Spain, unlike many European countries, has been blessed with an infusion of Moorish culture, since the Moors ruled here for many years. Thus, besides its Latin roots, there are significant elements of architecture and tradition injected from Northern Africa, only a few nautical miles away. The resulting combination is both fascinating and charming. Spain has more World Heritage Sites than any other country in Europe. Below are my favorite sights in Spain.
1. Alhambra & Granada
The Alhambra, a Moorish palace located in the city of Granada, Spain, is probably one of the most exquisite buildings in the world. The walls, doors, and archways are delicately sculpted with what looks like Arabic writing and intricate detail. No wonder it is the #1 tourist attraction in all of Spain. Of special note are the Palacio de Nazaries, the Salon of the Ambassadors, and the Patio of the Lions. All are carefully and lovingly crafted to blend in with the entire structure. The Alcazaba (the fortress) certainly looks formidable with its thick walls and many towers, which also provide great views of the city and the surrounding landscape. Note that the Palace of Charles V is noticeably not Moorish, evidence that the complex was built over many years.
Be sure to visit the Generalife Gardens, which exemplify how the moors incorporated gardens with flowers, shade from trees and shrubs, and water in the form of pools and fountains to create an extremely pleasant environment and a refuge from the hustle and bustle as well as the summer heat.
The city of Granada has several other sights which are worthy of exploration after a visit to the Alhambra. These include the Cathedral, which dates to 1523, the Plaza Nueva with the nearby Iglesia de Santa Ana, and the Sacromonte, cave-dwellings of gypsies, cut into the mountainside above the Albaicin or Arab Quarter.
Tickets for a visit to the Alhambra are limited, so pre-arrange if possible or get to the ticket office early to avoid disappointment.
For an unforgettable experience, climb the steep streets and stairways of the Albaicin, in the evening, to the Mirador of San Nicolas for a breathtaking view of the Alhambra, which is lighted at night and dominates the ridge in the distance.
Madrid, Spain, is certainly one of Europe’s great cities. There are so many significant attractions that several days should be allotted. Perhaps most important, because of its location and its popularity as a gathering place, is the Plaza Mayor, one of Europe’s greatest squares. It is huge, surrounded by beautiful, majestic buildings which houses shops, restaurants, etc. It is a wonderful place for strolling or for sitting and enjoying a “cervesa” (beer) or coffee.
The Palacio Real (royal palace) is a spectacular chateau in the tradition of Versailles or Buckingham Palace, although much smaller. It is still the residence of Spain’s King (Juan Carlos). The rooms display splendid opulence with their ceiling frescoes, sculptures, tapestries, and beautiful furniture.
El Rastro, the acclaimed flea market of Madrid, is certainly a gathering place (especially on Sunday morning) and great for people-watching, but the items being sold are mostly junk.
On the eastern side of the city, in what is often referred to as Bourbon Madrid, besides the significant architecture, there is a greater amount of open space and greenery, accentuated by beautiful fountains and squares. Here also are Madrid’s major museums and celebrations of the Arts, including the world-famous Prado Museum as well as the smaller Reina Sofia, famous for its Guernica, perhaps Picasso’s best painting.
The Prado is another one of the great museums of the world. There is no better repository of Spanish art — works, for instance, by Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, and Murillo, but the collection goes far beyond Spain. Italian and Flemish artists are well represented, as well as many others.
In the Prado, don’t miss Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, his most famous painting.
Nearby, note the exquisite Fuente de Cibeles, with its Goddess of Nature in a chariot pulled by lions. The elegant building behind the fountain is, of all things, the main post office. Although it is in a very busy traffic area, try to frame a picture of the fountain.
Also in this vicinity is Retiro Park, a splendid place for strolling and escaping the hectic city scene. There are miles of walkways, pools, fountains, and interesting buildings, particularly the Crystal Palace.
One of the most popular excursions from Madrid is west to El Escorial (more precisely, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial), which has been the summer palace for the Kings of Spain since 1564. It was built by Philip II and completed by his son. It is another great chateau in the spirit of Versailles.
Yet it is more than a residence; it is also a monastery with a lovely chapel. As expected, the rooms are extremely ornate, with beautiful artwork and tapestries. Especially noteworthy are the five wooden doors, gifts from the Kingdom of Austria, which are incredibly detailed, with inlaid wood of different colors. Also significant are the Pantheons, the crypts of the kings (all but 3 monarchs since 1564 have been interred here), and the Pantheon Infantes, the tombs of the royal children who did not become kings.
Near El Escorial is an interesting tourist attraction that harkens to the time of the dictator, Francisco Franco. Valle de los Caidos, (the Valley of the Fallen, in English), is a monument, erected by Generalissimo Franco, to all the Spaniards who have died defending their country. It consists of a tall, stone cross at the top of a rocky hill and, beneath the cross, a huge basilica, which, incidentally, contains Franco’s tomb. There are security guards near the tomb who try to prevent visitors from spitting on Franco’s grave.
Madrid is a perfect place to attend the “obligatory” bullfight. Madrid’s Plaza de Toros (bull ring) is one of the country’s finest and attracts some of the best matadors. Even though the spectacle is revolting for many, and its continuation is being challenged by animal rights groups, the bullfight has been part of Spanish culture for hundreds of years and should be experienced by any traveler who believes in becoming familiar with the culture of an area.
Another “obligatory” rite of passage through the culture of Madrid is the dining experience at Sobrino de Botin, a famous haunt of Ernest Hemingway and reputed to be the oldest restaurant in the world (from 1725). The restaurant interior attractively resembles a cave, and the food is excellent, especially the specialty, roast suckling pig. Ask your waiter to show you the wine cellar for an even more cave-like experience.
A popular day trip from the city involves a visit to Aranjuez, actually the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, only about thirty miles from Madrid, another summer palace of Spain’s royal family. It is a particularly opulent estate on the River Tagus, which is made more delightful by its 740 acres of gardens which offer solitude and respite from the oppressive Spanish summers. Inside, note, in particular, the Chinese Porcelain Room, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Smoking Room.
Barcelona, Spain, is a city rich in tradition which has elements spanning almost 2000 years, from Roman times through the Middle Ages up to the present. This port city has thrived, especially because of its location on the southeastern coast of Spain. The heart of the city is the Old Town, which includes the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter, La Ribera, containing 14th century mansions, the beautiful Parc de la Ciutadella, and the restored and bustling waterfront. The major thoroughfare in this part of the city is Las Ramblas, one of the most famous avenues in the world, lined with shops and restaurants, peopled by street entertainers, lovers, and tourists. Of special note in this section is Barcelona’s Cathedral, which was begun in the 13th century. Try to be there at noon on Sunday for a demonstration of the National Dance of Catalonia, the Sardana. Also nearby is Parc Guell, which began as a real estate venture of Barcelona’s famous architect, Antoni Gaudi, but was never finished and has been converted into a city park.
Gaudi’s presence and influence can be found in many areas of Barcelona. He was part of the Art Nouveau movement which, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, engulfed the city. Gaudi’s most famous building is the church, La Sagrada Familia. Gaudi began its construction in 1882 and the church was still unfinished at the time of his death in 1926. Construction still continues on this masterpiece, but, at this time, its completion date is totally uncertain.
There are a number of houses designed by the architect which offer a glimpse into his unusual approach to architecture. These include Casa Mila and Casa Battlo’. Other houses in the same area by other architects within the modernistic movement offer contrasting styles.
Another neighborhood, Montjuic, which occupies the high ground above the city center, is the old Jewish Quarter and also the sight of many events from the 1992 Olympic Games. Great views of the city and its harbor are available here and on a nearby mountain, Tibidabo.
Side trips in the Barcelona vicinity include beach excursions along the coast north and south of the city, called the Costa Dorada, or a trip to the tiny principality of Andorra, nestled in the Pyrenees between Spain and France.
Probably the most popular excursion is to the Montserrat Monastery, in the mountains just northwest (about 60 km or 40 miles) of Barcelona, a residence for Benedictine monks and one of the holiest places in Spain. The name derives from the “serrated” mountains which form a lovely backdrop for the monastery.
At the heart of this place is the small, wooden statue of the Black Virgin (La Moreneta), which is reputed to have been carved by St Luke and brought to Spain in 50 A.D. by St Peter. More likely, it is much younger, but the rumor persists, and the Black Virgin has become the patroness of the Catalonian region of Spain. Particular attention should be paid to the Basilica Facade, with its sculptures of Christ and the apostles, and the Way of the Cross, a path which depicts the “Stations of the Cross” outdoors in the form of fourteen statues. The path begins at the Placa de l’Abat Oliba.
The setting of the Montserrat Monastery, alone, is worth the trip.
La Mezquita, in Cordoba, Spain, began its existence as a mosque when construction began in 788 AD. The interior of the mosque is breathtaking with hundreds of red and white striped double arches. The Mihrab, the most sacred part of the mosque, has intricate geometric designs.
Later, in the life of this remarkable building (in the 16th century), after the Christians conquered the Moors, a cathedral was erected within the center of the mosque, which, except for its position, would probably be an important sight in and of itself. The Choir stalls are beautifully carved mahogany and the pulpits are also noteworthy. Now, however, it detracts somewhat from the mosque.
Outside is the Patio of the Orange Trees, a shady respite from the summer heat and the bell tower which dominates the skyline of the city.
The Moorish, walled city of Cordoba is a delight to explore because cars are not allowed in the city center. Buildings and walls are white-washed and residents plant flowers outside their windows to embellish the scene. Peek through the wrought-iron gates for a glimpse into the lovely flower-bedecked courtyards which the city is known for.
Stop at the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos which boasts formidable walls and several interesting towers. The gardens are lovely and, because of their abundant use of water, are particularly refreshing during the oppressive heat of summer.
Stroll through the elegant Plaza de Corredera with its attractive, orange colored buildings.
Segovia, Spain, is an enchanting and romantic city, northwest of Madrid. It contains three spectacular sights, all worthy of time and photos.
First, the Alcazar is a Cinderella-like castle with many turrets and towers, in a glorious setting on the western edge of town, high on a promontory overlooking open plains. It is Moorish in design with some beautiful rooms as well as some militarily strategic areas. Ascend the hazardous stairs of the tower for a sweeping view of the town and especially its cathedral.
The cathedral is the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain (circa 1520). The exterior was constructed with yellowish stone and has many spires as well as gargoyles and flying buttresses which add character. The central dome is the tallest structure in the city. The interior seems somehow delicate despite its incredible size (the vaulted ceilings are hundreds of feet high). It contains numerous chapels, sculptures and paintings. The cathedral is found on the perimeter of another glorious Plaza Mayor, with many shops and restaurants.
At the eastern end of the city is the famous Roman Aqueduct, still in use since the 1st century. It is in amazingly good condition, especially considering that the Romans used no mortar in its construction.
The historic city of Toledo is, deservedly, a World Heritage Site, like many in Spain, because it is a walled, Medieval city in which noteworthy treasures abound. From the walls and city gates to the many houses of worship to its prominent Alcazar (castle) and the narrow, winding streets that connect all the attractions, there is much to occupy the tourist here.
The Catedral is easily the most magnificent structure in the city. From the Reredos of the high altar, to the Choir, to the Transparante behind the altar — all are exquisite! Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside.
The Toledo Alcazar sits at the highest point of the city, with a commanding view of the countryside. Many of its displays and rooms focus on the siege of the castle during Spain’s Civil War in 1936. The residents resisted for many, many days. There is also a military museum which possesses many types of weaponry as well as miniature battle scenes and uniforms.
El Greco, the Greek who became one of Spain’s most famous artists, is revered in Toledo. His house and museum are open to the public.
Visit the Iglesia de Santo Tome’ to view El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgasz, one of his most famous paintings.
Take a short ride out of the city to the Parador Nacional de Conde Orgaz to get a view of the city made famous in El Greco’s painting, View of Toledo.
Seville is one of Spain’s gems. It is located in the southwestern part of the country, a region known as Andalusia. The area is extremely hot and dry during the summer but very comfortable during the majority of the rest of the year.
Seville’s Cathedral is the largest Gothic building in the world, and the third largest church in Europe. Its Moorish bell tower, the Giralda, has become a symbol of the city. The interior of the church displays much beauty and wealth, from the Choir stalls to the gilded Reredos of the Main Chapel, to the Sacristy and the Treasure. A Patio of Orange Trees, similar to the one at La Mezquita offers shade and greenery. Columbus’ grave (no one truly knows if his remains are really here) is also noteworthy.
Nearby is the Barrio Santa Cruz, a charming neighborhood of narrow streets, small picturesque squares, and numerous shops and restaurants, that is delightful for strolling and getting lost.
Seville’s Alcazar (castle) is a Moorish palace still used by Spain’s monarch when visiting the city. The architecture is distinctive, especially the extensive use of ceramic tiles, while the gardens are beautiful and tranquil, with pools and shade for refuge during the summer months.
Maria Luisa Park, just south of the city, adjacent to the river, offers a pleasant area of escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Note the beautiful, symmetrical Plaza de Espana and the Plaza de America, both of which contain buildings which blend Moorish and Andalusian architecture.
Some will notice the familiarity of the Plaza de Espana. It was used in a scene from Star Wars, Episode II, in which Anakin Skywalker and Princess Amidala stroll, arm in arm. The square is beautiful, although the ravages of time are apparent in that much of the tile on the banisters and elsewhere is cracked or missing. Especially interesting are the benches along the canal which highlight many of Spain’s cities using azulejos (painted tiles).
An interesting Seville experience, not to be missed, is a Flamenco show. One of the best can be found at El Arenal, near Seville’s bullring. Sure it is staged only for tourists, and, as such, is a bit trite and artificial, but the Flamenco is identified with Seville and is a dance which cannot easily be seen outside of this country. The show is a solid 1.75 hours with no intermission and displays colorful and elaborate costumes and excellent dancing.
An interesting excursion from Seville is to the town of Jerez de la Frontera, located south of Seville, which is noted for its sherry production and also for its Real Escuela Andaluza de Arte Ecuestre (school of equestrian skills). The famous Lippizaner stallions and their riders train here (the public is invited to view practice sessions for a small fee).
There are numerous Bodegas (Sherry wineries) which can be visited. One learns in the tours that there are several different kinds of sherry: Fino (most dry), Oloroso (a little sweeter), Amontillado (medium sweet), and Cream Sherry (even sweeter).
The Real Tesoro Tio Mateo is a fine bodega which allows visitors to taste the various types of sherry after touring the facility. It is a very friendly and accommodating place.
Avila, Spain, is a charming, Medieval walled city, famous for its Cathedral, its incredibly well-preserved walls, and for St Theresa, who was born and lived here. The Cathedral is built right into the city walls, so it doubles as a fortress. Visitors can walk the walls for great views of the surrounding landscape, as well as interesting looks into the squares and tiny streets of the city. The walls, punctuated with 88 impressive cylindrical towers, were built in the 11th century, are over a mile long, and are considered the best preserved in all of Europe.
9. Altamira Caves
The Altamira Caves, in Cantabria, Spain, are one of only a few treasures of prehistoric art in the world. Here, a visitor will find rock paintings from as early as 18,000 years ago. The caves were discovered in 1869. Because of potential destruction and despoiling of these ancient historical riches, access is controlled and severely limited. The would-be visitor must ask for permission to visit, by writing at least one year in advance.
Nearby is the tiny, lovely village of Santillana del Mar, a Medieval gem with perfectly preserved palaces and several significant religious buildings. This is a place which Jean-Paul Sartre described as “the prettiest little village in Spain”.
More famous than the caves at Altamira is the Grotto of Lascaux, in the Vezeres Valley of France, with its beautiful prehistoric paintings. Unfortunately, it has been closed to the public since 1963, to prevent the destruction of these priceless relics. However, Lascaux II replicates the original, using the same pigments found in the 17,000 year old artwork. Tickets for this and the nearby Grotto-de-Font-de-Gaume, which boasts somewhat younger paintings, should also be reserved in advance.
10. Pueblas Blancas
The Pueblas Blancas (White Villages) are a group of towns, east of Seville (see # 49 above) which are characterized by whitewashed houses and Moorish influences. Several of the towns are noteworthy for their history and charm.
Ronda, one of the most picturesque of the white villages of Spain, is known for the 170 meter (500 foot) gorge which divides the town, and the Roman bridge, Puente San Miguel, which spans the gorge. The houses on both sides of the gorge hang precipitously. For a treat, visit the oldest and, some say, the most beautiful bullring in Spain. Native son, Pedro Romero, one of the greatest bullfighters of all time, is immortalized throughout the town as well as in the Museum Taurino inside this bullring.
Another of the white villages is Arcos de la Frontera, an old Arabian town perched on the edge of a gorge. It is a quintessential hill town, with an Old Quarter composed of narrow streets and alleys rising to the ruins of a castle at the top of the hill. In the Plaza de Espana, visitors will find the Parador Casa del Corregidor, a great place to splurge for a few nights and the Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Asuncion, with its beautiful choir stalls and altarpiece. Other buildings of note include the Palacio del Mayorazgo, and the Iglesia de San Pedro.
Other villages which can be explored along the Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos include Ubrique, Zahara de la Sierra, Grazalema, Ronda la Viejo, Setenil, Gaucin, with breathtaking views to the Mediterranean, and Jimena de la Frontera.
Splurge a little and spend a night or two at the Parador de Ronda, a beautiful hotel along the gorge and beside the famous bridge in Ronda. Spain has a number of state-owned hotels (Paradors) which it operates. Many of these are historic or cultural landmarks in and around the country’s most important tourist destinations. Ronda’s Parador is particularly striking because of its setting.
Salamanca is another of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Its Plaza Mayor rivals Madrid’s in size and splendor, with numerous outdoor cafes at which to sip “una cervesa” (a beer) or two. The honey-colored stone is especially striking. Since Salamanca is a university town, there are many young people about and an attitude of free-wheeling fun and frolic in the air. Also visit the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells) and the two adjoining cathedrals (Nueva and Vieja) as you stroll the charming streets of the city.
12. Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela, in western Spain (Galicia), is one of the most important pilgrimage locations for Roman Catholics because of its connection to St James, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Relics of James and two other disciples are said to be found in a tomb under the altar of the Santiago Cathedral, the most important attraction in the city. Of special note in the Cathedral are the West Facade, the Portico da Gloria, and the Porta das Praterias. Additional city sights include the Hostel de los Reyes Catolicos, an inn and hospital for sick pilgrims, the magnificent Praza do Obradoiro, and the Convento de San Martino Pinario, an old monastery with a beautiful church.
13. Torremolinos & Costa del Sol
Torremolinos and the Costa del Sol is a beach area on the Mediterranean Sea which is extremely popular as a vacation resort for Europeans. Torremolinos makes a good location for a base of operations because it is small enough to retain some charm, yet developed enough to satisfy the hedonists. The city has an adorable pedestrian-only area crammed with shops and restaurants. The beach is broad and long, with many concessions for renting a chaise lounge and umbrella. Note that many women are topless on the beach, if that is an issue.
Marbella, west of Torremolinos, is a bit more upscale, but its Old Quarter is nevertheless pleasant to stroll. Admire its Moorish walls and Town Hall.
Mijas is an adorable white-washed village high above the coast with narrow, cobblestone streets and great views.
Malaga, east of Torremolinos, is a larger city and boasts a fortress, the Alcazaba, an imposing Cathedral, and the ruins of an ancient Moorish Castle.
Nerja, further east, is known for its secluded beaches and its famous cave, Cueva de Nerja, with its Paleolithic paintings.
Sample the world-famous seafood at Casa Juan, a friendly restaurant in Torremolinos which offers delicious, local dishes such as, adobo (fried shark), Boquerones (anchovies in vinegar), sardines, and mercado (grouper).
Cuenca, Spain, is the home of the famous Hanging Houses, or Casas Colgadas, which were the summer homes of the royal family in days gone by. The old town is very pretty with its narrow, winding streets. Also worthwhile is the Cathedral, which dates to the 12th century.
15. San Sebastian
San Sebastian, Spain, is basically a stylish beach resort, probably the premier one in Spain. The town lies on a lovely bay and is blessed with several great beaches, Playa de Ondarreta, Playa de la Concha, and Playa de la Zurriola. Besides the beach scene, the old town has charm and is crowded at all hours. The Plaza de la Constitucion is the main square of the old town (it used to be a bullring).
Imagine a thoroughly modern building which is supposed to represent a ship run aground. This is the extremely unusual architecture of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, 62 miles (100 kilometers) west of San Sebastian and an extremely worthwhile day trip. The building gleams in titanium and stone and was, perhaps, the most talked about piece of architecture constructed in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
16. Balearic Islands
The Balearic Islands lie below Spain’s southern coast and have become playgrounds for Europeans on holiday, as well as for travelers from other areas of the world. The most popular of the islands is Ibiza, the closest one to the mainland. Besides its beaches and nightlife, especially in the summer, it is distinguished by its Upper Town, Dalt Vila, which is basically a fortification that once guarded the ring-shaped bay. Sights worth visiting include the Esglesia de Santo Domingo, with its red-tiled domes, the Cathedral, which dates from the 13th century, and the Necropolis de Puig d’es Molins, considered to be a sacred cemetery by the Carthaginians, who once ruled here.