By Annie Dabb • 01 November 2022 • 16:49
It feels only right to start with Spain’s central capital, where you will find the mesmerising Plaza Mayor, one of the most magnificent places to visit in Spain. This 17th-century plaza was once home to bullfights, public executions and trials during the Spanish inquisition and crowning ceremonies. Whilst the judicial processes here are no more, the 237 Baroque balconies from which spectators could watch the harrowing displays remain, as well as the central statue of Felipe III on his horse. This is the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine on one of the square’s terraces whilst people-watching on a warm summer’s evening
An iconic monument in Madrid, The Cibeles Fountain is not far behind The Plaza Mayor, dating back to the 18th century and is another amazing historical place to visit in Spain. Commissioned by Spain’s King Charles III and designed by architect Ventura Rodriguez, the impressive water feature depicts the Greek Goddess Cybele, said to be the mother of all the Gods, perched atop a chariot pulled by two huge and majestic lions. Today, the fountain is often surrounded by Real Madrid football fans celebrating their significant victories.
Just an hour’s drive from Madrid, Segovia’s Roman Aqueduct, thought to have been built in the 1st century AD during the Flavian dynasty, spans about nine miles and forms part of the setting of the historic city. Built from Guadarrama granite blocks without mortar and still in use today, the structure which consists of some 165 arches, carries water from the Frio River to the city centre and is considered one of the best-preserved works of Roman engineering – a truly awe-inspiring place to visit in Spain.
From capital cities to captivating coastlines, Cabo de Gata (literally ‘Cat Cape’) is Almeria’s self-declared paradise, home to the stunning Reef of Sirens located in Spain’s Andalucia region. Lovers of unique and under-the-radar places will love visiting this natural park which boasts beautiful beaches and inspired works by Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, as well as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Sunbathe in one of the secluded coves or take a hike up to Faro de la Polacra lighthouse to enjoy stunning views of the mountainous coastline.
If you’re seeking further literary inspiration, this dramatic, mountainous area of Mallorca which sweeps from Sa Dragonera to the Cape of Fomentar was home to British poet Robert Graves and is thought to have been a place of creative stimulation for Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario as well as Spanish painter Santiago Rusiñol. Whether terraced hillsides or clifftop vantages like that which hosts La Torre de Verger (The Orchard Tower) are more your speed, this place is absolutely stunning for sunsets. The mountain range is also home to Galilea, the island’s highest village which sits 460 metres above sea level.
A worthy centre piece that you really can’t miss in Zaragoza, the underrated capital city of Spain’s north-eastern region of Aragon, this stunning religious landmark is worth a visit for its riverside façade, Moorish-style towers and domes, and colourful tile work. Those who enter the grand national monument will find themselves within not one but two religious structures, as the Basilica encases the Santa Capilla, a classicist Baroque shrine to the Virgin Mary – a quiet holy place made of marble, bronze and silver. The city of Zaragoza is also a very underrated city to visit in Spain and still holds a lot of authenticities.
This gothic-style Cathedral of the Incarnation of Almeria, fronted by a Renaissance-style façade, looks from the outside like a rather austere fortress, which indeed it was during the 16th century. It was designed as a place of prayer and refuge from Berber pirates who were attacking the city during this time. Located in Almeria’s old-town district, its polygonal apse and Baroque tower make it the only building of this architectural style in all of Andalusia and is well worth a visit in Spain.
It may seem like an obvious choice but there’s a reason why the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona attracts around 4.5 million visitors every year, and that’s just the people who go inside! Although unfinished, this UNESCO World Heritage church designed by Antonio Gaudi dates back to 1882 and its completion is estimated for 2026. The impressive structure was the inspiration of a bookseller who recently returned from the Vatican and depicts the story of Jesus Christ’s ascension to God. It is so far divided into three facades each representing a phase of his life: the nativity façade, the glory façade and the passion façade.
After the overwhelming majesty of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona tourists may be forgiven for innocently bypassing this ingenious and architecturally fascinating complex which formerly functioned as the Hospital de Sant Pau until 2009. However, located at the far end of a rambla leading directly to Gaudi’s partially constructed masterpiece, this fine example of Modernisme Catala (Catalan modernism) is definitely worth a visit. Through the hospital’s art nouveau entrance, visitors will find themselves in a beautifully uniform garden beneath which run tunnels that, when the hospital was in use, were used to transport hospital equipment in order to maintain the peace and tranquillity of the space above.
Visitors will not be surprised, after laying their eyes on this structure of architectural brilliance, to learn that the Guggenheim, Bilbao (not to be confused with the building of the same name in New York) is a modern and contemporary art museum designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and built in 1997. The undulating exterior is made of enormous sheets of glass and titanium which reflect the sunlight, whilst the building itself is in turn reflected in Bilbao’s Nervion river. Current exhibitions include the Serra/Seurat Drawings (running 09/06-06/09 2022), Jean Dubuffet: Ardent Celebration (25/02-21/08 2022), and Sections/Intersections, 25 Years of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection (06/09-26/02 2022).
If there’s one thing Spain does well, it’s Basilicas, and the startlingly pink 19th century Basilica de Santa Maria which towers over a mountain range in the green, northern region of Asturias is no exception. In fact, it may be one of Europe’s finest. Located in The Peaks of Europe National Park in the village of Covadonga, the Neo-Romanesque church derives its blushed exterior from pink limestone. However, whilst impressive, it is far from the only gem this National Park has to offer. Upon their visit, visitors are also offered a range of hikes of varying intensities, spectacular glacial lakes and of course, the Santa Cueva de Covadonga, a Catholic sanctuary carved into the side of a mountain complete with a waterfall and breath-taking views across the park.
Despite its sinister-sounding name, this ‘Black Lagoon’ located in the Urbion Mountains Natural Park offers breathtaking reflections of its surrounding luscious forestry. There are many hiking routes for those who want to traverse through the trees embellishing the lake’s perimeter and in autumn you will find the winding wooden pathways speckled with red, orange and gold leaves like something out of a woodland fairy tale. Legend tells us that the body of water is bottomless and links with the sea through underwater caves.
If you thought you had to be in the north of Spain to stumble upon greenery to gaze at, then think again, as visitors of The Real Alcazar gardens in Seville will attest to. Nestled in the grounds of this magnificent mix of Christian and Mudejar architecture, this impressive Palace was initially a fort for Cordoroban governors of Seville in the 10th century. The massive gardens are framed by grand arches and visitors can meander through the elegant medieval grounds past fountains and through rows of palm trees, flowers and other exotic plants. The palace is located right in the centre of the city of Seville and has even been used as a filming location for the popular television series Game of Thrones.
Now you may think, ‘I’ve seen one palace, I’ve seen them all’. But wait! The Alhambra Palace in Granada lays claim to being one of the most unique palaces in the world. Still bearing the Moorish architecture characteristic of many of Spain’s impressive monuments and regal edifices, this palace was renovated by Christian kings in the 16th century and boasts many different yet equally exceptional styles of art and architecture. The palace is perched upon a hill offering gorgeous views across Granada. In Arabic, its name means “the red”, probably due to the reddish tapia (rammed earth) used to construct its outer walls which provide a striking contrast to the countryside and mountains that surround the impressive structure.
An iconic monument in the city of the same name, the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela serves as the final destination in Galicia for pilgrims who have travelled the famous Camino de Santiago (The way of St James) which covers almost 500 miles (490 to be exact) through Northern Spain. Construction of the impressive cathedral itself began in 1057 but was not completed until 1211. The Baroque and Romanesque church features an 80-metre-high bell tower that rises above the city. Unique to the Cathedral de Santiago is the Botafumeiro tradition, in which a large censor suspended by a rope and pulley system is wafted amid the congregation and disperses incense. It is believed this tradition was begun in order to conceal the smell of thousands of pilgrims arriving every day.
Literally translating to ‘the steep cliff gorge’, this formidable natural ravine was formed by the constant erosion of the river Guadalevin and splits Ronda, one of Spain’s quaintest and oldest towns located to the west of the southern city of Malaga, into two distinct sections. Declared an Andalucian Natural Monument in 2019, the 500-metre-long gorge flows into the Guadalevin river and is an incredible site for photographers to capture the geological marvel.
Departing from mainland Spain doesn’t mean abandoning Spain’s plethora of geological wonders and it’d be hard to miss Los Gigantes, (the cliffs of the giants) which are as immense as their name suggests. They rise up from the ocean and tower over the volcanic black sand natural beaches which adorn the canary islands’ coastline. Visitors can scramble up to the viewpoint to enjoy panoramic views of nearby sun-drenched La Gomera Island, known as Isla Magica. (the magical island).
Another Canary Island gem, this almost extra-terrestrial-looking, smokey black landscape looks like the set of the most recent apocalypse film. Indeed Timanfaya National Park is what remains after the volcanoes in its surrounding areas erupted during the 19th century. Defined by shades of red, orange, brown and ochre, the temperature just 5 metres below ground level is still about 400 degrees Celsius. An exhibition in the site’s visitor centre located in Mancha Blanca provides an audio-visual programme offering background and overview of the park’s ominously named Mountains of Fire, as well as several walking routes.
If you’re still not tired of Spain’s treasure trove of delightful islands to visit – some more luscious and exuberant than others – you absolutely must visit the small island of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, located just off the shore along the Bay of Biscay. It is linked to Spain’s mainland via a 241-step man-made zigzag path and nestled atop the magnificent site is an 11th-century stone castle (which gives the island its easy-to-pronounce name). Far from any urban nucleus and catalogued as a protected biotope, this little slice of paradise is a luscious oasis atop crests of white foam waves. No wonder it has been described as a ‘wonder’ by travellers from far and wide.
Just south of the Basque Country, Navarre, home to the Bardenas Reales, shares a regional border, but that’s where the similarities between this surreal, southern desert landscape and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and indeed with northern Navarre’s lush greenery, end. This natural terrain spanning some 42,000 hectares boasts water-sculpted monuments made out of clay, gypsum and sandstone. Much of the site’s semi-desert landscape is open to visitors, who can gaze into deep gorges and see flowing streams beneath cliff faces eroded by salt. One part of The Bardenas Reales Natural Park is also used as a practice bombing range by the Spanish Air Force. If you happen to be visiting when fighter jets are soaring over the planes they can make for an exciting free air show.
Back to sunny southern Spain and to something a little more relaxing, Spain’s Andalusian city Cordoba is home to Los Patios, a Roman-Moorish style home situated around a central courtyard and renowned for its exuberant floral decorations. In summer there is even an annual courtyard festival in which owners of these picturesque dwellings in traditional Cordoroban neighbourhoods fling open their doors to allow curious floraphiles who can admire the seasonal blooming and immerse themselves in the vibrant and aromatic oasis.
All of that artfully trimmed jasmine and orange blossom is certainly gorgeous to look at – and it is equally wonderful to waft through its aromas which settle upon striking water features and carefully pruned geraniums – however, it might leave you with a hankering for more untamed vegetation. If so, then the dunes, marshes and beaches of Doñana National Park in Huelva are certain to cater to your craving for local fauna in its natural habitat. Visitors can expect to see almost 200 different species of brightly coloured birds in both winter and summer months who stop at Doñana before migrating elsewhere.
Venturing West to the autonomous community of Extremadura, you will find the seriously overlooked, yet magical, medieval Spanish city of Caceres. The city’s towering palaces, churches and convents in its Old Town espouse a certain 15th-century charm, left over from the Roman encampment of Norba Caesarina. Regarded largely as little more than a station stop, Caceras gained new ground amongst tourists when Michelin-star restaurant Atrio opened its doors in 2010. The enchantment of the Old Town is emphasised by its separation from the more modern, busier city by a vaguely mysterious Casco Viejo which requires visitors to be permitted access via an entry phone before they can meander through charming and historic cobbled streets.
This Spanish region may remind many readers of their favourite tinto vino, and the wineries look almost as good as their fermented fruits taste. The Marques de Riscal Winery, located in the south of the region has some of the most modern facilities for wine production, amongst which stand an equally intriguing and captivating hotel designed by no other than Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry as if the curved titanium exterior didn’t already give it away. Did we mention that it offers spa facilities including vinotherapy and two fine dining restaurants? The structure’s three colours resemble the red wine, the gold wire netting used on the company’s bottles, and the silver bottle cover.
Also known as the Casas Voladas (flown houses) for how they almost seem to defy the laws of gravity, these Casas Colgadas (hanging houses) began as homes in the 15th century. Today, they are one of the most famous monuments that people visit in the historic region of Castilla La Mancha and Cuenca was awarded World Heritage Site status in 1966. One of the houses has even been converted into Hotel Posada de San José. Only three houses remain but there is photographic evidence that there were at least 8 until the 1920s. Curiously, the houses’ balconies are thought to have been installed much later, in 1927.
Northwest of Catalonia’s capital city Barcelona you’ll find the Benedictine Monk retreat Montserrat, a mountain imbued with symbolism and religious importance, which also happens to be completely captivating. Many people travel to this mountain range to achieve a spiritual experience and, in particular, you’re likely to find pilgrims queuing to visit the ‘Moreneta’, the Black Madonna statue. Those who have the time (and the energy!) to hike to the top will be rewarded with views of jagged Cavall Bernat ridge. If you happen to be called Montse you even get your entry for free!
Gaudia may already have had his time to shine with our mention of the Sagrada Familia but whilst you’re in Catalonia you may as well pop back to Barcelona to visit the magnificent mosaic Park Guell. Here, the park’s hilltop vantage point enables visitors to trace tonnes of tiles whilst marvelling at one of the most incredible views across the city. Gaudi’s original design for an estate for well-off families in a wealthy setting with splendid views of the sea was never completed (quite a running theme there, then), with only two of the original 60 planned houses in the park ever being built due to lack of funding. Instead, the architectural masterpiece was turned into a public park, the vibrant centrepiece of which serves as a basin to collect rainwater which runs out of the iconic lizard’s mouth near the park’s southern entrance.
Famous for their dynamic nightlife, the Balearic Islands located in Eastern Spain include Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca. They are a popular destination for tourists craving a night out to remember. Whether you want to party on Menorcan cliffs or rave in Ibiza, the islands certainly cater to all crowds. However, this isn’t a place to visit just for its nightlife, for those searching for charming coves or stunning sunsets, the Balearic islands also offer lush national landscapes and many opportunities to relax on one of the many, many gorgeous beaches.
All that travelling and sightseeing is sure to make you hungry and where better to satiate your appetite than this quintessentially Spanish whole foods market in Valencia? This is somewhat of a paradise for foodies which fresh produce direct from Valencian orchards and stalls spilling mesmerising Mediterranean flavours and aromas. Housed in the Valencia agora building which was completed in 1928, the Central Market is one of the city’s most emblematic modernist buildings and boasts over 1200 food stalls – an essential place to visit in Spain for lovers of food.
Whilst you’re in Valencia, you may as well take a trip to the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (The City of Arts and Sciences), or at least marvel at it from the outside. In the up-and-coming trendy city of Valencia, this ultra-modern scientific cultural complex is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. The structure was designed by Valencian architects Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela, cost €900 million and took almost 10 years to complete. The complex is home to Europe’s largest aquarium, a botanical garden which occasionally turns into an open-air nightclub in the summer months and a music festival venue right in the heart of the city.
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From Newcastle originally, Annie is based in Manchester and is a writer for the Euro Weekly News covering news and features.
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