Alcalá de Henares: The City Of Three Cultures And The Birthplace Of Miguel de Cervantes


Probably you have never heard of Alcalá de Henares, a rich and intimately-scaled center of culture that marked Spanish history. It is a magical place for its old charming streets and its storks flying over the roofs of the old town. The paradox is that Alcalá (as we all call it) is situated 25 minutes from Madrid, the capital of Spain, and that its University hosts a large number of foreign students each year, students who never forget the beauty of Alcalá’s streets and people.

… Between UNESCO and Miguel de Cervantes

Alcalá de Henares is the only World Heritage City in the Comunidad de Madrid, and it was awarded this title by UNESCO on 2nd December 1998. The UNESCO recognition not only refers to the historical and artistic heritage that distinguishes the “Complutense” city, but also to the important contribution to universal culture which Alcalá has made, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. UNESCO declared at the Summit in Kyoto that the “University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares” deserved to be included in the World Heritage List, justifying the registration based on Alcalá’s compliance with three criteria:

  • Criterion II. Alcalá de Henares was the first city designed and built especially to host a University, and this design would serve as a model for other schools in Europe and America.
  • Criterion IV. The concept of the ideal city, the City of God (Civitas Dei), materialized for the first time in Alcalá de Henares, from where it was transmitted to the whole world.
  • Criterion VI. The importance of the cultural contribution which Alcalá de Henares made to the intellectual development of humanity as shown in the embodiment of the Civitas Dei, in linguistic developments that took place in the city, especially as regards the Spanish language, and through the work of its most illustrious son and the greatest figure in Spanish literature, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616). He is universally known for his great work The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, considered by many to be the first modern novel and one of the best works of world literature.



In his honor, the Instituto Cervantes was created, based on the ancient King’s College, with a charter to promote and teach the Spanish language throughout the world, spreading the culture of Spain and Latin America. In addition, since 1977, the Institute has delivered in Alcalá the “Miguel de Cervantes Prize”, the highest recognition to the creative work of writers in Spanish.

You can visit the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes and the interpretation center Universos de Cervantes, where the baptismal writer’s font is preserved.

History of Alcalá de Henares

The capital of the rich region of the Henares River, the city’s economic and cultural activities offer a whole range of services and events that make Alacalá one of the most dynamic tourist destinations in Spain.

As the name suggests, the city lies along the Henares River, and, because of it, the natural advantage of a reliable source of water resulted in the development of the series of human settlements that led to Alacalá de Henares. This is demonstrated by the prehistoric remains, which have been discovered around the hill of San Juan del Viso. Centuries later, Rome conquered these lands and gave the Roman town its name: Complutum.

After the Visigoth period came the men of Islam. The Muslim conquest changed the location of the city. It was moved to the East and was surrounded by walls and protected by a huge fortress, “Al Qal ‘at Abd Al-Salam”, whence the name of the current Alcalá de Henares.

In 1118, the first archbishop of Toledo after the Reconquest, a Frenchman named Bernard, took the city from the Muslims. The city comes alive around the spot where tradition holds that the Muslims killed two young Christians called Justo and Pastor, in the early fourth century. In 1129, King Alfonso VII of Castile donated Alcalá and its lands to the Archbishops of Toledo. They built a great castle where kings and nobles lived, and next to which took place historical moments involving courts and councils including the first meeting between Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs. And beginning in the Middle Ages, the culture and the city began to be united when King Sancho IV, at the request of Archbishop García Gudiel, created in Alcalá a Study of General Schools, beginning the history of the University in the XVI century.

In 1499, the Archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, founded Complutense University. It was in the year 1508 that classes started, soon becoming one of the leading centers for the spread of European Renaissance culture. The University foundation transformed the medieval city plan and became a harmonious and exemplary urban ensemble dedicated to the culture of a time that was mixing the Renaissance and Baroque. Still today, the University of Alcalá is one of the best ones in Spain and Europe for its Curricula, its quality in education and its innovation. And, in a place of so much wisdom, in 1547, as fate would have it, was born Miguel de Cervantes.



Alcalá de Henares today combines the past with a beautiful present, and the Alcalaínos (citizens of the city) are extremely committed to the development and promotion of their town in every way. On the commercial side, the historic center of Alcalá has become an example of the harmonization of ancient traditions with the most varied offerings in the world of restaurants and shopping: a perfect symbiosis that has its origin in centuries-old traditions. The Alcalá fairs (from the XIII century), the Market Square (dedicated to Cervantes), and the shops of the old Jewish quarter around the Calle Mayor Area remain, but transformed and designed to offer the best service and quality.

The “Barrios de Alcala” (Neighborhoods): the Three Cultures

For much of the Middle Ages, the town of Alcalá de Henares was a place where three cultures coexisted; a typical situation after Spain changed its political realities through the Reconquista, but did not end religious multiplicity, a fact that held true until the Catholic Monarchs expelled the Jews and Philip III expelled the Moors. 

During those years, the city was divided into districts (Neighborhoods) according to religion, centering on places of worship: the Magistral Cathedral for Christians, for Jews the Synagogue, and the Mosque for Muslims.

The Quarter of the Moors or Muslims (Barrio de la Morería): Bernardine Square, the Regional Archaeological Museum, the oldest Mosque on Santiago Street, the Almanxara, San Bernardo Street, Old Trail, Calle Diego de Torres, along with Calle Santiago el Postigo de la Moreria.

The Jewish Quarter (Barrio Judío): the high and most significant Synagogue, entrance to the yard of the Synagogue along Main Street; the minor Synagogue on Santiago Street, the Jewish butcher on the corner of Cervantes Street. Shops and houses on the corner of the exchange located between Main Street and the Plaza de los Santos Niños.

The Christian Quarter (Barrio Cristiano): Plaza de los Santos Niños, the Magistral Cathedral Church of the Holy Child, the Council and Tertia, the Chapel of Santa Lucia, Street of the Third, and the General Studies. Crossing Street Six: the brothel, Damas Street, the Archbishop’s prison in Vicar Street, the medieval Hospital of Santa Maria la Rica, Pillory Square, Archbishop’s Palace, the source Tower, the city walls, and Sandoval y Rojas Street.


Clearly, not all people lived in the city on an equal footing. If the Jews were hated (accused of being the murderers of Christ, and also, crucially, hated for the wealth of some of their members, especially those engaged in usury), Muslims (called Mudejar after the Christian conquest) were despised and relegated to the lowest social category and were occupationally limited to agriculture (especially irrigation), and construction (the creators of the famous Moorish architecture).

Cuisine in Alcalá de Henares

A town rich in gastronomic tradition! They say that in the kitchens of Alcalá de Henares can be found dishes that we can read about in Don Quixote … and there is some truth to it! But there is much more. Alcalá culinary art is influenced by Spanish cuisine, so you can savor dishes like garlic soups, scraps on crumbs with chorizo, ​​or the typical fried eggs. Visitors can also sample the cuisine of the city by ordering delicious lamb as well as dishes prepared with seasonal vegetables and legumes. For dessert we cannot forget the famous Alcalá almonds (almendras garrapiñadas), which can still be purchased through a rotating pass-through in the cloistered convent of Poor Clares (Convento de las Clarisas), besides donuts, tarts, and cakes, created by confectioners Alcalaínos in the nineteenth century.

After this teaser about this jewel of a city, you just need to book your flight and be ready to be delighted: delighted by the food, by the beauty of the past and the present, by Alcalá’s streets, by its ancient history, and, above all, by the warmth and the smiles of Alcalá’s citizens!

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