We love Spain. It’s been in our blood for as long as we’ve been a family. In 1985 we tossed our tent and sleeping bags into our little red VW Polo, strapped our three-month old daughter in the car seat, and took off heading south on the German autobahn for the sunny beaches of Spain. We spent the summer driving and camping along the Costa Brava and the Costa del Sol, and then it was time to head back north. First, we went inland to Granada and the unrivaled beauty of the Alhambra. Next we drove through the central plains up to Madrid. It was a summer to remember forever and ever. Of course, once you experience Spain it permeates your soul. There’s no escaping and you must return. We’ve been back on more than a few road trips, weekend visits, and home stays over the past few decades and will return again and again. We’ve compiled a list of what we think are the most beautiful cities, magnificent villages, and surprising towns in this country of superlatives. These are our favorite places in Spain!
Alcalá de Benares
The hometown of Miquel de Cervantes, the famous author of Don Quixote, is a quiet little university town. The university is one of the oldest and most prestigious in Spain and a visit to see its cloisters and enjoy the solitude and beauty of the Trilingual Courtyard is a must. It’s also imperative to visit Cervantes’ Birthplace Museum where you can see drawings and writings as well as learn about his life. The best way to visit Alcala de Henares is to take the Cervantes Train from Madrid on spring and fall Saturdays, stay at one of these great hotels in Madrid and make a day trip on the train.
Located in the Castile-Leon region of Spain, Avila is hard to miss. As you approach by car, you cannot help but notice the fortress wall that surrounds the old part of the city. This iconic wall sports 100 towers on its 2.5 kilometer perimeter, and walking around it or through one of its six gates will bring you through colorful neighborhoods and by plenty of great restaurants where you can try the local cuisine. Getting tired? Spend the night at one of Avila’s excellent hotels.
This beautiful city in the Jaen area is situated in the middle of thousands of olive trees. At the top of the hill, you can look in any direction to see olive grove after olive grove as far as the eye can see. Tasting the fruit and buying the local oil is definitely one reason to visit. Another is wandering the steep and often narrow streets gawking at the gorgeous architecture dating back to the 13th century. As we meandered, we were accompanied by a small band of dogs who led us through the streets until we came to a plaza where they abandoned us to play among themselves. Enjoy tapas and wine in one of the excellent tapas bars and then spend the night in this beautiful city of stone and statues.
The old town of Caceres stands as a testament to history. It’s origins lie in prehistory with trade routes crossing through for thousands of years. Romans, Moors, Jews, Christians, have all influenced the architecture and culture of the city. The highlights here are the gothic and renaissance palaces, towers, and fortifications built by rival noble factions throughout the medieval period. A visit to the old town in Caceres, in the Extremadura region, offers a taste of Spanish history and why not sample the delicacies of the region like the world-famous pata negra jamon Iberico. Stay for a day or two, exploring the region, using one of these great hotels as your base.
We’ve been to Cordoba twice now and each time it didn’t fail to impress. Captured by the Moors in the 8th century it soon became the capital of the Moorish caliphate. It was, and still is, the center of culture in Andalusia. Universities, mosques, churches, libraries, palaces, it’s all here. After the retaking of the city in the 13th century, Cordoba continued to prosper and grow. A visit to the city is a must for any Spanish exploration with a visit to the incredible Medina Azahara at the top of the list.
This dusty town on the southern fringes of the country is best known for the pilgrimage of the Virgin Mary. El Rocío hosts over a million people that descend on the town for the event staying in elaborate camps, town houses, or just rolled out blankets under the stars. I imagine it would be quite a bustling place at that time of year, but the rest of the time it is a quiet peaceful village with horse drawn carts providing the primary mode of transportation. The town sits on the edge of the Doñana National Park overlooking a serene lagoon teeming with bird life. Flocks of elegant flamingoes were stopping in on their annual migration route.
Another medieval town complete with city walls, cobble stone streets and formidable architecture, Girona is a short train ride away from Barcelona and a welcome excursion from the big city. The cathedral, the old fortifications and the Placa de la Independencia are all must see’s but be sure to also take a stroll along the river Onyar for the views of the colorful houses overlooking its banks. Choose one of Barcelona’s superb hotels and take a day trip out to Girona.
Once the capital of Andalusia and all of Spain, Granada was taken from the Moors during the reconquest of the 15th century. The undeniable beauty of the Alhambra enchanted Queen Isabella and it became the seat of power. It was from this seat that Christopher Columbus asked and was given royal permission to explore the new world. The Alhambra today is the most visited site in Spain. It takes some careful planning to make the most out of your visit, but visit you must. Find a hotel room fit for royalty and make the most out of your Granada visit!
“We’re going to Ibiza, whoah!” This 1999 hit song by the Vengaboys might have given Ibiza its notorious claim to fame as the #1 party destination in the Mediterranean sea, or was just a reflection of what already was the case. It doesn’t really matter, though, because there’s so much more to this beautiful island with its crystal blue water. Go for the parties if you must, but be sure and take some time away from the dance floor and the beach to visit the port city of Ibiza and climb the city walls for the views looking out over the ocean. There are some amazing deals on hotels on this gorgeous Mediterranean island.
Standing like a shining city in the dry, arid region of Cadiz, Jerez de la Frontera is known as the city of sherry, horses, and flamenco. Spend the day walking around the Old Town then take in the performance at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. Pop back into your hotel for a siesta because you’ll need to be rested up for a night of wine tasting and sherry drinking at local bodegas. Even later still, after your 10:00 P.M. dinner reservation, it’s time for a Flamenco in the town where this soulful art form was born. You’ll be up too late to do anything but crash at your hotel, so make sure you choose wisely!
For history buffs this town is a real must. Lugo is the only town in the world encircled by an intact Roman wall. A morning or afternoon stroll around the entire length of the wall will take an hour or two (depending on how many times you stop for a photograph). Or you can just climb up the ancient steps to your favorite vantage point and watch the world go by, imagining the life of the poor Roman sentry assigned duty atop the wall watching for invaders.
My personal favorite town in all of Spain and, indeed, in all of the Mediterranean sea. Mahon is an old port town used by the Spanish, French, and British at various times during the last millennium. There are old fortifications, palaces, winding cobble stone alleys, narrow steps leading down to the port, market squares, ships, tapas, and palm trees. Roaming the quiet streets at night, footsteps echoing off the stone facades, it’s easy to imagine days long past with sailors fresh off their tall ships staggering from wine bar to wine bar. Luckily, today’s visitors are much more civil and the food and wine a much higher caliber. Find the best hotel at the best price in Mahon.
I haven’t visited them all, but I feel fairly confident in making the claim that the Balearic islands are the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Palma is the capital of the small island group and rich in history and culture. We were there over the Easter break and were surprised to discover that even the King of Spain felt this way as he had chosen the Cathedral of Palma for his Easter mass. I have to admit, this is a beautiful cathedral both inside and out.
Santiago de Compostela is the #1 Catholic pilgrimage sight in all of Europe. This is the capital city of Galicia, one of the most beautiful regions in all of Spain. It is claimed that the remains of Saint James are buried at the sight of the cathedral and pilgrims have been traveling the Way of Saint James from all over Europe since the 9th century. It doesn’t really matter if you are religious or not, hiking along many parts of the Camino de Santiago can offer rewarding vistas. Somehow the city has managed to survive viking raids, Moorish conquest, and Napoleonic advances rebuilding and growing out of the ashes of each invasion. You could camp out with the other pilgrims, but why not stay in a nice, comfortable hotel instead?
Another incredible destination in Spain, Segovia is another of those hilltop, walled cities that shines in the distance for miles around. There was obviously something to this heavily fortified spot with prehistoric tribes, Romans, Moors, and Spaniards all building and reinforcing the battlements. The Romans brought the modern technology of the times to the city in the form of the most impressive, free standing aqueduct in all of Europe (if not the world). We recommend staying at the centrally located, and fabulous, Hotel Spa La Casa Mudejar.
The capital and largest city of Andalusia, Seville is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all of which can be found within the Old Town. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the see, the first of the three UNESCO Sites, is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. It is an incredibly beautiful building but the highlight, for me anyway, is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Nearby to the Cathedral is the Moorish palace and gardens of the Alcazar. Strolling along the richly decorated patios, ornamented chambers, and carefully cultivated gardens can almost make you forget the incredible heat of the southern Spain summer. The final UNESCO Site in the Old Town of Seville is the General Archive of the Indies. This is another perfect escape from the heat and a treasure house of artifacts, maps, and collections accumulated during the Spanish explorations of the New World and beyond. Looking for the best place to stay in Seville?
One of the best parts of Seville is the food. Check out this Seville Food Guide!
Surely you’ve been to Spain! What were your favorite places in Spain?
Pin Spain for later!