Select from an eclectic plethora of historic Spanish cities, diverse landscapes, famous artworks, quirky festivals and delicious food from all over Spain. Here are some of the best places to visit in Spain.
Wherever you plan to travel in Spain, you will find many top places to visit – and, even better, in each region many top Spanish foods to try. Spain is an addictive destination with its laid-back culture and focus on living the good life, wild Spanish festivals, diverse landscapes and impressive historical architecture everywhere you look. Scattered between distinct landscapes of beaches, plains, deserts and mountains lie impressive Spanish cities, with well-preserved historical centres, cobbled streets, stone buildings and imposing fortresses, castles and city walls.
Some of Spain’s most popular tourist attractions have reached international fame, from Barcelona’s beach culture and Valencia’s Fallas effigy burning, to the infamous Running of the Bulls and tomato-throwing festival La Tomatina. But Spain still offers plenty of off-the-beaten-path experiences, such as exploring the Costa Brava coastline or hiking the Camino de Santiago. Whether you’re planning a beach holiday, city break weekend or long tour of the main Spanish cities, there’s always a lot to see and do in Spain. To whet your appetite, here are a few of the best places and things to do in Spain.
The secret Costa Brava
The stunning Costa Brava coastline stretches from Port Bou on the edge of the French Pyrenees down to Blanes, in the north eastern province of Girona. It’s been popular with holidaying Brits and other tourists for years but there are still wonderful places to discover away from the crowds along its 214 km (133 miles).
You’ll find soaring cliffs, lush vegetation, sandy beaches, picturesque villages and rocky coves and hidden bays only reached by boat. Some of the top places to visit include Cadaques, quaint 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 Ampurias (or Empúries), Spain’s most important Greek archaeological site.
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 and is a must-see site in Spain. 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 and main Spanish city for tourism, with a metro 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.
Spaghetti Westerns in Almería
Film buffs won’t want to miss visiting this top Spanish attraction amid 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 filming in an area that has now been turned into a type of theme park called Parque Oasys or aptly, Mini Hollywood.
Seville and its famous fairs
The capital of Andalusia is the fourth largest city in Spain and boasts 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. It’s a city that likes to eat and drink outdoors and part of the city’s charm is its vibrant social life and buzz; enjoy a free tapa with the local beer, Cruzcampo.
One of the main events in Seville’s calendar is Holy Week, or Semana Santa, the week-long Easter festival of elaborate religious processions where statues are carried through Seville’s narrow streets as crowds of believers and tourists press to catch a glimpse of these magnificent religious artworks.
Visit in April and you’ll be treated to Seville’s other main spectacle, the Feria de Abril, which is a top Spanish festival held for a week 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.
For art and culture, nightlife and shopping, it’s got to be Barcelona. The capital of Catalonia (Catalunya) is a cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean coast, with an ancient history: the Barrio Gótico (the Gothic quarter) is the site of the original Roman city. Don’t miss Antoni Gaudí’s fantastical (unfinished) La Sagrada Familia Cathedral and Parc Güell, the Picasso Museum (his early work) and the Joan Miró Foundation. There are great shops, great bars (and tapas) and great clubs either side of Barcelona‘s famous avenue called Las Ramblas. Read about the 10 best things to do in Barcelona.
Out of town, check out the gay-friendly seaside resort of Sitges or take a cable car up to the National Park of Monserrat, a mountain with an unique stegosaurus-like profile, great hiking and climbing trails, a monastery and amazing panoramic views.
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 (800km) journey is popular with walkers and cyclists, both local and international, although you can choose how much of the path you want to walk. Certain trails and accommodation can get busy during high season, typically during June to August as many pilgrims time their trip to arrive in Santiago de Compostela by St James Day on 25 July, one of the top Spanish festivals. Hiking in May, June, September and October typically offers moderate temperatures and lower hiker volume.
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.
Running of the Bulls (San Fermin) 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 in every direction. Visit the city during the week-long Fiesta de San Fermin to 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 through the town’s cobbled streets. 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.
The festival officially starts on 6 July at 12pm by firing the pyrotechnic chupinazo (or txupinazo in Basque), a rocket that shoots from the balcony of the town hall, while everybody throws wine and eggs at each other in the town square below, staining the traditional white and red festival clothing (if you don’t have yours, you can buy it once there). This is one of Spain’s top festivals, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, so booking early is essential.
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. Granada is a top Spanish city for its impressive Moorish architecture, and the undoubted jewel in the crown is the elegant and intricate palace and gardens of Alhambra, declared a World Heritage site. Moorish poets described it as ‘a pearl set in emeralds’, alluding to the colours of the buildings and surrounding woodland.
It was originally built as a fortress and later converted into a royal palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, and today is a stunning complex of buildings decorated with Arabic inscriptions and geometric motifs, and peaceful gardens (called Generalife) with rectangular courtyards, fountains and tree-lined walkways. The winding streets of Albaicín (or Albayzín, also UNESCO World Heritage) 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 the Madrid area for more than two million years – since the Stone Age – but the city’s heyday came in the 16th and 17th centuries after King Philip II made it the capital of his empire. While many tourists brush over Madrid for Spain’s beaches or laid-back Barcelona, Spain’s capital is a top destination for offering it all: some of the world’s top museums and artworks, gourmet restaurants, vibrant nightlife, a grand historic centre and large pedestrianised zones lined with shops, restaurants, cafe terraces and bars, which usually offer a free tapa when you order una caña (small beer).
Visit the historic old town, Madrid de los Austrias, the city main square Plaza Mayor and the embellished Royal Palace to see the remnants of Madrid’s heyday. Today, Madrid is famed for its art and culture, with more than 70 museums including the world-famous Prado Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Reina Sofia National Art Centre. See the 10 best things to do in Madrid, how to spend a weekend in Madrid like a local, or Madrid’s tourism site.
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 Alpujurras, 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 and almonds grow on trees – Spanish bliss.
For more information, visit Spain’s official tourist office: www.spain.info