Compact and walkable, the small city of Úbeda can be found just off the main Andalusian tourist trail at the center of Spain's Jaén province. As a refreshing change, Moorish heritage is not the main draw here; it's the fantastic collection of Italian-inspired Renaissance era palaces and churches.
These myriad graceful hills have likely settled since at least Roman times, although the town of Úbeda wouldn't come to be known as such until the rule of the Emir Abd ar-Rahman II (822–852). The town would be ruled by the Moors for centuries, until falling into Christian hands during the Reconquista, in 1233.
After years of internecine squabbling between minor nobles, Christian Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand feared that they would soon turn against one another. The fortifications of the Alcázar were commanded to be pulled down in order to stimulate cooperation between the rival factions. This—perhaps along with small quality of life improvements for the peasants—seems to have done the trick.
At the dawn of the 16th century, the relative peace and Úbeda's fortuitous location allowed them to prosper through trade. The towns fortunes improved again when emperor Charles V married into a local family, spurring a rash of construction. Many of the fine buildings in town today date from this time.
Eventually the political spotlight turned elsewhere. Over the years a series of natural disasters and wars took their toll on the local economy, and the town was brought to its lowest point. As the 20th century rolled on, agricultural improvements allowed more olives to be grown. Today tourism and cultural events are the newest additions to Úbeda's growing repertoire.
- 1 Tourist Information Office, 5 Plaza de Andalucia, ☏ . 9AM-5PM daily. Adjacent to the clocktower, the staff in this little office speak English and have plenty of fine maps and advice to dole out on whatever it is you're interested in seeing.
With the closest train station being in Linares and airports being hundreds of miles away, your best bet is going to involve four weels.
Úbeda has a great, if small, bus station. Dozens of busses shuttle back and forth to nearby Jaén (€6, 1h) daily, while there are also frequent connections with Granada (€8-13, 2h30m) and other points to the south. You'll also find a few busses serving Cordoba (€7-13, 2h30m) and points north. A dozen or so lockers are available on-premises for 24-hour rental for about €4.
The A-32 from Linares, and the A-316 from Jaén will both run you into town. If you're headed instead from far away Albacete, the N-322 will be the road for you. All roads are quite well maintained and easy to navigate.
Seeing the sights in town is an activity best undertaken on foot. The bus station is about a mile from the center; however, so consider cabbing it to your hotel when you first arrive. This will of course depend entirely on your own personal luggage weight to back strength calculus.
The dozens of magnificent Renaissance era buildings here were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, and by far and away the reason most folks stop by. If possible, avoid visiting Úbeda on Mondays, when many sites are closed or have reduced hours. While all facades have been preserved, few interiors remain in their original 16th century state. They've often been turned into municipal buildings, or stately hotels for the well heeled. Either way, they're beautiful. It's easy to let your imagination run wild as you get lost rambling through the narrow streets of the old city.
- Murallas de la Ciudad, Redonda de Miradores. 24 hours daily. Circling the city, these walls were first built around the 10th century, and have been extensively modified over the years. Various doors and watchtowers puncture the barricades and peak out atop the bulwarks. The scenic loop in the southeastern quadrant of the city affords particularly spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and its olive-laden hills. Free.
- 1 Palacio de Juan Vázquez de Molina (Palacio de las Cadenas), Plaza Vázquez de Molina, ☏ . M-F 8AM-8PM Sa 10AM-2PM / 4PM-8:30PM Su 10AM-2PM. Considered to be one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Spain, the palace was built between 1546 and 1565. Architect Andrés de Vandelvira designed this palace as a Roman house, creating its entire structure around a large courtyard with a fountain in its center. The main facade is very well proportioned and quite beautiful. This has been Úbeda's town hall since at least 1850. Free.
- 2 Parroquia de San Pablo, ☏ . Tu-Sa 11AM-1PM / 6PM-8PM Su 11AM-1PM. One of the oldest in Úbeda, this church is believed to have been built some time during the 13th century. Its location in a central square and its proximity to the old town hall, made it the perfect choice for city council meetings throughout the 15th century. In the early 16th century, the building was embellished with Renaissance details under Alonso Suárez de la Fuente, who carried out extensive renovations and enlargements. Free.
- 3 Sacra Capilla del Salvador del Mundo, Plaza Vázquez de Molina, ☏ . M-Sa 9:30AM-2:30PM / 4PM-6PM Su 11:30AM-3PM / 4PM-7PM. Built between 1536-1559 under the patronage of Francisco de los Cobos. Initially conceived as a funerary monument, it was re-envisioned while under construction to elevate the patron's fame, fortune, and personal glory. The complex sculptural decoration of both the main facade and interior contrast boldly with the austerity of the Palacio de Molina, on display just down the road. The chapel's grandiose circular centralized crypt is meant to expresses a unity with, and the infinite essence of, God. €5 including audioguide, children €2.50.
- 1 Hospital of Santiago, 28 Calle Obispo Cobos, ☏ . M-F 7:30-14:00 / 15:30-22:00 Sa Su 10:00-14:00 / 17:00-22:00. This massive space was built around 1562-1575, and spans an entire city block. It's since been completely renovated and now houses a massive event space as well as a library. Work by new and established artists adorns the walls and rotates often. Check their calendar for information about upcoming live performances. Free.
There's honestly not that many shops here selling items that couldn't be found in a larger city. But if you're looking anyway, your best bet may be to stroll Calle Real. This busy commercial street starts just behind the clock tower, and makes a straight shot down-down-down towards the center of the old city.
Granada isn't the only place where tapas are still come gratis with your drink order! This custom may endure here due to Úbeda's cultural roots, or it could simply be the lower number of tourists traipsing about town. Whatever the reason, the tradition carries on.
Traditional local cuisine from Úbeda is home cooked, featuring the omnipresent olive, yet changing with the seasons. Several popular stews in the area originate from old Moorish recipes; like chickpeas with chard, or fava beans with eggplant. Keep an eye out for Los Andrajos, a typical pasta dish you'll find accented with seasonal vegetables.
- 1 Cafetería Y Churreria Millán, 33 Corredera San Fernando, ☏ . 7am-1PM daily. If Cheers was a Churro café and not a bar, it'd be this place. Locals pop in and order their usual. After catching up on the newest gossip, they plunk a few coins down on the counter and bid a good day to all. €2-5.
- 2 La Tintorera, ☏ . noon-4PM / 8PM-11:45PM. The wines and olive oils here are top notch. The waitstaff is accustomed to providing recommendations for local and foregin palates alike. €12-25.
- 3 Taberna Misa de 12, 7 Plaza Primero de Mayo (Northeast corner of the Plaza), ☏ . noon-4PM / 8:30PM-11:15PM daily. Outstanding traditional Spanish cuisine (and wines!) with a nice view of the Plaza and nearby 16th century church. When it gets busy, the waitstaff really hustles. €15-30.
There aren't dozens of options for nightlife in Úbeda, but the town is just big enough to support a smattering of late-night establishments.
- 1 La Beltraneja Pop Club, 6 Calle Alcolea. 4PM-3AM daily. Clubby vibe, open late, with hookahs available on the outdoor patio.
If there is a bit of room in the budget, consider upgrading your hotel room while in town. Prices are a bit more reasonable here, and a small bump might see your surroundings improve considerably.
- 1 Hotel Ordóñez Sandoval, 1 Calle Antonio Medina, ☏ . €50-€70.
- 2 Afán de Rivera, 4 Calle Afán de Rivera, ☏ . €65-€100.
- 3 Palacio de Úbeda, 2 Calle Juan Pasquau, ☏ . Relatively pricy, but not without reason. This is a stunningly restored and updated 16th century palace. Near everything. €135-€180.
- Offering the incredible Alhambra—among many other attractions—Granada is an unmissable Andalusian delight. Two and a half hours by bus.
- Spend two hours heading north to Cordoba. You'll be a bit hotter, but taking in the famous striped archways of La Mezquita makes every bead of sweat worth it.
- Baéza, Úbeda's sister city is few minutes away and offers a similar array of beautiful Renaissance architecture.
- Long a relative touristic backwater, visitors are beginning to rediscover Jaén's many cultural and natural resources.
- Stay off the beaten track by getting out and exploring the village of Cazorla and its Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla.