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  • Writer's pictureNatasha Cara

City guide #3: Toledo: The hidden jewel of Spain

Updated: Mar 8

As some of you may have guessed from my previous blog-posts, I love Madrid. The first time I visited I was instantaneously encapsulated by it and it kind of felt like everything fell into place. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Valencia, it’s a gorgeous city filled with lots to do, but I’ve realised this year that I’m more of a capital cities girl myself. After having lived in Paris, Manchester, Durham and now Valencia I can confidently say that I’m like a firefly; attracted to the bright city lights, the hustle and bustle, and cramped metros which smell like pee yet so much culture beyond that. But in terms of visiting places, I love the smaller hidden gems; old towns with cobbled streets, villages with floral walkways, nooks and alcoves. I wanted to go back to Madrid again in spring, just to make sure that I didn't fall for it because of the twinkling Christmas lights and the fervour of it being my first solo trip. Last time I spent four whole days in the capital and I swear I could have stayed even longer. However, a lot of people told me to visit the nearby town of Toledo, which used to be the capital of Spain before Madrid came on the scene. It’s rich in culture- like most of Spain- yet is the religious epicentre of the modern Spanish world, boasting a mosque, cathedral and synagogue as its most eye-catching landmarks, each equipped with its own distinctive history and cultural impact. I didn’t have time to visit during my November trip but I was determined to see the two cities before I left Spain. Besides, now I’m much more well-travelled and comfortable heading places on my own so- I booked my bus and train ticket and planned to spend 2 ½ days in the centre of Spain.

This was to be my first experience with taking the bus for a long-distance journey. Up until a few months ago, I could barely muster up the courage to take trains let alone buses. But it’s price over comfort so I decided to do the four-hour journey, and I guessed that I’d probably sleep through most of it (which I did- of course I did, this is me we’re talking about). I stayed in the hostel that I was in last time- OK Hostel, which is much better than just ‘ok’. I would HIGHLY recommend it because the staff were so nice (and they remembered me from last time). I was able to get involved in the social side of the hostel and they made me feel included which I was truly grateful for. I also found it easy to chat with different types of people there and I made friends with a group of German students who were on a field trip and even learned a few more German curse words too...

The next day, I’d gotten used to bus life and decided to take the short 40-minute trip to Toledo. I love to plan and organise so I made a list of the landmarks and possible things that I could see. I was told that one day would be enough to truly capture the essence of this city. Before I even got to the first landmark I found myself at one of the many viewpoints in the city, the Mirador del Valle. From here, I had an amazing view of the whole of Toledo. You don’t even have to look for them just keep on walking out of the station and you too, like me, will stumble upon one.

The first order of the day was the Alcázar of Toledo, which also doubled up as the military museum. Now I’m a pacifist and have no interest in learning about warfare tactics nor military regalia yet I do appreciate the fact that the museum is extremely informative and if you’re into that kind of thing I would recommend it- also it is free for students which is always a hidden bonus. The Alcázar itself had a large courtyard with a beautiful cascading staircase- perfect for getting those “insta” shots- and a nice break from all of the armour and warfare imagery.

My next stop was the world-famous cathedral. One thing that I hadn’t counted on was the fact that it would be 12€ entry! Now, I’ve travelled a bit and seen my fair share of cathedrals- so I figured that I could skip this one. That was until I found an unexpected loophole- you can enter a sectioned-off part of the cathedral which is reserved for ‘worship’. You can enter for free, take a few photos (say a prayer if you wish) and then continue with your day. If there’s anything more I love than travelling it’s bargain (I definitely take after my mother in that regard).

On another unexpected turn, I found myself in a torture museum. Now I know you’re probably thinking ‘How does this girl go from one of the most sacred places in the world to a torture exhibition’? This was perhaps one of the most expensive things I did in Toledo. It cost me 4,50€ but was perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip (without sounding like a sadomasochist). I learned all about the Spanish Inquisition and how people were punished for the slightest things. People were seriously messed up to come up with these punishments but leaving the exhibition I felt like I’d just remediated on the human psyche and how the heck they can be simultaneously that creative yet messed up.

To distract myself I wandered on to a cute restaurant which served an amazing menu del día: bread, a glass of wine, a noodle salad for starters and baked salmon for main all for 12€. Good food + hearty portions + bargain prices = happy Tash. At the start of this year, I found it really hard to eat out on my own. Breakfast and lunch aren’t so bad but I still get quite anxious when dining out alone during the evening. I always feel like people are staring at me, maybe even judging me for being alone. The one thing I have to say is ‘forget that’- we as humans are perhaps some of the most self-centred and self-absorbed creatures on the planet- I mean look at our environmental crisis right now and the mess we’ve got ourselves in. If you ever feel like that I can assure you that, people are NOT watching you at all they don’t even care about what you’re doing. They’re probably too engrossed- or they should be in their own conversations and meals to worry about what you’re doing. So sit back, relax and tuck into that good sweet food!

Good food + hearty portions + bargain prices = Happy Tash.

I literally rolled out of the restaurant door because I was so full- however, I was stuffed and content, ready to continue on my own mini pilgrimage. I stopped off at another smaller church- which I had to pay 3€ to enter. Immediately I knew I’d made a bad choice. It wasn’t on my list of landmarks to see but at the same time, I wanted to head off the beaten track a bit. Nope- bad choice- which I won't elaborate on further. Needless to say, I learned that sometimes it's better to stay on track.

It was now 27 degrees outside (yup global warming again) and I needed some shelter. So I decided to visit the Santa María Blanca Synagogue. I’d mooched around the Jewish quarter for a little bit, allowing myself to divert from my map and wander leisurely through the winding streets. The Synagogue was beautifully decorated, extremely spacious yet not overly decorated that it felt ‘too’ much. The last time I went to a synagogue was when I was in year 7 and we did a school trip. Young and naive I didn’t really ‘get’ the cultural significance- especially since Manchester has a rich Jewish history and community. Now older and (hopefully) wiser I really appreciated seeing the contrast between the cathedral (despite the restricted view I had) and the synagogue. It occurred to me that regardless of faith, religious places put a lot of time and thought into the aesthetics of their place of worship. Irrespective of religious beliefs (or lack of) I really felt at peace in both main religious landmarks and the fact that both are encouraged as landmarks proves to me that yes- religion can co-exist if anything Toledo represents that completely.

I decided to wander again and came across something that was on my list yet not a priority for me to see- el Museo del Greco. El Greco was an important figure in the Spanish Renaissance. Now my interests in art lie mainly with modern and street art yet I decided to give it a go- again it was free and I had a bit of time to kill. Whilst the artwork wasn’t exactly to my taste I was enormously impressed by the architecture and surroundings of the museum, which is centred in El Greco’s former house. Beneath the house are some amazing caves, which are free to see as well as an impressive garden boasting a varied floral collection. On a warm spring day, sitting in the garden was really what I needed, providing a moment of repose after a long day of walking.

I only had a few more hours in Toledo before my bus back to Madrid and I decided to visit the famous Puente de San Martín, which had been recommended to me for its panoramic views. On the way I was able to pass through the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes (which Google had informed me was closed) yet again, I managed to sneak in via the ‘worship’ route (don’t judge me). The viewpoint from the bridge was amazing and I of course had to get a few photos.

On my way to my final stop which was another mark on my list- the Puerta de Bisagra and Puerta del Sol, which were the old city gates. They were located on the other side of the town so I had to hot step up the hills and winding roads to reach it before heading back to Madrid. On my way, I had hoped to pass by the mosque and complete the trinity of religious grounds. However, for some reason, the mosque was closed by the time I reached it in the early evening. Nonetheless, from the outside, it looked beautiful and I would recommend that you visit what I’m dubbing the “Big Three” if you ever visit Toledo.

So, my final thoughts on Toledo, I really liked it. I was there for approximately 9 hours and was able to see 95% of everything that I had planned on seeing. The town reminded me of my student town Durham with its hills and cobbled streets- everyone was so friendly and it felt completely safe to be travelling there alone as a young female. It’s definitely a day trip rather than a complete weekend- unless you really like to take your time to see places. I would definitely recommend that you give Toledo a try- it really is the hidden jewel of the centre of Spain.

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