Top 10 places to visit in Spain
Select from an eclectic plethora of historic Spanish cities, diverse landscapes, famous artworks, quirky festivals, bodied wines and delicious food from all over Spain. Here are some of the best sites to visit in Spain.
Wherever you are in Spain, there are always many top places to visit in Spain. From popular tourist attractions like the La Sagrada Familia and the Running of the Bulls to more off-the-beaten path activities like touring the 'secret' cities of Costa Brava and hiking the Camino de Santiago, there's always a lot to see and do – and eat and drink – in Spain whether you're planning long holidays or a short weekend getaway. To whet your appetite, here are a few of the best places in Spain.
Guggenheim in Bilbao
Frank Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim Museum, in the north western city of Bilbao, has been described as the most important structure of its time. Its soaring, titanium curves will blow your mind – and that's before you even step inside to view its amazing collection of modern art. Bilbao, on the Bay of Biscay in the Basque country, is an architectural hotspot, with an underground designed by Norman Foster and an airport by Santiago Calatrava. Enjoy the local custom of chiqueteo – a plate of pintxos (speciality appetisers) with a drink – in a bar or café, before a meal. And what should you eat? Cod, of course: Bilbao is the cod (bacalao) capital of Spain with hundreds of delicious recipes.
Seville and its April Fair
The capital of Andalusia is the 4th largest city in Spain with three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Reales Alcázares palace, the Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral (containing the remains of Christopher Columbus) and the General Archive of the Indies. Wander around narrow cobbled streets, breathe in orange blossoms, peer into tiny courtyards with tumbling bougainvillea and tinkling fountains, and you might just come across a lone flamenco guitarist. Visit in April and you'll be treated to the spectacle of the Feria de Abril, a week-long festival on the banks of the Guadalquivir river. Sevillanos of all ages, dressed in flamenco finery, stroll around or ride on horseback or in carriages along ‘streets' of colourful marquees. The party continues all night long: dancing the Sevillanas, drinking jerez (sherry) and manzanilla (chamomile) wine and eating tapas. Best of all: you can join in.
The Sierra Nevada
Down in the far south, just to the east of Granada, is the Sierra Nevada, a national park where you'll find the highest peaks in the whole of the Iberian peninsula, and some of its most exceptional flora and fauna (including the Spanish ibex). It was declared a UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1986. Facing the Mediterranean, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada lies Las Alpajurras, an area with thermal springs and spas. Tiny white cube houses cling to the hillsides, goats still scamper about wearing little bells, serrano hams are cured, almonds grow on trees...bliss.
The Way of St James (Camino de Santiago de Compostela)
Since the ninth century, people have been making their way through northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim's route to the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia. Today, the 500-mile (800 km) journey is popular with walkers and cyclists, local and international. There are a network of different routes but perhaps the most spectacular runs between the northern Spanish coastline and the mountains – and was first used by pilgrims in the Middle Ages wanting to avoid Muslim territories. The network, passing through great historic cities and awe-inspiring landscapes, was given World Heritage status in 1993.
Spaghetti (westerns) in Almería
Film buffs won't want to miss a trip to the arid desert and mountains of Almería in southeast Spain. This is where some of the world's best loved films were made – Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Indiana Jones and Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Following a 66-kilometre route through the Tabernas Desert and Sierra Alhamilla Mountains, you can still see some of the sets and pop-up western towns that were built for the filming in an area that has now been turned into a type of theme park called Parque Oasys or aptly, Mini Hollywood.
Running of the Bulls in Pamplona
Pamplona, capital of the Navarre region in northern Spain, is steeped in history, with Gothic, Baroque and neo-classical buildings, churches and medieval walls. Visit the city during the Fiesta de San Fermin in early July, and join its citizens in honouring their patron saint. Festivities include brass bands, alfresco dancing under strings of fairy lights, fireworks and, most famously of all, the running of the bulls. This is the (some might say foolhardy) tradition of running in front of a herd of stampeding bulls around the city's narrow, cobbled streets. It really is as dangerous as it sounds. If it all proves too much, slip away and enjoy a classic meal of lamb cooked with tomatoes and peppers, washed down with a Navarre wine.
Alhambra in Granada
Granada, in Eastern Andalusia, was the last place in Spain to be re-conquered by the Catholics after hundreds of years of Moorish rule in 1492, and it still retains a Moorish atmosphere. The jewel in the crown is the elegant and peaceful palace and gardens of the Alhambra, originally built as a fortress and later converted into a royal palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. It is a complex of buildings decorated with Arabic inscriptions, and gardens with rectangular courtyards, fountains and tree-lined walkways. The winding streets of Albaicín on a steep hillside facing the Alhambra lead to houses and old churches built on mosques, and magnificent views of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Situated dead centre in the middle of Spain, people have lived in Madrid for over 2 million years (yes, you did read that correctly: since the Stone Age) but the city had its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, after King Philip II made it the capital of his Empire. Visit the historic old town, Madrid de los Austrias, the square Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace for a flavour of this time. Today, Madrid is famed for its art and culture – with 73 museums including the world-famous Prado Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Reina Sofia National Art Centre – as well as for its nightlife, food and wine.
The secret Costa Brava
The stunning Costa Brava coastline in the north eastern province of Girona, stretches from Port Bou on the edge of the French Pyrenees down to Blanes. It's been popular with holidaying Brits for years but there are still wonderful places to discover away from the crowds along its 133 miles (214 km). You'll find high cliffs, lush vegetation, rocky coves and hidden bays, sandy beaches and picturesque villages including Cadaques, chichi Begur and Port Lligat – where Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala lived and worked. Go inland to Figueres where Dalí was born, and visit the famous Dalí Theatre-Museum and Púbol where he bought a castle for Gala. If you're interested in culture of a much earlier era, then visit Ampuria, Spain's most important Greek archaeological site.
For more information, visit Spain's official tourist office: www.spain.info
Travelling abroad? Don't miss the top sites in Europe:
- Top 10 places to visit in Belgium
- Top 10 places to visit in France
- Top 10 places to visit in Germany
- Top 10 places to visit in Switzerland
- Top 10 places to visit in the Netherlands
Photo credits: Edwin Poon (Guggenheim), SkareMedia (Seville), Antonio Morales Garcia (Sierra Nevada), Tony Agramunt (La Sagrada La Familia), Emilio del Prado (Almeria), Atkins525 (Running of the Bulls), Angela Ojeda Heyper (Madrid), Alexmenn (Costa Brava), tpsdave (Spain thumbnail).
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