Few countries offer more choice to the visitor than Spain, with its lush forests and wild mountain peaks, its busy cities crammed with great art and architecture and the endless stretch of laid-back beach resorts. To find out what you want from a trip to Spain amid all this variety, you need to know where to look. This content offers an at-a-glance guide on where to go, with the different characteristics of each region, city or island group explained and the main sights highlighted.
The northwest corner of Spain is the wettest and, because of this, also the greenest region of the country. The medieval city of Santiago de Compostela (see Santiago Cathedral) draws large numbers of visitors as it stands at the end of a legendary pilgrimage route and centres on an awe-inspiring cathedral. The other great attraction is the long, heavily indented coastline. One stretch of this, the Rías Baixas, has just the right blend of beaches, low-key holiday resorts and scenery. Inland, Galicia has hills, meadows, forests, monasteries and handsome old towns where time seems slowed down and you can be sure to get away from the crowds.
These two regions form the central part of the green north coast. Both are composed of inland uplands descending to a gentle coastline punctuated by pretty bays and good beaches. The two regions share Spain’s most approachable mountain range, the Picos de Europa, whose canyons and summits are a draw for hikers. Prehistory and history are other regional fortes. The most famous of many caves painted by early humans are those of Altamira. The exquisite, pre-Romanesque churches of Oviedo and the town of Santillana del Mar, seemingly frozen in the Middle Ages, are also worth a visit.
The futuristic Museo Guggenheim has put the city of Bilbao on the map and introduced the Basque Country to a wealth of new visitors, and its two neighbouring regions attract tourists in search of rural Spain. The pride of the Basque’s short coast is San Sebastián, a well-established resort on an almost perfectly rounded bay. Navarra is made up of picturesque green Pyrenean foothills and valleys in the north and charming little towns, castles and Romanesque churches in the south. Its capital, Pamplona – scene of the famous bullrunning festival in July – stands in the middle. For wine-lovers, La Rioja, the smallest region of Spain, is the place to visit.
For most people, Barcelona is synonymous with Modernisme, and in particular the enchanting buildings of Antoni Gaudí. It is also famed for its innovation and design, and leads Spain in contemporary art and architecture. At the heart of this city of cutting-edge creativity is the Gothic Quarter, with its well preserved medieval architecture. Barcelona’s draw is also in its shops, bars, clubs and street life – any visit has to include a stroll down Las Ramblas.
Barcelona can easily be combined with a beach holiday in one of the resorts a short way north or south of the city.
This self-assured region with its own language stretches from the Pyrenees in the north to the rice fields of the Ebro delta in the south, taking in vineyards which produce the famous cava sparkling wine. The Costa Brava, a rugged mix of cliffs and bays, is its most attractive strip of coast but the Costa Daurada, around the Roman city of Tarragona, also has popular resorts. Catalonia also has two of Spain’s greatest monasteries: Poblet and Montserrat.
The city of Figures is the birthplace of Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, and many of his works can be viewed here.
Aragón is one of the least known regions of Spain, but rewarding to explore. Its sights are grouped to the north and south, with Zaragoza, the country’s fifth largest city, in the centre. The Pyrenees and their foothills hold most appeal, particularly the awe-some canyons and cliffs of the Ordesa National Park. Also worth seeking out is the secluded monastery of San Juan de la Peña. The mountains are popular for walking, skiing and a range of other sports.
These two regions take up the middle of Spain’s Mediterranean coast and enjoy a pleasant climate. Valencia city is drawing increasing numbers of visitors to its gleaming white City of Arts and Sciences. The Costa Blanca, a popular coastline, has a range of resorts, from the brash Benidorm to quieter places like Xàbia. The region of Murcia is distinguished by its Baroque architecture and the coastal lagoon of Mar Menor. Both regions have spectacular fiestas, such as the lively Fallas festival in Valencia.
Spain’s capital has three of the world’s greatest art museums within an easy stroll of each other: the Museo del Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Centro Reina Sofia. Art can also be seen in Madrid’s three magnificent royal palaces, two of them – the Escorial and Aranjuez – involving pleasurable day trips into nearby countryside.
The medieval part of the city, meanwhile, is a dense tangle of streets around two squares dotted with many attractive bars and cafés. Madrid is known for its buzzing nightlife, and is also a great place to come for the finest in Spanish cuisine.
Distances between sights can be daunting in the country’s largest region, but five historic cities reward the intrepid visitor: the harmonious Renaissance university city of Salamanca; Segovia with its towering Roman aqueduct and exquisite royal castle; Burgos built around a Gothic cathedral; León its cathedral famous for its stained-glass windows; and Ávila, ringed by medieval walls. En route between these cities there are vast empty tracts of land but you are rarely out of sight of a castle, a distinguishing feature of this part of Spain.
This region is not an obvious choice for many tourists but it does have one of Spain’s most attractive cities – Toledo, crammed with interesting architecture from the Middle Ages. Two unusually sited towns also worth a visit are Cuenca perched on a ravine and Alcalá del Júcar, where some of the houses have been extended into the soft rock of the chalky hills into which they are built.
Although daunting at first, the plains of La Mancha, well known for Spain’s most famous fictional character, Don Quixote, has a certain charm in its quirky landscape of windmills and castles.
Although not a huge tourist destination, Extremadura has a lot to offer any visitor. With the lowest population density of any region, it has a corresponding richness in wildlife – in spring and summer the countryside is full of wildflowers and storks can be seen nesting on rooftops and church spires.
Extremadura also has a formidable collection of historic monuments, such as the Roman theatre at Mérida, which still hosts performances today, and the cluster of Renaissance mansions at Cáceres . The other place to see is Guadalupe monastery, though a long trek up winding mountain roads is required to get to it.
This lively southern city on the Guadalquivir River combines the glories of Moorish and Christian Spain in its great cathedral and La Giralda, its bell tower, and in the lavishly decorated royal palace of the Real Alcázar.
Visitors also flock to Seville to relish the exciting atmosphere, particularly in the whitewashed streets of the Santa Cruz quarter and, when there’s a fight on, in the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, Spain’s most famous bullring.
Seville is even more animated during the intense celebrations of Semana Santa (Holy Week) and the passionate April Fair that follows, when the city hums to the sound of Sevillanas , its own brand of flamenco.
Stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean across the south of the Iberian peninsula, this is Spain’s second largest region and easily the most varied. It is the home to all things “typically Spanish”: sherry, flamenco, guitars, tapas, gypsies, bullfighting, white towns and the Costa del Sol. Blazing Mediterranean sunshine makes it a good place for beach holidays, but it is not short of countryside or grandiose monuments either. The superb Moorish architecture of Granada’s Alhambra Palace and the Mezquita in Cordoba continue to dazzle visitors. The region’s landscapes vary enormously from the wildlife refuge of Doñana to Europe’s only desert in Almería.
This archipelago off Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast has long been regarded as a holiday playground for Europe. However, as well as beaches, there is plenty of interest to discover. Mallorca, the largest island, has impressive mountains and caves as well as a splendid Gothic cathedral in the capital, Palma.
Despite its reputation for a busy nightlife, Ibiza also has secluded coves, and quiet countryside dotted with pretty villlages. Menorca boasts prehistoric monuments, handsome small towns and a spectacular horse-riding fiesta.
Most visitors are drawn to the Canaries by their reliable subtropical warmth – despite many of the beaches being composed of black sand. The islands have a great contrast of scenery from luxuriant vegetation to spectacular volcanic formations.
La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro are small but with wonderful scenery making for good hiking. Lanzarote, a choice place for beach holidays, is dry and still volcanically active. Fuerteventura also has beautiful beaches but with a windy climate. Tenerife and Gran Canaria offer the most variety, with northern coasts swathed in banana plantations and lively tourist spots in the hot and sunny south.