Blending with locals is a goal set by the majority of travelers. They want to experience the authenticity of a city by using public transport, eating at the restaurants out of the tourist zone, shopping in the supermarkets. As Javier was born and spent most of his life in Ávila, he always feels at home here. I, on the other hand, went through a transformation process: starting as a weekend tourist, ending up as a resident.
We had never planned to settle in Ávila, or anywhere else in Spain. But, as you may know from the about section of this site, life happened, and the circumstances led us to stay in this picturesque town for over a year. I must admit; neither of us regrets it. In this mini-guide, we show you different faces of Ávila: its numerous tourist sights, hidden gems, dog-friendly locations, and the best tapas bar in town.
Where is Ávila and how to get there?
Ávila lies about 100 km from Madrid. What seems a relatively short distance, makes a huge difference when it comes to the average temperatures. The clue is in the altitude. Ávila is one of the highest cities, not only in Spain but also in Europe. Being located 1132 m above sea level, it usually notes temperatures about 10 Celsius degrees lower than the capital. Even though we do not recommend visiting central Spain in summer at all, we must point out that having come to Ávila from Madrid in July or August, you feel relieved.
Madrid-Barajas International Airport is the nearest to Ávila. Wherever you are flying from, you will most likely land there. Madrid is well-connected with the majority of cities in Europe and the world. There are four terminals, and both regular and low-budget airlines arrive at the same airport, as there is no other in the capital.
There are plenty of buses running daily between Madrid and Ávila. The fastest connection takes 1h15, and the longest one, during capital’s rush hours, 1h50. Prices start at 8 euros per way. Furthermore, coming to Ávila by bus is also possible from other Spanish cities, like Segovia, Salamanca or León, but these connections are not as frequent. You can check all routes on Ávila’s Bus Station’s website. Sadly, it is only available in Spanish.
Reaching Ávila by train is another option. Again, most of the trains come from Madrid. The price per way on this route starts at 10 euros. The time of the journey ranges between 1h25 and 1h55. It depends on the train station in Madrid you start your trip from. Apart from the capital, you can travel to Ávila from other major Spanish cities with direct train connections, as well. Among them Salamanca, Valladolid, and San Sebastian. Railway enthusiasts will be disappointed with the fact, that AVE, Spanish high-speed train, does not reach Ávila.
In case you come to Spain by car or want to rent one on-site, you have lots of routes to choose from. Thanks to a modern highway network, Ávila is well-connected with many big cities all over the country. Let’s discuss your possibilities of driving from Madrid, as this is most probably where your trip starts.
The fastest would be the AP-6 highway. Unfortunately, it is a paid option, and the fee depends on the type of the car as well as the time of the day. In our opinion, the best choice is the national road N-VI with a change to N-110 in Villacastín. It runs along the paid highway, with one, crucial difference. Both roads lead through a mountain range called Sierra de Guadarrama. There is a peak called Alto del León on the way. At this point, you either take a tunnel with AP-6 or climb the mountain with N-VI. Legend has it, the latter may be closed from time to time, due to the bad weather conditions. Nevertheless, you can decide to only use the section of the paid road with the tunnel, and come back to the national one afterward. We did so a few times.
A bit longer alternative is driving through El Escorial, a town with a somewhat peculiar history. We recommend this option in case you are up for some extra sightseeing. If you, however, prefer nature to urban areas, think of taking a detour, via San Martín de Valdeiglesias. There is an artificial but beautiful dam, called Embalse de San Juan, where you can swim, rent a boat or have lunch with a view.
Where to stay in Ávila?
Since we have family living in Ávila, we never needed to look for accommodation. We still have some experience, though rather on the hi-end side. A few years ago, Javier attended a wedding in Sercotel Cuatro Postes, and he enjoyed the interior a lot. The best thing about this hotel is its location, but we will refer to it later on. Furthermore, in the local golf club, there is a 5-star hotel of the Fontecruz chain, that you may know from other cities in Spain. Javier visited it, too, as he was working for the club. It is, however, relatively far from the city, so we would only recommend it to those who plan to play golf while in Ávila.
Admirers of Spanish culture and history have surely heard of the Paradores. These are historic buildings turned into luxury hotels. Ávila boasts one of its own. Unfortunately, our experience with local Parador is limited to its garden, which, we must say, is lovable. We know for sure, there are many options of an overnight stay in Ávila for every budget. What we can do is to help you save some money, with 10% cashback on booking.com, or up to 31 euros discount for your first trip with Airbnb.
What to do in Ávila? Is it safe to travel there?
Let’s proceed to the most important part. By now, you have learned where is Ávila located, how to get there, and where to stay. But do you have an actual reason to pay a visit? Believe us, you have plenty, and we will try to name them all. Starting with a very important issue – your safety. Did you know that the only National Police Academy in Spain is in Ávila? It means every single Policía Nacional representative studied there. Hundreds of students join the school every year. Guess where are they training their field skills? Yes, you will see many policemen around the city. In consequence, Ávila is extremely safe. Unfortunately, the academy is not available for tourists, but other attractions make Ávila worthy of your stay.
No matter if you come to Ávila by public transport or by car, you should explore it on foot. The narrow streets of the old town aren’t the easiest to navigate while driving, and there are few parking spots within the walls. The area is relatively small, and the sightseeing shouldn’t be exhausting. However, if you are a wheelchair user, you will find disabled parking spots inside the walls, too. We noticed many facilities adapted for the disabled, but you should still prepare for cobblestone streets and high curbs.
Indisputably, the main attraction of Ávila are The Walls. It will be the first thing you see, no matter which direction would you enter the city from. You can make a full circle outside of The Walls, and this walk will be almost three kilometers long. But, If you don’t feel that adventurous, visit at least these two spots for the best photo opportunity:
- Avenida de Madrid street, in front of Centro de Exposiciones y Congresos Lienzo Norte (the Congress Center); for photos of the walls with green grass,
- Puerta del Rastro (one of the gates) for photos of the plains surrounding Ávila.
Almost three fourth of The Walls can also be explored walking on top of the structure. It is a paid attraction, but it is worth the 5 euros that it costs. However, in case you tend to have fear of heights, think twice before your final decision. Once on top, you may regret it, but the photos you will take should help you remember it as a positive experience. Each time I look at my pictures of this impressive fortification erected in the 12th century, I ask myself: why the heck isn’t it a worldwide known monument? Why didn’t I see the international tourists storming the city every day? And then the disappointment transforms into relief. The magic of Ávila would get trampled. It is the lack of crowds that makes this place so special. Don’t get me wrong. The uniqueness of The Walls and the old town got appreciated by UNESCO, and both are inscribed on its World Heritage list. You will encounter travelers here, just not as many as in Barcelona, Valencia or even Salamanca. And roughly 80% of them will come from Spain.
The Old Town
The historical part of Ávila is conveniently condensed within The Walls. There are some sights outside of the fortification, too, but in most cases, we’re talking no further than 100 m. Thus, the best idea for the old town exploration is entering through one of the gates and letting yourself get lost. Just wander around, aimlessly, and try to feel the Middle Ages in the air. In case you prefer to have some agenda, the two most important squares in the city will be your landmarks:
- Plaza Mercado Chico – which may remind you of any “Plaza Mayor” from other Spanish cities, although it is smaller than those in Madrid or Salamanca,
- Plaza de Santa Teresa de Jesus (also called El Grande) – located just outside of the walls. It is more modern, but it still has the traditional arcades.
There are numerous churches in Ávila, and you can be sure you will not manage to visit them all during your stay. After all, for Spaniards, Ávila is primarily a religious destination. And the main reason is Saint Teresa, who was born here. Local rumor has it, when alive, she was not such a saint as the Catholic Church may think. Nevertheless, it is she who attracts numbers of pilgrims who visit Ávila each year. On her birthday, October 15th, the city celebrates, and most of the people employed by local companies have a day off. Thereupon, the Church and Convent of Saint Teresa, although not spectacular at all, is still very famous. It commemorates the exact spot of her birthplace. We cannot tell you much about the spiritual experience with local churches, as neither of us is religious. Hence, I will only discuss their architecture. One church you should definitely enter, despite the fee, is the Cathedral. You will find it easily as it is an integral part of the walls. The interior is humongous and very impressive. Outside of the walls, two minutes walking from the Cathedral stands Basilica of Saint Vicente. I’m pretty sure I have never been inside, but I am in love with the exterior. If you come here at a particular time of the day, the sunlight will perform its magic with the arcades. Try to photograph it.
The best viewpoint
Remember how I mentioned Centro de Exposiciones y Congresos Lienzo Norte as one of the best locations for a picture of the walls? Once you are there, take a short trail that goes to the Cuatro Postes viewpoint. It is a 10-15 minutes’ walk, nothing exhaustive. But the view! If you have ever seen any photo of Ávila, it was most likely the Cuatro Postes perspective. From here you can see the whole old town enclosed by the walls. If you are an avid photographer, this is your place to be during the golden hour. It is usually a bit crowded, as all the tourist buses stop here, but it is still not Paris’ Trocadéro. Just wait a minute or two, and you will get your perfect shot.
By car (still possible on foot)
If you are staying in Ávila for more than two days, you may want to go out of the old town for a bit. No matter whether you travel by a rented car or just like long walks, we have some ideas for you. Please, note that none of these places is a proper choice for short-stayers as they are too time-consuming.
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sonsoles
This small sanctuary lies out of the city. It has a peaceful ambiance and somewhat unique microclimate. Getting here from the old town by foot takes about an hour. Locals like to get married in the sanctuary, so you may be lucky to observe some Spanish wedding traditions. Apart from the church itself, there is also a gorgeous view over the almost treeless landscape of the region.
Again, a local destination. A 3 kilometer-walk out of the center, there is a harmonious nature. Ávila’s inhabitants come here with friends and family, they fish and barbecue. There are a human-built dam and an impressive railway bridge. Perfect place to hike for tourists traveling with their dogs.
Ávila Golf Course
If you’re a golf player, don’t forget to include the local golf course in your itinerary. It is probably cheaper and less crowded than the clubs near Madrid, while it maintains the high standard. It has 18 holes and over 60 hectares of area.
Once a year, in September, Ávila travels back in time for a weekend. The Walls and the old town get brightened with the medieval touch. You can meet a knight, a monk, or even a king while walking the streets. The Medieval Festival is a big thing, and the locals like to get involved. Everybody dresses up according to the occasion and celebrates. Many events are being held around the historic center, among them numerous contests and performances.
The old town is divided into three districts: the Christian, the Muslim, and the Jewish; marking the three cultures that influenced the history of Ávila. You discover each of them with all your senses. Surrounded by the stalls offering goods of the era, your ears exposed to the melodic screams of the medieval merchants, your nose smelling the scent of incense, you enjoy the taste of local delicacies. It is once in a lifetime experience. During this one weekend, the city shines with its former glow. The festival may not be as famous among foreigners as La Tomatina or Sanfermines, but it is well known to Spaniards who arrive in Ávila in large numbers.
Where and what to eat in Ávila?
Spanish cuisine is often considered to be the best one in the world. You may have your favorites, but once you try it, you will probably place it in your top 5. Therefore, when you’re visiting Spain, don’t stick to the international food chains, even if you travel on the budget. In this country, you can easily find delicious food at an affordable price. Ávila is no exception.
The word that best describes the Spanish kitchen is: diverse. Each region has its own delicacy that it boasts. Consequently, don’t look for paella on the menu of Ávila’s restaurants, and focus on local produce instead. Meat-lovers must try Chuletón de Ávila, which is a good piece of tender veal. The best one in town is obviously at Javier’s mom’s house. For the rest of you, Javier recommends restaurant El Rancho, on the way to the Sonsoles Sanctuary. This delicacy can be tasted only in Ávila since the meat comes from the local cow-breed, Avileña-Negra Ibérica. These are free-range cows that live happily on the green fields until their day comes. If like me, you would prefer their fate to be decided by nature and not by a human, there are options for you, too.
Large sort of beans, called Judías del Barco, is another local specialty. They are cultivated exclusively in the nearby village, El Barco de Ávila. However, restaurants usually serve them with meat. Hence, the easiest way of trying these beans for vegetarians would be to buy them from a shop and cook at home. Below, we present our favorite bars and restaurants of Ávila, suitable for every budget.
Give yourself a treat
If the desert is your favorite type of meal, Ávila has prepared something special for you. Yemas de Santa Teresa, small soft sweets made of sugar and egg yolks, are sold in every pastry shop around the center. As a local delicacy, they are quite pricey but worth tasting.
Best churros in town
As Ávila is most likely not the first place you visit in Spain, you have probably heard about churros already. It is a deep-fried dough pastry, usually sprinkled with sugar and served with hot chocolate. Majority of Spaniards does not prepare it at home, as they can get it on every corner. The best churros in Ávila come from Churrería Flomar, in Parque del Recreo.
Best tapas bar ever
Spanish tapas are famous worldwide. Although it’s Basque Country that is considered to have the best ones, tapas served in Ávila are not lacking behind. There are many tapas bars around the city. Each of them has a variety of options, including at least one vegetarian. Locals’ favorite is El Portico, and it is also our number one. Javier has known it for years, as he would usually go there with his friends. But the customers are not limited to one age group only. The restaurant opens its doors to everybody, from infants to centenarians. It gets packed on weekends, but no worries, there’s room for all.
The interior is very authentic, with tapas exposed in glass display cases. You will find more than just tapas on the menu, but they are the house special. The most famous is oreja a la plancha, which is pig’s ear. It may sound somewhat gross, but it is delicious, as Javier says. I tried two vegetarian options (canape with goat cheese and paprika, and another one with pisto and a quail egg), and both were very tasty. Each tapa is assisted by a small drink, usually beer or wine. The only bad thing about El Portico is the location, outside of the city center. If you don’t feel like walking that far, take a public bus number 1, 3 or 5.
Something for fast-food chains lovers
Remember how I told you not to go to the food chains in Spain? You can make an exception for 100 montaditos. Locals may consider eating tapas here as a sin, but don’t listen to them. It is fast, tasty, cheap, and the variety is huge. As the name suggests, there are 100 small sandwiches on the menu. We’re talking all types of meat, fish and a little paradise for vegetarians. There are even gluten-free options! The best days for eating here are Wednesdays and Sundays, when almost every position on the menu costs one 1 euro, because of the special promo called Euromania. Ávila’s only 100 montaditos is on Plaza de Santa Teresa.
Are you a person who doesn’t count money when spending it on food? Then this section is for you. There are some restaurants with less affordable prices that we would like to recommend. The first one is Las Cancelas, which is a hotel at the same time. You will find it in the old town, near the cathedral. Some tables are romantically placed in the narrow street, by the historic walls. We have gone for tapas there, once. The food is delicious, but I found only one vegetarian tapa on the menu, and that was a canape with marinated cheese. I must admit the taste was incredible. Another high-end restaurant we like is Palacio de Sofraga. We attended a wedding there, and the place impressed us a lot. Both meat and vegetarian options are excellent.
Ávila with a dog
As you may know, our family consists of two humans and one dog. Fabio, a mixed-breed 7 kg pooch, always travels with us. If you, too, take your dog everywhere, grab some useful information. In general, we tend to call Ávila a dog-friendly city. It, however, doesn’t mean you would not meet any inconveniences.
A dog paradise
No stray dogs are wandering the streets of Ávila, and locals have a positive attitude towards animals (unless we’re talking bulls, obviously, but this is a common inconsistency in Spanish society). They would often try talking to you about your dog and pet him. Here are some reasons why you could call Ávila a dog paradise.
Numerous dog parks
We have never been to a city of a similar size, that would have that many dog parks. Without giving it a deep thought, I can name at least four that I have seen there. Most of them are just fenced grounds, but some even have agility equipment and on-site toys and bowls. Dog parks are out of the city center, in the residential areas. If you choose to rent an Airbnb, there is a chance you will find one nearby.
Going for a coffee or a tapa with your pooch shouldn’t be a problem, either. In warm months, most of the bars and cafes have a couple of tables outside. Some of them invite dogs inside, as well. Among them 100 montaditos, which seem to have a dog-friendly policy in general. We visited it in other Spanish cities, too, and Fabio was always welcome.
If you read our post about a terrible snake bite, you probably know how important it is to be able to reach the veterinary clinic in time, when needed. Being a small size, but still a city, Ávila has at least a few veterinaries. We, however, stuck to one. Javier already knew the place, as his family had their dog treated there, several years ago. During our time spent in Ávila, we visited San Antonio Veterinary Clinic several times. Fabio had his vaccinations done there, as well as the annual blood test. Once or twice, we went there with minor health problems, too. The staff was always kind and knowledgeable. They didn’t mind answering tons of our questions, and the prices were very affordable. With no doubt, we can recommend this clinic.
A dog nightmare
Unfortunately, life is not always a fairytale. Although Ávila is a great dog-travel destination in general, it can be a dog nightmare, too.
Using local buses with a dog in Ávila is a no-go. And there are no exceptions. Often, we had to move on foot a lot, despite the bad weather. One day it was snowing so hard Fabio was trembling all the time. We desperately tried to enter the bus holding him in our hands, begging the driver to let us in. But his heart was as cold as the weather that day. We do not blame the man, as it is his employer who hates dogs, for some reason. Hence, be prepared. If you come to Ávila with no car but with a dog, you will have to walk everywhere. But don’t worry. It is not New York, so you should be fine. We don’t know whether taxi companies allow dogs, as we never tried it.
We’re not going to reinvent the wheel here, we just feel obliged to mention the sightseeing issue. You probably realize entering churches and museums with a dog will not be possible, as in most cities around the world. There is, however, one tourist attraction we thought would be doable with a dog. The walk on The Walls. After all, it is an open-air thing, so we were hoping Fabio could join us. We didn’t even have to ask, though, since there is a big no-dog sign right at the entrance. And we understand it completely. One thing is the fact that not every owner cleans after his dog, but the other, even more important, is the dog’s safety. I can easily imagine a pooch trying to jump up the walls led by his inborn curiosity. It could be fatal.
Last but not least…
I hope we managed to convince you to visit Ávila during your stay in Spain. It is a perfect day trip from Madrid. You can also combine it in one itinerary with Segovia. We wouldn’t recommend any particular time of the year for going there, as it is always charming. Most tourists decide to visit it during the Medieval Festival, but on that weekend, your sightseeing chances would decrease. If like me, you don’t believe Spaniards when they tell you it does snow in their country, plan your trip to Ávila in winter. In case you have any questions that we didn’t cover in this post, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments section. It is also the right place to share your opinion about Ávila if you’ve already been there.