For a city with a reputation as a living museum, there’s more life to Toledo than might be expected. Its labyrinth of narrow streets is full of medieval buildings and monasteries wearing their age as a badge of pride, but it rarely seems to slumber.
Despite being the home of the Spanish Catholic Church, historically Toledo has been where Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together harmoniously and industriously. And that heritage seeps through all over the tightly packed hilltop city. Roman baths, mosques, sword factories and art museums mix with Gothic spires and Moorish-inspired entrance gates.
The sheer concentration of artistic and architectural goodies gives Toledo its sense of specialness. But take the time to step back, and it’s remarkably beautiful as well.
A comfortable bed
A 14th-century castle-meets-palace built by the Count of Toledo, the Parador is easily Toledo's most memorable accommodation option. It has a sizeable pool and exceptional views of the city, but the catch is that you need to take a taxi to get there and back. Double rooms cost from €100 (Dh410).
The unflashy but comfortably homely Hotel Medina has wonderfully helpful staff and a rather splendid perch on the hillside. It's handily close to the escalators that save on sweaty stair-slugging up to the old city. Doubles cost from €51 (Dh209).
The small-scale but pleasingly polished Hotel Abad has maintained its old-world touches in its beams and pillars. The normal rooms are good, but the plant-filled duplex suite under the dark-wood ceiling is a steal, from €90 (Dh369).
Find your feet
Once up in the historic city (there are escalators for those who don’t fancy a trudge up many steps), head to the Alcazar on Calle Unión. It’s not Spain’s prettiest castle by any means, but the museum inside has a good overview of Spain’s past, among much tedious military history.
From there, try not to get lost in the maze on the way to the cathedral, which has some of the most extraordinarily detailed decoration you will find anywhere on Earth, and a top-drawer art collection inside its sacristy. Van Dyck, Caravaggio and Velázquez are all present, but the local favourite El Greco plays the starring role.
Fans of El Greco can then proceed to the Museo del Greco. When bought in the early 20th century, the owner thought it was the artist's former home. It wasn't, but the period reconstruction of the home and gardens is beautiful. The actual collection of El Greco paintings is rather small, however.
Meet the locals
The city is built on a hill in a loop of the River Tajo, but most visitors don’t come down from the hill to enjoy it. Toledo residents know the walking trails along the banks are gorgeous, teeming with bird life and unexpected sheep herds.
Book a table
For something traditional, with waiters in bow ties and long-standing local favourite dishes, Casa Aurelio does a cracking job. Artichokes filled with Manchego cheese, then partridge and mushroom risotto, make for a brilliant opening salvo in the three-course, €14.50 (Dh59) set lunch menu.
La Abadia has an exposed-stone-and-brick restaurant downstairs, but more life in the bar area upstairs. It does excellent tapas, such as the €7 (Dh27) venison fillets in mushroom sauce, as well as intriguingly global larger dishes. The €13 (Dh53) butterfish with wakame, toasted sesame seed and teriyaki sauce is a good example.
Toledo has three main specialities: marzipan, swords and Damascene (finely woven decorative gold or silver). The latter two can be found pretty much everywhere – though be wary of buying ceremonial swords and knives as, unless properly packed and sealed, they won’t even get on the train back to Madrid, let alone the plane. For marzipan, make a beeline to Santo Tomé in the main square, Plaza de Zocodover. They have been making and selling it since 1856.
What to avoid
One of Toledo's newest attractions, the Toledo Time Capsule, is full-on, fist-bitingly, excruciatingly awful. It attempts to tell Toledo's history through all-surrounding, supposedly arty video projections, but feels like a rejected proposal for the opening ceremony of a genuinely terrible sporting tournament.
Scrambling up towers to get the best views of the city is an exercise in futility. To see the old city at its most spectacular, you have to leave it. Cross the 13th-century Alcántara Bridge, then head right along the road. The path tracks the river, and slowly climbs towards the Parador, with the view of Toledo getting ever more photo-worthy with each step.