When you journey to the hidden mountain town of Cuenca, Spain, you'll be greeted with brightly colored medieval buildings, flowing river banks, and quaint streets lined with tall houses. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Cuenca is also home to iconic architectural feats, including the Casas Colgadas, which translates to "hanging houses." Though it feels like a small historic town, don't count out the modern art galleries, hotels, and restaurants found here.
In order to learn how best to experience this Spanish city, we tapped Tom Stainer, the Iberian Peninsula destination editor at Lonely Planet. Stainer explains exactly where to stay, which restaurants to venture to, how best to enjoy the nightlife, and the must-see sights found in this idyllic travel destination. If you haven't yet started to plan your 2018 summer vacation, it's time to consider a trip to this lesser-known European city. Still not convinced? Ahead, Stainer breaks down 12 things to do in Cuenca, Spain.
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1. Posada de San José: Book your stay at this 17th-century choir school turned modern hotel. You'll be treated to eclectic artwork, uneven floors, and original tiles, according to Stainer.
2. Posada Huécar: This hotel is located directly between the old and new towns that comprise Cuenca, Spain. The interior décor is decidedly rustic to complement the expansive river views offered from the hotel's spacious rooms.
3. Parador de Cuenca: For the most spectacular views of the famed Casas Colgadas, you'll want to stay at Parador de Cuenca. The former convent sits directly across the gorge from the whimsical hanging houses.
Pro Tip: Many of the hotels in old town boast incredible views, so you'll want to ask for a room con vista upon making a reservation, Stainer explains.
4. Figón del Huécar: Enjoy Castilian specialties at this old-town establishment. According to Stainer, it's quite the romantic spot, offering outdoor seating on a terrace with beautiful views of the city to accompany the local offerings.
5. Raff San Pedro: Wander down a tiny pedestrian street near the Cuenca Cathedral to stumble upon Raff San Pedro. "Raff's innovative culinary convictions run deep with lively fresh flavors and combinations like tomatoes stuffed with scallop ceviche and stuffed gnocchi made with yams," says Stainer.
6. Romera Bistrót: This contemporary restaurant offers everything from salmon sashimi to black spaghetti, but don't let the diverse menu keep you away. "Everything is executed perfectly in a 10-table, light-filled space that carries the air of a Parisian bistro," Stainer says.
Pro Tip: When in doubt, explore the Plaza Mayor in the old town or the Plaza de España in the new town to find a bite to eat. There's a variety of restaurants and eateries in both areas, according to Stainer.
7. El Tempo: Start your evening at El Tempo for light bites and cocktails. The bar-cafe is part of the Leonor de Aquitania hotel and is the perfect place to enjoy a drink as the sun goes down.
8. La Tasca del Arte: When you're ready for the real action, head to this bar known simply as the Tasca for flamenco dancing, tapas, and drinks.
9. Casino de Cuenca: End the night at the Casino de Cuenca where you can test your luck in a game of blackjack or roulette. Doors open at midnight.
Pro Tip: Cuenca is considered a student town, which makes for quite the party atmosphere on the weekends, according to Stainer. Visit a row of terrace bars at Calle San Francisco to experience the lively atmosphere, or explore more sophisticated venues near Plaza Mayor.
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10. Casas Colgadas: The most recognizable landmark in Cuenca, the hanging houses, known as Casas Colgadas, date back to the 14th century. You can see the wooden balconies jut out from the cliffs of Río Huécar.
11. Museo de la Semana Santa: "This museum is the next best thing to experiencing one of Spain's most spine-tingling Semana Santa parades firsthand," Stainer says. Enjoy an audio-visual show depicting the Holy Week traditions for a historical outing.
12. Museo de Arte Abstracto Español. Venture inside the Casas Colgadas to find a fine art gallery that houses some of Spains most extraordinary abstract art in the most unlikely setting.
Pro Tip: For a taste of local life, Stainer recommends walking through the base of the hill in the new town where you'll find shopping and tapas bars frequented by locals. "Just wandering the narrow streets, tunnels, and staircases, stopping every now and again to admire the majestic views, is the chief pleasure of Cuenca," he says.
There are so many things to do in Cuenca, Spain. Consider this unlikely destination for your next vacation. It's full of hidden gems and once-in-a-lifetime experiences you won't want to miss.