We had never heard of this destination before and were surprised by the extent of historical grandeur in the small city center. From an impressive cathedral to remarkable city palaces, Avilés turned out to have a beautiful historical center. Add to that an iconic museum of modern art, and you’ll understand why we recommend visiting Avilés. Read more about this Spanish town and its main attractions in this blog.
Where is Avilés located in Spain?
Avilés is located in the north of Spain, specifically in the autonomous region of Asturias. It is situated on the Costa Verde and is surrounded by the Cantabrian Mountains to the south and the Cantabrian Sea to the north.
The city is approximately 25 kilometers west of Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, and about 30 kilometers from Gijón, another important coastal city in the region. Thanks to its strategic location, Avilés has developed into a significant industrial and commercial center over the years.
In addition to the Asturian capital, Oviedo, and the charming Gijón, there are more attractions and tourist destinations near Avilés. It’s just a short drive to the picturesque fishing villages of Lastres, Tazones, and Cudillero, which are often mentioned in lists of the most beautiful villages in Spain. For prehistoric art, you should visit the Tito Bustillo rock paintings near the coastal town of Ribadesella. Tip: book your tickets for the cave well in advance, as there are a limited number of tickets, and they sell out quickly.
Where to stay in Avilés? Unfortunately, the town has only a few hotels. The top choice is, of course, the historic Palacio de Ferrera, which is a must-visit sight in its own right. A more budget-friendly option is the Hotel Alda Palacio Valdés.
What Avilés is known for
If you were to characterize Avilés in northern Spain, you would quickly think of terms like ‘history’, ‘architecture’, and ‘culture’. The city is primarily known for its historic buildings with arcades (arched galleries with columns), the modern architecture of the Centro Niemeyer art museum, and the typical Asturian cider drink. And, admittedly, among Spaniards themselves, the city is also known for its heavy industry, but as a visitor in the city center, you won’t see much of that.
Avilés is characterized by its small medieval city center, where narrow streets and historic squares take visitors on a journey back in time. We enjoyed the beautiful palaces, atmospheric churches, and picturesque alleyways. Some buildings and streets even date back to the twelfth century. Typical of the architecture in Avilés are the arcades with columns that seem to adorn the ground floor of almost every building. They protected the workshops of craftsmen on the ground floor from the weather.
But the city also has a very modern side with the Centro Niemeyer. This is not only a place to admire contemporary art, but the architecture of the building is also quite remarkable. It was designed by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer.
The town also has much to offer for those who want to enjoy authentic Asturian cuisine. The many traditional cider houses will not disappoint you. Cider, or ‘sidra,’ is more than just a drink here—it’s a true cultural experience. Even the way it’s poured is unique!
The best things to do in Avilés
#1 Centro Niemeyer
When you hear the name ‘Niemeyer’, you might first think of the iconic design of the city of Brasilia in Brazil. But did you know that this famous architect also left his mark on the small town of Avilés in northern Spain?
The Centro Niemeyer is a cultural center that pays tribute to the legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The complex, with its flowing lines, striking white forms, and futuristic appearance, is a perfect example of Niemeyer’s distinctive style and his love for simple yet powerful forms.
The center is prominently located on the banks of the Avilés River, where it stands out against a backdrop of heavy industry. You can cross the railway and the river from the old town to the museum via photogenic bridges.
During our visit to the city, we discovered that the Centro Cultural Internacional Oscar Niemeyer is always free to enter during the last hour of the afternoon (opening times of Centro Niemeyer). The exhibitions are not very large, so you can easily walk through them in an hour. It’s a great opportunity not only to admire the building from the outside but also to see the temporary exhibitions.
#2 Iglesia de Santo Tomás de Canterbury
One of the literal highlights of Avilés is the Iglesia de Santo Tomás de Canterbury with its two tall towers. It’s a striking sight and one of Avilés’ attractions where you’ll definitely want to make a stop.
It’s also called the Iglesia nueva de Sabugo, which means the new church of Sabugo. This refers to the old church of Sabugo, which is not far from the new one and is also called Iglesia de Santo Tomás de Canterbury. The older church was once located outside the medieval city walls of Avilés.
Despite the fact that this ‘new’ Iglesia de Santo Tomás de Canterbury was inaugurated only in 1903, its architecture evokes the Middle Ages with its Gothic appearance. The church’s distinctive features include its tall, narrow towers of 47 meters. We also found the subtle ceiling paintings quite remarkable, something we don’t often see in churches.
#3 Plaza de los Hermanos Orbón
When exploring the picturesque streets of Avilés, we strongly recommend seeking out Plaza Hermanos Orbón. We could have easily missed the square if we hadn’t known about its existence. It is completely surrounded by buildings with photogenic galleries.
Plaza Hermanos Orbón boasts a unique and distinctive layout, constructed during the latter half of the nineteenth century. It assumes a symmetrical, square form, with each side enveloped by galleries adorned with ornate iron columns and beautiful lattice work. The ground floors of these buildings house an assortment of shops and restaurants, inviting patrons to explore their offerings. Four entrances punctuate the buildings, providing access to the square.
In the heart of the square, there is a building with market stalls, where many locals gather. The scent of fresh fish fills the air. This also prevented us from having a coffee here with the locals, as we found the fish odor a bit overpowering. However, the local population is not deterred, as the terraces are full. In the morning, many people also line up at the stalls. All in all, we found it to have a very lively and authentic atmosphere in the morning!
Incidentally, the square officially bears the name Plaza de los Hermanos Orbón, a tribute to the Orbón brothers, renowned figures in the realms of music and journalism. However, colloquially, it often assumes the name Plaza de la Mercado, a moniker hardly surprising considering its function.
#4 Plaza de España
The Plaza de España forms the vibrant heart of Avilés, serving as the gateway to the town’s principal thoroughfares: La Ferrería, La Cámara, Rivero, San Francisco, and La Fruta.
Dating back to the seventeenth century, this period marked a pivotal turning point in Avilés’ evolution. The city burgeoned, venturing beyond its medieval confines, and thus gave birth to this majestic square, that remains the pride and center of the city to this day.
The square is entirely pedestrianized, adding to its historic atmosphere. The square is completely surrounded by buildings with the characteristic columned galleries typical of Avilés. The three most notable buildings are the town hall, the Llano Ponte Palace, also known as Casa de García Pumarino, and the Ferrera Palace. The Palacio de Ferrera has been one of the most beautiful hotels in Avilés since 2003.
#5 Calle Galiana and Plaza del Carbayedo
In the historic heart of Avilés, we visited the photogenic Calle Galiana and Plaza del Carbayedo, two contiguous locations. Together, they are among the town’s best-known places to visit. The street and the square are said to have preserved the old character of Avilés the best.
Calle Galiana was built in the seventeenth century when the town expanded beyond its medieval walls. Once again, the long arcades are typical. They were intended to provide protection from the sun and rain for the craftsmen who had their workshops on the ground floor. It was customary for living spaces to be on the floor above. On those floors, you often see beautiful ceilings and partially wooden facades. Some are decorated, while others are painted in cheerful colors.
Calle Galiana seamlessly segues into Plaza del Carbayedo. In yesteryears, a woodland stood here, and the nomenclature pays homage to this history— “Carbayedo” derives from the Asturian word for oak. Today, the square hosts a playground and a plethora of dining establishments.
Until the mid-twentieth century, this square was a bustling hub for livestock trade. A former watering trough for animals has now metamorphosed into a fountain. A distinctive ‘hórreo’ graces the square, a recurring sight in Asturias and emblematic of this region of Spain. These elevated grain storage structures shield crops from moisture and rodents.
#6 Iglesia San Nicolás de Bari
Nestled between Plaza de España and the renowned Calle Galiana stands the resplendent Iglesia San Nicolás de Bari. Originally a Franciscan monastery from the thirteenth century, it was built in close proximity to the medieval city walls. The monastery persists to this day, a picturesque gem. During our visit, we had the privilege of freely exploring the monastery’s characteristic colonnade. The church, too, typically welcomes visitors.
The church is ensconced in the atmospheric and photogenic Plaza Domingo Álvarez Acebal and Calle San Francisco, where resplendent facades grace the streetscape, offering a visual feast. From baroque embellishments to wrought-iron balconies, each building maintains the hallowed colonnaded façade on the ground floor.
#7 Parque de Ferrera
Today, the Parque de Ferrera stands as a public urban park, yet its origins trace back to a bygone era when it served as the private palace garden. This park once constituted the backyard of the Palacio de Ferrera, the erstwhile residence of the Marquises of Ferrera. Following the demise of the tenth Marquis of Ferrera in 1974, his progeny sold the extensive parkland to the municipality, on the condition that it be transformed into a public park.
Encompassing a sprawling 81,000 square meters, this park unfurls as a verdant sanctuary of tranquility. Connoisseurs of horticulture might discern the English and French garden styles interwoven within its expanse. However, we found it to be primarily a resplendent haven characterized by verdant lawns, sylvan groves, water features, and cascading fountains. The English segment, with its abundant grass and leafy trees, coexists harmoniously with the French garden, replete with pergolas and ornate fountains.
A fascinating tidbit of trivia: Did you know that this park once served as a film set for a renowned film? The Parque de Ferrera served as the backdrop for Woody Allen’s cinematic masterpiece, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’, featuring celebrities such as Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, and Penélope Cruz.
#8 The Five Most Exquisite City Palaces of Avilés
As one meanders through Avilés’ historic core, the profusion of stately city palaces becomes a conspicuous spectacle. These palaces span diverse epochs, but it is the baroque allure of the seventeenth-century palaces that truly captivates the heart.
The Palacio de Valdecarzana, also known as Casa de las Baragañas, stands as the oldest extant civilian edifice in Avilés. Believed to date back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it originally served as the residence of a prominent Avilés merchant. Its distinctive Gothic façade graces Ferrería Street.
Have you ever wondered where the royal family stayed during their visits to Avilés? Or the movie stars during the filming of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”? That would be the Palacio de Ferrera, which is now a well-known luxury hotel in Avilés. It was built in the seventeenth century on Plaza de España and was once one of the city’s most important buildings. The palace atmosphere is further enhanced by the adjacent Parque de Ferrera with its English and French landscaped gardens. This area was once the private garden of the Marquises of Ferrera but has since become a beloved public park.
Palacio de Camposagrado is our personal favorite. This palace exhibits two dramatically different facades, with the south-facing side being the most visually striking. It is a masterpiece of Asturian baroque architecture, a testament to the city’s rich artistic heritage.
The modernist charm of Palacio de Balsera, dating back to the early twentieth century, stands as a symbol of the affluence of the prosperous bourgeoisie of that era. Its eye-catching presence at the outset of Calle Galiana, adorned with a vibrant yellow hue and rich embellishments, makes it an iconic landmark. While its once-Versailles-inspired garden, complete with a swimming pool, may have vanished, its architectural splendor endures.
Llano Ponte Palace, situated on Plaza de España, offers a captivating blend of history and aesthetics. Commissioned by Rodrigo García Pumarino, who amassed his wealth in Peru, this baroque masterpiece was constructed by the same architect responsible for the town hall. Resembling the town hall in many ways but adorned with even more intricate embellishments, it contributes to the city’s architectural tapestry.