Cuenca is small city etched into the mountains of Castilla-La Mancha in the Spanish heartland.
Due to its beautiful and strategic location, Cuenca has a long history stretching back to the 8th century when it was part of the Moorish Caliphate of Cordoba. It was later conquered by Castile in the 12th century. This small but mighty city is a fairy tale come to life, with medieval architecture hanging onto jagged cliffs surrounded by forests and rivers. It’s no wonder that the historic town is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
In Cuenca you’ll find perfectly-preserved architecture, forests, rivers, natural rock formations, adventure sports, nightlife and more. Doing a short getaway from Madrid to Cuenca is a must. It’s great for a day trip but you definitely won’t mind spending a couple of nights in this fairy tale either!
HOW TO GET THERE
Cuenca is just two and a half hours away from Madrid by car. You can also ride the Ave train which will take you to the town in less than an hour from Atocha Station in Madrid.
There isn’t a wide range of accommodation options in Cuenca. The most luxurious option is the Parador del Cuenca which occupies an old monastery at the top of the Huécar Gorge. From here you get all the best views in town including the Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) and the Puente de San Pablo (San Pablo Bridge). There are a handful of small hotels scattered around town which offer simple and rustic accommodations in converted historic buildings at an affordable price (anywhere from 50-100€ a night).
Anywhere you look there are so many delightful things to see in Cuenca! You should of course start off by wandering around the Old Quarter. A good idea is to start by strolling down the Paseo del Júcar, along the pretty Júcar River, on the side right below the Old Town. If you look up you can marvel at some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world which Cuenca is famous for, some of which were built with up to twelve floors in the 15th century. Eventually you’ll come to a set of stairs that will lead you up to the start of Old Quarter. Along Calle Alfonso VIII, you’ll pass by rows of colorful old houses. Back in the day, producing dyes for textiles was a prominent industry in Cuenca and people could tell which color an artisan produced by looking at the color of the house.
The street curves and you’ll eventually reach another set of steps that’ll take you to Plaza Mangana. You’ll find the soaring Torre de Mangana, the town’s clock tower and a vestige from the Arab citadel with gorgeous 360° views of Cuenca from all sides. From here it’s just a short walk to Cuenca’s Plaza Mayor and then a hop to the Huécar Gorge. The gorge is a breathtaking feat of nature and human engineering as you take in the Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) perched over cliffs and the Puente de San Pablo stretching from end-to-end. I highly recommend seeing the gorge at night when the bridge and the town are romantically lit up.
For those who have a car, there are tons of natural sites to drive to within Cuenca province. The Ventano del Diablo (the Devil’s Window) is a look out point with dramatic views of a forested valley and the Rio Júcar running through it. Another popular attraction is the Ciudad Encantada. At this geological site turned into a park you can walk through and observe large rock formations which have been sculpted into unique formations by erosion over millions of years. It’s a unique, fantasy-like backdrop where many films such as Conan the Barbarian was filmed.
The Mirador at Barrio del Castillo is another must-see as it offers sweeping views of the Casas Colgadas and the Parador de Cuenca from the other side. But it’s ideal to visit during lunchtime as there are lots of restaurants to choose from at the top of the hill, many of which offer a Menu del Día for 12-15€ and great views.
Grotte del Huécar is one of the swankier restaurants in town. The restaurant is actually carved into the mountain at eye level with the cliffs of the Old Town with the peaceful Rio Huécar trickling below. You can choose to sit at the spectacular terrace outside where you’ll get some of the best views of Cuenca. Or you can choose to be in the grotto where you actually get to dine inside an illuminated cave. Both options will get you a unique dining experience with modernized Spanish tapas and entrees.
For more casual dining with tapas and drinks, there are lots of terrazas to choose from surrounding Plaza Mayor in front of the cathedral. If you don’t mind venturing out of the Old Town, Calle de San Francisco in the center of Cuenca is a lively pedestrian way with affordable local restaurants with yummy food.
The most typical dishes to try when in Cuenca are ajoarriero, a rich and creamy dip made with codfish, and morteruelo, a similar creamy dip but made with meat.
For daytime drinks go to La Ceca. It’s a long open-air venue located along the river which stays shaded and cool thanks to the foliage of the forest. It’s the ideal place to enjoy Cuenca’s natural beauty and laidback atmosphere. There’s also a big parilla where you can pick out whatever they’re grilling up that day to go with your al fresco drinks.
Having a night out in Cuenca’s Old Town is a charming affair. The bars across from the cathedral in Plaza Mayor tend to have prime views of the city at night. La Edad de Oro has a long list of mix and match gin and tonics that’ll make your head spin and the best table is the one all the way in the back right in front of the balcony. Los Clásicos is the heart of nightlife for local conquenses. It’s the preferred watering hole thanks to its laidback ambience, live music events and amazing views out back. You can drink while looking at the cliffs and the Old Town sprawling above and below while standing at the outdoor terrace. Things that Cuenca never runs out of are views and storybook charm!