Clearly, I am very fond of traveling off the beaten path and traveling like a local. Luckily for me, Spain has so many little gems far away from the crowds, that it is easy to get swept up in staying away from the well-trodden route. But let’s face it, some places are popular for a reason. And not everything on the beaten path is gimmicky like Barcelona’s Las Ramblas or the concrete high rise hotels that show the ugly side of mass tourism on Costa del Sol. If you were to completely travel the untrodden route in Spain, you would miss out on so much that makes Spain so special.
If you are looking for a good overview of Spain, these are my ten recommendations of more popular Spanish attractions and towns not to miss.
Don’t get too excited; you will not be able to cram all of this in on a quick visit to Spain. If you only have a week or two in Spain, pick a few of these to weave an itinerary together (I can help, of course!). Keep in mind that Spain is one of Europe’s larger countries, and these places are scattered around the mainland (see the map below).
10. Salamanca: Under two hours by train from Madrid, thanks to a new high-speed rail connection, the town of Salamanca is home to one of Spain’s oldest universities and has a Plaza Mayor to die for. While some visit Salamanca as a day trip from Madrid, it is a shame to spend less than two days there. Be sure to find the frog on the university’s La Puerta de Salamanca. If you can spot it, legend claims that it will bring you luck. Also be on the lookout for the carvings of the astronaut and the ice cream cone. For the best view of Salamanca and the surrounding high plains of Castile y León, go up the impressive cathedral’s belltower. Pro-tip: Salamanca is one of the best cities in Spain to learn and practice Spanish. Because of the university, there is a large population interested in doing language exchanges and the like. If you can stay in town for some time, you very well might leave speaking much better Spanish than before
9. Sevilla: Sevilla is hardly off the beaten path as far as Spain goes. And what’s not to love about Sevilla? Andalucia’s largest city is a hotbed of Andaluz culture. But Sevilla can get downright crowded, especially its main attractions. Arriving early is key, but even then you are usually surrounded by throngs of tourists. But if you can get to the cathedral right when it opens and make a beeline for the bell tower, you can see Sevilla basked in the morning light, which is one of the most beautiful times of the day there. Of course, this advice can be extended to the Alcazar as well (having the palaces to yourself is magical). Be sure to stop by the impressive Plaza de España too, where you can travel all over Spain, without leaving Sevilla. Renting a local city bike for a ride across the river to check out the ceramics in Tirana is also fun. And when you are ready for tapas, the area around Alameda de Hércules is your best bet.
8. Day trip to Segovia: Segovia is another town close enough to Madrid for an easy day trip. And while I would never oppose staying overnight in Segovia, I prefer it for a day trip than more popular Toledo, where it is 100% worth it to stay overnight. But with a full day in Segovia, it is possible to see the massive Roman aqueduct, which is Segovia’s signature attraction. There is also plenty of time to stroll its historic center, visit the cathedral, and check out the Alzacar, which at least in part inspired Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle. For a real local (and very non-vegetarian) specialty, you can try cochinillo for lunch, suckling baby pig so tender that it can be cut with a plate. Trains (both rapid and slow) and a bus from Moncloa connect Madrid with Segovia. (For more about day trips from Madrid, check out my post devoted to just that!)
7. Santiago de Compostela: Every Pilgrim who walks the Camino de Santiago will eventually end up in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. While not the very end of the path (that is the lighthouse in Fisterra), the cathedral here marks the traditional end of the route. Aside from visiting the famous cathedral, Santiago is a great place to sample Galician food, which is some of the best in Spain. Known for its pulpo (octopus), my favorite cheese from all of Spain, San Simón, hails from Galicia. You can try it (and other local delicacies) at Santiago de Compostela’s central market. A visit to Galicia highlights another one of Spain’s diverse regions and shows a completely different side of the country.
6. The Prado (Madrid): To really experience Madrid, I think it deserves at least 5-7 days on any Spain itinerary. It is by far Spain’s most authentic and fascinating large city, once you get past the surface. That said, if you really are just passing through Madrid, the one museum that you can not miss is the Prado. Home to some of the most famous works of Spain’s most renowned artists (Goya, Velazquez, just to name of few), the Prado is where to find several of Spain’s national treasures. Pro-tip: Madrid is actually home to three world-class art museums, and the Paseo del Arte Card gets you in all three at a discount. For a more complete look at Spanish history through art, check out Museo Reina Sofía’s 20th-century Spanish art. This museum also hosts an impressive selection of Latin American art. And the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, also covered by the card, houses an extensive private collection of European Renaissance art, impressionism, expressionism, and even a wonderful gallery of North American landscape paintings. (All three museums are within walking distance to one another, and could be seen in one really ambitious day).
5. Guggenheim (Bilbao): As long as we are on the subject of museums, the far north of Spain is home to one of the best modern art museums in the world. The Guggenheim in Basque Country’s largest city of Bilbao is a site to be seen. The exterior of the museum is an architectural icon complete with one of Louise Bourgeois’ famous spiders on the grounds. Inside, it is a modern art lover’s dream, a huge permanent collection along with fantastic temporary exhibitions. Think Warhol, Rothko, and so much more. If you are staying in San Sebastián like most visitors to Basque Country, going to the Guggenheim can be done as a day trip via bus (1-2 hours) or commuter train (very scenic, 2-3 hours).
4. Ronda: The charming town of Ronda is often included as a pit stop on Andalucían itineraries. On the route from Sevilla to Málaga, Ronda’s Puente Nuevo transverses a gorge, with fantastic views. Aside from exploring the town’s historic center, you can tour the bullring (and step out onto the ring itself). And if you are craving some old fashioned nature with Instagram-worthy scenery, there are several hikes that take you down into the gorge, below the town. You can even hike to several nearby smaller towns. Pro-tip: If you are traveling around Spain by train, the rail journey from Ronda to Algeciras is one of the most beautiful in the entire country.
3. Spain’s Mediterranean Coast (Costa Tropical or Costa Blanca): Spain is surrounded by water, with Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Bay of Biscay coastline. My personal favorite is the Mediterranean, as cliche as it is. Thankfully, there are still places on Spain’s Mediterranean coast that have not been totally overtaken by ugly mass tourism. If you have access to a car, there are still secluded spots to be found on Costa Tropical, Costa Blanca, and Costa Brava. Without a car, it is a little harder, but can still be done. I recommend Nerja, on Costa Tropical, with regular bus service from Granada and Málaga. Nerja has gorgeous beaches (with caves!) and easy access to Frigiliana, one of Spain’s most picturesque pueblo blancos. On Costa Brava, Altea has a beautifully preserved centro histórico. There are trains from Alicante and busses from Valencia. Pro-tip: Try to visit Mediterranean coastal Spain in the early fall (September or early October). It is still often warm enough to swim in the sea and is one of the most uncrowded times on the coast.
2. La Sagrada Família (Barcelona): Let’s face it. Whether I agree or not, almost everyone who visits Spain spends a considerable amount of time in Barcelona. And that’s cool. Go to Barcelona. Just don’t skip the rest of the country. While Barcelona has more tourists (it seems) than Venice, there is plenty to love about Barna, as locals call it. Just be sure not to call Barcelona “Barça,” that’s the fútbol team, not the city. And while I do not necessarily recommend going to every Gaudí building (some are very expensive and crowded), missing out on the unfinished La Sagrada Família would be a pity. It is an amazing kaleidoscope of texture and color. Pro-tip: Skip the going up the expensive towers and head to Basílica Santa Maria del Mar for a much better bell tower view of Barcelona. If you really must go up one of the towers, I think that the Nativity Tower offers slightly better views.
1. The Alhambra (Granada): You know it. I love Graná. It is the city that Spain first stole my heart many years ago, and I always find my way back. But, like Barcelona, Granada is very much on the beaten path. Thankfully the city is so charming that it does not even matter. If you visit Granada, you absolutely must visit the Moorish fairytale masterpiece, the Alhambra. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the Alhambra is a world-class icon. And as one of Spain’s single most popular sites, it is often mobbed with visitors. To limit the number of people who can see it daily, you need a ticket. And tickets can sell out months in advance, especially during the high seasons. Buy your ticket early to guarantee that you can see this architectural gem. And as always, try to buy your ticket to enter the Nasrid Palace for the earliest entrance time possible (usually 8:30am). Trust me, this one is worth waking up early for.Plan to spend an entire day exploring the Nasrid Palace (Moorish tile work to die for), the Generalife (garden), Alcazaba, and Renaissance Palace of King Carlos V. Pro-tip: For a great coffee or lunch break, head to the cafeteria of the Parador on the Alhambra grounds. While a bit pricey, the food is good and it is a little special treat to break up a long day at the Alhambra.
Planning a trip to Spain? Let me help you put together a tailor-made itinerary to maximize your time there while not overdoing it.