Oviedo – the name rolls off the tongue in slightly exotic fashion. Though I’d heard of it, I have to confess to knowing very little about this northern Spanish city before I was invited to explore it recently, however I was soon to discover that it’s a city with a lot of soul. I had started a tour of cities by train just down the road – ahem, rails, in Gijón, in the same region, Asturias, and after hearing just a little of it’s attractions I was keen to discover things to do in Oviedo, from its culture and history to its food scene.
As the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Asturias, it is without doubt that Oviedo had an auspicious start. It may not be the most visited of Spanish cities, but it has hosted visitors from pilgrims to courtiers since its inception, as it served both as a centre for the Spanish court and has long been a popular stopping-off point for those walking the Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago – the Original Way of St James.
Oviedo is a city steeped in history and colourful culture, even the buildings lining the cobblestone streets of its old town have their own dazzling technicolour. So put your walking shoes on and be ready to take in all the great things to do in Oviedo.
My take – why you should visit Oviedo
Oviedo is culture – name me another city with 170 statues – and not just dusty old historic ones either. Oviedo has fun with its built environment and blends its history and culture into a soulful mix that’s an unexpected treat for those who think they already know Spain. It’s also a wonderful chance to immerse yourself in everything that makes Asturias a unique Spanish region to visit. Simply put, it’s not like everywhere else. And this is to its cider-toting, cheese-loving benefit as it has steered its own path to shy away from the mass tourism that so many destinations have taken. Asturias is uniquely Spanish and of its cities, Oviedo is the jewel in its crown.
The best things to do in Oviedo – a city of culture, history and great food
A city of sculpture
With examples of modern art to more traditional styles, Oviedo has sculptures galore, with more than 170 gracing its streets, squares and parks.
It’s well worth touring the city on a sculpture-spotting walk alone as it will take you to all the main spots in its old town as well as the modern centre, making it one of the most popular things to do in Oviedo. But here are some of the sculptures that really stood out for me.
Starting in Cathedral Square, La Regenta (The Regent’s Wife) glances over her shoulder towards the cathedral. She is the fictional character of the 19th century novel of the same name which scandalised Spain on its release for its searing critique of the Church and sexualised content. The sculpture depicts La Regenta’s quest for fulfilment through religion and her own sexuality.
I loved La Bella Lola, by Carmen Fraile, which depicts a woman on a bench looking towards the sea awaiting the return of loved ones who have migrated abroad. As I had just put the finishing touches to my Windrush Generation novel, An Ocean Apart, before I went to Spain, it really resonated with me as I had been thinking a lot about women leaving their homelands, a yearning for home, and all that they had left behind as well. You’ll find Carmen Fraile’s sculpture in Plaza del Fontán.
Also, close by you can see La Lechera (The Milkmaid) in Trascorrales Square, which highlights the milkmaids that used to sell milk from there across the city, a practice that continued until 1970. Then there’s Amado González Hevia’s Las Vendedoras del Fontán (The Vendors of Fontán) representing the market hawkers that used to frequent Plaza Daoiz y Velarde.
Another that caught my eye was El Regreso de Williams B. Arrensberg (The Return of Williams B. Arrensberg) a statue that’s also known as The Traveller. I was taken in by the immense amount of detail in the piece, right down to the locks on his suitcase.
While the above sculptures felt more traditional in style, Oviedo does have very modern pieces of public art including La Maternidad (The Maternity), in Plaza de la Escandalera. By Fernando Botero, it features an oversized woman and child and represents motherhood. Then there is the ever popular Culis Monumentalibus, a four-metre high, black tarnished bronze of buttocks on portly thighs, by Eduardo Úrcula, in Calle Alonso de Quintanilla, which has become a rather odd, but unofficial symbol of Oviedo.
Finally, head to Parque San Francisco to see the statue of Mafalda, a satirical cartoon character from Argentina that has become eternally popular in Spain. This one is such a favourite with visitors that you can often find a queue forming with people waiting for photos with Mafalda.
Discover Oviedo’s pre-Romanesque history
Asturias is a region of deep traditions and much of that is founded on its history. Pre-Romanesque architecture, dating back to the 8th century, is something common to the region, and Asturias has 15 of these ancient buildings, six of which have been given UNESCO World Heritage Site distinction under the rather grandiose title, Monuments of Oviedo and the Kingdom of the Asturias. These are not exactly grand buildings – not today at least, however, they clearly once were and are well worth a 20 minute journey by bus to view them.
The church of Santa María del Naranco was originally built as a palace for the Asturian King Ramiro I in 842 and was later converted into a church. Looking up at its lofty pillars and archways I could easily imagine the royalty that once frequented this wonderful spot that is, as was the tradition, built on a hill with views for miles around.
A little further away – just a short walk up the hill, you’ll come to San Miguel de Lillo, which was also a part of the palace, but operated as a church. After a part of it collapsed in the 11th century, it was rebuilt with some of the older aspects of its architecture, visible on its external walls, salvaging part of its important heritage for centuries to come.
Take in the Archaeological Museum of Asturias
Even if museums aren’t your style and you don’t have a deep interest in archaeology be sure to visit The Archaeological Museum of Asturias. It is located within the former 16th century Benedictine Monastery of San Vicente, which is said to have been the birthplace of Oviedo. Even if its relics – prehistoric pieces dating back as far as the Stone Age – don’t grab your attention, its cloisters surely will.
Listen to the bagpipes
No, you haven’t been transported to Scotland! Asturias, like other regions of Spain (and France too), has a Celtic past, and as such, bagpipes are hugely popular here with bands performing at festivals and competitions.
But it doesn’t need to be a special occasion for you to catch them. If you’re around the Cathedral Square in Oviedo on a Saturday or Sunday, you could well come across one of its local bagpipe bands performing in the square and streets nearby.
Visit the cathedral
While you are in Cathedral Square, make sure to visit Oviedo Cathedral. It is an important symbol of Spanish Gothic architecture that took almost 300 years to be built. The 13th-century single-towered Gothic structure of the Basilica del Salvador took 300 years to perfect and is one of the foundational Oviedo attractions. The original cathedral site was founded by King Fruela I of Asturias in 781, and his son, Alfonso II of Asturias, enlarged it in tribute to him. Legend has it that King Alfonso II was the first-ever pilgrim after travelling miles to Galicia to see the tomb of St James, so the extension celebrated his pilgrimage.
The city amid Spain’s bread basket
Oviedo is more than just a city of culture though, or at least it has made the incredible produce of the green region of Asturias an important part of its culture. You can find so many wonderful examples of regional food and drink in the city making dining out one of the best things to do in Oviedo.
Feast on Oviedo’s traditional sweets
Two sweet treats stand out in Oviedo. First, head to Confitería Rialto, where the original recipe for moscovitas – fine, delicious almond biscuits – was first developed. Enrobed with either white, milk or dark chocolate on one side, they are the kind of treat you taste for the first time and then rush to buy more of. Or at least, that is what I did!
Another traditional sweet, which is perhaps the most traditional in Oviedo are carbayones – pastries filled with a creamy almond dough. You can try them at Camilo de Blas, a traditional patisserie that has been making carbayones since 1914.
Asturias is the largest cheese producing region of Spain and has many artisanal cheesemakers, so it’s well worth doing a cheese tasting and stocking up on vacuum-packed cheeses to take home. One of the best known is Blue Cabrales, which is naturally aged in local caves.
Turn apples into sidra
Cider, or sidra, as it’s known in Spain is more than just a drink in Oveido.
With cider-houses lining many of the city’s streets and with a whole method around how it is poured (and drunk), it sits at the heart of Asturian culture.
Cider here is not poured by the pint, or even half pint – because it isn’t sparkling, its bubbles come from the pouring method – servers engage their wrist action from overhead height and the bubbles form as the drink hits the side of the glass. To keep it fresh and effervescent the cider is served a little at a time, glasses are clinked together with a “Salud!”, and then slammed on the table in traditional Spanish style and go down the hatch quickly.
It’s a fun and fascinating part of local culture and well worth visiting a sideria such as the beautifully designed Sidrería Tierra Astur Parrilla, which alongside ciders serves up plenty of local fare as well as selling a huge range of Asturian cheeses and other local produce from its delicatessen.
Get a taste for local dishes
Being Northern Spain where the climate is generally a bit cooler and wetter, Asturian cuisine can feature some pretty hearty fare, including stews and heavier meat dishes.
The most typical dish is a you should sample is Fabada Asturiana – a stew of plump white kidney beans, topped off with chunks of pork, sausage and blood sausage.
Less wholesome, but just as delicious is cachopo – fried veal, filled with cheese and ham and coated in breadcrumbs.
Where to stay
I stayed at the four-star Hotel España which is well located in the centre of Oviedo to allow for plenty of exploring. It’s also a stone’s throw from the lively sideria area of the city. Though rooms were simply decorated it made for a comfortable stay in the historic heart of the city and some rooms come with terraces and coffee makers.
Need to know
- If you wish to follow in my footsteps and head to Oviedo after first stopping in Gijón, it is a short 30 minute journey by train from there.
- Asturias Airport (formerly known as Oviedo Airport) is actually located closer to Aviles – a 30-minute journey from Oviedo.
- Alternatively, you can sail from Portsmouth, Plymouth or Rosslaire to Santander and get a direct bus from there to Oviedo, taking 2.15 hours.
- Asturias has its own regional language, Asturian, spoken by about 62% of locals, but you won’t need it to communicate – Castilian Spanish and English is widely spoken too.