Planning a trip to Spain? Make your Spain travel itinerary with this roundup of six incredible cities to visit in Spain!
Travel bloggers love to write about the top places in any given country. Some do it to be helpful. Others pray on your FOMO (fear of missing out).
I get it. I totally understand the pressure of feeling like you need to “do it all” when visiting a new destination.
When I was planning my first backpacking trip, I was getting advice from everyone about the “must-visit” places. I felt overwhelmed until finally realizing there are no “must-visit” places.
The most important thing to remember about your trip is this: it’s your trip.
Spain is an incredibly diverse country, and it really does have something for everyone. Food. Language. Culture. History. Pursue whatever sites and activities pique your interest. Find your Spain.
Oh, and while you’re planning your trip to Europe, don’t forget to grab my top travel tips for traveling Europe on a budget!
For art lovers…Madrid
Spain’s capital is home to the Golden Triangle of Art. Travelers can visit three of the top art museums in the world: Prado Museum, Reina Sofía Museum and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
My personal favorite is the Reina Sofía, Madrid’s museum of modern art. Its most famous piece is Picasso’s painting “Guernica.” The first time (and second and third time) I saw the massive work it took my breath away. You can see it free of charge 7-9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday thru Saturday as well as 1:30-7 p.m. Sunday.
>> Check out THIS POST with 55 non touristy things to do in Madrid! <<
Madrid by night: Whoever nicknamed New York “The City that Never Sleeps” had obviously never been to Madrid. One of my first nights out there, I didn’t get home until 7 a.m.! Nights generally began with a late dinner (9 or 10 p.m.) followed by copas with friends. No one hits the clubs until at least 1 a.m. but usually not until 2 or 3 a.m. My favorite club is Space Monkey which plays rock music from the 60s to today.
For architecture enthusiasts…Granada
The first time I visited Granada it was on total whim. My boyfriend and I went as a day trip from Jaén when we were in Spain in 2014. Little did we know, tickets to tour Granada’s main attraction, the Alhambra, sell out weeks (sometimes months!) in advance. We were able to see the magnificent Arabic palace and fortress complex from the outside and knew we had to get back to Granada to see the inside.
>> Love beautiful architecture? Don’t miss Zaragoza! Check out this guide for how to spend a weekend in Zaragoza, Spain! <<
In 2016, we made our way to Granada once again. This time we had tickets. The Alhambra was definitely worth the return trip. Designed for its mountainous surroundings, the palace is a Moorish masterpiece. It’s almost impossible not to find tranquility as you walk among the structures many columns, fountains and reflecting pools.
Don’t visit Granada on a full stomach: When I’m in Granada, I hardly ever spend money on food. It’s one of the few cities in Spain with free tapas. In Madrid, you might get some peanuts or olives when you order a drink. But in Granada, every alcoholic beverage comes with a hearty snack. Drink up, eat up.
For foodies…San Sebastián
Spaniards love to ask foreigners which region has the best food. I got this question dozens of times in the two years I lived there, and I always gave the same answer: Basque Country.
Why? For starters, due to its location, Basque Country has access to all the best ingredients. I’m talking about fresh fish from the sea and quality meats from the valley. In addition to quality products, Basque chefs have a long history of embracing and building upon techniques from settlers. Not only does the food taste good, but it’s (kind of) good for you! In Basque cooking, olive oil is more commonly used than vegetable oil. Typical dishes include salt cod, young eel, cheeks of hake and baby squids in their ink.
Learn to pronounce (so you can order) txakoli: Pronounced “cha-kuh-lee”, this highly acidic (and slightly sparkling) dry white wine is produced and served throughout Basque Country. When it is served, txakoli is traditionally poured into a tall glass from a height. It has a low alcohol content, but take care! Overdue the txakoli, and you’ll wake up with a wicked hangover.
For travelers tired of Barcelona…Valencia
Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of Barcelona. And, it’s not like I haven’t given it a chance! I’ve visited it three times over the past three years but still find it wildly overrated.
I much prefer Valencia. When I visited last year, I rented a bicycle and rode all over the city! In my opinion, it is a smaller, cleaner, less-touristy version of Barcelona. That’s not to say Spain’s third-largest city doesn’t have its own vibe. Located on the eastern coast of the country, Valencia has numerous popular celebrations and attractions. The city’s most well-known festival is the Fallas during which elaborate monuments are burnt down. Sounds crazy? You’ve just got to see it.
Pick your paella: Outside of Spain, paella is thought to be a national dish. However, most Spaniards recognize it for what it truly is: a regional Valencian food. That doesn’t mean you can order paella just anywhere in Valencia though! Because of its popularity, many restaurants serve paella, but few do it well. It’s worth doing a little research. Find a place that makes paella fresh to order. It might take an hour to get your food, but at least you know it wasn’t sitting under a heat lamp all week.
For history buffs…Córdoba
When my family came to visit for my first Christmas in Spain, we decided to leave Madrid’s winter weather behind in search of sun in the south! We found sun (yay), but the temperatures weren’t much warmer (boo). Our first stop was Sevilla, but like Barcelona, I found the city a bit over-hyped. It seemed to be playing to the crowds of holiday tourists, which is all fine and well, but when I’m traveling, I prefer a more authentic experience.
I found just that in Córdoba— a city aware of its charm but with no need to flaunt it. Situated on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, Córdoba is home to La Mezquita. Known as the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, La Mezquita is a powerful symbol of the two cultures/religions that have shaped the region. Construction on the mosque began in 784 and continued until 987. When Christians reclaimed the city in 1236, it was converted into a church. Today, this extraordinary (and controversial) building is open to the public.
Take a walking tour: From the Romans to the Moors to the Christians, Córdoba has served as an important center of culture and learning for many different people. In order to get a clearer picture of this city’s rich history, I recommend taking a free* walking tour. After my family enjoyed our tour so much, we hired the guide to show us around the Jewish Quarter. Check out Córdoba A Pie, which offers a variety of tours in English, Spanish and French.
*If you’re a decent human being, tipping is not optional. Consider the cost of a full-priced walking tour, and pay what you can. Guides understand backpackers and budget travelers aren’t going to shell out big bucks, but it’s still important to pay them fairly for their service. It’s not charity!
For adventure seekers…Tenerife
Even though five million tourists visit Tenerife every year, I’d never heard of it before moving to Spain. If I’m being completely honest, I had no idea the Canary Islands even existed! Of the seven Canary Islands, which are located in the Atlantic Ocean some-60 miles west of Morocco, Tenerife is the largest and most populous island. Among the most popular tourist destinations in Spain, two airports service Tenerife.
In the southern part of the island, which boasts a hotter and drier climate, you find beach-side resorts, golf courses and shopping centers. But, who really wants to relax on vacation?! Tenerife is home to Spain’s highest point: Mount Teide. At 3,718 m (12,198 ft) above sea level, it’s the third largest volcano in the world. When I visited Tenerife last year, I climbed to the top of Teide sans cable car. The path, called La Rambleta, is challenging. You’ll need hiking boots, water, sunscreen and at least five hours to reach the top. If the thin air and steep climb don’t take your breath away, the views from the top will.
Get your permit in advance: In order to regulate visitors and protect the site, Teide National Park issue permits for the summit. The permit can only be applied for through the “Bookings” tab on the park’s website. The permit is free, but you must choose a date and time. Only 200 permits are granted per day, and slots fill up fast. As soon as you decide to attempt Teide, apply for a permit.
Got a question about traveling to Spain? Leave it in the comments, or send me a DM on Instagram (@alexnotemily)!
Don’t forget to download the Ultimate Spanish Learner’s Resource Guide to brush up on your language skills before your big trip!
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