BURGOS was the capital of Old Castile for almost five hundred years, the home of El Cid in the eleventh century, and the base, two centuries later, of Fernando III, who began the city's great Gothic cathedral. During the Civil War, Franco temporarily installed his Fascist government in Burgos, which owes much of its modern expansion to Franco's "Industrial Development Plan".
But Burgos is a changed city, much scrubbed and restored over the last few years. Every paving stone in the centre looks to have been relaid, and while it's no longer a clearly medieval city, the handsome buildings, squares and riverfront of the old town are an attractive prospect for a night's stay.
Despite the encroaching suburban sprawl and a population of almost 200,000, when it comes down to it, Burgos really isn't that big. You can see everything in the centre easily in a day, and while its lesser churches inevitably tend to be eclipsed by the cathedral, on the outskirts are two monasteries that are by no means overshadowed. Museums tend to be an afterthought here, though that will possibly change with the construction of a new cultural centre and Museum of Human Evolution that's currently under way on the river's south bank.
The Río Arlanzón bisects the city and neatly delimits the Casco Histórico, or old quarter, on the north bank. The main approach to the old town and cathedral is across the Puenta de Santa María, where you're confronted by the Arco de Santa María (Tues– Sat 11am–2pm & 5–9pm, Sun 11am–2pm; free), a gateway that originally formed part of the town walls. There are temporary art exhibitions held inside, and you can also view its exquisite Mudéjar ceiling, but it's the exterior that catches the eye.