15 km west, with extensive connections across Europe and beyond. Bus 824 runs between Alcalá and Terminals 1 & 2 (via Torrejón de Ardoz), every 30-40 min weekdays and hourly at weekends from about 07:00 to 22:00, taking 40 min. These buses run between Barajas and central Alcalá (corner of Via Complutense and Calle Murillo); some of them continue to the University.
Another option to reach Alcalá from the airport by bus, if 824 is not available, is taking bus 200 from the airport in direction to Avenida de América and stop in Canillejas; once there, go to the bus stop on the other side of the road and take bus 223 to Alcalá (buses 229 and 227 also go to Alcalá, but not to the centre). If this sounds very complicated, you can just stay on bus 200 until the last stop in Avenida de América, which is a big bus station with clear signs, and once there take bus 223 (or 229 or 227) to Alcalá, it's easy since this is where those buses begin their journey.
Reaching the airport by metro & suburban train involves going into Madrid and changing at Chamartin or Atocha to come out again.
To reach Alcalá by train from the airport, you must change trains in the stations of Chamartín, Nuevos Ministerios, Recoletos or Atocha. The easiest option is Recoletos since you don't have to change platform: just get out of your train and wait until the indicators say the next train is bound for Alcalá de Henares or Guadalajara.
A taxi from the airport to Alcalá costs €35-40.
- 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.
- 2 Estación de La Garena. The less important station mostly serves local residents and is of lesser importance for tourists. It is however closer to the Roman ruins than the central station,
- 3 Estación de Alcalá de Henares Universidad. It serves the modern university (not its historic buildings) to the east of the town centre. . It also serves the Quadernillos mall, where the local cinema is.
Buses from Madrid start from Avenida de América, outside the Metro station. Line 223 runs to central Alcalá (Vía Complutense) every 15 min 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. If you want to stop near the centre of Alcalá, get off in the first stop after you see the medieval walls on the right side.
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. The north side of the Plaza leads into the colonnaded Calle Mayor, with many bars and eating places.
- 1 Universidad de Alcalá (Universidad Complutense), Plaza de San Diego. 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. The university goes back to an older institution that did not teach the full range of subjects of a "proper" university founded in the 13th century and was moved to Madrid as the modern day Complutense University in the 19th century. In the 20th century a new university was founded in Alcalá. Adult €6, concessions €4.
- 2 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.
- 3 Hospital de Antezana (next to the Cervantes House). A 15th-century charity hospital, probably the oldest in Europe in continuous use. Nowadays it's a care home for the elderly.
- 4 Cathedral (Lonja de la Magistral). M-F 08:00-14:00 & 16:00-20:30, Sa Su 09:00-13:00 & 18:00-20:30. It was built in the 15th century, 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 a reliquary dedicated to two children who were supposedly executed for their Christian faith under emperor Diocletian allegedly also containing their mortal remains. It's also Cardinal Cisnero's site of burial although his much more elaborate tomb is found in the Chapel of San Ildefonso on University grounds.
- 5 Archbishop's Palace. The 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. England's Katherine of Aragón and Germany's Emperor Ferdinand were born here, John I of Castille died here, and the first meeting (the Spanish term "entrevista" literally means "interview") where Christopher Columbus pitched his idea to Queen Isabel of sailing west to reach India took place here. 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.
- 6 Archaeological Museum. Tu-Sa 11:00-19:00, Su 11:00-15:00.. The museum is housed in the 17th-century Madre de Dios monastery-college on Plaza de las Bernadas. Prehistoric and Roman finds from the area.
- 7 House of Hippolytus, west end of town by Av de Madrid. Tu-Su 10:00-14:00, and Sa Su 17:00-20:00. Probably a 3rd- or 4th-century college, with well preserved mosaics.
- 8 Castillo de Alcalá la Vieja. The remains of the old Muslim fortress that gave the town its name, partially rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries.
- 1 Corral de Comedias, 15 Plaza de Cervantes. Dating back to 1602 and thus older than Shakespaere's "Globe" in London it claims to be one of the world's oldest theaters even though it hasn't been in use as such without interruption. Both guided tours and plays are on offer.
Alcalá is not the place to find dozens of stores teeming with tourist goods. Typical products of the region include ceramics and jewellery.
- La Casa de Don Quijote (Calle Mayor 51) placed in front of Cervantes House, is a souvernirs shop.
- Alcalá's Shop (Calle Mayor 64) also has souvenirs.
Since the 90s Alcalá has been famous for its tapas: food that you get when you order a drink at no extra cost, that can amount to a small burger or hot dog. In many bars there is a menu of tapas and you must chose one when you order your drink. Tapas in Alcalá are the most generous in the Community of Madrid.
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.". They make a nice present.
There are frequent gastronomic events very tenuously linked to passages in Don Quixote, whose woeful hero ate next to nothing, and enjoyed less.
- Barataria (Calle 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.
- Indalo (Calle de los Libreros ), the place that started the big tapas trend in Alcalá.
- State-owned hotel chain Paradores has two excellent restaurants in the same street: Hostería del Estudiante (Calle de los Colegios 3) and Restaurante Santo Tomás (Calle de los Colegios 8).
- La Pizzería Casera (Calle de Santiago 42) is a nice pizza restaurant.
- Francesco's Pizza (Calle de los Libreros 15), owned by an award-winning pizzaiolo, has Italian-style pizzas.
- Ohlalá (Calle Mayor 8) is a cheap fast-food restaurant, quite popular among teenagers.
- Bar Restaurante Nino (Calle Mayor 70), opened since 1953, is famous for its mushrooms.
- Mesón Las Cuadras de Rocinante (Calle del Carmen Calzado 1) has a traditional decoration.
- Restaurante La Cúpula (Calle de Santiago 18) is nice choice for those looking for something a bit more upscale(not much! This is not Madrid).
- Restaurante La Terraza del Mercado (Calle de los Cerrajeros 1), placed on a rooftop, is another upscale option, along with La Cúpula and Paradores.
- Restaurante Casino  (Plaza de Cervantes 9), placed in what have been since 1890 a gentlemen's club for the wealthy, is a restaurant where you eat for free on your birthday (but you must bring with you at least one more person whose birthday is not that day).
- Muerde la Pasta (Centro Comercial Alcalá Magna, Calle de Valentín Juara Bellot 4) placed in a mall at 20 minutes walking-distance from the centre, is an all-you-can-eat place popular among locals.
Other than the almonds, typical local sweets are the costrada (a cake) and the rosquillas de Alcalá (small doughnuts). They can be bought in many pastry shops, among them:
- Pastelería Salinas (Plaza de Cervantes 25), opened in 1846.
- Confitería Maig (Calle Mayor 78), opened in 1960.
- La Celiacoteca (Calle de Talamanca 3) has only gluten-free products for people with coeliac disease.
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.