When the sun is low in the sky, the sandstone cathedrals, convents, and university buildings of Salamanca take on a luminous golden glow. The soft stone lends itself to carving, and virtually every civic structure in the city has been gloriously embellished with flora and fauna, and fables to instruct the illiterate. Only the remnants of a Roman wall suggest historic fortifications—as a university city since 1218, Salamanca has tended to fortify itself with wit and arm itself with wisdom. Instead of archers’ battlements or rusted cannons, look for the good-luck frog on the university portal, narrative reliefs of Bible stories on the churches, and sudden surprises of angels or gargoyles overhead.

The University of Salamanca attracts scholars and students from all over the world—including a large contingent of Americans in summer—and their inquiring minds also go out to play, ensuring a lively nightlife. Although greater Salamanca’s population exceeds 180,000, the compact old city retains a charming provincial aura. Most attractions are within walking distance of Plaza Mayor, so the best way to explore Salamanca is on foot.

You’ll want to stay within the old city to avoid a long walk from a hotel on the outskirts. Besides the usual ultra-high seasons of Christmas and Easter, Salamanca hotels also command a premium from late September through October during a succession of festivals and annual conferences.

Although Salamancan cuisine is similar to Segovia and Avila, the university city does have a few distinctive specialties: the thinly sliced dry mountain ham from Guijuelo; a spicy, crumbly sausage called farinatothat is more bread crumbs than meat; and a pastry stuffed with cheese, sausage, and ham, called hornazo.Students traditionally feasted on these meat pies during Easter week to celebrate the return of prostitutes to the city after Lent, but the dish is now available year-round and is no longer consumed only by young men with raging hormones. Tourist restaurants along Rúa Mayoroffer acceptable if uninspired meals at slightly inflated prices, and the restaurants lining Plaza Mayor attract tourists and locals alike. To join Salamantinos in a more tranquil setting, walk up to Paseo Carmelitas between calle La Fuente and Puerta de Zamora. The leafy green park that lines the street is full of terraces that are popular for afternoon snacks.

You probably won’t want to visit Salamanca in August, when the scorching midday makes even the lizards dash across the plazas in search of a sliver of shade. But at any other time, this is a stroller’s city, where new delights catch the eye at every turn. The Plaza Mayor★★★ is the heart of the community, and in true academic fashion, it embodies the conflicting spirits of Spanish intellect. José Benito Churriguera’s design of the square is rational, cool, and neoclassical—but the decoration is utterly Baroque. Salamantinos gather here at all hours of the day and night to connect with each other, to talk, and (most of all) to eat and drink. When the sun sets and the stone plaza begins to cool, cafe tables spill out from beneath the arcades and “tunas” (student singers in old-fashioned academic cloaks) wander from table to table singing for tips.

About a quarter of the old city is devoted to buildings of the University of Salamanca, which reached its apex of influence in the 15th and 16th centuries but remains one of Spain’s most prestigious centers of scholarship. Courtyards around university buildings are generally open to the public, and the Patio de Escuelas Menoresis a popular gathering point for tour groups as well as Salamantinos. Standing proudly in the center is a statue of 16th-century poet and scholar Fray Luis de León,the city’s poster boy for intellectual freedom and defiance of tyranny. Imprisoned for 4 years by the Inquisition for translating the Biblical “Song of Solomon” into Castilian, the scholar began his first lecture after returning to the classroom, Decíamos ayer . . . , or “as we were saying yesterday. . . .”