Filled with treasures of religious art and freighted with history as the first cathedral to reclaim central Spain for Christianity, this cathedral remains the ecclesiastical seat of the Roman Catholic church in Spain, long after the political capital moved to Madrid. Set at the center of the hilltop old city, this structure is one of just three High Gothic cathedrals in Spain and is considered by some critics as the finest example. Construction began in 1226 and was more or less finished in 1463. Keeping with Spanish tradition, the cathedral was built on the site of Toledo’s chief mosque, which was in turn built on the foundations of a Visigothic cathedral. The Gothic bones are sometimes hard to see for all the ornate Baroque decoration. The main entrance is off Calle Hombre del Palo (look for the clock tower), and ensures that you pass through the well-stocked cathedral store on your way into church.

From an art historical point of view, the church is rather like a great old-fashioned antique store stuffed with treasures, each remarkable by itself but only tangentially related to its neighbor. Don’t expect a harmonious assemblage—concentrate on specific beautiful pieces. The heavily gilded main altar, for example, shows the influence that Moorish damascene decoration would ultimately exert on over-the-top Spanish Baroque. The backs of the lower tier of the seats in the choir, carved by Rodrigo Alemán in 1495, depict the conquest of Granada just a few years earlier. His extraordinary carving of the seat arms in images of knights deep in prayer or thought (some of them hooded like Death himself) may be the most moving statues in a cathedral filled with statuary. VIP tombs—kings Alfonso VII, Sancho II, and Sancho III, as well as Cardinal Mendoza—fill the outer walls.

Fans of Baroque carving are especially enamored of the transparente—a wall of marble and alabaster sculpture long overlooked because the cathedral was so poorly lit. The sculptor who created it, Narcisco Tomé, cut a hole in the ceiling so a shaft of light would illuminate the translucent stonework. The window has been restored, throwing highlights on a group of angels, a Last Supper rendered in alabaster, and a Virgin ascending into heaven. The side chapels contain some of the cathedral’s greatest artistic treasures in rooms small enough to get close to the work and study it.


For an extra fee, you can visit the cathedral museums. The Sacristy contains the modest-sized El Greco portraits of each of the 12 apostles, as well as his recently re-installed 1577–79 masterwork El Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ), which starred at the Prado and the Museo de Santa Cruz during the El Greco quadricentennial in 2014.

As the name suggests, the Treasure Room is crammed with precious metals and jewels. The main attraction here is the 500-pound gilded monstrance paraded through the streets on the Feast of Corpus Christi. After years of tourists disobeying the “no flash” rule, the cathedral now bans all photography, filming, and use of cellphones.