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Alcalá de Henares


University town, cradle of Cervantes, of the grammar of Nebrija, Alcala de Henares has been Roman, Arabic, and Christian since the Middle Ages and home to culture from the beginning of time.

In the First Century A.D., the Romans founded Complutum on top of the old Iplacea, on the waters of the Henares. In the 8th C. it was conquered by Alfonso VII, and converted into a University Town in the 16th C. by Cardinal Cisneros. It lost importance in the 19th C. upon moving the university (Complutense) to Madrid.

Alcala de Henares has recently been named Patrimony of Humanity, its immense patrimony is being recuperated and has passed the era when it was only a sleepy city next to Madrid.


Entering Alcala by way of the old N-II highway, to the right you find the old wall, which encircles the medieval part of the city. There are two openings into the walled enclosure: the Puerta (door) de Madrid, substituted in 1778 by a sober Neoclassical structure of stone, and the Burgos door, today connected with the Monastery of the Bernadas.

Next to the wall, joining its path, we find the Outdoor Museum of Sculptures, which is a combination of the most diverse authors, styles and materials.

Following the path of the wall from the Puerta de Madrid, we arrive to the Palacio Arzobispal. This exceptional example of 14th and 15th C. architecture was unfortunately destroyed two times, during the Spanish Civil War and after a terrible fire in August of 1939. The latter not only ruined a large part of the monument but also demolished the documentation that was stored in there as Municipal Archive of the Kingdom.

The portal of the Palace is highlighted by the shields of the Cardinal Infante Luis Alfonso de Borbon, which replaced the shield of Carlos I in the 18th C. At their sides are two shields of the Cardinal Fonseca. The upper part of the façade is finished off in a gallery of arches.

Next to the Palace is the Cistercian Monastery of las Bernada, which consists of a Manierista style church built by Juan Gomez de Mora. The façade is made of a brick which contrasts with the stone décor. What is really original, however, is found in the interior: an elliptical dome surrounded by fours chapels, also elliptical, which are alternated with three other rectangular chapels. The pictorial decoration of the church is also notable, especially the altarpiece, a work of Angelo Nardi.

Crossing the Plaza del Palacio, we find the Casa de la Entrevista, commemorating the first meeting between Columbus (Colon in Spanish) and Queen Isabel, which took place in the Palacio Arzobispal. It houses the Biblioteca Iberoamericana (Ibero-American Library) and a room for temporary exhibitions.

If you follow straight on down the street of San Juan and after crossing the Plaza de los Santos Niños, you find the Catedral Magistral (Magisterial Cathedral), an authentic jewel in the complutense architecture. The Cathedral is erected on the site where the Santos Niños (Holy Children), Justo and Pastor, were buried after their decapitation by order of Daciano in 304. Its construction was ordered between 1497 and 1516 by Cardinal Cisneros on the same place where once a small parish was.

The main entrance of the church is Gothic in style, with shields and the typical Franciscan cordon. The high bell tower rises up next to this façade.

The inside is divided by three spacious naves. The center nave is covered with tercelet vaulting and the side ones with intersecting ribbed vaulting. These are connected by a polygonal recess. The beautiful lattice, dating to 1509, stands out with its plant designs. Under the presbytery, you find the crypt of the Santos Niños.

In the Epistle nave, there are openings into several chapels, starting from the Cristo de la Agonia (Christ of Agony), Santa María la Rica, San Diego de Alcalá, and the Virgen del Val, patron saint of Alcalá and, finally, the access portal to the parish of San Pedro.

As you leave the Magistral, go toward calle Mayor, a wide and colonnades road with Medieval origin. This street has always been the commercial nucleus of the urban zone and the place where the people of Alcala prefer to take their strolls, as the street is pedestrian. Besides the many charming houses for the traveler to discover, on Mayor street we find monuments like the Hospital de Antezana, known as the Hospitalillo (little hospital), next to it you find the Casa-Museo de Cervantes, a house and museum built on the site where is it believed the famous writer was born.

At the end of Mayor, you find the Plaza de Cervantes, it is the urban center of Alcalá, a meeting place and starting place to many tour excursions. The plaza is only colonnaded on two of its sides, since it is the border between the city and the university neighborhood. Off the Plaza, on Callejón de Santa María, the Office of Tourism can be located.

From the Plaza, many monuments can be seen: el Círculo de contribuyentes, a combination of traditional Alcala and renovative style made of brick and with two exterior terraces. Of the Capilla del Oidor, a monument destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, only the Tower of Santa María and part of the chapel remains. In the chapel, there is a reproduction of the Baptismal basin used for Cervantes, made with fragment of the original. The city hall, el Ayuntamiento, former Colegio de San Carlos Borromeo or school of "de Agonizantes/ the dying", and the Teatro Cervantes, which can hardly be seen from the outside, as it is camouflaged among the series of arches. It is a unique monument, an old theatre, Corral de Comedias de los Zapateros (Shoemakers), preserving the horseshoe floor and has served as an instrument to better know the theatre of comedies of the Golden Age.

We also find the Monument to Cervantes, made of bronze and dating to the year 1879, in this plaza. The relief of the pedestal, of Don Quijote, is more current (1994). There is also a music kiosk.

Very near the Plaza we find the Universidad Cisneriana, authentic emblem of Alcalá: With a precious Renaissance facade, created by Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón, it is a harmonious and original building.

Passing through the façade, we access the Patio de Santo Tomás de Villanueva, the University's first student to be lifted to the altars. It is a Herrera style patio with three sets of arches supported by columns. Through this Patio we find the Patio de los Filósofos, today a garden.
Lastly, we find the Patio Trilingüe (Trilingual), a cloister of the school of the same name. It was called that because here, classes of Hebrew, Latin and Greek were once taught.

From the Cloister, the Paraninfo (Auditorium) can be accessed. It is a lovely hall in which Hispano-Muslim style is combined with other architectural schools. The artisanship of the ceiling, Mudejar in style and with "lacería a seis" (ornament imitating bows), also deserves a mention.

Although many are the monuments and beauty of Alcalá that are left yet undiscovered, we must end our visit, but not before discovering one last building: the Palacete Laredo, located on Paseo de la Estación, is the work of Manuel Laredo, one of the most celebrated children of Alcala, also one-time mayor. A highlight of this Palace is the clock tower, topped by a dome covered in green and white ceramic scales.

The inside of the rooms are decorated according to different styles and an outstandingly artistic façade.

Each corner of Alcalá holds much to learn and experience. We recommend a relaxed visit, keeping your eyes wide open to each detail that the Villa Complutense has to offer.

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