Having lived in Madrid for three-ish years, I´d done all the typical weekend jaunts – Segovia, Toledo, Alcalá, etc. But Cuenca and her gravity-defying casas colgadas perched above the Huécar gorge had somehow alluded me… until now.
To describe Cuenca as dramatic would be an understatement. Originally founded by the Moors in the 8th century, the city was built on a peak protected by severe drops down to the gorges of the Huécar and Júcar rivers below. Everything surrounding the city is verdant green, and everything within the city is solid stone that has witnessed thousands of years of history.
You can visit Cuenca in a day, but I absolutely recommend ´hanging around´ for two if you can swing it. Not only is the journey a bit longer and more costly than most Madrid day trips, but the hanging houses illuminated beneath the stars are worth it on it their own.
Planning Your Trip
After checking out the transport options 👆, we decided our best bet was to leave by bus first thing in the morning and come back the following day on the last evening bus. That gave us two full days and a night to see, do, eat and explore – and we definitely didn´t get bored! The local tapas culture make food and drinks affordable, and you can find accommodation for as low as €30 – €40 a night. If you´re new to booking.com, first time users can get a €15 discount by using my referral link.
Getting Lost in Cuenca
Cuenca is completely vertical and everything seems to be on top of something else. There´s plenty to see and do, but to truly experience Cuenca, give yourself time to wander through the mazelike medieval tunnels, take in the impressive views from the multiple lookouts and try a tasty local craft brew in the Plaza Mayor.
Top 10 Sights to See in Cuenca
Cuenca is small, but packs a lot of punch in historic architecture and extraordinary views from seemingly every angle, making it a perfect city to meander and get lost. Whether you’re visiting for 24, 48 or even more hours, try not to leave without stumbling upon these top 10 gems.
1. Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses)
The hanging houses of Cuenca are the most emblematic sight of the city, and almost certainly why you’re planning a visit. Perched precariously over a rocky cliff side, they seem almost to defy gravity. The first records of the houses are from the 15th century, and it´s believed that as the population grew, the architectural style allowed the city to grow vertically rather than spreading downward to maintain their higher ground.
The best views of the hanging houses come from below, following the highway at Paseo del Huécar, from the front of the Parador de Cuenca, and especially from the Puente San Pablo – though the bridge is not for the faint of heart!
2. Museo de Arte Abstracto Español (Museum of Abstract Arts)
Out(ward) with the old, in(ward) with the new! This modern art museum is housed within a renovated casa colgada, permitting you to actually walk the halls of one of these centuries-old skyscrapers.
Admiring contemporary art in a 15th century architectural masterpiece is a quirky play on our perception of time. The massive collection is spread throughout five levels, offering several unique panoramas from behind the wooden balcony rails. The museum is free to enter and was absolutely one of the highlights of my trip.
3. Puente de San Pablo (St. Paul´s Bridge)
Originally built in the 16th century to connect the city with St. Paul´s Convent (now the Parador de Cuenca), the current reconstruction was rebuilt in 1902, using the original bridge as support. It´s here that you´ll catch the most stunning views of the casas colgadas, both by day and by night.
Fair warning – those with a fear of heights aren´t gonna love this one (!), especially on windy days. And if you´re planning on crossing the bridge at night or during the colder season, abrigate! It gets chillllly up there and wind hits you from the bottom, top and all around.
At 60 meters above the ravine, the only thing this bad boy is missing is a bungy jumping station. For anyone who´s jumped the Kawarau Bridge Bungy in Queenstown, New Zealand, picture that but with even better views!
4. Catedral de Santa María y San Julián de Cuenca (Cuenca Cathedral)
I´m not the biggest fan of cathedral tourism. Occasionally I peek inside and ooh and aah and wonder how, but after a few years travelling in Europe, they all mostly start to blend together.
This time, however, as we glanced in to catch a glimpse from the doorway, there was no one around to collect our €4.80 entrance fee, so… Well, let´s just say we made an exception and went inside.
And it was worth it.
Cuenca´s Cathedral is the first Gothic cathedral in Spain, but unlike the usual dark, dreariness I tend to associate with the style, it´s light and airy and spectacular. In another Cuenconian mixture of old and new, the stain glass window panes were redone in the early nineties, inspired by DNA molecules and colored in pinks and bright blues that let light spill in freely.
Each chapel is different and boasts a uniquely adorned ceiling. Exiting through the side entrance, you’ll find a quiet courtyard and more breathtaking views of the Parador and the Huécar gorge.
5. Plaza Mayor
Like most Spanish cities, the main square (Plaza Mayor) is built around the cathedral. Cuenca´s charming Plaza Mayor lights up with historic houses painted in vibrant shades of rose-pink, mustard yellow and charcoal gray.
There are several cafes and restaurants to choose from and plenty of terrace seating to enjoy a sunny day. It was here that we first tried the local brew – Dawat. And, well, let’s just say we didn’t try just one 😉.
6. Parador de Cuenca
One of Spain´s national posh hotels, the Parador was built in the 16th century as a convent for St. Paul. To get here, cross the Huécar Gorge via St. Paul´s Bridge and you´ll find spectacular views of the casas colgadas and the rest of the medieval city.
The Parador has a restaurant and a café built where the chapel once was. If you´re feeling splurge-y, rooms here typically run at about €150 a night and include access to the sauna and seasonal swimming pool.
7. Barrio de San Pedro & Barrio Castillo (The Top of Cuenca)
The top of Cuenca is the oldest part of the city and dates back to its Moorish foundations. Here you’ll find the ruins of the castle (castillo), the Church of St. Peter (below), the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias and the convent of the Carmelitas Descalzas.
For me, the most spectacular views of the city are from the Mirador Barrio del Castillo. Just behind the Church of St. Peter, you’ll find a lookout with stunning panoramic views of the Parador de Cuenca, the Puente de San Pablo, the Casas Colgadas and most of the old city.
8. Iglesia de San Pedro (Church of St. Peter)
The church itself is lovely on the outside, but the highlight here is climbing up to the bell tower. For a euro, you can enter the church and scale the narrow spiral steps up, up, up for impressive views of the medieval city below – layer upon layer of shingled rooftops, lush green gorges, and thousands of years of history.
9. A Stroll Along the Rio Júcar
There are several routes to enter the city from both the Huécar and Júcar ravines, but this path was by far my favorite. The cobblestone path is built along the misty turquoise waters of the Júcar River and passes through lovely parks and across fairytale bridges beneath the shade of it´s trees.
Along the way, we stumbled upon the Terraza del Júcar. Drawn in by the Paco de Lucia melodies floating out from the kitchen, we stopped for a coffee and a morning snack. Absolutely the breakfast (spot) of champions.
10. Treat Yourself to a Meal with a View: Posada de San Juan
On the hunt for a romantic dinner, we hit the jack pot when we stumbled upon the Posada de San Juan. Though the decor is simple, the restaurant exudes history, has a killer view, and is an affordable place to treat yourself to a delicious meal of local specialties without breaking the bank.
Sadly we weren’t prepared for the wind and chill on the balcony (9°c / 48°f on an August evening!), so we had to forgo the gorgeous views for an inside table. We sampled all the regional classics – queso manchego (wow!), ajo arriero, pisto manchego and mojete and washed it all down with a local red. If you’re staying long enough for a good meal, do yourself a favor and make a reservation here. They also have 22 rooms on offer that you can reserve on booking.com using my discount referral link.
Can’t Get Enough Cuenca?
If you’re looking to spend more than just a couple of days and/or coming in by car, there’s plenty more to see and do outside of the city center. Although my visit was just a short escape, a dear friend who was born and raised in the region recommends checking out these gems:
- Hiking / Trekking: There is no shortage of gorgeous natural landscapes surrounding the city. Pack your boots and head out to explore Cuenca’s Flor de los Senderos.
- Ciudad Encantada: The stone formations within Cuenca give you a little taste, but if geology is your thing, check out Ciudad Encantada for unique rock formations.
- Segóbriga: An ancienct Roman city with an impressive archeological park that includes ruins of an amphitheater, a theater and Roman baths.
- Laguna de Uña: A peaceful blue lagoon, perfect for walking or picnic-ing.
- Ventana del Diablo: Near Ciudad Encantada, this viewpoint offers spectacular views of the region from above.
- Nacimiento del Río Cuervo: A lovely natural area around the river, rich in local flora and fauna.
Whether you planning to stop in for a daytrip, or to make a week out of it, there’s plenty to see and do in the area. So get up, get out & get lost in Cuenca!
Been to Cuenca? What are your highlights? I’d love to hear about them below!
Thanks for stopping by, and be sure to follow me here and on Instagram to keep up with my adventures in Spain, Europe & beyond!
Love, Erica ❤
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