Spain’s a large country, so how do you choose where to spend your time? Cat Gaa shares her top seven picks.
By Cat Gaa
In a country that is flailing during the global economic meltdown, Spain’s tourism is certainly keeping it afloat. In fact, it’s one of the most-visited countries in the world, offering cultural, gastronomic and adventure trips for many tastes and budgets. The land of Quijote and Picasso, bullfighting and ‘fútbol,’ and five co-languages is as diverse as its history is long.
If Spain is a country of great variation, a trip to Iberia must include stops in several cities to understand its political and historical landscape, as well as indulging in royal hotspots and cultural clichés. Our picks for must-see Spanish cities include them all (in alphabetical order)
Barcelona – Avant-Garde and Dripping with Gaudí
Barcelona is often on travel lists for good reason – wedged in-between mountains and the Mediterranean, it charms with its raucous festivals and nightlife, kooky architecture and well-established cuisine. From visiting Gaudí’s whimsical architecture scattered around the city to catching a Fútbol Club Barcelona match, Spain’s second-largest city has loads to offer. Travelers should be aware that the region, Catalunya, is embroiled in a fight for independence from Spain, so don’t be alarmed to see demonstrations, hear catalàn tongue or independence flags.
Granada – Where Islam and Christianity Met
It’s said that Granada’s last Moorish king, Boabdil, cried at being banished from the stronghold during the Reconquist. And with good reason – the city nestled below the Sierra Nevada mountain range mixes Islamic architecture seamlessly, crowned with the Alhambra palace, which is one of Spain’s most-visited sites. Granada is a great university town with known for doling out free tapas for every drink you purchase. Be sure to catch a flamenco show, take the views from the Mirador San Nicolás and visit a tea house while visiting the birthplace of poet Federico García Lorca.
Madrid – A Cultural Capital
What was once a sleepy farming village has exploded into Spain’s bustling capital. Glitzy avenues rub elbows with immigrant neighborhoods and the cultural stamp left by the Bourbon and Hapsburg dynasties is evident in Madrid’s offering in museums, theatre and gastronomy. No visit to Spain would be complete without sampling Madrid’s grilled pig’s ear or tripe stew, gawking at Spain’s artistic heritage in the Prado or Reina Sofia museums, or bar and tapas hopping in La Latina and trendy Malasaña. Madrid is known for its marcha, or nightlife plus wide array of cultural offerings, from concerts, to theater, to dance and even poker competitions. The European Poker Tour 2012 final table set was based in Madrid, and the Festival de Otoño a Primavera is held from fall to spring each year in the capital, the city’s major performing arts festival.
Salamanca – A Scholar’s Haven
Spain’s definition of a university town is embodied in Salamanca, a small city a few hours outside of Madrid. Students congregate in the gorgeous baroque Plaza Mayor, take class in sandstone buildings, and enjoy a rocking nightlife. Still, Salamanca seems to retain its small-town charm, despite the influx of foreigners hoping to learn Spanish in the city that’s said to speak its purest form.
San Sebastian – The Pearl of the Northern Coast
The small city also known as Donostia rose to fame when it became a favorite vacation spot of Spanish royals during the 19th century. San Sebastian has a beautiful ring of beaches, as well as a gastronomic culture that has helped put Basque cuisine on the culinary map. Surfers, mountaineers and even international film stars flock to the city that is just 20 miles from the French border, and its proximity to larger cities like Vitoria and Bilbao make it a lovely stop on any Spanish itinerary.
Santiago de Compostela – Pilgrim Paradise
Lichen-covered churches and monasteries, scallop shells and even boiled octopus are the trademark of Spain’s little-known Galicia province, and the crown jewel of this region is Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the venerated body of Saint James was put in a self-propelled boat by his disciples, pulled ashore by fishermen and buried in a field. Centuries later, a church was erected on the spot when a shepherd saw stars, and the city is now the ending point of the famed ‘Camino de Santiago’ or Saint James’s Way. The small city is bustling with pilgrims, home to numerous small bars and known as a great university city. It also makes a great jumping-off point to explore Galicia’s beaches and hills.
Seville – Typical Spanish
The classic image of Seville – bullfighters, flamenco and tapas – is alive and well in the capital of Southern Spain, Seville. From the lush orange trees lining quaint plazas to the sound of horse carriages clip-clopping past, Seville is romantic Spain at its absolute best. Travel to Sevilla, as it’s called in local tongue, should include tapas crawling around the center, having a sherry near the Guadalquivir River and visiting the sprawling cathedral and beautiful Alcazar Palace. Seville also had frequent connections to other Spanish cities by train, bus and plane.
MORE: Spain’s public transportation infrastructure makes it easy to travel between cities on train and bus, and its highways are well-maintained. A good jaunt around Spain can take two weeks or more, so be sure to leave enough time to truly savor its cities, culture and food. Keep in mind that the climate varies significantly from north to south, and that many sites close during Christmas and Easter holidays, and sometimes all of August for vacations.
Cat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Southern Spain five years ago. Calling Seville home, she’s traveled to each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities and especially loves Andalusia, Galicia and Castilla y León. A fan of good food, train travel and outlandish local festivals, she publishes Sunshine and Siestas and tweets and instagrams from @sunshinesiestas.