EXPLORING FURTHER – Cuenca · The Hanging City

The historic city of Cuenca sits on a limestone spur in Castilla-La Mancha, bounded by the Jucar and Huécar gorges and is most famous for its hanging houses – “casas colgadas” – which appear to cling impossibly to the cliff faces. Its history dates back to the early 8th century when Muslim forces captured the area and built a fortress on the strategic high ground between deep gorges. It remained in their hands until the late 12th century when the Christian troops of Castilian king Alfonso VIII besieged and then took the city. For the next few centuries, its economy boomed thanks to textiles and livestock until a decline in the 18th century and the city continued to suffer long into the 20th century, especially after the Civil War. In recent decades, its fortunes have improved due to updated road and rail links and the growth of tourism.

Getting There

Cuenca is a 3hr 15min drive from Xàbia, using the AP-7 north to Valencia, and then the A-3 inland towards Madrid. The last hour is on the CM-220 and N-320, a delightful drive through the wonderful landscape of Castilla-La Mancha.

If you are staying in the old town, we recommend allowing some extra time to approach it from the north, taking the CUV-9144 out of the modern city, passing under the iron bridge and the Parador to enjoy the Huécar gorge for about six kilometres to the Hotel Cueva del Fraile. Here, turn left onto an unclassified road [SP: Casco Historico] to wind your way up towards the northern end of the old town, enjoying some great views over the gorge; there are several places you can stop to take photos. After five minutes or so, there will be a public car-park where you can leave your vehicle and then walk through the Arco de Bezuda into the historic centre.

Accommodation – Where We Stayed

We have visited Cuenca twice and have stayed in two very different hotels.

Hotel Torremangana

This 4-star hotel is conveniently located opposite the Parque de los Moralejos in the eastern part of the modern town, close to the beginning of the A-40 motorway towards Madrid. Its a modern block of 120 rooms and suites, underground parking, restaurant, private dining room, lounge and TV room as well as a modest bar.

The rooms were comfortable and fully-equipped with en-suite bathroom, desk, TV, free WiFi access, telephone and a safe deposit box. They are advertised as having great outdoor views but this would depend on which area of Cuenca the room faces.

Access to the historic part of Cuenca is easy. From the hotel, you can take a taxi from the front door up to the main square or the cheaper option is to take a local bus (L1) from the bus stop in Calle de Cólon, about three minutes walk from the hotel. Ask at reception for directions.

LINK: Hotel Torremangana

Hotel Convento del Giraldo

For our second visit, we decided that we wanted to stay in the historic centre, which has its pros and cons; firstly, we would be right in the heart of the action, close to almost all the main sights and restaurants; on the down side, the hotel has no parking so we had to leave the car in the free car-park at the top of the hill and made the five minute walk down to the hotel or claim a space in Parking Calle San Pedro car-park in the road of the same name and just a couple of minutes’ walk from the hotel. With regards to the latter, the hotel has an agreement with the parking and can offer a discount; it’s about 18 euros a day.

The hotel itself is just a few metres away from the main square and the cathedral and is described on its website as “an imposing and historic palatial house dating from the seventeenth century [and] home of the only four-star hotel in Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site”. Although it has no dedicated restaurant, it is attached to the PIOLA Gastrobar which provides the breakfast option, although you will have to reserve a table for lunch and dinner, not so much of a problem during the week but absolutely essential at the weekend.

The rooms are spread across this old building on several levels; we had to negotiate a series of creaking original wooden stairs to reach our room which added to the immense charm of the place. The room was comfortable and included a decent en-suite bathroom, TV, air-conditioning, and a safe deposit box. Our room had views of the cathedral and across to the Torre de Mangana.

LINK: Hotel Convento del Giraldo

Things to See -What We Saw

Please note that the admission prices and opening times given below were correct at the time of writing (October 2022).

Las Casas Colgadas

There is plenty to see in Cuenca. You could do a lot over a long weekend, much more over a week. The hanging houses are an attraction – and there are great views from the narrow iron pedestrian bridge over the Huécar gorge – as well as the grand cathedral, the first to be built in the Gothic style in Spain, the churches of San Pedro, San Miguel and Salvador, the old convent of San Pablo, which is now a Parador Hotel, a fantastic interactive science museum, viewpoints, walks and much more.

Catedral de Santa María y San Julián de Cuenca

Open: 10:00-17:30 (Nov 02-Mar 31) · 10:00-18:30 (Apr 01-June 30) · 10:00-19:30 (Jul 01-Nov 01)
Admission: 5.50 euros (adults) · reductions for senior citizens and students

One of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture in Spain, the construction of the cathedral was started in 1196 and was largely completed by 1257, although additions and modifications continued well into the 17th century. In 1902, the bell tower – the ‘Giraldo‘ – collapsed and damaged the façade which was partially rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style. The cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Julian, the patron saint of Cuenca

The cathedral is open to the public every day from 10.00am and there is an online audio guide in English (and other languages) which can be listened to as you walk around the cathedral. Don’t forget to visit the viewpoint at the back of the cathedral complex for another great view over the Huécar gorge.

Allow about 90 minutes to get the full experience of the cathedral.

Incidentally, film buffs might recognise the exterior from the last few scenes of the 1969 fantasy Western movie ‘The Valley of Gwangi’, which also shot several scenes in the nearby Ciudad Encantada (see below).

LINK: Official Site

Puente de San Pablo

Open: 24 hours
Admission: Free

The current bridge was built in 1902 to replace the old 16th century bridge that collapsed. Built in the style of the time on the foundations of the old bridge, it is 40m above the Huécar gorge at its highest point and around 120m long. It provides a more direct link to the old convent of San Pablo, now a hotel, and crossing it might not be for the faint-hearted. The wooden planks creak, the iron sides seem too low and weak, but the views are terrific and the crossing is worth it to look back at the hanging houses and rest of ancient Cuenca. Also, find the time to make a crossing a night; the light shining through the planks from below is exhilarating whilst the view back towards the city lit up is worth the trip.

Convento de San Pablo

Sitting on a promontory above the Huécar gorge on the opposite side to the historic city is the old Dominican convent of San Pablo. Construction started in the 16th century but the building wasn’t finished until the 18th century. In the 19th century, the Order of Saint Paul (San Pablo) took over the building until the threat of collapse forced them to abandon it in 1975. In the 1990s, it was restored and opened as a state-owned Parador Nacional de Turismo. The cloister and cafeteria (the old chapel) are open to the public.

Las Casas Colgadas – The Hanging Houses

Open: 11:00-14:00 / 16:00-18:00 Tuesday to Friday and Fiesta Days
11:00-14:00 / 16:00-20:00 Saturdays
11:00-14:30 Sundays
Closed Mondays
Admission: Free

Only a few of the famous hanging houses of Cuenca remain, hanging precariously over the Huécar gorge. Thought to date back to the 15th century, they have been homes, council offices, a restaurant and now, the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español. Opened in 1966, it offers a collection of abstract paintings and sculptures for those who are interested in such a artistic style. However it also offers a chance to visit one of these hanging houses – for free – every day, except Monday.

LINK: Official Site

Museo de las Ciencias de Castilla La Mancha – Science Museum

Open: 10:00-14:00 / 16:00-19:00 Tuesday to Saturday
10:00-14:00 Sunday
Admission: 5.00 euros (adults) · FREE for children, senior citizens and to EVERYONE on Wednesdays · there is an extra charge of 2.00 euros for the planetarium. There is also a special combined price of 7.00 euros for both this museum and the natural history museum.

This a great option for all the family – and not just on a rainy day. Located in the small Plaza de la Merced just a stone’s throw from the main square of the historic centre, the science museum occupies the building of an old convent. A number of interactive exhibits allow you to discover more about the world around us: you can build part of the space station, experience different strengths of earthquakes, explore perpetual motion, create your own energy, and much more. There is also a planetarium with special 3D shows, although it seems that these are only available in Spanish. And what’s more, entry to the museum is FREE on Wednesdays.

LINK: Official Site

Torre de Manga

Open: 24 hours
Admission: Free

The famous Mangana Tower dates back to at least the middle of the 16th century although its exact origins are unclear. By the 19th century, after a lightning strike and damage by French troops during the Spanish Was of Independence, it had become largely destroyed until it was rebuilt in the Neomudejar style in 1926 and restored further in 1968 to give it its fortress-style appearance. The clock chimes every quarter an hour and can be heard across the historic city. Although there is no public access into the tower, the square around it offers some stunning views over the Júcar gorge and across the modern city and there are remains of the old Arabic Alcazaba and the Jewish quarter.

Murallas y Arco de Bezudo – The old walls and gatehouse

Open: 24 hours
Admission: Free

At the northern end of the historic centre is one of the gatehouses that provided controlled access to the history city of Cuenca as well as some remains of the city walls. Originally built in the 11th century, it was once part of the fortress that was built by the Muslims, little of which remains. On the other side, a small moat was dug to add further protection. A set of steps provides access to the top of the short section of wall to the right of the gate and this provides more stunning views over the city and across the two gorges of the Júcar and Huécar.

There is a small residents-only car-park to the left of the gate and, from here, there is a great view of the curtain of cliffs that run along the Júcar gorge.

Beyond the gate, there is the municipal car-park, another viewpoint which is worth the walk uphill for the view down the Huécar gorge, and a row of bars and restaurants.

Ronda de Julián Romero / Cristo del Pasadizo – Walk

Open: 24 hours
Admission: Free

A great short walk is the Ronda de Julián Romero – also known as the ‘Ronda de Huécar’ – which runs for about 500m from the main square next to the cathedral to the edge of the old town and it’s a more interesting route to take to reach the top end of town than the main road. There are a number of viewpoints looking down over the Huécar gorge as well as the small image of Cristo del Pasadizo.

After the Mirador de Florencio Cañas which looks down directly over the San Pablo Convent, the route passes through a gateway underneath the houses. As you pass through, look behind and above you and you’ll see a small image of Christ encased in an iron cage and often surrounded by flowers.

The legend behind this mysterious figure lies with the figures of Julián and Angustias who fell in love despite their different levels of status in the community. Angustias’s family did not approve so Julián decided to demonstrate that he was worthy of their daughter’s love. He joined the Spanish Army and went to war in Italy, vowing to return with money, a military position and a future for his beloved. Before his departure, the young couple declared their eternal love before the image of Christ, vowing not to look at any other so that when Julián returned, they would marry. However, as time passed, Angustias flirted with another, a boy called Lesmes, and forgot about her love. After two years, Julián returned with a future in the military and money in his pocket. He searched for his love but found her in the arms of another and, seized by anger, he attacked Lesmes. The two young men engaged in a duel to the death; Julián stumbled and fell; Lesmes took advantage and dealt his a lethal blow with his sword. Reacting to the screams of Angustias, guards ran to the scene and Lesmes fled along the battlements above the Huécar gorge, intending to jump down to a nearby path and complete his escape. However, he tripped, fell and broke his neck. Her two lovers dead, Angustias secluded herself for the rest of her life in the Convent of Las Petras, only leaving at midnight every night to pray for the souls of Julián and his relatives at the image of Christ. To this day, locals swear that they have seen a white shadow running along the Ronda de Huécar at midnight; they say it stops at the image of Christ and then disappears.

Ronda de Júcar / The Eyes of the Moor – Walk

Open: 24 hours
Admission: Free

On the other side of the historic quarter is the Ronda de Júcar, a pedestrian walkway which runs above the Júcar gorge. Across the gorge, on the cliffs of the Cerro de la Majestad, are two painted eyes staring back at you. Although they are a recent addition as a tourist attraction, the eyes remind us of another story of forbidden love, this time between a Christian soldier and a Moorish woman. Both had fallen in love and began to see each other secretly. When the woman discovered that she had been promised to another Muslim, she tried unsuccessfully to convince her father to allow her to marry the Christian soldier. Refusing to abandon their love, they made plans in secret to marry. However, her Muslim fiancé followed them and discovered their secret romance. As the woman waited at the Torre de Mangana for her love so that they could search for a priest to marry them, the Christian soldier was attacked and killed by the Muslim and his friends. Devastated, the woman declared that she could not live without her love and intended to kill herself but was stopped by a priest who told her that suicide was a sin and that she would not be with her lover again if she carried out such a deed. Instead, she converted to Christianity and ended her days in the convent in Calle San Pedro (now a hotel). The eyes are painted every year by students of the Cuenca School of Arts and Crafts.

Museo Paleontológico de Cuenca – Natural History Museum

Open: 10:00-14:00 / 16:00-19:00 Tuesday to Saturday
10:00-14:00 Sunday
Admission: 5.00 euros (adults) · FREE for children, senior citizens and to EVERYONE on Wednesdays · There is also a special combined price of 7.00 euros for both this museum and the science museum.

The MUPA complex is located on a small hill to the south-east of the city, a modern building which tells the story of the evolution of the planet and the era of the dinosaurs from the perspective of Cuenca and the region of Castilla-La Mancha. The museum is well laid out – you simply follow the numbered route – and there are plenty of exhibits, information panels (the majority of which are also in English as well as Spanish) and, outside, a short walk through the trees which has great views over Cuenca and a children’s play area. There is also a cafetería.

LINK: Official Site

Eating and Drinking – Our Experiences

Pícaro Tapas y Copas
Travessia Clavel, 7

Located just around the corner from the cathedral, this popular bar-restaurant is a not-so-subtle homage to the Italian scooters of the 60s, decorated with Vespa and Lambretta memorabilia; it plays some great music from across the decades as well. The menu offers tapas and a selection of signature hamburgers at very reasonable prices whilst there is also a menu-del-día at the weekends. The bar serves a number of beers, including Guinness. We definitely recommend making a reservation for a table if you intend to eat, especially at the weekend. And be aware that there is a small surcharge if you take a table outside.
Lunch: 49 euros (two people) ****

LINK: Official Website

Abrasador El Secreto de La Catedral
C. Obispo Valero

Located to the right hand side of the cathedral main façade, this became a firm favourite of ours, even if it was just for a drink, and we ate there twice during our second visit, once for lunch and once for dinner. Being a grill, the menu is mainly grilled meats, including a very good mixed grill for two people, and their signature Abrasador XL Hamburger which is a very filling option to cure those hunger pains. Being right next to the cathedral, reservation is essential, especially at the weekends. If the weather doesn’t allow outside seating, there is a modest restaurant upstairs, about four or five tables, but the steep stairs doesn’t make it a good option for those with mobility issues.
Lunch: 36.50 euros (two people) ****
Dinner: 44.00 euros (two people) ****

LINK: Official Website

Restaurante Mangana
Plaza Mayor

Located in the main square next to the grand archway that gives access to it, this restaurant offers a couple of menu-de-días, a cheaper one on Mondays to Fridays and a more expensive one every day. The staff are friendly enough but the layout of the terrace, located right next to the road, can mean that their attention is often mixed. Still, it seems to be a popular venue for the locals and the food was definitely value-for-money, even if we had to ask them to heat up our lasagne starters a bit more (which they did so without complaint).
Lunch: 28 euros (two people) ***

LINK: Facebook Page

Restaurante Los Arcos
C. Severo Catalina, 1 (Plaza Mayor)

Located in the main square, right next to the grand archway, Los Arcos is a very pleasant restaurant with limited tables outside in the square and a great view of the Júcar gorge from the interior. The simple menu offers tasty tapas and bocadillos whilst there is also a very reasonable menu-del-día with plenty of options to suit all tastes.
Lunch: 32 euros (two people) ****

LINK: Facebook Page

Restaurante San Nicolás
Calle San Pedro, 15

This is a little gem of a restaurant, located in Calle San Pedro opposite Hotel Convento del Giraldo. During the summer, the terrace at the rear of the restaurant, which overlooks the small square of Plaza San Nicolás, is very popular. The staff are very friendly, offering their own suggestions if needed, and the food is absolutely delightful, but it’s not cheap.
Lunch: 90 euros (two people) ****

LINK: Official Site

PIOLA Gastrobar
Calle San Pedro, 15

Located in Calle San Pedro, just 50 metres or so uphill from the cathedral and next to the ruins of the chapel of San Pantaleon, Piola is a modern gastro bar which is very popular at the weekends. The menu offers tapas, a small selection of pizzas, grilled meats, and fish dishes. It’s not the cheapest in town but the atmosphere at the weekends makes it a nice option for Sunday lunch. There are a few tables outside within the ruins of the chapel plus some nice folding wooden tables on the wall of the bar. There is also a big screen TV showing football if someone needs their fix of La Liga. Since it was attached to our hotel, we ate their twice, with mixed experiences.
Dinner: 64 euros (two people) **
Dinner: 32 euros (two people) ***

LINK: Facebook Page

Figón del Huécar
Ronda Julián Romero, 6

This was an absolute find of our week in Cuenca, a delightful restaurant with a dining room and terrace that overlooks the Huécar gorge. The staff are very friendly and more than willing to talk you through the menu and give their own suggestions. There is also a menu-del-dia and a degustación menu. It’s not cheap – but it’s not going to break the bank either, and the views and service are worth paying that little bit extra. Be aware than there is a surcharge for sitting on the terrace (it’s worth it) and that there are plenty of stairs, the restaurant being located in a building hanging over the edge of the cliffs, so it’s not a great option for those with mobility issues.
Lunch: 87 euros (two people) *****

LINK: Official Site

Restaurante Posada de San José
Ronda Julián Romero, 4

This hotel is located just two minutes’ walk from the main square and, at first glance, seems to be just a hotel. But we noticed a menu pinned to the side of the door, enquired with the reception inside, and were directed down a set of stairs to the restaurant which is open to the public. It’s a great venue; the building clearly has some history and is one of those that clings to the side of the cliff overlooking the Huécar gorge so there are plenty of stairs, probably not a great option for those with mobility issues. The menu offers tapas, traditional dishes from Cuenca, meats and fish whilst there is also a daily selection of specials available. Reservation is recommended.
Dinner: 58 euros (two people) ***

LINK: Official Site


La Ciudad Encantada

Located about a 30 minute drive from Cuenca, the Ciudad Encantada – the Enchanted City – is a collection of rock formations which have been eroded by the weather into distinctive shapes such as the mushrooms, the stone sea, the lovers, the turtle, the bears, and the seal.

Take the CM-2105 north out of Cuenca and travel up the Júcar gorge for about 6 kilometres to the junction with the CM-2104 [SP: VALDECABRAS]. It’s one of those junctions where you have to come off the road to the right and then cross over the road to continue your journey. After about 20 kilometres, there is an obvious parking area on the right, next to a hostal-restaurante, and the entrance to the attraction is on the opposite side of the road. There is a toilet block here too.

Open: Every day from 10:00 · closing times vary according to the time of year.
Admission: 5.00 euros (adults) · 4 euros (children 8-12 / senior citizens) · Free for under 8s

There is a three kilometre route around these strange structures, which is not suitable for wheelchairs, prams, buggies, or those with mobility issues.

Film buffs may recognise the formations from several films over the years, including ‘The Valley of Gwangi’, ‘Conan the Barbarian’, and ‘The World is not Enough’.

Ventano del Diablo

The Ventano del Diablo – the Devil’s Window – is a cave just a short 100m walk off the CM-2105 which gives stunning views over an impressive narrow gorge carved out by the river Júcar.

You can combine a visit to this iconic viewpoint with a trip to the Ciudad Encantada. After visiting the latter, continue north along the CM-2104 to the junction with the CM-2105. Turn left [SP: VILLALBA · CUENCA] and continue for about five kilometres to an obvious small car-park on the right-hand side; the viewpoint is about 100m walk from the car. Access is not particularly easy for those with mobility issues, prams, wheelchairs and buggies.

Open: 24 hours.
Admission: Free

Ruta de las Caras

If you have time whilst visiting Cuenca, it’s worth making the one hour trip to find the ‘Ruta de las Caras’, a natural area of pines and sandstone rock next to the Buendia reservoir in which some 20 faces and elements have been carved out of the rock between 1992 and present day by Eulogio Reguillo and Jorge J. Maldonado.

Take the A-40 west out of Cuenca towards Madrid. At junction 294, join the CM-2019 [SP: HUETE] and follow for about 36 kilometres. At the roundabout, take the first exit to join the CM-310 [SP: BUENDIA]. After three kilometres, join the CM-2025 [SP: GARCINARRO · BUENDIA] and at the village of Garcinarro, the road merges into the CM-2000 [SP: BUENDIA]. After 16 kilometres, turn off into the village of Buendia and follow the signs to [Centro Urbano] and at the stone cross roundabout, turn right. Take the second left to leave the village and follow the signs [Ruta de las Caras]. There is plenty of parking and the entrance to the site is through a wooden gate.

Open: 24 hours
Admission: Free

The 2.5 kilometre circular route takes in twenty elements that have been carved into the rocks above the Buendia reservoir, including Krishna, Maitreya, a monk, Beethoven, the face of death. Some are up to six metres high, others you have to search for amongst the rocks. It’s a great day out for all the family and you should allow an hour to get around the route and explore. The route is on rough track and is not particularly accessible for wheelchairs, prams and buggies whilst those with mobility issues might find it difficult.

The route is also part of the PR-CU46, a short-distance trail around the small peninsula which takes in the Mirador Peña de la Virgen.

Written by Mike Smith, October 2022
with the valuable assistance of Fay Hughes