5 Must-See Towns In Extremadura, Spain

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My trip to Extremadura began like so many of my trips through Spain: with a car full of chatty in-laws, Spanish pop songs playing on the radio, and a generous amount of eye-rolling after asking if we could pull the car done again so I can take pictures.

It’s not my fault – really. Spain is too beautiful, too rich in history, with too many unexpected gems. Over the past few years, I’ve added to my photo collection of our family trips across the country. This time, after briefly considering Huelva (too far away), Cuenca (too scenic) and Segovia (been there, photographed that), we embarked on a road trip through Extremadura, a fascinating region that runs along the central border -west of the country with Portugal.

Part of what makes Extremadura different is obvious at first glance: it’s perpetually sunny, pastoral, less crowded and much slower than the country’s more famous cities. What’s not so obvious is its volatile climate, with extremely hot days often turning into cold nights, fitting for a place whose name translates to “extremely harsh”. Then there’s the unusual landscape, part grassy pasture, part dense forest, and part sand-swept plains. In Extremadura you will find several beautiful parks, as well as some of the best cheeses, hams and olive oils in Spain. Because its people love good gatherings, you can also take part in a variety of food, music and theater festivals throughout the year.

For a satisfying sample of what the region has to offer, here are five must-see towns in Extremadura.

Photo credit: Extremadura Tourist Board

1. Caceres

We used Cáceres as a base for this trip and stayed in the new Plaza Mayor 35 apartments in the town’s main square. It has 10 sleek, chic accommodations, some with multiple bedrooms, views of the walled old town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and amenities like rooftop terraces.

Extremadura’s best-known city is also one of Spain’s most underrated destinations. Picturesque, walkable, friendly and cultured, Cáceres is everything I love about the country, minus the crowds. A simple walking tour was a practical lesson in architecture, with a mix of Roman, Gothic, Muslim and Renaissance design. There was the 18th century Arch of Stars, the main gateway to the monumental city. Bujaco Tower, an Arab viewpoint that has become one of the most important symbols of Cáceres. Saint George Plaza, where a statue of the namesake saint slays a dragon, and the crosses atop the Baroque Saint Francisco Javier Church were slightly askew, due to an earthquake long ago.

The recently expanded Helga de Alvear Museum was a surprisingly modern counterpoint to the old town. Within its walls we have seen the most important private collection of contemporary art in Spain, of Picasso, Kandinsky, Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois and many Spanish artists. The museum is large but not overwhelming.

For food, we particularly liked La Cacharrería, a lively and eclectic tapas bar, and Taperia Yuste, which offers modern versions of typical Extremaduran cuisine. Torre de Sande, a new restaurant in a historic tower in the old town, was a calming place for a glass of wine. It is owned by Spanish royalty Juan Antonio Perez and Jose Polo, who also run the Relais & Châteaux hotel atrium. Its restaurant offers more than 25 dishes based on Iberian pork and a 400-page wine list. The most expensive? A Bordeaux that costs half a million dollars.

Pro tip: Although there are many English speakers in Extremadura, the majority of tours are conducted in Spanish. If your group needs an English-speaking guide, be sure to contact the travel agency in advance.

Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe.
Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, built in the 14th century
Photo credit: Extremadura Tourist Board

2.Guadeloupe

This unassuming town in the Sierra de las Villuercas mountain range is home to another Spanish UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, built in the 14th century.

A guided tour is the only way to see inside, and it’s well worth the 5 euros, even if you don’t speak Spanish. Highlights include a large collection of paintings; a three-chambered sacristy with a metal lantern seized from a Turkish ship and the bones of saints kept in glass boxes; a gallery containing a small ivory figure of Christ which may have been sculpted by Michelangelo; and the library, with its multitude of hand-painted books so large they are mounted on wheels.

We stopped for lunch at El Parador de Guadalupe. It is one of 90 such hostels in the Spanish countryside, all of which combine historical preservation, hospitality and local gastronomy at surprisingly affordable rates. After lunch, we strolled through the gently sloping streets and rugged hills to see historic churches, the Jewish quarter, and five medieval arches. In the modest Tres Chorros square, I photographed the fountain from the 1400s topped with an iron cross. On Calle Sevilla, the main commercial thoroughfare, we bought modern conveniences like bottled water and traditional treats such as roscas of muedagoa sweet cake flavored with anise and honey.

Monfragüe National Park.
Monfragüe National Park (Photo credit: Extremadura Tourist Board)

3. Plasencia

Located in the Jerte Valley in northern Extremadura, Plasencia town center is a cultural site full of historic buildings and a Roman aqueduct. Of the two main churches, the elaborate Gothic New Cathedral is the most spectacular, with its vaulted ceilings and gold-painted altarpieces. We also enjoyed the Pérez Enciso Ethnographic Textile Museum, which features more than 5,000 artifacts and objects related to textile manufacturing, including folk costumes, lace, and religious clothing.

The region’s natural gem lies a short distance to the southwest, in an imaginary triangle formed with sister cities Cáceres and Trujillo. Monfragüe National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that is home to all kinds of flora and fauna, from cork oaks and wild olive trees to imperial eagles, black storks, lynxes and otters.

Stop by the Malpartida de Plasencia Visitor Center or download a digital version (in Spanish) here. It will help you get to and from the main points of interest more efficiently, such as Monfragüe Castle, the Bird Center and the Observatory.

For a moderately difficult hike with plenty of beautiful scenery, take the 7km Ruta Roja (Red Route) to Mirador Salte del Gitano. This lookout, atop a 300-meter quartzite cliff, offers stunning 360-degree views of the Río Tajo Gorge and the rock of Peña Falcón, where griffon vultures nest.

Temple of Diana, Merida.
Temple of Diana (Photo credit: Extremadura Tourist Board)

4. Merida

In 25 BC. BC, the Roman Emperor Augustus founded his eponymous city, Augusta Emerita, on land confiscated from Iberian tribes. It was a sort of retirement community for demobilized soldiers during the Cantabrian Wars, and eventually became the capital of Lusitania. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it was conquered first by the Vandals and Alans, then the Visigoths and Moors. By the time of the Christian reconquest in the 12th century, the once mighty city was little more than a pueblo.

Today, travelers can visit 30 impressive monuments that make up the Archaeological Complex of Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What distinguishes Mérida from Roman sites, with the exception of Rome and Pompeii, is the great variety of its structures: a theater and an amphitheater, places of worship, houses, funerary buildings, street grids and four different aqueducts which provided life-giving water to the city. The superb National Museum of Roman Art provides context for it all.

Of the sights, my favorites were the Roman Theatre, the House of the Amphitheater (which has a fully accessible path), the misnamed Temple of Diana (it was used for Imperial worship) and the Roman Bridge, which spans the river Guadiana at one of his widest points.

The intense sun forced us to take shelter. We took refuge at Barbarossa, a designer restaurant and boutique hotel in Plaza de España, Mérida’s main square. Under the awnings, with a light breeze cooling the neck, I sampled a variety of local dishes updated for modern palates, such as potato salad with cod and wakame, and a tortilla Spanish omelet — with tuna and grana padano cheese.

Plaza Mayor, Trujillo.
Plaza Mayor (Photo credit: Extremadura Tourist Board)

5. Trujillo

Home to conquistadors such as Francisco Pizarro González, Hernán Cortés and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Trujillo was once a city of wealth and prestige. Today it’s small – only about 10,000 people – but it still bears a range of cultural influences, including Celtic, Roman, Moorish and African. Trujillo is friendly and unpretentious, a place where strangers at one coffee table chat at length with their neighbors at another.

After parking about a quarter of a mile outside of downtown, where there are plenty of unmetered spaces, we visited the Plaza Mayor, the site of a large cheese festival each spring. More than 100,000 people come to taste 300 types of cheese from all over the world. Calle de Tiendas was a great place to shop for gifts, including Nuevo al Grano, a small grocery store with a nice selection of regional specialties, and Papelería Solita, a cozy stationery store.

Next, head to the Old Town, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a self-guided tour. More eager gazes accompanied my attempts to capture the perfect shot of the Tour de l’Aiguille, a rectangular structure topped with a colorful tiled dome and a sky-pointing metal rod; House-Palace of the Marquis of the Conquest, Renaissance mansion; and the comparatively humble home of Maria de Escobar, a 16th-century Trujillane who first introduced wheat production to the New World.

At the top of the granite hill on which the city is built, we came face to face with the castle of Trujillo. It is the highest point in the city and was built between the 9th and 12th centuries over a Muslim citadel. From the back of the castle we enjoyed 360 degree views over dusty plains dotted with smaller castle ruins and remnants of centuries-old walls zigzagging between properties.

We paused, gasping in our throats, appreciating the extraordinary beauty of an underrated place.

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