The majesty of a caliph’s palace, sybaritic sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches, the staccato stamp of a flamenco dancer’s heels, the awed hush of pilgrims entering Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral after weeks of walking El Camino
Tourist destinations like these, which embody the country’s turbulent history, rich culture, and beautiful natural beauty, are where you may find the essence of Spain.
Spain exudes a vibrant energy and a captivating blend of past and present, from the sunlight reflecting endlessly off the “scales” of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and the throbbing street life of La Rambla and Plaza Mayor to the forest of columns and Moorish arches disappearing into the silent expanse of Cordoba’s Great Mosque.
Plan your sightseeing and find interesting things to do with our list of the top attractions in Spain.
With our list of the top attractions in Spain, you can plan your sightseeing and find fun things to do.
16. The White Towns of Andalucía
The White Towns, perched atop the steep crags of southern Andalusia like dabs of white frosting, are not only beautiful, but they also speak of the region’s long and fascinating history.
Mountains rise straight from the sea west of Gibraltar, and these White Towns, each on its own hilltop, are hidden among them.
Arcos de la Frontera is the most spectacular, with a plaza near the Gothic church that terminates in a 137-meter cliff with views across a valley of olive, orange, and almond trees.
Its maze of winding cobblestone alleys lead to a Moorish castle, past cafes and craft stores selling ceramics and pottery.
A total of 19 of these communities of modest white dwellings are in the area around the Grazalema Nature Reserve.
Other places worth seeing include Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra.
A good base in the region is Jerez de la Frontera, home of flamenco and Andalucian thoroughbreds.
15. Toledo’s Old City
Visit the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art to see magnificent horses perform precise ballet, and Centro Cultural Flamenco for true flamenco.
The town’s layout, with its uneven pattern of tiny streets and numerous blind alleys, retains its Moorish heritage, while the numerous churches, convents, and hospices depict Christian architecture.
As a result, the ancient city functions as an open-air museum, illustrating Spain’s history, and it has been designated by UNESCO as part of humanity’s cultural heritage.
The Gothic church is magnificent, with a highly painted interior, and the two Moorish-style synagogues in the evocative old Juderia are elaborate.
While you’re in that area, pay a visit to the San Tome church, which has an El Greco masterpiece.
14. El Teide, Tenerife
You may drive or stroll through the caldera’s crater floor, which is 12 miles in circumference and features a bleak moonscape of colored rock formations that seems like traveling into the earth’s core.
You can climb El Teide’s cone, but an eight-minute cable car ride will get you near to the top.
On a clear day, views of the entire archipelago can be seen, as well as North Africa, which is the closest land mass to the Canary Islands.
The Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain.
On a hot evening, strolling along La Rambla in Barcelona, you might get the impression that you were joined by every single person who lived there.
On a warm evening or weekend, this is the place to be after work.
This tree-lined boulevard runs northwest from the Columbus Memorial at the harbor, cutting a green line through the city center that isn’t exactly straight.
13. The Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain.
On a hot evening, strolling along La Rambla in Barcelona, you might get the impression that you were joined by every single person who lived there. On a warm evening or weekend, this is the place to be after work. This tree-lined boulevard runs northwest from the Columbus Memorial at the harbor, cutting a green line through the city center that isn’t exactly straight.
Plane trees surround the path to Plaça de Catalunya, which has a spacious pedestrian zone flanked on either side by a short road. On La Rambla, you’ll also find book and newspaper stands, restaurants, and cafes with outdoor seating in addition to the flower and bird shops. Pavement artists, street musicians, living sculptures, and impromptu performers all add to its dynamic ambience.
12. Beaches of Gran Canaria.
Located in the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria is a popular tourist destination thanks to its miles of golden sand beaches. Playa Las Canteras in Las Palmas, the island’s capital, is a popular family beach thanks to its calm sea and volcanic rock breakwater.
Playa Ingles in Maspalomas is the largest and liveliest beach in the area, with a plethora of cafés, restaurants, stores, play parks, and other attractions. The archipelago’s natural beauty, a wide protected region of enormous sand dunes, may be found at one end. As much as 12 meters high, these towering cliffs are continually shifting and shifting due to the influence of the wind and the water. You can even ride a camel through the desert to complete the surreal experience.
Divers flock to this part of the shore because the water is clean and warm. Arinaga has an underwater park, while Playa Ingles and other coastal locations have diving schools. Or, you can take a glass-bottomed boat tour to see the marine life up close. Windsurfing and sailing are popular on the south shore as well.
11. Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, Valencia
When the river that frequently flooded Valencia was rerouted, the city was left with a wide, flat riverbank, which was then connected to the rest of the city by bridges. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava based his stunning structures, which have become a draw for architecture enthusiasts, on this simple palette.
In addition to the buildings, there are museums, art galleries, and an aquarium (built by Félix Candela and the only one not by Santiago Calatrava) that together make up a popular tourist destination in Spain.
Built in the shape of a water lily, L’Oceanogràfic is Europe’s largest oceanographic aquarium, containing structures dedicated to various aquatic habitats, including tropical and arctic zones.
10. Plaza de España and Parque de María Luisa, Seville
As a semi-circular pavilion encircled by colonnades, the Plaza de Espaa served as the centerpiece of the 29th Ibero-American Exposition in celebration of Spain’s various geographical areas. Overlooking the lengthy pool, which is connected by bridges, are stunning panels made of colored tiles symbolizing each of Spain’s provinces. If you’re feeling energetic, you can rent a boat and row it around the pool and below the bridges.
There is a half-mile stretch of gardens, lawns, and shaded paths that run alongside the river opposite central Seville from the Plaza de Espaa. The Parque de Mara Luisa. Pedal cars and horse-drawn carriages are available for rent, or you can take a walk through the park. The park is often crowded, but on Sundays it’s jam-packed with families.
Strolling around the park’s side paths and hedge-surrounded gardens is the best way to see the park’s huge trees, flower beds, lakes, gazebos, and the man-made rock mountain with a waterfall. You’ll find an archeology museum with Visigoth jeweled crosses and antique gold work at the park’s far end, which is small but packed with interesting things.
9. Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Plaza Mayor, the pulsating center of Spain’s bustling capital, has been a significant element of Madrid life since Philip II commissioned Escorial architect Juan de Herrera to design it.
For ceremonial events like the proclamation of a new monarch, canonizations of famous saints, and the burning heretics, it’s been used as a venue. It’s also been used for fun events like chivalric tournaments and bullfights. There are cafes and restaurants all along the city’s pedestrian-only stone pavement, which serve as a gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
8. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Pilgrims have been making the long journey to Santiago de Compostela (St. James Cathedral) since the Middle Ages in order to see the remains of the saint, and it has been the pinnacle of the Camino de Santiago for them.
Built between 1060 and 1211, the cathedral is one of the finest examples of Early Romanesque architecture. The exterior was baroqueized in the 16th and 18th centuries, but the interior retains its original Early Romanesque style.
As you enter the west front, through one of Spain’s most impressive church façade, you’ll witness both of these eras at work. The Pórtico de la Gloria, which was previously visible on the building’s west side but has been hidden by the 18th-century exterior, can be found inside. One of the world’s greatest and most impressive Romanesque sculpture collections may be found in this triple doorway.
The interior’s centerpiece is the ornately decorated Capilla Mayor, which was constructed over the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle. A 13th-century wooden statue of St. Paul the Apostle, encrusted with precious metals and gems, sits in the center of the high altar, which also includes jasper, alabaster, and silver.
There are short staircases on both sides leading behind the figure, allowing pilgrims to kiss the Apostle’s cloak as a way to mark the end of the journey. The Apostle’s remains are kept in a silver casket in a crypt beneath the altar.
7. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
For genuine, you must see this structure in person to appreciate its kaleidoscopic symphony of shapes, all of which appear to be on the brink of flight. Using limestone blocks and undulating sheets of titanium, American architect Frank Gehry threw modern architecture for a loop.
The Bilbao Effect – the capacity of a city to turn its fortunes around by building a single world-class building – and “architourism,” a whole part of the travel industry centered upon contemporary architectural landmarks, were formed as a result of his success. The museum’s exhibits include both temporary and permanent pieces from the museum’s own collection of modern art.
6. Seville Cathedral and Alcazar
A UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the Giralda tower, Seville Cathedral, and the Alcazar. According to UNESCO, the tower is a minaret and a “masterpiece of Almohad architecture.” In terms of internal space, the cathedral surpasses even St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with its 37-meter main altar adorned with sculpted figures and plated in gold.
A quartet of gigantic figures carries Christopher Columbus’ massive tomb. All that is left of Seville’s Great Mosque, razed to make way for the cathedral, is La Giralda, the city’s icon.
The Moors began construction on the Alcazar across the street in 712, and King Pedro expanded it in the 1300s in an opulent neo-Moorish style known as Mudejar. The gardens, which are shaded by aromatic orange and lemon trees, are as beautiful as the suites and salons. East of here lies Santa Cruz, a neighborhood with whitewashed houses, iron balconies, and flower-filled courtyards that was formerly part of the Juderia.
5. San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Spain’s kings had a summer residence in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, about 45 kilometers northwest of Madrid; construction began in 1563 on a massive complex that included a royal monastery and church as well as a mausoleum and library as a memorial to Philip II and his reign.
The end result is a mind-boggling collection of attractions built around 16 courtyards and linked by 16 kilometers of corridors. The heart of the complex is the church, which is highlighted by Herrera’s jasper and red marble retablo, which is reached via a winding flight of 17 steps.
The Panteón de los Reyes (the Baroque burial vault of the Spanish kings) and the library, a grand room also decorated with Tibaldi frescoes, are highlights of the monastery in addition to the vaulted and frescoed ceilings by Tibaldi in the rooms off the lower cloister.
Visit the Bourbon Suite in the palace, which features rare furnishings and 338 tapestries from Charles IV’s state apartments. Beyond that are Philip II’s art-filled private quarters. You’ll find a wide range of well-known painters’ work in the Gallery below, from Hieronymus Bosch to Albrecht Dürer to Titian to Tintoretto to Veronese and El Greco.
4. The Prado and Paseo del Artes, Madrid
The Prado alone is one of the world’s most valuable art museums due to the depth and breadth of its holdings. A mile-long tree-shaded boulevard in Madrid is home to three major art museums: The Reina Sofia National Art Gallery, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and the CaixaForum. This may be the world’s highest concentration of priceless art treasures anywhere. It’s easy to see why this street is called El Paseo del Arte, or the Arts Boulevard.
In 2009, the Prado added another 12 galleries to house a collection of works by Goya and other artists from the late 19th century after expanding its exhibition space by twofold in 2007. The Prado Museum in Madrid houses the world’s largest collection of Spanish art, ranging from medieval masterpieces from the 12th century to avant-garde works from the early 20th century. Of particular note are works by El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya from Spain’s golden age.
There are also medieval murals and retablos, paintings by Flemish and Dutch artists (such as Hieronymous Bosch’s fantasy world and works by Rubens and Brueghel), as well as Italian art to see in the palace (Botticelli, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, and Tintoretto).
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and works by Miró, Dal, Dubuffet, Braque, Serra and Magritte are among the museum’s 20,000 impressive pieces.
3. The Great Mosque of Cordoba (Mezquita)
Cordoba’s mosque, once known as the Mezquita, is one of the largest in the world and Spain’s finest example of Moorish architecture. Despite later alterations that carved out the mosque’s center to make room for a Catholic cathedral, the Great Mosque remains one of the finest examples of Islamic art and architecture in Western Europe, along with the Alhambra in Granada.
The construction, which began in 785 and continued until 1000, used Roman and Visigothic building materials and had grown to its current size, with a prayer hall that has no fewer than nineteen aisles. There are symmetrical patterns in the rows of columns and rounded Moorish arches no matter where you stand or look.
The old Juderia, which surrounds the mosque, has a Moorish feel thanks to its winding streets, small squares, and low whitewashed houses with lovely patios that can be seen from the street.
2. Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Gaudi Sites
Antoni Gaudi pushed the boundaries of the Art Nouveau architectural style, some would say to the point of absurdity. The outlandish and fantastical structures he designed in Barcelona have become recognizable landmarks and must-see attractions in the city.
There are numerous religious buildings in Barcelona, the most well-known of which is The Sagrada Famlia Church, also known as the Holy Family Church of Atonement. Known for its unconventional design, this church is also unfinished, allowing visitors to see the progress being made below them as they gaze down from its bell tower.
In Gaudi’s Casa Milà, his final and most well-known secular work, you’ll have a hard time finding anything resembling a straight line. Visit its roof, where you’ll find inspiration for Darth Vader from Star Wars’s iconic chimneys.
There will be a new “10D Experience” at Casa Batlló in 2020, with its mask-shaped balconies and undulating façade using augmented reality, projecting binaural sound, using motion sensors and more than 1,000 screens to transport visitors into Antoni Gaudi’s mind.
Atop a hill, Parc Güell offers sweeping views of the city, with fantastical creatures like salamanders, fish, and an octopus, as well as designs in vibrant ceramic-chard mosaics to frame them. There’s a whimsical towered house near the entrance that’s mostly made of colorful ceramics. Contrary to the majority of construction, Gaudi’s structures appeal to people of all ages, including those who have no interest in architecture. This is because they are simply beautiful to look at.
1. The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens, Granada
This Moorish pleasure palace will still take your breath away, no matter how much you’ve read or seen pictures of Granada’s Alhambra palaces in the past. The royal palace of the Nasrid dynasty represents the pinnacle of Islamic art in Spain, when Al-Andalus – as Andaluca was known – was the pinnacle of European culture and civilization during the Middle Ages.
Many buildings, towers, walls, gardens, and even a mosque are part of the Alhambra complex, but the Nasrid palace’s intricate stone carvings, delicate filigree work on the ceiling, and graceful arches and tranquil courtyards will haunt you for the rest of your life.
The Emperor Charles V’s palace, which adjoins, is Spain’s finest example of High Renaissance architecture even in its unfinished state. Also, the Alhambra’s terraced gardens at Generalife provide a tranquil haven with stunning views of the rest of the complex.
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