The 14 best places to visit in Spain
Madrid has really revamped itself in the past couple of years. The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums have all got bigger and better, while the centre of the city is smartening up with new boutiques, delis, cafés and gastrobars opening up every week. It’s perfect for a culture-rich long weekend or city break, with great food and a lively atmosphere at night. Madrid may be cold in winter – it is one of Europe’s highest capital cities, after all – but the sky is usually blue and the sunshine strong enough to allow visitors to sit at a pavement café sipping a vermut.
Barcelona is a patchwork of architectural styles, displaying dark, Gothic façades next to the harlequin buildings of the Modernistas and the skyline-piercing constructions of Jean Nouvel or Herzog and de Meuron. A day spent admiring them can be topped off with a sundowner on one of the city’s seven beaches before dinner at any number of Michelin-starred gastronomic temples or humble, family-run tapas bars. Barcelona has a relaxed pace, months of endless sunshine, unbeatable food – with the cultural and design clout of almost any city in the cold north.
The Costa Brava is one of the most romantic, gorgeous, unspoilt stretches of coast in Europe. Gloriously wild in parts and tastefully manicured in others, the Costa has some of the finest Blue Flag beaches in Europe, broad and sandy stretches to elegant horseshoe bays and secluded smugglers’ coves. You’ll also find wonderful, independent hotels and exceptional food. In fact this stretch of the coast is a foodie’s paradise and Catalonia – where the Costa Brava lies – has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred chefs in Spain, not to mention superb, locally produced wines.
A decade of bold development has given Spain’s third-largest city some of the most striking architecture in the country, adding to the wealth of elegant Art Nouveau buildings that line the streets, as well as Gothic and Renaisssance monuments. With dynamic museums, a flourishing restaurant scene, lively nightlife, great shops and miles of beach, Valencia is bursting with Mediterranean exuberance. And a walkable centre means you can drift from the medieval monuments in golden stone to the avenues lined with elegant buildings, stopping at pavement cafés along the way.
Ask any Cantabrian and they’ll proudly tell you the big secret to their beloved land’s success: “In summer we hit the beach, and in winter we go on mountain adventures”. It’s this unique combination of landscapes and lifestyles – of breathtaking coast, quiet country, deep valleys, majestic mountains and characterful seaside towns – fused with fantastically fresh food and tremendous historical riches that makes this tiny region of northern Spain such a pleasure to explore. And yet, by Spanish standards, Cantabria remains relatively undeveloped, apart from the odd minor resort area here and there.
Divided from the rest of the country by the natural boundary of the Sierra Morena, Spain’s southernmost region is larger in area than the Netherlands, stretching from the Atlantic in the west to the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the arid landscape of Almería in the east. Andalucia has more than 500 miles of coastline with a surprising variety of beaches. On the Costa de la Luz on the Atlantic, La Antilla has 14 miles of golden sand, while the coves of the Costa Tropical on the Mediterranean are flanked by groves of mangoes, avocados and custard apples. The 700 years of Moorish civilisation left a splendid cultural legacy, not only in the great cities of Seville, Córdoba and Granada, but all over the region.
Compact, rich in history and famous for its flamenco, tapas bars and orange trees, Seville is an ideal short break destination. Stay in the city’s old town to explore the cobbled streets of the Santa Cruz quarter and the breathtaking Alcázar Palace. Soak up the atmosphere on the banks of the Guadalquivir, and admire the views from the ancient cathedral tower and recently opened Parasol Metropol. The influence of the city’s Moorish past and Catholic present is visible everywhere, most strikingly in the world’s largest cathedral and the Giralda minaret, an exquisite example of Islamic architecture.
Eating just-caught sardines by the sea is one of life’s great simple pleasures, and the beaches either side of Malaga are the perfect place to do it – particularly after a morning at the Picasso and Carmen Thyssen museums. Unlike some Spanish cities, it does not wind down in summer, and is particularly lively during the Malaga Fair in mid-August, when even the most reserved visitors might find themselves joining the locals for a twirl in the streets. Although there is plenty to see and do, Malaga is really a place to kick back and just enjoy the laidback Mediterranean vibe.
Celebrities have always flocked to this sunspot (at 300 days a year, it’s a dead cert for topping up the Eurotan), with its swanky designer emporia and megayachts in the harbour at neighbouring Puerto Banus. Marbella is as realista as it gets; it is where Old Spain collides with New Spain, and the result couldn’t be more fascinating.
Autumn and spring are the best seasons to visit Granada, which can get fiercely hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter – although the sight of snow glittering in the sunlight on the Sierra Nevada behind the Alhambra is well worth wrapping up warmly for. October is perfect for strolling through the intricately decorated rooms and voluptuous gardens of the Alhambra, created by the Nasrid sultans, the last Islamic dynasty to rule in Andalucia. Afterwards, wander down into the Realejo district, where a wealth of Renaissance and Baroque monuments were built following the expulsion of the Moors. Now the narrow streets are packed with tapas bars, too.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with San Sebastián. The food alone, in the bars groaning with tapas, here known as pintxos, and the many Michelin-starred restaurants, is the stuff of obsession. Factor in three bewitching beaches – broad sweeps of golden sand fringed by the clear waters of the Cantabrian Sea – alluring Art Nouveau architecture, pulse-quickening panoramas, exhilarating walks, plus one of the world’s most glamorous film festivals, and prepare to become besotted.
This confident, bustling little city – small enough to walk around – is now an international art hotspot thanks to Frank Gehry’s titanium masterpiece, the Museo Guggenheim. The less striking Museo de Bellas Artes also houses some of the finest art in Spain. The rejuvenated port nestles in the green folds of the Euskadi’s coastal mountains on the Bay of Biscay. Besides the exciting new architecture of Bilbao’s renaissance, there is a beautiful medieval quarter, the Casco Viejo, on the east bank of the Nervión river – the heart of the city. And the food is sensational. Forget tapas – the Basque version, pintxos, are epic in variety and taste, with a strong piscine influence.
Spain has 69 officially recognised wine production regions spread all over the peninsula, and visiting wineries is an excellent way of discovering little-known parts of the country. La Rioja, the most famous wine area, is also worth visiting for its food and spectacular countryside. Tour through the famous vineyards and villages of La Rioja and sample a variety of wines from nearby estates before venturing to the charming village of Ezcaray for lunch in the Michelin-Starred El Portal restaurant.
Ernest Hemingway’s account of the running of the bulls in The Sun Also Rises turned Pamplona into one of the best-known cities in the world – for one week a year. But outside the booze-fuelled craziness of the San Fermin festival in July, the mood changes dramatically. For the rest of the year, this elegant northern Spanish city is a different prospect. It’s lively enough – especially when the 30,000 students are in residence – but Pamplona’s lovely old town, its stunning vistas and city centre parks and gardens allow you to dictate the pace.
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