Situated just next to Cordoba, Jaen is one of the few remaining hidden gems in Andalucia.
Jaen is the capital city of Jaen province in Andalucia, and despite its historical importance as part of the Caliphate of Cordoba during Moorish rule, Jaen is one of the least-visited cities in Southern Spain.
Over the years, Jaen has faded into the background, allowing its more famous neighbours of Cordoba, Granada and Almeria to soak up the limelight.
However, when I recently visited Jaen, I couldn’t believe how little tourism this city gets.
With an abundance of Renaissance architecture, mountains and olive groves as far as the eye can see and a charming historical centre, Jaen is one of those hidden gems in Southern Spain that are becoming few and far between as Spain’s popularity among international tourists continues to soar.
If you find yourself in Andalucia and don’t want somewhere quite as touristy as Nerja or Marbella, then you should definitely make room on your itinerary for the city of Jaen.
Jaen is a great stop on an Andalucia road trip, and it’s also great as a standalone destination if you want to get off the beaten track in Spain.
So, without any further ado, let’s dive into the city of Jaen, Spain.
Jaen, Spain | Hidden Gems in Andalucia
How to Get to Jaen
There are several airports that you can fly into if you’re planning a trip to Jaen.
The closest is Granada, which is 65km away, followed by Malaga (136km) and Almeria (161.9km).
Buses from Granada and Malaga to Jaen can take up to four hours (public transport in Spain is not the best), or you can hire a car and get there much quicker.
If you want to avoid all of the stress completely, you can book a private airport transfer to get you to Jaen.
Best Time to Visit Jaen
Although Jaen is a great year-round destination, the best time to visit is undoubtedly in the shoulder season (April-June and September-October).
As Jaen is in Southern Spain, temperatures can exceed 40 degrees in the summer, while the spring and autumn months tend to remain in the mid-twenties.
Things to Do in Jaen
With Roman ruins, Arab baths and the best Renaissance architecture outside of Italy, Jaen is the perfect destination if you’re a lover of art, history and heritage.
Surrounded by mountains and national parks, it is also perfect for nature lovers, while the tapas culture and quality Jaen olive oil ensure that foodies will also find plenty to appreciate about Jaen.
In this post, I will be focusing on the things to do in the city of Jaen itself, but with 97 towns in the province and hundreds of hiking trails within a stone’s throw, you could easily spend a month here and not even scratch the surface.
Here are the best things to do in Jaen, Spain.
Castillo de Santa Catalina
The medieval Castillo de Santa Catalina sits atop the Cerro de Santa Catalina (the Hill of Santa Catalina), and from here you can enjoy magnificent views over the valley of the Guadalquivir, the Sierra Morena mountain range and the city of Jaen.
Originally a Moorish fortress in the 8th century, Saint Catherine’s Castle was remodelled by various Kings (the main one being Ferdinand III) before Napoleonic forces took over in the early 19th century, building a gunpowder store, stables, hospital, offices, kitchen, and artillery platform.
Inside the castle itself is a visitor’s centre, which makes a nice escape from the sun, but the highlight is the castle grounds. Take a stroll around this walled enclosure with its six imposing towers, and enjoy the same views as so many others have before you.
The Castillo de Santa Catalina is a short drive away from Jaen, or you can hike up to it in around one hour.
Entrance is 3.50 EUR for adults (2.50 EUR if you’re in a group) and 1.50 EUR for children, students and retirees. You can find the opening times here.
Alternatively, this 1.5 hour guided tour of the castle (12.75 EUR) will take you to the tops of the towers, the depths of the dungeon and all around the latrine, kitchens, stables and more. I didn’t partake in this tour specifically, but I did visit Castillo de Santa Catalina with a local guide, and I highly recommend it.
La Cruz, or The Cross, is exactly what it says on the tin – a gigantic cross!
La Cruz was erected shortly after Ferdinand III entered the city in 1246, and it still stands proud today.
Located less than a five minute walk from the Castillo de Santa Catalina, La Cruz offers a fantastic view down into the city of Jaen, with the cathedral really standing out.
Dine at the Parador
Next to the castle is the Parador de Santa Catalina, a luxury hotel that looks very much like part of the original castle, although it was only constructed in 1965.
The Parador hotels are a group of 96 state-owned hotels that are located in the best locations across Spain, with restaurants serving excellent local dishes (their 0km rule states that all produce has to come from the immediate area) and grand interiors.
The Parador de Santa Catalina is no exception, and in addition to the current King of Spain having graced it with his presence, General Charles de Gaulle also stayed here whilst writing his memoirs.
We didn’t stay at the hotel, but we did enjoy an 8-course tasting menu for lunch, and it was the best introduction to Andalucian cuisine we could have asked for. If you’re visiting the castle in Jaen then you absolutely must go to the Jaen Parador for lunch or dinner while you’re there.
The first thing we tried was salmorejo (a cold soup similar to gazpacho) with cherries, corn and cured game meat. The soup was served in a little jug which we poured over the other ingredients, which was a fun touch.
Next was a smoked sardine bite with olive tapenade, followed by white garlic rennet with raw milk goat’s cheese (all pictured below).
This was followed by a mille-feuille of candied potatoes, black pudding and red pepper emulsion, a selection of vegetables sautéed in marinated partridge (and presented in a very hipster way), cod au gratin with black garlic and creamed greens and partridge with apple tart.
Dessert was an array of sweet treats including a chocolate cake and sorbet.
As you can tell by the amount of time I’ve spent on this section, I really really really enjoyed dining at the Parador de Santa Catalina!
As far as I’m aware, the tasting menus are only for groups and large events, but all of the dishes we tried were available on the regular menu at the time of our visit. While the menu at the Jaen Parador changes frequently, this is the quality of food that you can expect.
Down in the actual city of Jaen, you will find the 11th century Baños Árabes, the largest and most well-preserved Moorish baths in the whole of Spain that were only discovered in 1913.
Our guide told us that judging by the Roman columns inside, the baths were probably created by the Romans and later used by the Muslims as a public hammam, or bath house.
Hammams were the centre of social life in Arab cities, and is where everyone went to wash themselves, have a cheeky gossip and cleanse their minds from the stresses of day to day life.
The baths have a huge surface area of 450 square metres, and wandering through them you will find star-shaped skylights as well as the cold room, warm room and hot room that is typical of hammams.
The Baños Árabes are located in the basement of the majestic Centro Cultural Baños Árabes Palacio de Villardompardo a 16th century Renaissance palace.
Palacio de Villardompardo also houses the International Museum of Naïf Art, as well as the Museum of Arts and Costumes, dedicated to the rural life of pre-industrial Jaen.
Admission to all three is free. You can find opening times here.
Jaen Cathedral, or Santa Iglesia Catedral de la Asunción de la Virgen to give it it’s proper name, was designed by Andrés de Vandelvira and is the purest Renaissance cathedral in the country.
With that being said, architecture buffs will notice some Baroque detailing in the balconies and columns of the otherwise Renaissance façade, probably due to the fact that the cathedral took 300 years to be completed!
Built on the site of the old Aljama mosque, the Santa Iglesia Catedral de la Asunción de la Virgen cathedral is home to a very important relic: the Veil of Veronica (or Holy Veil), which is said to bear an image of Jesus’ face, that was imprinted after Saint Veronica used it to clean Jesus’ head as he walked to Calvary.
I’m not usually a fan of paying to enter churches and cathedrals, but in my opinion, Jaen’s cathedral is worth it because you get to climb the stairs inside and look down on the church from a different angle. There are also beautiful balconies with views over Jaen that can be enjoyed.
The entrance to Jaen cathedral, which includes an audio guide, is 6 EUR. Over 65s pay 5 EUR, and children and students pay 4 EUR.
However, if you want a deeper understanding of Jaen’s history, I recommend this combined tour of the Cathedral, Arab Baths and Old City for just 12.75 EUR. Your guide will take you through the various neighbourhoods of Jaen which includes another church and an air-raid shelter.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I explored Jaen’s Cathedral and Arab Baths with a guide, and an audio guide just can’t compare, in my opinion.
Taste Jaen Olive Oil!
The province of Jaén has been linked to the cultivation of olive groves for thousands of years, with the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs all understanding the value of the humble olive.
Olive oil is serious business in Jaen – in fact, the cultivation of olive groves and production of olive oil are the main economic activities of the whole province, and olive oil is an integral part of Jaen’s culture and traditions, with numerous festivals taking place throughout the year to honour this ‘liquid gold.’
Here are some interesting facts about Jaen olive oil:
- Jaen olive oil has a PGI (a Protected Geographical Indication).
- Jaen has over 60 million olive trees, and they are all privately owned.
- Jaen proclaims itself to be the ‘World’s Capital of Olive Oil,’ with the largest amount of olive trees and olive oil production in the world.
- The town of Ubeda produces most of the olive oil in the province of Jaen, and there is even a museum dedicated to olives and oil in an old olive mill!
- The unemployment rate of the province of Jaen falls from 20% to 10% in harvest season.
- Jaen produces over 50% of Spanish olive oil and 20-25% of the world’s olive oil production!
- Spain produces more olive oil than any other country in the world, with Greece and Italy coming in second and third, respectively.
In the city of Jaen, you will find lots of gift shops selling all kinds of products containing olive oil.
Soaps, shampoos, hand creams, lip balms, and even ice cream in Jaen all contain olive oil, so be sure to buy some souvenirs for yourself and your friends.
If you’re like me and you’re really obsessed with olive oil, you may want to try this olive oil mill tour and tasting.
Visit Ubeda and Baeza
So I know I said that this post was only going to cover things to do in Jaen itself, you can’t miss a trip to the twin cities of Ubeda and Baeza, which are recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Ubeda and Baeza are the best places to encounter Renaissance architecture outside of Italy and together with Jaen, they form the Southern Renaissance Triangle.
Perfect for lovers of art, history and heritage, Ubeda and Baeza are the kind of sleepy towns that you can amble around at your leisure, taking in the sights and stopping to enjoy the delicious food and wine along the way.
The huge churches and cathedrals, old university buildings and palaces combine a wide range of architectural styles, and all have fascinating histories.
Frequent buses connect the three cities, making them easy to visit on your own, but I explored them with a guide and highly recommend it.
For me, architecture is certainly impressive, but having an expert explain the history and stories behind the places I’m visiting provide a much more immersive experience.
Where to Stay in Jaen
Parador de Jaen – $$$
The Paradores of Spain are state-owned protected buildings that have been turned into luxury hotels.
The Parador de Jaen is a renovated 18th century castle perched on top of the Hill of Saint Catalina. It boasts phenomenal panoramic views over the mountains and olive trees, a large outdoor pool, and marries classical-style design with the Arabic influence of years gone by.
We dined at the restaurant in this hotel and the meal was genuinely one of the best I’ve ever had.
If you fancy a splurge, I highly recommend the Jaen Parador.
Los Caños – $$
Los Caños is a holiday apartment situated right in the centre of the city, steps away from Jaen Cathedral and Arab Baths.
This is perfect if you are staying in Jaen for longer than one day as it has a fully equipped kitchen, a cute sun terrace and funky décor that makes the place feel like a proper home.
Pensión La Florida 19 – $
Pensión La Florida 19 is a centrally-located guesthouse with modern and attractive décor, private bathroom, shared living room and concierge service at the front desk.
This is the perfect combination of hotel and apartment, and is a great choice if you are spending the weekend in Jaen.
Jaen, Spain | Final Thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Jaen, and I only wish that I could have stayed there for longer.
With phenomenal views, a great cuisine, the best olive oil in the world and ancient history waiting around every corner, there is something for everyone in Jaen.
If you are craving a European city break but want to get a little off the beaten track and experience a truly authentic Spanish city, Jaen is the place for you.
That’s about it for now but as always, if you have any questions then please let me know in the comments section below and I will get back to you!
Until next time,
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