With its unique position on the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea and a history that dates back 35,000 years, few countries offer as wide a variance in landscapes and cultures as sunny Spain.
A country of large geographic and cultural diversity, Spain may come as a surprise to those who only know of its reputation for great beach holidays and endless sunshine. Landscapes vary from lush meadows and snowy mountains to huge marshes and deserts in the southeast.
From the Romanesque churches in the northern Pyrenees Mountains to the Moorish palaces in the Lower Andalusia river basin, Spanish cities get their distinct character not only from their geographic location but from the place they occupied in Spain’s long and illustrious past as well.
While summer is the peak season in Spain, those who wish to avoid the crowds should consider visiting the cities in Spain in spring or autumn as not only is it normally mild and sunny, attractions such as the Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Mezquita in Cordoba will be less crowded.
It all makes for an exciting adventure when it comes to visiting the fifth largest country in Europe. Whether spending a holiday at a Barcelona beach or touring the medieval architecture of Toledo, vacations in Spain’s top cities are full of engaging surprises at every destination.
Girona has been a focal point of the northern part of Catalonia since being part of the Roman Empire. Its wealth in medieval times produced many fine Romanesque and Gothic buildings that have survived repeated attacks and sieges. The old town is on the east bank of the river that runs through the city, with pedestrianized narrow streets surrounded by the old city walls. Girona also offers a lively nightlife, a great eating scene and art and music festivals.
Spain’s second largest city captivates with a delightful mix of sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches and extraordinary architecture. Barcelona’s star cultural attraction is the Sagrada Familia, the eye-popping basilica designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, the master of Catalan Modernism. A long tree-lined promenade called La Rambla leads to the Plaza de Cataluna, a large square in the center of the city known for its statues, monuments and fountains. With its newly revamped waterfront, the popular Bareloneta Beach offers visitors a gorgeous setting for a relaxing day in the sun.
The third largest city in Spain, Valencia is a charming old city located on the Mediterranean Sea. It is famous for its Fallas Festival in March, for being the birthplace of paella and for the massive architectural project by Santiago Calatrava called The City of Arts and Sciences. The river Turia used to run through the city center, but it was redirected recently and replaced by a beautiful park.
4. Palma de Mallorca
The capital of Spain’s Balearic Islands, Palma is the primary city of the island Mallorca in the Mediterranean Sea. Palma de Mallorca became a tourist destination in the 1950s when resorts, restaurants and nightclubs were added to the city’s historic attractions. La Seu, a Catalan Gothic cathedral, features a wrought-iron canopy designed by Antoni Gaudi, making it the star attraction of the city’s old quarter. Built under a large city park, the Estacio Intermodal bus and train depot is lit with natural light from glass boxes cut into the lawns above.
Situated on the Ebro River, Zaragoza is a large and bustling city and the capital of Aragon. With a history that stretches back to 25 B.C., the city boasts architectural attractions from every era, from still-standing remnants of Roman walls to the Moorish castle Aljaferia, which Giuseppe Verdi used as his setting for the opera “The Troubadour.” Of the city’s two magnificent cathedrals, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar attracts the most visitors.
A major city in Navarra, Pamplona is best known for “The Running of the Bulls,” the annual San Fermin festival that takes over the city each July. With its stunning medieval city center, world-class museums and historic churches, Pamplona offers plenty of things to see and do during the rest of the year as well. Housed in a hospital built in the 1500s, the Museum of Navarra features an extensive collection of Roman artifacts as well as one of Goya’s most important paintings.
7. San Sebastián
San Sebastián is located in the Basque country of North Spain off the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The city’s most famous attraction is La Concha, one of the world’s best urban beaches. So it’s no surprise that this city near the French border on the Bay of Biscay is a popular holiday destination for visitors seeking fun in the sun. San Sebastián is laid out with promenades and paths that invite strolling and shopping. A trip on the funicular to the summit of Monte Igueldo or a walk to the top of Monte Urgull offers sweeping views of the Cantabrian coastline and city below.
Once known primarily as an industrial port city, Bilbao has reinvented herself as a center for modern art and architecture. Set amidst the rolling green hills of Basque country, Bilbao is home to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, a gleaming, modernistic structure clad in titanium designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Established in 1914, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum with its more than 6,000 works from the Middle Ages to the present makes a visit to this Basque city memorable.
With its fine beaches and scenic location on the Bay of Biscay, Gijon is one of the best cities in Spain’s Asturias region to spend a seaside vacation. The city also features a few Roman ruins, including the Campo Valdes Roman Baths, which date back to the 1st century. Located underground in Gijon’s Old Quarter, the archeological site also features a museum and a reconstructed Roman settlement. Near the baths is the Playa San Lorenzo, the city’s most popular beach.
The principal city of the Asturias region in northern Spain, Oviedo is best known for the two 9th-century churches located on the city’s outskirts. Perched on the slopes of Mount Naranco, the Church of St. Mary and the Church of St. Michael of Lillo are considered supreme examples of the Asturian pre-Romanesque style, which flowered during the Dark Ages when the rest of Europe lay in chaos. The characterful and historic casco antiguo (Old Town) attracts visitors too.
The beaches of Santander are the main attractions of this port city on the Bay of Biscay. With its wide stretch of golden sand, the long curving arc of the Playa el Sardinero is one of the most beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean. Approaching the beach through the pathways of the beautiful Piquio Gardens enhances the experience. Although Santander is an ancient city, much of the old quarter was destroyed by a fire in 1941. Since then, the Municipal Museum of Arts has been revamped to include local contemporary Cantabrian artists as well as old masters like Goya.
12. A Coruña
Well-kept beaches like the Playa del Orzan and Playa de Riazor make A Coruña a popular summer destination, but this city on Spain’s Atlantic Coast has plenty to offer when the weather turns chilly too. The port city is home to the Roman Tower of Hercules, the world’s oldest working lighthouse, where visitors can climb the 245 steps to the top to enjoy breathtaking views of the city and coastline. Housed in a 16th-century fortress, the Museum of Archeology features artifacts from the region’s prehistoric Celtic culture.
13. Santiago de Compostela
The capital city of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela is one of the most important places in Catholicism because it is reputed to be the place where St. James, one of the twelve Apostles of Christ, is buried. It is the final destination of the Way of St. James, one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. The arriving point for most pilgrims is the main square. Situated in the heart of the city, this bustling plaza is the scene of many important landmarks, particularly the Santiago Cathedral where the tomb of St. James is located.
Founded as a Roman military encampment, León is the capital of the province of the same name. The year 910 was the beginning of one its most prominent historical periods, when it became the capital of the Kingdom of León, which took active part in the Reconquista against the Moors. Its standout attraction is the cathedral, one of the most beautiful in Spain. By night León is taken over by its large student population, who provide it with an irresistible energy.
An eight-centuries-old university dominates Salamanca and its cultural and historical attractions, but it’s the light that glows from the sandstone structures at sunset that earned the town the nickname “The Golden City.” Whether gathering with students at the Playa Mayor or touring the medieval Old Cathedral, the secret to getting the most enjoyment from Salamanca is to find the perfect place in this hilltop town to view the city as the sun slips over the horizon.
Originally a military fortress built to protect Christians in the 9th century, Burgos boasts some of the best preserved medieval structures in Spain. The Gothic spires of the Cathedral of Burgos draw visitors to the resting place of one of the country’s most renowned heroes, El Cid Campeador, who is buried next to his wife under the cathedral’s central dome. Located on the banks of the Arlanzon River, the picturesque Old Quarter features waterfront parks known collectively as the Paseo de la Isla.
The capital city of the province with the same name, Avila claims to have more Romanesque and Gothic churches per capita than any other city in Spain, most notably the San Vincente Basilica with its 13th-century bas-reliefs. The birthplace of Santa Teresa, Avila attracts pilgrims for its religious history as well as for its architectural wonders. Of the latter, the ancient defensive walls of the city are the main draw. Considered the best preserved in Europe, the three-story high walls offer visitors panoramic views of the city from their more than 2,300 battlements.
From the hilltop fairytale castle where Isabella was crowned queen of Castile to the 1st-century Roman Aqueduct stretching from the Old Quarter to the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains, Segovia’s attractions are truly monumental. Azoguejo Square is the best place to view the full span of the wonderfully preserved Aqueduct. Well worth a visit, the city’s sprawling Cathedral is one of the last in the country built in the Gothic style. Segovia is also known for its great cuisine, especially the city’s signature dish: roast suckling pig.
Spain’s capital, Madrid bustles with activity from dawn to the wee hours of the morning. Whether taking a stroll on the 17th-century Plaza Mayor where bullfights and public executions were once held or rambling through the Buen Retiro gardens formerly owned by the Spanish Monarchy, Madrid’s history is woven into the fabric of everyday life in this forward-looking city. Home to the Prado Museum, which boasts the most extensive collection of Spanish art in the world, Madrid is a place where culture, art and fine living are taken in stride.
Encircled on three sides by bends in the Tagus River, Toledo served as a natural fortress for a succession of Roman, Visigoth, Muslim and Christian rulers. Getting lost in the Old Quarter in Toledo is one of the great charms of a trip to this medieval city, as visitors have only to head uphill to the Plaza de Zocodover to recover their bearings. Among the must-see attractions in Toledo are the city’s Cathedral, a resplendent structure ornamented with gold relief, and the El Greco Museum, a recreation of the artist’s home that features several important paintings.
The small mountaintop city of Cuenca in Castile-La Mancha has a medieval quarter unlike any other in Spain. Originally built in the 700s as a Muslim fortress, Christian rulers later expanded the town until structures literally hung from the cliffs. The casas colgadas, or “hanging houses,” attracted artists as well as tourists, inspiring the El Grupo Paso movement of the mid-20th century. The Museum of Spanish Abstract Art is housed in two of the casas colgadas, the former home of artist Fernando Zobel.
Mérida, capital of Extremadura, was once also capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and it’s still home to the most impressive and extensive Roman ruins in all of Spain. With a little imagination, and a trip to the wonderful modern museum, the Roman city is not difficult to evoke, which is just as well, for the modern city, in which the sites are scattered, is less interesting. The star attraction in Merida is the well preserved Roman Theater. Next to it lies the amphitheater used for gladiator fights.
From the Roman Conquest to the Renaissance Era, Cordoba’s strategic location on the Guadalquivir River made it one of the country’s most important cities. Cordoba is a treasure trove of cultural and archeological wonders, with beautiful examples from every epoch in Spain’s long history. Stand-out attractions include the famous Mezquita mosque built in 786, the medieval Jewish quarter and the Madinat Al-Zahra, a pleasure palace located in the nearby foothills of the Sierra Morena built by a caliph for his favorite concubine in 936.
Seville is the capital of Andalucia as well as the cultural center of southern Spain.
With its courtyards, Moorish architecture and lush gardens, the Real Alcazar is what many travelers imagine when they picture an historic Andalusian city. Yet the centuries-old palace is just one of the attractions of sophisticated and sensual Seville. The city is one of the best places in Spain to experience the art of flamenco, and with its impressive collection of 17th-century Spanish paintings, the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville is one of the best in country as well. A climb to the top of the 12th-century Giralda tower gives visitors a clear view of all of Seville’s picturesque charms.
Home to the fabled Alhambra, the most famous citadel and palace of Spain’s Moorish heritage, Granada is an ideal destination for anyone interested in the country’s rich history and culture. In addition to the winding streets, ancient structures and pretty patios of the old Muslim quarter, Granada is home to treasures from the Renaissance era too, including the Royal Chapel where the tombs of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are located. An abundance of bars and restaurants surrounding Plaza Nueva make the city’s oldest square a hot spot for nightlife.
Situated in Andalusia on a narrow slice of land surrounded by the sea, Cadiz is considered Spain’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Its unique location on the Atlantic Coast has made it an important port for 3,000 years. The Archeological Museum in the Plaza de Mina features stone sarcophagi holding the remains of two of the city’s 5th-century Phoenician inhabitants. Christopher Columbus set sail from Cadiz on his second voyage to the New World, and Sir Francis Drake delayed the Spanish Armada when he attacked ships in Cadiz in 1587. Today, a picturesque Old Quarter, several scenic beaches and an annual festival held in February attract visitors from all over the world.
Located in and around a deep gorge in the Serrania de Ronda Mountains, Ronda is one of the oldest cities in Spain. It’s nearly impregnable position made it a stronghold against Catholic troops in the 1400s and a home for Andalusian bandits from the 18th to 20th century. Completed in 1793, the Puente Nuevo bridge spanning the 30-story high gorge is one of the city’s most impressive features. Ronda is also home to the Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullring in Spain, an arena that has attracted writers ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Alexandre Dumas.
A playground for jetsetters since the 1950s, Marbella on the Mediterranean Sea is best known for its beautiful beaches, although there are numerous historic attractions well worth exploring too. An ancient walled city boasts virtually the same footprint as it did during the 16th century. When not sunning on Marbella’s palm-tree-lined beaches, visitors can walk the Golden Mile to view some of the most luxurious homes and resorts in Europe. The area around the yacht-filled marina Puerto Banus boasts the city’s best boutiques, restaurants and bars.
The largest city on the Costa del Sol, Málaga offers beaches, historic sites, excellent shopping and a beautiful setting along the coast. The city has certainly cashed in on the sun and sand, with lots of new construction as well as hotels and facilities geared to tourists. However, Málaga also offers some genuinely interesting historical and cultural attractions. The historic city center is charming with its unfinished Gothic cathedral surrounded by narrow pedestrian streets and visitors can find some of the best tapas bars in the province here.