Few countries nourish all the senses like Spain. Bringing together its unique mix of cuisines, cultures, languages, and histories, this is a corner of Europe everyone needs to explore once in their lifetime. But where do you begin in such a vast and diverse country? Barcelona and Madrid pair well together for a weeklong trip, but Spain’s story reaches much further. You could spend months exploring the country in the detail it deserves, but with days to spare, here are eight cities sure to enhance your Spain vacation.
When we think of Spain’s most romantic images, of colourful flamenco dancers swirling in the shadow of white stonewashed buildings, we’re thinking of Andalusia. Spain’s southernmost region offers such a heady mix of sensations, created by the layering of different cultures over centuries, that it’s near impossible to not feel swept away. Seville is Andalusia’s capital, embodying everything a visitor to the region could want. Its vast cathedral is a must-see, as is the adjoining Alcazar palace, particular if you’re a Game of Thrones fan. Flamenco is ingrained in Seville’s local culture, and there are plenty of opportunities to catch a performance or even take a class. Take a stroll through the Barrio Santa Cruz, then bask in the extravagant beauty of Plaza de Espana, where Seville’s Renaissance and Moorish influences come together, creating the city’s most beautiful outdoor playground.
People come to Granada to see the Alhambra, and Spain’s most magnificent palace and gardens complex is certainly a must-see. Buy your tickets well in advance if you’re travelling independently, and give yourself at least half a day for a decent look. Just don’t mistake the Alhambra for being Granada’s only attraction. Smaller and more relaxed than Seville, Granada still serves up all Andalusia has to offer, including tapas. Spain’s favourite culinary pastime has its origins in Andalusia. In Granada, you can still enjoy it the traditional way – on small plates that come for free with your glass of wine or beer. Grazing Granada might be the tastiest (and most responsible) bar crawl you ever take. The city is also a great place to stroll through the highlights of Andalusian history, while on a Spain vacation. See the Christian/Muslim mash-up that is Granada’s cathedral, pop next door to the enchanting royal chapel, and explore the infamous baths of the Carrera del Darro, along with the Corral del Carbon.
Explore Andalusia’s Historic Three Cities on Your Spain Vacation
Gateway to the Costa del Sol, Malaga adds a bit of seaside charm to your Andalusia vacation. While many of Andalusia’s landmarks lean toward the historic, Malaga throws in a few contemporary offerings, particularly for culture vultures. There’s a museum devoted to the early life of local favourite son, Pablo Picasso, as well as the Automobile and Fashion Museum. That’s not to say Malaga’s history as an ancient port isn’t alive and well. Explore the Moorish Alcazaba, or the imposing Castillo de Gibralfaro. Leave some time to hit the beaches, and be sure to try the local specialty, espetos. These grilled sardine skewers are best eaten by hand with a light squeeze of lemon for a surprisingly addictive snack that is pure Costa del Sol.
Most trains into Andalusia pass through Cordoba, and most visitors stop here to see the famous 10th century Mezquita mosque. But few stick around to give this gorgeous city the time it deserves. An extra day or two is all it takes for this colourful, compact, and very affordable city to steal your heart on a Spain vacation. A visit to the Mezquita is essential, offering your journey through Cordoba’s Moorish history a spectacular centrepiece. Afterward, perhaps dive into the streets of the Jewish quarter, including its famous Calleja de las Flores. The Medina Azahara is also worth a wander, or recharge your tired sightseeing muscles at a faithful copy of an original hammam, the Moorish baths that once dotted the city.
Ancient Toledo is a treasure trove of Spanish history and architecture. You can day trip from Madrid, but consider staying overnight so as not to rush astounding monuments like the San Juan de los Reyes monastery, and the imperious, yet awe-inspiring Puertas del Sol and de Bisagra. A reflective moment at Mirador del Valle allows you to take in just how gorgeous Toledo is, with the four towers of its Alcazar, reaching into the sky from the city’s highest point. The Moors left their mark on Toledo as well, particularly in the Mosque of Christ of the Light. Just before you start thinking of Toledo as a living museum, take a few moments to pull up a coffee and perhaps some churros in the Plaza de Zocodover, the centre of modern social life in this UNESCO World Heritage listed city.
Explore what might be Spain’s most underrated city. Valencia’s space-age City of Arts and Sciences stands in stark contrast to the Moorish highlights of the country’s south or even the kooky beauty of Barcelona’s Modernisme. Completed only in 2005, it contains a planetarium, botanical garden, cultural venues, and its prime attraction, a 10-zone oceanarium containing over 45,000 marine animals and an underwater restaurant. If all that innovation leaves you craving a more historic atmosphere, step through the gates of Casco Historico, or spend some time gawking at Valencia’s gothic cathedral. Take advantage of the city’s near idyllic weather on a stroll through the Jardin del Turia. Then let your imagination (and possibly kids) run wild at Parque Gulliver, inspired by Gulliver’s Travels. Finally, don’t forget to tuck into at least one paella, Valencia’s gift to world gastronomy.
As the de facto capital of the Basque region, Bilbao does things just a little differently, all the way down to its unique take on tapas, called pintxos. These small pieces of bread are topped with just about any fresh ingredient you can imagine including vegetables, cheese, meat, and seafood, artfully arranged to maximize presentation and flavour. As easy as it is to eat your way through Bilbao, save some time to feed your artistic soul at the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, and the Fine Arts Museum, arguably the best collection of Basque art (alongside others) in the world. It’s also worth wandering the Azkuna Zentroa, a contemporary cultural centre that wears its eccentricity on its sleeve.
The sheltered bay that crashes up on San Sebastian’s La Concha Beach conjures images of a miniature Rio, with yellow sands and a serene blue bay protected by verdant hills. Most of the city’s key attractions surround the beach, including Miramar Palace, the Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro, and the Museo San Telmo, which tells the Basque story through art, photography, and archaeological treasures. San Sebastian is also famous for its Basque cuisine, and competition with cosmopolitan Bilbao for the best pintxos is fierce! While San Sebastian’s reputation precedes it, here’s no real loser in this contest, especially not the hungry visitor, so eat your way through both cities, on a Spain vacation, for the ultimate pintxos experience, and enjoy a healthy serving of Basque culture along the way.