Spain isn’t exactly homogenous. Sun-drenched, flamenco-soaked Andalusia has a very different vibe from creative, industrial Catalonia or drizzly, Celtic Galicia. But there’s a certain classic Spanish feel – of Cervantes, kings and empire – that belongs most firmly in the region of Castile.
Nowhere channels the grand Castilian purity like Salamanca, home to the country’s oldest university and saturated in glorious, honey-coloured sandstone buildings. It’s a city that wears a sense of prestige at every turn.
But there’s as much to be enjoyed as there is to be admired. The same university that gives Salamanca its rarefied air brings its energy, too. The student population ensures that nights are never given over to quiet, and youthful exuberance permeates the stateliness.
A comfortable bed
The Hospes Palacio de San Esteban (www.hospes.com), inside a former Dominican convent, feels like a peaceful retreat, and it's swimming in Old World detail. Wooden pillars and ceiling beams remain; there are exquisite mosaic-tiled bathrooms; and many rooms have superb cathedral views. It's understated luxury with unmistakable charm. Rooms cost from €90 (Dh378).
The Grand Hotel Don Gregorio (www.hoteldongregorio.com) also goes for the plushly charismatic old-building-conversion slant, but has more of a Scandinavian chic in its rooms – all clean unfussiness and lightwood floors. The spa downstairs, with gimmick-packed bubbling pool, is a winning bonus. Rooms cost from €163 (Dh685).
Room Mate Vega (www.vega.room-matehotels.com) has a great position near Plaza Mayor, and although it's not the chain's most flair-packed effort, it's still superb value for money. Book direct to get a free mobile Wi-Fi router to take around town with you – a brilliantly handy extra. Double rooms cost from €40 (Dh168).
Find your feet
Kick off at Plaza Mayor, arguably the greatest of Spain’s main squares. The exceptional uniformity is the handiwork of the designer Alberto Churriguera, and it was built between 1729 and 1755.
From there, amble south along the pedestrianised main thoroughfare towards the Real Clerica de San Marcós (www.torresdelaclerecia.com), and take the 166 steps up the bell tower for prime city views.
Keep going, taking in the utterly humungous Gothic cathedral, and swing round to the main university building (www.usal.es). It's traditional to search for the frog on the elaborately decorated facade, while the library is the highlight inside.
Finish off at the utterly delightful Museo Art Nouveau y Art Déco (www.museocasalis.org), where the building is as much a work of art as the hundreds of early 20th-century figurines, toys and toadstool lamps inside.
Meet the locals
Students and locals escape to the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea gardens, tucked away behind the cathedral and university, for a lunchtime blast of peace and fresh air. The views over the city are surprisingly underwhelming, but turn round, and the cathedral dome through the trees looks fantastic.
Book a table
Zazu Bistro (www.restaurantezazu.com) has a warm, inviting feel and an internationalist menu that veers from teriyaki sauce to pasta and sticky toffee pudding. But it's all done well, and the three-course lunchtime menu is an indisputable bargain at €12 (Dh50).
Meson Las Conchas (Calle de Rua Mayor) looks dreadful – pictures of the food outside and laminated menus. But locals merrily eat tapas at the bar, and everything is forgiven when the enormous portion of tender lamb with potatoes for €14.50 (Dh61) is served.
Calle del Toro to the north of Plaza Mayor is the main shopping street, and it has decent chain fare. For something a little more interesting, however, try the university's shop, Mercatus (mercatus.usal.es). It has a good range of puzzles, clocks, jewellery and trophy pens, albeit occasionally going too heavy on the uni branding.
El Tienda de Lis (www.latiendadelis.com), attached to the Museo de Art Nouveau y Art Déco, has gorgeous artwork umbrellas, art-nouveau lamps, retro wind-up toys and decorative items straight from retro Parisian designers.
What to avoid
Don’t expect to stick to normal dining times – your eating habits may be in for a rude awakening. Spain’s restaurants often open for lunch at 2pm and dinner at 8.30pm. Salamanca is somewhat traditionalist in this respect, so don’t expect to find too many appealing 12.30pm lunches or 7pm dinners.
Salamanca is regarded as being home to the purest, most classical version of spoken Spanish. It's no surprise, therefore, that it's brimming with language schools. The university's courses (www.salamanca-university.org) are the highest regarded, and those wanting to learn the language quickly can take two-, three- or four-week intensive courses, with between 15 and 25 lessons a week. The courses cost from €415 (Dh1,745) for two weeks.