After moving back to Spain in January 2021 and enduring a record-breaking winter snowstorm, varying degrees of pandemic lockdown, and waves after waves of COVID infections, in July I finally took my first local trip in Spain, seven months after returning to the Iberian Peninsula, to Alcalá de Henares.
Alcalá de Henares
Located less than an hour to the east of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares is a charming city for a weekend trip. I had more than plenty to do and am looking forward to returning again someday soon. Best known for being the birthplace of the famous Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, the city is characterized by its focus on education, literature, history, and more. There are countless things to do in Alcalá de Henares and I encourage you to discover the city for yourself. However, I wanted to share my top five picks from my long weekend there.
1) Visit the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes
Alcalá de Henares is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quijote de la Mancha. The city offers a fantastic museum in the author’s childhood home. You can see Cervantes’ office where he wrote, his father’s in-home doctor’s office, and other period rooms too. It’s a charming attraction, and the entrance is free. Just outside the home/museum, there is a bronze sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seated on a bench. You can sit down next to them for a photo or a rest.
2) Explore the Museo de Esculturas al Aire Libre
Scattered just outside the historic city center, you’ll find a sizable open-air sculpture museum, MUSEAL. The 50 pieces were first displayed in the early 1990s. They are found along the old city walls that once protected the Archbishop’s Palace and all along the Vía Complutense. The contrast between the modern sculptures and the city’s rich archaeological history is striking. There is also some diversity among the sculptures themselves with some being more abstract and some more traditional in style.
3) Drop by Casa de Hippolytus
Just one train stop away from Alcalá de Henares, near the La Garena station, you can find Casa de Hippolytus, a beautifully-preserved archaeological site near the much larger site of the Roman city of Complutum. One of the only known children’s schools from this period of the Roman Empire in Spain, the entire site sits underneath a large metal roof. This makes it an ideal escape from the elements any time of year. If you happen to be visiting during a milder time of year or feel well prepared for the heat or cold, be sure to check out the site of Complutum itself, which is open to the elements. To visit Complutum, access to a car is recommended. Traveling to Casa de Hippolytus is more comfortable on four wheels but not unmanageable if walking from the La Garena train station as I did.
4) Discover the Latin American Art Museum of the University of Alcalá
Tucked into a corner of the University of Alcalá, across from one of its libraries, you’ll find the University Latin American Art Museum. During my long weekend, this was one of my favorite experiences. The museum has two collections and mostly houses contemporary and abstract works of art. Much like the open-air sculpture museum, the contrast between the history of Alcalá and the modern art in this museum was fascinating. The Museum can be a bit hard to find — it’s in the Edificio Cisneros on Plaza de San Diego. To get to the museum, you’ll need to go into this building and take a left. Entrance to the museum is also free. The University of Alcalá itself is not to be missed either. The architecture alone makes the campus worth walking through.
5) Shop and Eat on Calle Mayor
Last but certainly not least, the city’s well-known Calle Mayor and the plentiful bars on and near it are worth a visit. The street itself has lots of local shops, restaurants, and bakeries. I spent an afternoon walking the length of it, which extends far past the historic city center. I’d also recommend taking a tapas crawl. Alcalá de Henares is known for its traditional Spanish bars that serve you your choice of tapa from a list with the purchase of a beer, tinto de verano, or other drink. I chose to visit three: Indalo, La Posada Magistral, and Las Retintas, all in the historic city center. For less than 10€, I got three drinks and enough food to count for dinner!
If you’re looking for a weekend trip out of Madrid or just looking for a charming Spanish city to visit, then you can’t go wrong with Alcalá de Henares. There is even more to discover than I did in the days I visited. If good food, an appreciation for literature, history, and art, beautiful architecture, local shops, and Roman ruins appeal — there’s something you’ll love there.
by Emma Schultz