Besides the astonishing architectural heritage and the relaxing natural beauty, what makes the portrait of Spain genuine is the bustling flea market at El Rastro in Madrid, the frenzied nightlife scene of Barrio del Carmen in Valencia, the intrinsic fear of the Pamplona Bull Running, the sheer fun of Buñol’s La Tomatina festival, the week-long joy in La Feria de Sevilla of the flamenco, the pleasure from tapas and wine, the constant fiestas and siestas, and of course, the corrida.
All of this could of course take an entire year to embrace, but if time is on your side, it’s most certainly worth it! The country is reminiscent of a virus – once you become infected with the allure, it remains in your blood forever more, persistently reminding you of the unique experiences you’ve reveled in, within that sun-kissed paradise located on the Iberian Peninsula.
But let’s get on with our list of the best things to do in Spain!
1. Granada: The Alhambra
Chosen as a prestigious location to host his court, and looking down upon the city of Granada, the first Nasrid king, el Ahmar opted for Alhambra which was further enhanced and altered consistently by successive rulers to become an amazing complex that very few are able to rival.
Colossal chambers with grandiose ceilings, lofty halls, marble fountains, intimate royal baths, and pomegranate gardens, merely serve as a foretaste of this Moorish-Hispanic treasure. A guided tour will reveal to you the spiciest of secrets and shadiest of nooks that nestle in this historic gem, that some would argue is deserved of the title – the eighth wonder of the world.
2. Valencia: City of the Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias)
Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias is a futuristic construction that sprawls over 1.24 miles (2 km). It represents a bottomless well of attractions and many would say it’s a true cultural marvel. The alluring design is merely a foretaste of the innards.
The complex hosts the Umbracle, together with an outdoor art gallery and a large variety of indigenous plants, the Hemisfèric, with its Laserium, Planetarium, and Imax Cinema, the Principe Felipe Science Museum, which represents a center of interactive science, the Palau de les Reina Sofía – an opera house and performing arts center, and the Oceanográfico, Europe’s largest aquarium, hosting more than 500 marine species. This establishment will leave you in total awe.
3. Balearic Islands
Located in the Mediterranean, not far from mainland Spain’s east coast, the Balearic Islands represents four small islands, all very diverse from one another. Venture to Ibiza and it’s all about partying until you drop. Menorca on the other hand is more the oasis of tranquility and of natural grandeur. Mallorca is a mountainous island and has almost everything you’d likely expect from an idyllic holiday destination. Formentera offers wonderful beaches, but little more besides.
Together, the islands make for the perfect combination which tends to reflect that of continental Spain – fun, beautiful, and also versatile.
4. Toledo (Provincia de Toledo)
Playing key notes in the development of the city of Toledo, located 44 miles (73 km) south of Madrid, are a number of religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Surrounded by the Tagus River, and sitting atop a hill, this city along with its 2-millennia of history, is charmingly complex, and it will take far longer than a quick weekend trip to do it justice.
A short time spent in the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, a look at the exterior of the local Cathedral, and a brief walk over the Alcántara Bridge, is likely just enough to give you some appreciation as to the historic enchantment of the city.
5. Córdoba: Great Cathedral and Mosque (Mezquita de Cordoba)
The Mezquita de Cordoba, along with its marble flooring, giant arches, gilded prayer niches, jasper columns, and Byzantine mosaics that are simply awe-inspiring, is the best example of Muslim fabric in all of Spain.
The 10th century cathedral and mosque represents the time when Córdoba, under a new emir – Abd ar-Rahman III, reached its zenith. It certainly is a wonder of the medieval world with its mystical ambience and exotically lavish décor.
6. Provincia de Málaga: Costa del Sol
Approximately 2 million travelers descend upon the Costa del Sol resorts annually to partake in the plethora of recreational, historic, and cultural delights that proliferates the southernmost edge of the Spanish mainland.
Irrespective it’s in Marbella, Benalmadena, Puerto Banus, or Torremolinos, with more than 300 days of sunshine and the blessings of nature on offer, it’s nigh-on impossible not to hit a homerun. Furthermore, with Seville, Granada, Ronada and Cordoba but a stone’s throw distant, you’re guaranteed to have your cake and eat it.
7. Barcelona: Church of the Sacred Family (Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia)
Part of the fascination about paying a visit to the Church of the Sacred Family is that, ever since it was established in 1882 it’s been an ongoing project. Legend would have it that when the church is finally complete, should it ever be complete, the world will end. And perhaps that’s exactly why it is also said that architects are struggling to fulfil Gaudi’s flamboyant vision and will continue to struggle for years to come.
However, arguably a more practical reason is that the vision was conceived with respect to a sense of remorse for how modern Barcelona is so hooked on materialism. Thus, the vision is so elaborate that it’s impossible to depict where it ends and where it actually begins. Nevertheless, the church affords a wonderful piece of architecture and if you’re either in or near Barcelona, it should certainly be high on your itinerary.
8. Ronda: Ciudad de Ronda
Situated at the heart of Andalusia, Ronda is among the very loveliest of little towns in Spain. Though it’s currently developing at a reasonable pace, it still retains plenty of historic charm, and it’s La Ciudad, the old quarter, that sees most of the tourists flocking in droves to find those adorable sights and enjoy a little bit of romance into the bargain.
The old quarter is isolated from the rest of the town by a sizable river gorge, while being linked to it by a structure that is said to be one of the most photographed designs in all of Spain. La Ciudad formulates an enclave of folklore, cobblestoned streets, and historic splendor.
9. Barcelona: Guell Park (Parc Guell)
Parc Guell, as it rests on Carme in Barcelona’s Gràcia district, makes a suitable reflection of what may be considered as a surreal dream. Other than the marvelous Casa Milà, Sagrada Familia, and Casa Batllo, all of which adorn the city, it really is a wonderful manifestation of the unrivaled talent of Antoni Gaudi.
Don’t rush when visiting this wonderland of artistry, and enjoy witnessing the spectacles of color and shape as they come to rest on the mosaic seating. Allow your imagination to wander within this fairytale world that arguably has been crafted by Spain’s most enterprising architect.
10. Canary Islands
Tenerife, caressed with its temperate climate, is otherwise known as the island of eternal spring. Enjoy the scenery of la Rambleta up in the high mountains. Appease yourself by visiting La Laguna with its historic residences. And venture to the festivals of Santa Cruz to set your senses ablaze.
La Palma, largely volcanic in appearance and character, isn’t the locale for those who prefer to laze on a sun-drenched beach. Foamy waves hit hard upon rocky cliffs which play host to vast vine plantations, avocado orchards, and tobacco fields. Pay a visit to the very top of Roque de los Muchachos in order to view the crater of Caldera de Taburiente. And while there, be sure to check out the astronomical observatory which is said to be among the largest in the world.
Gran Canaria compensates La Palma for its lack of sandy beaches. With its Maspalomas dunes, varying climates, and changeable landscapes, you can enjoy the lush jungle of Doramas, the rocky Parque Rural del Nublo, and the beach at La Aldea. And all of that in no time at all.
Lanzarote, an unparalleled wind-swept island where the buildings are low due to governmental restrictions, which in turn helps to reveal a dramatic landscape of mountains from almost any viewpoint. Venture to the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya and the Jardin de Cactus to experience first-hand what this beautiful island is truly about.
La Gomera, arguably, is the most idyllic and magical of all the Canary Islands. Yes, it’s the smallest, but it’s easily accessible and can be seen within a single day. Visit the Parque Nacional de Garajonay, and then settle back in one of the selection of attractive resorts to kick back and unwind.
El Hierro is inaccessible and untamed, and entirely uncommercial. The ocean view from Mirador de la Pena gives full testament to the wilderness, while Playa del Verodal emulates its lack of demureness.
Fuertenventura, the largest of the Canaries, is a simple island with simplistic values to match. Time tends to run more slowly here and the life values quickly become infectious. It will not be long before you’re soaking up the sunshine on the sands of Fuerteventura. After all, it offers mile upon mile of beautiful snow-white sanded beaches from whence you can bask from dawn till dusk.
11. Picos de Europa
Picos de Europa is noted for its fine dining establishments located in any one of a number of alluringly angelic towns in the area. It’s where you can breathe in the refreshing air, while hiking along a fabulous route and gazing over at the rugged, snow-capped peaks.
You can hide yourself from the constantly oppressive heat whilst regaining some balance and then you’ll realize that there’s so much more to Spain than pretty beaches and historical values. Do be sure to look out for the rarest of fauna and flora species, and try to prepare yourself, if you can, for the amazing vistas.
12. Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is recognized as being the resting place of the Apostle James. It’s a hypnotic place and even today pilgrims flock to the medieval Way of St. James, a route that by tradition began at one’s home and concluded at the magnificent cathedral, located within the heart of the Old Town. The Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
Tourists soak up the rather solemn atmosphere pertaining to the myriad sites that pay homage to the Saint, marvel at the artistic wonders of the glistening facades, and stroll throughout the narrowly winding streets. On the exterior of the historic quarter, the city’s streets bustle with university students and visitors enjoy dining in the assorted establishments that line the sidewalks.
13. Ávila de los Caballeros: The Walls of Avila
Cynics will tell you that there are merely two assets to the town of Avila – a low temperature and high walls. It’s true, the walls are of colossal stature and the pleasing chill offers a modicum of relief from the southern heat. But yet, those same cynics are devoid of the appreciation that one of the finest surviving European medieval towns affords, together with its wonderful festivals and of course, the legend that persists with respect to Santa Teresa de Ávila.
They have yet to try the sweetmeats that are a product of the local nuns and sold in the small shops that line the town’s streets. They have not toured around the monuments, the art galleries, and the museums. And they perhaps have yet to enjoy the buoyant atmosphere to be had in the dining establishments and bars which help to ensure that the medieval settlement also comes with a modern flair.
14. Madrid: Golden Triangle of Art
The Golden Triangle of Art in Madrid consists of three of the country’s most significant museums. The Museo del Prado glorifies such artists as Goya, Rubens, and Velázquez. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía dedicates its innards to a huge Spanish art collection, but it’s Picasso’s Guernica that steals away the limelight. And although the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza may be the least popular of the trio, it still houses some of the very best Expressionists’, Impressionists’, and American and European paintings from the latter half of the 20th century.
15. Provincia de León: Las Médulas
Looking at the bright orange protrusions that poke outwards from the green chestnut mass, it’s difficult to believe that this site is the work of humans. Las Médulas are in fact ancient technologies that were used by the Roman Imperial armies as a way to exploit gold deposits by way of hydraulic power.
The complex channel system employed running water as a force, which gushed throughout tunnels, lakes, and galleries, thereby washing out the clay-like foundation, which in turn created a rather unbelievable reddish outline.
16. Salamanca: Old City of Salamanca
Alternating between Roman, Carthaginian, and Moorish hands, Salamanca is a multifaceted and alluring place that has been bestowed with the accolade of UNESCO World Heritage Site. The unique sandstone provides the buildings with a golden-like glow and the maze of narrow streets bequeath it with a romantic feel.
Salamanca is also the home to the oldest Spanish university, which in turn allows the city to bustle with youthfulness. The Old City with its amazing Playa Mayor, towering monuments, and imposing Roman bridge that spans the Allegheny River, ensures that everyone remembers Salamanca with fondness and a large pinch of awe.
17. Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum, when revealed to the public, was instantly hailed as being among the world’s most spectacular accomplishments of deconstruct, postmodern architecture. Looking from the outside, you’ll most likely agree. However, at the same time, you’ll probably wonder if it’s possible that anything to be found on the inside will come even close to matching the building’s exterior.
Nevertheless, with both rotating and permanent exhibits of works accomplished by Spanish and international contemporary artists, there’s really nothing to be disappointed about.
18. Seville: Alcázar
At one time a Moorish fortification and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Seville’s Alcázar is a miraculous concept which is still utilized by the Spanish Royal Family. Alcázar is far less crowded than Alhambra but hardly less inspiring, and is well worthy of exploration, from the Salón de Carlos V to the underground bathhouse.
The décor reveals some Christian elegance and Islamic finesse, while the shady gardens offer a cool vitality from the overbearing heat outside. The sheer number of rooms in the palace quickly makes one feel rather giddy. Certainly is a very regale attraction and one not to be missed.
19. Mérida: Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida
Founded as far back as 25 BC, Merida, which was once a thriving capital within Lusitania, boasts heartily that it possesses the largest number of ancient Roman trademarks in all of Spain.
Although the cities’ appearance these days may seem a little unappealing, once you’ve become accustomed to the modern eyesores, you’ll soon sense that Mérida still maintains some semblance of the gateway to the Roman empire that is now long gone. The Temple of Diana, Guadiana Bridge, and Amphitheater, are merely three of the highlights that continue to instill an ambience of the 1st century BC.
20. Madrid: Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Irrespective of witnessing the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial up close or from afar, the royal connotations are promptly obvious. The symmetrical square and its four towers that delineate the circumference, play host to two palaces, a monastery, and a library which was founded by Philip II in 1592.
Originally built to serve as a summer retreat, the complex is rather staggering in terms of its wealth. One of Europe’s outstanding tapestry collections, a number of significant artworks by both Italian and Spanish masters, and the tombs of Spanish monarchs, are among the many highlights of this royal residence.
21. Sevilla: Plaza de España
Statistically speaking, this vestige of the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition is among the most photographed spectacles in the world. The Plaza de Espana represents a Moorish Revival in Spanish architecture, and it is so alluringly beautiful and other-worldly that it has been featured in the Star Wars movie The Attack of the Clones.
Whether you enjoy Star Wars movies or otherwise, the glamor that persists from the polychromatic ceramic tiling that mark the semicircular Plaza de España will nevertheless still enchant you.
22. Barcelona: Palace of Catalan Music (Palau de la Musica Catalana)
Though classical music may or may not be your idea of a good thing, and though you may not take delight from the fact that master composers such as Rachmaninov, Ravel, and Prokofiev have visited Barcelona’s Palace of Catalan Music, the establishment is still an architectural delight and is well worthy of exploration even without the harmonic background to accompany your travels.
This large concert hall, together with its exquisite Catalan Art Nouveau styling, supports a marvelous crescendo of beamed ceilings, stucco works, and lustrous facades, thereby making it among the most unconventional of modernistic designs in all of Spain.
23. Barcelona: Nou Camp
More than a club or “més que un club” is the motto for FC Barcelona, and as you would expect, an extraordinary club, in turn, needs an extraordinary stadium. With its capacity of 98,772 together with the UEFA status as being a 5-star venue, the Nou Camp is not only the largest but also the most prestigious stadium in Europe.
Imagine for a moment almost 100,000 eager fans packed into a single stadium: you’ve really got to experience it to believe it.
24. Madrid: Sobrino de Botin
Little did Jean Botin know that upon founding his modest little inn towards the beginning of the 18th century, he would find his little modest inn listed in the Guinness Book of Records as being the oldest restaurant in the world.
Located in a charmingly historic building in Calle Cuchilleros, just off Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, the inn will enchant you with its classic décor and wonderful palette of flavors. It is said that Goya worked here as a dishwasher, while Hemingway claimed it to be among his favorite restaurants. It’s likely sufficient testimony to Jean Botin’s creativity and excellence all those years ago.
25. Granada: El Eshavira
The Andalusians will tell you that, “If you’ve not yet been to Granada, you haven’t seen anything.” Likewise, if you have been to Granada but not yet witnessed a live performance at El Eshavira, you haven’t seen anything yet.
In the dimly lit, smoky interior that tends to draw you in during the late evening hours, and doesn’t let you out until almost the crack of dawn, you’ll bear witness to the smooth jazzy tones and the accompanying flamenco dances. You may well be disheveled at the climax, but you will surface with a true, deep-down penchant for Granada now instilled intrinsically within your soul.