Things to Do in Toledo
Historically, Toledo is noted in Spain for having once flourished as a cultural crossroads, with three religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – coexisting together peacefully. And there is perhaps no better physical representation of this time than the Santa María la Blanca Synagogue. Claimed to be the oldest synagogue in Europe, it was built during Christian times by Moorish architects for Jewish use.
You can see this complex intersection of history and styles all represented in the small space. For example, there are the Mudejar horseshoe arches, the 16th-century Christian altarpiece, and the layout, which, while it has elements reminiscent of a mosque, was constructed as a synagogue. Though its original purpose was, of course, to be a synagogue, come the early 14th century, it was converted into a church, serving various purposes since. The space may be small and simple compared to some of Toledo’s grander sights, but there’s certainly more than meets the eye here in terms of history, making it a worthwhile place to see and contemplate.
There is no silhouette more symbolic of Toledo than that of the Toledo Alcázar (Alcázar de Toledo). The commanding, square-shaped building - which is anchored by its four, sky-reaching corner towers - crowns the city, and has roots that reach back deeply into the ancient capital’s history.
While structures on this site date back to Roman times, the version you see today was largely erected in the 16th century under Carlos V, and has since been through many fires, reconstructions, and additions. Though it once served as home to royals (among other purposes), it now houses the country’s Military Museum, which offers an in-depth look at the nation’s past, complete with an impressive viewing terrace that overlooks the city.
Once upon a time, Spain’s famous Catholic Monarchs had grand plans for Toledo to be their final resting place. As such, and in commemoration of the victory of the Battle of Toro, they began building the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes). Though ultimately the King and Queen were entombed in Granada, Toledo’s underrated monastery remains one of the city’s most intriguing sights.
The late 15th-century monastery is especially noted for its two-story cloister, featuring gardens, gargoyles, and an intricate Mudejar-style ceiling on the second floor. Listen carefully and you might even hear the chants of the monks. While outside the cathedral, take special note of the curious chains hanging from the façade: hung in 1494, they represent the prisoners freed from Muslim Granada, and the then triumph of Christianity in Spain.
As is the case with so many of Toledo’s sights, the Mosque of Christ of the Light (Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz) is a blend of cultural influences, telling the story of the city through its architecture. The mosque, considered the most important piece of Islamic art in Toledo, was built in 999 and, come the 12th century, was turned into a Catholic church.
What makes it particularly special is the fact that it is the only remaining mosque of ten that once existed in the city, and that it very much remains in its original state. Though the space is small, its grounds — from the small square interior with Moorish horseshoe arches, to the outside gardens with views of the city — transport visitors back some thousand years in time, making this a pretty special stop.
Toledo’s relatively humble Church of Santo Tomé (Iglesia de Santo Tomé) happens to be home to one of the world’s most famous paintings: The Burial of Count Orgaz, by El Greco. The star piece was commissioned for the church’s chapel, where the count is buried, and features the burial along with St. Augustine and St. Stephen. El Greco in fact appears in his creation as well, even though the event took place over a century prior to the painting.
The church dates back to the 12th century (when it was built atop a previous mosque) but was later reconstructed in the 14th century with the funds of the aforementioned Count Orgaz, who was a generous benefactor. The building’s tower is distinguished as being one of the finest examples of Mudejar architecture in Toledo — take note of its typically Moorish horseshoe-shaped bell tower windows. Though Santo Tomé itself may not be among Toledo’s most impressive sights, it’s the famous painting and history behind it that continue to lure the masses to the church’s doors.
There’s a memorable scene in the 17th-century Spanish novelDon Quixote: the title character attacks a row of windmills, mistaking them for giants. See the place that inspired the scene when you visit the Consuegra Windmills, an important part of Spain’s agrarian past set against a medieval castle backdrop.
One of the most atmospheric and storied districts in Toledo, the Jewish Quarter (Judería) was home to Spain’s most prominent Jewish community in the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, the neighborhood—comprised of walled, labyrinthine alleyways—is the site of synagogues, museums, and plenty of historical charm.
Located in the Toledo province, Consuegra Castle is one of Spain’s best-preserved castles. Despite being passed between Moorish and Christian rule throughout the years, little to no Moorish influence exists in the modern structure; however, you can still explore the medieval castle, enjoy views over the surrounds, and climb the windmills featured inDon Quixote.
Your first proper stop in Toledo may very well be the city’s main plaza, Zocodover Square (Plaza de Zocodover), as it receives visitors not far from the northern entrance to the city. The plaza has served as Toledo’s main square for pretty much all of the city’s history, and has been the site of bullfights, executions, and an important market for which the plaza was named.
Indeed, the word Zocodover has Arabic origins, meaning mercado de las bestias de carga, or, loosely, livestock market. That’s because, during those times, the plaza was home to a regular market that sold animals such as horses and donkeys. These days, apart from being one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, the plaza also hosts concerts and events, thus continuing to be the center of local life.
Former Spanish capital Toledo was famously once home to three diverse and thriving cultures: Catholics, Muslims and Jews. And there’s no better place to discover the rich history of the latter than by visiting the city’s El Tránsito Synagogue (Sinagoga del Tránsito). It was constructed in the 14th century, and is now home to the Sephardic Museum (Museo Sefardí) featuring Jewish art, objects and history.
The synagogue was founded and financed by Sameul ha-Leví, after whom it was originally named. Following the expulsion of the Jews, however, it eventually served other purposes, such as a military barracks, and as an church called Nuestra Señora del Tránsito, hence the synagogue’s current name. What you’ll find here today is a splendid, albeit small example of Mudéjar-style architecture, and, beyond that, an educational and meaningful link to the city’s Jewish past.
More Things to Do in Toledo
Former home and workshop of the master sculptor and artist Victorio Macho, the Victorio Macho Museum (Museo Victorio Macho) stands as a tribute to his life and his work which was donated to the Spanish people upon his death. Macho chose a splendidly scenic spot to produce art — surrounded by mountains and next to the Tagus River, with one of the best imaginable views of the city of Toledo.
Victorio Macho’s variety of work from self-portraits to depictions of famous Spanish monuments and figures and models is all on display in rooms of the home, as well as the crypt and gardens. Some of his greatest pieces, including “El Hermano Marcelo” and “Torso Gitano” can be seen here. His work is considered by many to be the greatest in modern Spanish sculpture. It is also home to the Real Fundación de Toledo, which works to preserve the cultural and historical heritage of Toledo and often holds fascinating temporary exhibitions.
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