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Guide to Visiting Cuenca, A Special Destination for Art & Nature in Spain

by Last updated Jun 27, 2024 | Published on Jun 12, 2024Castile-La Mancha, Europe, Feature Story, Spain, Travel

For the longest time, we weren’t aware of this small town in Spain that is a treasure trove of art, nature and history. Then it began to pop up on our radar. We saw it on signs while traveling from Valencia to Madrid, and eventually fellow expats began recounting their own visits. When we heard of marvelous historical sites, stunning nature trails, delicious local food, and inspiring art, we decided that visiting Cuenca was next on our list.

Have you heard of this less-frequented town in Spain’s region of Castilla-La Mancha? Thanks to its location between Madrid and Valencia, many travelers visit Cuenca for just a few hours, but I highly recommend staying overnight, ideally two nights so that you have a full day to discover its treasures.

From romantic, old world architecture to majestic views and natural beauty, to even abstract art and historic hanging houses, the Medieval town of Cuenca is ideal for a weekend getaway. Learn from our own experience about visiting Cuenca and discover one of Spain’s lesser-known destinations for art and nature.

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Table of Contents for Guide to Visiting Cuenca

Map for Visiting Cuenca

Visiting Cuenca - How to Get There

Visiting Cuenca for a Nature Getaway in Spain

Outdoor Activities in Cuenca

What to See When Visiting Cuenca

Where to Stay in Cuenca

What to Eat in Cuenca

When to Visit Cuenca

More Images of Visiting Cuenca

Map for Visiting Cuenca

Visiting Cuenca – How to Get There

Above ImageA view of the San Pablo Bridge from next to the Casas Colgadas (hanging houses).

Visiting Cuenca is ideal by train because it is conveniently on the main rail line connecting Spain’s charming cities of Madrid and Valencia. This is how we traveled to Cuenca for our first visit, by taking one of the high-speed AVE trains from Valencia to Cuenca, and then a couple days later we continued on for the rest of our trip to Madrid, Segovia, and then Oviedo. From Valencia to Cuenca the quickest trains take only one hour, and from Cuenca to Madrid, they take about one hour and twenty minutes.

Driving is also convenient for visiting Cuenca. When driving between Valencia and Madrid, it takes only an extra 30 minutes to detour from the main highway to stop in Cuenca. The drive from Valencia to Cuenca can take just over two hours, and from Madrid to Cuenca it takes just under two hours. As you can see, taking the train does save you some time. And when you get to Cuenca, keep in mind that parking can be a challenge due to the historic center’s old narrow one-way streets and steep terrain.

Visiting Cuenca for a Nature Getaway in Spain

Above ImageSome of the gorgeous walking paths on the west of Cuenca that take you to the Rio Jucar.

We love what a surprise the natural beauty of Cuenca can be. Imagine traveling across the vast plateaus of Spain’s famed region of Castilla-La Mancha, a patchwork of green fields, glowing yellow sunflowers, and an occasional set of gently rolling hills. Then out of the seemingly flat terrain, rock outcroppings and even small mountains appear. As you venture further up out from an expansive valley, two deep gorges snake its way along either side of a towering ridge of rock upon which sits the old town of Cuenca.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

There are two parts to Cuenca – the new part of the town and the old city or historic center, which is the more common and charming area to stay and visit. The Cuenca train station (Estación de Cuenca-Fernando Zóbel) is just outside the new part of town.

If you enjoy walking and hiking, then visiting Cuenca will be a great trip for you. Cuenca backs up to the western edge of a large wilderness area and natural park. Even just walking around the old town of Cuenca will give you a great workout with its steep streets and many stairs. Another advantage is the inspiring views of the deep gorges that are formed on either side of the historic center by the rivers Júcar and Huécar.

Outdoor Activities in Cuenca

Above ImageThe stunning view from the Mirador de Cuenca.

For more serious hiking, you can venture to well made trails on either side of the gorges. To the north-west is the Rio Júcar, which is the larger river, and to the south east is the Rio Huécar, which is a much smaller river that joins up with the Rio Júcar at the south-west end of the ridge. Other activities are available such as rock climbing and adventure sports like zip lining across the gorge of Rio Huécar.

For a short, close hike that will get your stairmaster steps in, enjoy the Cascadas del Júcar. This small, yet enchanting waterfall is on the Rio Júcar, just down from the historic landmark of the Puerta de San Juan. Once you’re down there, you can also walk further along the river and cross over to the other side where there are more extensive hiking trails with various viewpoints.

What to See When Visiting Cuenca

Above ImageThe Cuenca Cathedral, located in the Plaza Mayor.

Even though it seems like a small town, visiting Cuenca is best done with two full days (three nights), because there are so many historic and natural sites to enjoy. There is also more to Cuenca than just its historic center, making it more of a small city. Founded by the Moors in the early 700s, Cuenca retains beautifully maintained historical architecture that today is also home to world-renowned abstract art.

The Hanging Houses of Cuenca (Casas Colgadas de Cuenca)

Probably the most famous site in Cuenca is the Casas Colgadas de Cuenca, the hanging houses. This set of homes are centuries old and are built on the very edge of the gorge with large wooden balconies hanging dramatically over the rocky cliffs.

Today, the houses are maintained as a museum and are home to the Spanish Abstract Art Museum. You can tour the buildings while also seeing the exhibits showcasing abstract art from the 1950s and ‘60s, particularly works from the locally beloved modern artist, Fernando Zobel. As you would imagine, there are also amazing views from the large windows throughout the museum that allow you to look out over the gorge of the Rio Huécar below.

Above ImageThe Casas Colgadas (hanging houses) is one of its most popular sites.

TRAVEL ADVISOR INSIGHT

It is free entry to visit the museum and private tours are available for groups of 8 to 25 people on certain days. Closed Mondays, local holidays, and for lunch, between 2pm – 4pm.

Crossing the San Pablo Bridge in Cuenca

Enjoying a stroll across this iconic bridge is a must-do when in Cuenca. Originally built as stone in the 16th century, it collapsed and was rebuilt in 1902 of iron and wood. It spans the gorge of the Rio Huécar to connect the San Pablo Convent, which is today a magnificent Parador hotel, with the old town of Cuenca. From the San Pablo bridge, you can enjoy the best views of the hanging houses extending out over the gorge.

Above ImageThe San Pablo bridge crossing the Rio Huécar to the Parador de Cuenca.

Other Museums to Visit in Cuenca

Near the hanging houses of Cuenca, is the Museum of Cuenca, the archeological museum. We enjoyed visiting this museum and thought it was very well done. The artifacts housed here teach a lot about the area, its history and culture.

Another art museum to enjoy is the Museo Diocesano de Cuenca, which is part of the main cathedral in Cuenca. It holds temporary exhibitions, some of which feature aspects of the cathedral and other sites that give insight into culture and society.

Other museums in Cuenca include the following that are all located in Cuenca’s old town:

The Espacio Torner is another art museum that exhibits the works of local 20th century artist, Gustavo Torner de la Fuente, and is located in the Convent of San Pablo on the other side of the gorge of Rio Huécar.

Above ImageOne of the fantastic views from the museum in the Casas Colgadas.

Historical Landmarks to See When Visiting Cuenca

Just by walking around the old town, you can discover the many historic landmarks, but make sure that you don’t miss these most significant ones. Most of them also have magnificent views of the gorge.

  • Muralla y Arco de Bezudo – The remaining part of the old Medieval wall and the arched entryway into the old town.
  • Mirador Cuenca – This scenic point provides some of the most iconic and stunning views looking back at the old town on the ridge above the gorge of the Rio Huécar.
  • Puerta de San Miguel – This Medieval archway is one of the remaining main gateways into the old city and is at the entrance to the Plaza Mayor, the main plaza that also houses the Cuenca Cathedral.
  • Catedral de Santa María y San Julián de Cuenca – The Cuenca Cathedral is one of the earliest examples of Spanish Gothic Architecture. Its grandeur features stunning stained glass windows, ornate ceilings, and detailed carvings. It can be toured and regularly hosts concerts.
  • Torre de Mangana – This historic 16th century clock tower is one of the last remaining portions of the fortress built by Cuenca’s Muslim rulers. It has been amazingly renovated and continues to be the local timekeeper for Cuenca. It can only be seen from the outside.
  • Museo de la Semana Santa de Cuenca – This local history museum educates about the significance of the Easter celebrations in Cuenca. The Holy Week festivities are renowned in Cuenca and can be a great time for visiting Cuenca if you want to authentically experience Easter in Spain.

 

Above ImageThe Torre de Mangana, the ruins of Iglesia de San Pantaleón, and the ruins of the Cuenca Castle at night.

Where to Stay in Cuenca

Above ImageThe chapel inside the Seminario and the entrance to the Posada de San Jose.

The following accommodations in Cuenca provide a variety of options for one’s budget. Each of them have a charming, old world style and are housed in beautifully renovated historic buildings. As a certified Travel Advisor, I can book any of these for, providing possible perks and booking support. Contact me to learn more.

Our choice for accommodations in Cuenca was the Hospedería del Seminario. It is one of those hidden gems that are super budget friendly and so interesting because it is actually within a still working Seminary! The rooms are quite simple and basic, but clean and comfortable with a charming window that looks out at an inner courtyard. The rest of the building is like going back in time with wooden beams, tiled floors, historic paintings and tapestries hanging on the walls, and antique furniture from ages ago, all pristinely preserved and well cared for.

The Hospedería del Seminario also has a magnificent location in the heart of the old town. From there, we were able to walk everywhere. Getting to the entrance can be a little challenging, but once inside there are elevators and the rooms and most common spaces are handicap accessible. Overall, it exceeded our expectations in regards to the ambiance and decor, the kind staff, and location.

What to Eat in Cuenca

Above ImageBoar meatballs and cochinillo (suckling pig).

Of course, one of the most important parts of visiting Cuenca is experiencing the local food. Many of the traditional dishes in Cuenca are made with meat, particularly game. Lamb, quail, and pork are very popular. If you’re not into meat, don’t worry. There are some wonderful vegetable dishes in Cuenca as well. Here are some of the typical dishes in Cuenca to try.

  • Morteruelo, a paté originally from Cuenca, has several varieties. It typically consists of pork liver, various spices, and meats such as hare, quail, and partridge. It’s typically served with small toasts.
  • Zarajos is made with the marinated intestines of suckling lamb with olive oil, garlic, parsley and salt. Then they are wrapped around vine shoots like a skewer. They are then fried, grilled, or roasted.
  • Cochinillo, suckling pig, is also a favorite dish in Cuenca. This is traditionally roasted in a woodfired oven for many hours and served with potatoes and vegetables.
  • Pisto is a typical dish in Cuenca, consisting of fried and cooked vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, courgettes and bell peppers. Think of it as a ratatouille. It is served either cold or warm and is great as a starter or side dish.
  • Sopa de Ajo, is a traditional garlic soup made from sauteed garlic in olive oil and Spanish smoked paprika. A poached or whisked egg is added and the base can be either chicken broth, vegetable broth, or just water.
  • Alajú is a traditional dessert from the region of Castilla-La Mancha, but is known for being the best in Cuenca. Almonds, boiled honey, spices, and toasted breadcrumbs are blended together and spread between two wafers for a crisp, sweet cookie.

 

Above ImageDelicious tapas at Pub la Edad de Oro Cuenca.

Two places stand out to us for their good food in Cuenca. We enjoyed some delicious tapas at the Pub La Edad de Oro Cuenca. The staff were nice and served us even though we arrived very close to when their kitchen was closing at the end of lunch. We enjoyed sitting outside their front entrance along the stone wall of the Plaza Mayor, which provided some nice shade from the warm sun that day. 

Later in our stay, we had a delicious lunch at PIOLA Gastrobar. They specialize in local dishes such as albondigas de Jabali (meatballs made of boar meat). Their chic, modern interior is nice and their outdoor seating is in the charming ruins of the Iglesia de San Pantaleón. The service was also wonderful here. 

For more recommendations on where to eat in Cuenca, see our Google map for visiting Cuenca. 

 

When to Visit Cuenca

Above ImageSunset view of Cuenca from the Archivo Histórico Provincial de Cuenca.

We have visited Cuenca in late June before, and it was already quite hot during the day, but at night it cooled down enough for a light layer. Cuenca’s weather tends to be arid, dry and sunny. Temperatures average in the upper 80s, low 90s in the height of summer and in the low 50s on the coldest days of winter. Overall it seems mild, but we’ve heard that when it’s cold and windy, it can feel quite cold, and when it’s warm and sunny, it feels very hot. We can attest to how hot it can feel so be prepared.

Ideal times to visit Cuenca are in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Think April through May and October through November. Remember that Easter, Semana Santa, is very famous in Cuenca and their biggest holiday of the year. The Semana Santa in Cuenca can be a great time to visit if you want to experience the local culture. Just be prepared that there will be a lot of people and you need to book accommodations and dinners well in advance, even a year before in some cases. If you need help planning, complete my trip inquiry form to learn how my travel advisor services can benefit you.

Time for Visiting Cuenca

Above ImageThe view of Cuenca’s San Pablo Bridge and the Casas Colgadas.

Cuenca is one of those villages in Spain that you will want to return to. I know that we plan to. With Cuenca being centrally located in the middle of Spain, and right between Madrid and Valencia, it’s convenient to visit. Its rich history, natural setting, and deep appreciation for the arts warrants more than just a day visit. With such charming accommodations in a historic setting, you’ll love staying overnight in Cuenca and will have plenty to explore and enjoy.

If you love discovering off the beaten path destinations and want to further fall in love with Spain, then visiting Cuenca is a great trip for you.

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Written by Amalia Maloney Del Riego

Written by Amalia Maloney Del Riego

Fora Advanced Travel Advisor & Content Creator

I love living in Denia, Spain and traveling worldwide. My idea of a great time is ‘eating and drinking’ my way around a new place and meeting the people. As a Fora Advanced Travel Advisor, I specialize in custom travel planning for trips throughout Europe, as well as scouting trips for moving to Spain. Here on MoveToTraveling.com you can enjoy our Europe travel resources to experience Europe and live in Spain.

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