Looking Back: León
Today I’d like to chat about the little city of León, a place I’ll always remember fondly even after living there for just half a year. I feel fortunate to have been able to live in so many parts of Spain, even though that’s meant moving a zillion times.
Tucked away in the hilly green northwestern corner of the province of Castilla y León, I first discovered this gem of a town on a weekend trip to Galicia when I was living in a village near Salamanca in 2016. To get to Galicia, I had to take two (or actually, I think it was three) Blablacars since nobody was going straight there. I divided my trip by staying one night in an Airbnb in León on the way.
I headed out of the apartment to take a walk around town on that chilly fall evening, as the leaves were starting to change, falling crispy and orange on the cobblestone streets. People were out and about mingling in the bars over tapas and drinks, a warm atmosphere and the warm glow of streetlights contrasting with the cool temperatures. I meandered through the historic downtown, passing shops and churches, and coming face to face with the enormous León Cathedral. I noted the number of shoe stores with interesting boots and made plans to take a look the next morning before leaving town.
The next day I went out early to get another glimpse of the city during the day. Its colorful Plaza Mayor had a fruit and vegetable market set up and was filling up with morning shoppers. A traditional basket weaving shop and other artisan goods caught my eye as I passed. I remember taking a picture and thinking “I’ll definitely be back here.” I made it to a local shoe store and bought a pair of brown leather boots in a very sensible style to keep my feet warm in the cold winter coming up – my first winter in the meseta (central part of Spain known for very cold winters). Little did I know that I wouldn’t be spending the whole winter there, but rather back in Cantabria. Oh well!
It was a lightning-fast visit to León and I didn’t have a chance to do much while I was there, instead having to make sure I arrived to my Blablacar on time. After one more stop in Ponferrada, I finally made it to Galicia.
Fast forward about a year, I’m living in Santander, working mostly from home. I’m spending more time in Castilla y León though, thanks to E, and the opportunity comes up to move back to the province. A quick visit to León reminded me how much I enjoyed the lively atmosphere so it was decided: León is going to be home!
In León I worked 100% from home for Lingo Live as a community manager. Working with an American company meant I needed to shift my hours to later in the day, so I spent most mornings taking long walks along the river and exploring the city or sitting in Quevedo Park looking at the peacocks and roosters strutting around. Living just to the north of the city center, in the San Mamés neighborhood, I was close to the more modern area of town where MUSAC, the colorful and award-winning contemporary art museum is located. Speaking of art, I also joined Focus León, a local photography group that is extremely well-organized and holds regular events.
León being a small city, it’s a quick walk to just about anywhere. From my house, it was a nice short walk to get downtown, leading me past historic monuments like the ancient Muralla Romana (wall), Arco de la Carcel, Gaudí’s Casa Botines and of course the cathedral. You can sense the city is brimming with history. The architecture is well-preserved, as are the various plazas scattered throughout downtown where you can sit and take in the surroundings over tapas and wine. Or you can do some shopping on Calle Ancha, the main street through downtown.
In fact, it is a very old city, dating back over 2,000 years. A Roman legion was sent there to defend Augustus against the Cántabros before the turn of the millenium. It was basically a war camp, eventually expanding into the beginnings of a city over the next four hundred years. From there it survived the Muslim Invasion, and then it became a small kingdom just before 1000 A.D. The beginnings of León’s cathedral were built around the same time period, and the Gothic style cathedral we can see today was started in the 1200s. The city continued to develop through the Middle Ages, later surviving the plague, more conflict, and dictator rule. You can still see Roman ruins throughout the city.
You know about Semana Santa, right? Spain’s national Easter festivities with processions and floats of Jesus and the virgin Mary? Well, León has its own processions that are actually very well-attended. During Easter week you can order a special lemonade at the bars (heads up: it’s wine with lemonade, basically like sangría). This lemonade is not very PC though: it’s said that drinking this lemonade is “killing Jews” – their words, not mine!
Let’s talk about the tapas!
It’s taken me way too long to get to my favorite part: the best tapas in León. You can eat amazingly well in this town for a ridiculously cheap price. You’ve got a ton of places to choose from, most of them in the Barrio Húmedo or the Barrio Romántico, which are really just two small neighborhoods that are side by side. Most bars have a specialty tapa they offer, so people go from bar to bar, ordering one drink at each, to get a good sampling of all the possibilities. You can’t go wrong at any bars in León. But here are just a few of my favorite places:
Flechazo: homemade seasoned potato chips
Taberna Gaucho: chopped meats like chorizo and morcilla on potatoes
Oriente Medio: flaming (literally!) chorizo
El Indio: a few options, but the mini-sarten is tasty (I don’t remember what’s in it)
La Revuelta: vegetarian and vegan tapas like nachos with lentils
Picos de Europa: a massive selection of tapas – you get a menu to choose your free tapa!
Holy Cow: it’s an ice cream and crepe joint, no tapas here, but the owner is awesome
El Patio: lovely outdoor ambiance with a few different tapas to choose from
Bar Genarín: oh-so-spicy patatas bravas and a whole list of other options to try
Other places to check out around León:
La Candamia park, a huge green space that’s perfect for a picnic in spring and summer.
Matavenero and Poibueno, an hour and a half drive from town, is a pair of eco-villages hidden away in the hills. Great hiking!
Valencia de Don Juan is about half an hour’s drive outside town, in summer its municipal swimming pool is refreshing. The town has an adorable castle too!
My time there, though short, was full of fun experiences and delicious food. The people were friendly as well. With its art, culture, history, and gastronomy, León is a fantastic city you really shouldn’t miss.