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. 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.
Your first proper stop in Toledo may very well be the city’s main plaza, 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.
Toledo is known and admired for historically having been a city of three religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – and for that reason, its Jewish quarter is especially important and admired. Home to sweet tiny streets and loads of souvenir shops, the neighborhood also holds some of Toledo’s greatest history, which can be learned about and experienced by visiting many of its sights.
Such sights include the Jewish quarter’s two remaining synagogues: Santa Maria la Blanca, which was built for the Jews by Moors during Christian rule, and El Transito, with its Sephardic Museum that features a wealth of information on Toledo’s Jewish history. Don’t miss other important stops in the Jewish quarter, such as the Santo Tomé Church and its famous El Greco painting; the School of Translators, to which Jewish scholars made very important contributions; the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes with its impressive church and garden-filled cloister; and the Casa del Judio.
As is the case with so many of Toledo’s sights, the Mosque of Christ of the Light (or, in Spanish, the 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.
There is no silhouette more symbolic of Toledo than that of the Alcázar of 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.
Former Spanish capital Toledo was famously once home to three diverse and thriving cultures: the Catholics, the Muslims and the Jews. And there’s no better place to discover the rich history of the latter – the Jews – than by visiting the city’s El Tránsito Synagogue. It was constructed in the 14th century, and is now home to the Museo Sefardí (the Sephardic Museum) 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.