You Gotta See Spain: 7 Must-Visit Cities

Cat in San Sebastian

Cat in San Sebastian

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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.

Mirador San Nicolas in Granada

Mirador San Nicolas in Granada

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 Reconquest. 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, theater 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.

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.

A view of Santiago's cathedral

A view of Santiago’s cathedral

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 by Cat Gaa

Seville by Cat Gaa

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.

18 Responses

  1. Some good choices, Cat. I’m not too sold on Madrid and probably would have replaced it with somewhere like Bilbao or Oviedo. But I acknowledge the capital’s popularity with other visitors.

  2. robin says:

    Yes, good choices – I haven’t been to Barcelona or San Sebastian so can’t comment on those. Granada my personal number one. As I’m sure Cat will have observed to herself as she wrote this, you could do a list of seventy, let alone seven. Places like Cádiz and Córdoba would make it onto my list as well.

  3. Cat says:

    Agree with you both, in some respects. I think Madrid is a must for the art, above all. There’s no denying that Spanish painters and have made their mark, and I definitely would love to include Coruña, Oviedo, Códoba and Mérida to the list. Seven is an extremely small number for all of the interesting and important places around Spain.

  4. Jill van der Kolk says:

    Seven choices just not enough! What about Toledo and Segovia? Then there are the smaller cities. I would include Caceres and Ávila.

  5. admin says:

    Yes, love the cities you have suggested! Thanks so much. So much to see in Spain.

  6. admin says:

    70 cities could just begin to cover the diversity of Spain. I love the regional food, language, and architectural diversity.

  7. admin says:

    Yes, Matthew, Madrid is so popular, the most traveled to city in Spain, Barcelona being second. Bilbao is definitely one of my favorites!

  8. Mike says:

    Great choices Cat! I’ve been to all of them but Santiago de Compostela and Salamanca. Il have to try and get there this year when I’m in Spain!

  9. Cat says:

    I could choose several dozen cities in Spain, though I have yet to get to Ávila! I’m also anxious to see Cuenca, Jaén and some more rural spots.

  10. Paddy Waller says:

    Love the big cities but personally over the years I have become a big fan of the smaller places like Cuenca,Burgos,Teruel,Caceres,Leon and many more!

  11. admin says:

    I’ve actually not been to any of those! Maybe Burgos while on the Camino.

  12. admin says:

    I agree Paddy. Love the ease of smaller cities, not so many motos, friendly people. Ease of getting around. Good to hear from you!

  13. Nancy says:

    Great posts! I have not been to barcelona and Madrid. All the above cities of spain are wonderful and most attractive place for tourist. Thanks for sharing :)

  14. Sandra says:

    Ah you missed the other Andalucian gems – Cordoba, Malaga. And what about Segovia and Toledo? They are all pretty lovely.

  15. admin says:

    Those are good suggestions!

  16. Yusuf says:

    Madrid is like any other big city. Its not the easiest to naiagvte, so you need more time there than other cities. Granada is like a big university town. I would suggest at LEAST two nights. The Alhambra takes a day all by itself and you CANT MISS IT! I wasnt that crazy about Seville although the Mosque truly is amazing IF you know the history. Malaga isnt a bad place to spend a couple nights. Its pretty and right on the beach. Salamanca has great night life. It is famous for having one of the oldest universities in Europe. Tons of college kids study there and the main strip at night is a trip! BUT if you can make it up north I would suggest Bilboa. Its in Pais Vasco (look up something on ETA if youre curious to what that means) The Guggenheim is one of the most amazing museums in the world. The city is pretty urban for Spain for Pais Vasco especially.

  17. Maya says:

    Great article. I have been to Salamanca.

  1. August 17, 2013

    […] we hit Northern Spain, we were very tired and really just wanted to come home.  A friend of ours, Cat from Sunshine and Siestas has provided her list, so we will take that into consideration […]

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