Salamanca, declared a World Heritage Site in 1988, and a European Capital of Culture a decade later, has an unquestionably rich historical and cultural heritage that will keep you busy exploring day and night. A walk around the old town will open your eyes to the various architectural styles of its monuments. Religious and civic buildings built in the famous Villamayor sandstone, which gives them a golden color and a distinctive character. And when you've exhausted the city's wealth of historic sites, the wider province of Salamanca offers unspoiled mountain villages, lush green valleys and nature reserves to satisfy your curiosity.
Start with a stroll around the Plaza Mayor, considered the heart of the city and one of the finest squares in Europe. It was originally built under the patronage of King Philip V and is a unique artistic achievement in Baroque art. Begun in 1729 according to plans drawn up by Alberto de Churriguera, and finished in 1755 by Andrés Garcia de Quiñones, and with contributions from Nicolas de Churriguera and José de Lara de Churriguera, it is one of the most important urban ensembles of 18th-century Europe.
Not too far is the University of Salamanca, one of the world's oldest and most illustrious academic centers, founded in 1218 by Alfonso IX shortly after the creation of the great universities of Paris and Bologna. The university developed over several centuries and now occupies most of the city's important historic buildings. One of its most impressive features is the grand entrance, carved by master sculptors in the 16th century under the direction of architects whose mission was to create a "doorway to heaven". You can see a 16th century classroom and the huge and impressive library with 160,000 books; you can view it through a glass door, but it's not open to visitors.
A major tourist attraction is the tiny frog which sits on a carved skull and lies hidden amid a myriad of other intricate carvings in the vault of the old university door off the Plaza de Fray Luis de Leon. It used to be said that the students who found the frog would pass their exams; the tradition has passed down through the centuries and today's more superstitious visitors play "spot the frog" in the belief that finding it will bring them good luck for a year.
As you walk around the old town you'll notice the signs of another ancient tradition in the red marks which have been painted on the facades of many of the city's historic buildings. In the old days, when the students finished their exams, there would be a three-day celebration culminating in a bullfight. The student who killed the bull would mix its blood with oil and paint a sign with his name on one of the city's walls.
Other "must see" buildings include the two cathedrals - the original old cathedral which was started in 1140 and later overshadowed by the bigger and much more elaborate "new" cathedral which dates from 1530 but took 200 years to complete. Together, the cathedrals present an awesome array of fantastic frescoes, intricately carved stonework, Gothic tombs and ornate chapels. Opening in 2002, visitors are encouraged to visit the Ieronimus exhibition at the cathedral in order to get a better perspective of its history and beauty.
Find the lovely Casa de las Conchas, House of the Shells, - a 16th century mansion built by a Knight of the Order of Saint James who adorned the building with carved scallop shells, the order's sacred symbol. The Convento de San Esteban Gothic church is one of the city's most magnificent buildings and contains a high altar which is among Salamanca's greatest art treasures. Nearby is the Convento de las Dueñas - a former Moorish palace with beautiful 16th century cloisters and an upper gallery lavishly decorated with stone-carved dragons, demons, saints and sinners.
The city is large enough (180,000 inhabitants) to be able to offer the advantages of a real city, but at the same time it keeps the intimacy of a village. In Salamanca, the inhabitants speak the "purest" Spanish in Spain - Castilian. For this reason Salamanca is enormously popular with people all over the world who want to learn or improve upon their Spanish.