Spain has a special place in my heart. It is the country where I spent a semester studying abroad in college – nearly 10 years ago! Like Portugal, I think mainland Spain is another underrated southern European country. Especially when compared to Italy or the Mediterranean islands.
This post will give you my list of the best places to visit in Spain. As I haven’t been to every region in this amazing country yet, I’ll update as I visit more of the country. I’ve ranked the cities listed in this article according to my preferences, but all are great. I 100% recommend that you visit each one!
Know Before You Go | Spain
Getting Around: Madrid and Barcelona have two major airports that serve as ports to the rest of Europe. This means that flying into the country is relatively easy, no matter where you come from in the world.
Once you are in Spain, depending on the distance you need to travel from point A to point B, one very cost efficient and hassle free way to get around is to take the train. It’s pretty easy to buy tickets at the train stations, but if you are a planner like me, you can purchase them in advance at sites like this one: Renfe.com.
When to Go: Spain has all four seasons, with somewhat mild winters and pretty hot summers (depending on the region, of course). Late Spring and Summer are the busiest months for tourists, but are still great times to go. And honestly, outside of Barcelona and Madrid, Spain hasn’t hit the high traffic of tourism you see throughout Italy, Iceland, and the UK, for example.
Currency Situation: Like most countries in Europe, Spain uses the Euro. As of today, the currency exchange rate is €1.18 to $1.00. Please check here for the latest exchange rates. Additionally, for the Americans reading this post, I recommend taking more cash around with you than typical as it is more widely accepted than credit cards.
Language Considerations: As you know, the official language of Spain is Spanish or Castellano as it is called there. Outside of major cities like Barcelona and Madrid, it can be difficult to find people who speak English. I recommend brushing up on the basics before your trip. Note sure where to start? Check out my post on the list of top Spanish phrases for travel.
The Best Cities in the Madrid Region of Spain
Madrid is the capitol of Spain, and probably the best known city in the country. It is also the largest city in Spain, and one of the most wealthy in the entire European Union. It has been occupied since ancient times, so boasts a long history, and is currently the official home of the royal family. Some of the most famous attractions include:
- The Royal Palace of Madrid: This palace is built over the Royal Alcázar of Madrid, which was occupied by the Moors until the 11th century. The Palace was constructed in the 18th century, after the Alcázar caught fire. Today it is used primarily for state ceremonies, but is open to the public to tour.
- Prado Museum: This museum houses what is considered the single best collection of Spanish art in the world. It is a must for any art enthusiast as the collection of European art found here is very extensive.
There are of course wayyy more things to do in this city – I highly recommend you take some time to shop on the Gran Vía, the selection is just amazing!
If you’ve been to both Madrid and Barcelona, you may have a strong preference for one over the other. Most people I know do, and I honestly prefer Barcelona myself. That is not to say that Madrid is not an awesome city, but to me Barcelona just feels a bit more different than your typical European city. What do you think?
The Best Cities in the Catalonia Region of Spain
Barcelona is not just my favorite city in Spain, it is one of my favorite cities in the world! I love this city because it offers so much its visitors. I mean, how many cities can you visit where you can spend one day visiting the beach AND the mountains?
Some of my favorite attractions in this city include:
- La Sagrada Familia: The world-renowned cathedral designed by the whimsical architect Antoni Gaudí. It has been under construction since 1882, but is finally nearing completion. This building is beautiful, with amazing lighting in the interior and a style that is quite unique compared to your standard cathedral. Throughout the city you can see many of Gaudí’s other architectural designs. Overall, his contributions to the city give it a unique look that you just have to see!
- Tibidabo Mountain: This is the highest point in Barcelona and offers amazing views of the entire city. You can also visit a small theme park and a cathedral while on the mountain.
La Barceloneta: This is one of the most beautiful and popular beaches in Barcelona. There are plenty of hotels and places to eat nearby as well.
I could go on and on about this city – and I do! Please check out this post for a detailed 4-day travel guide for Barcelona.
The Best Cities the the Andalusian Region of Spain
Granada is the first city I’ll mention in the autonomous region of Andalucía. This region constitutes the entirety of southern Spain, and is most similar to the view that people have of Spain. This is especially true if they have not Spain visited before. This city was the final hold of the Islamic Emirate in Spain and marks the location of the Reconquista of Al-Andalus (Andalucía).
The reason why I think Granada is one of the best places to visit in Spain is that it is quite a charming and romantic city. Another factor that makes it special is how easy it is to see the legacy of Arab influence within the city’s architecture. This gives the city a unique vibe that can only be found in southern Spain. Some key attractions include:
- The Alhambra: This palace served as the home for the last Muslim Emirs in Granada. Originally constructed as a small fortress over Roman ruins in the 9th century, it was rebuilt as a palace in the 14th century. The palace sits atop a mountain overlooking the city and is well-kept, with beautiful gardens throughout.
- Albaicín District: This district was one of the oldest Muslim cultural centers in Granada. Itserved as the Moorish district during the time of Muslim rule in the city. It still displays the winding walkways and beautiful building façades from the middle ages. This area surrounds the Alhambra, so it’s any easy addition to your itinerary if you plan to visit the palace. Take some time to stroll around or make a stop at a local Flamenco spot, such as the Cuevas Los Tarantos. Here you can experience this intriguing and artistic form of traditional Spanish dance and music.
- The Granada Cathedral: This gorgeous cathedral was constructed after the Reconquista and another beautiful Spanish construction. It is connected to the Royal Chapel, which is the final resting place of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. This cathedral is centrally located in Granada, so it is a perfect stop for a day spent in the main part of the city.
Córdoba is another city in Andalucía that displays a strong Arab influence. This city is one of the best places to visit in Spain because it is just so incredibly picturesque. This city is known for the beautifully decorated patios that many residents have in the front of their homes. These patios likely originate from the Roman atrium; and the tradition carried on by the Arab residents in the region. You can find them in the Jewish Quarter of the city, most notably down the Calleja de las Flores.
You should also check out the following sights while in the city:
- The Mezquita: This place of worship originally started out as a mosque, constructed in the 8th century. It was converted to a cathedral in the 13th century, but still retains much of its original architecture. This is an absolute must-see if you visit Córdoba.
- Roman Ruins: Cordóba offers a few places to check out some ancient Roman ruins. Make a stop at the Roman Temple of Córdoba and the Roman Bridge, which serves as a pedestrian walkway today.
A lovely and ritzy option, this Spanish city sits on the Costa Del Sol, and is a pretty popular tourist destinations. With its lovely beaches, great restaurants, and high-end shopping options, it’s a great place to go for a bit of escape from reality.
If you decide to check it out, here are a few ideas:
- Puerto Banús Marina: This area is just lovely for a nice stroll, particularly in the morning or in the evening so you can watch the sunrise / sunset.
- Marbella Old Town: Stop here for a taste of 15th century Spain. This street features brightly colored homes with lovely flower boxes.
- La Cañada: If shopping is your thing, you will not want to miss this huge shopping mall. It has over 100,000m sq ft, so you can literally shop until you drop.
Sevilla (Seville) is the capitol of Andalucía and the forth largest city in Spain. It has a very similar history as Granada and Córdoba, and was actually once part of the Caliphate of Córdoba. It is a yet another architecturally beautiful city, as shown by some of its top attractions:
- Alcázar de Sevilla: Originally constructed by Arabs in the 8th century, it was expanded by Spanish royalty in the Middle Ages. This palace still houses the royal family today, and includes lush gardens in addition to the breathtaking edifices.
- Plaza de España: Instead of a traditional square, this plaza is shaped as a semi-circle and is surrounded by intricately painted, columned buildings. It’s a great place for an evening stroll or for people-watching :).
The Best Cities in the Valencia Region of Spain
Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, and can be found near the coast in eastern Spain. I spent many weekends here during my time in Spain, as I studied just 30 minutes outside of the city. It is a very vibrant city that offers a few unique attractions and experiences to visitors:
- City of Arts and Sciences: This is one of Spain’s top attractions and features several buildings. These include a planetarium, interactive science museum, and an opera house; to name a few. In addition to being a great center for learning, the buildings themselves are stunning and uniquely designed.
- Valencia Cathedral: This is a mostly gothic style cathedral constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries. This cathedral has a bell tower “Micalet”, which visitors can climb to witness views of the entire city. Prepare for a bit of a journey via stairs to the top of the tower!
- Las Fallas: This is an annual festival that takes place in Valencia every spring. Locals construct massive, cartoon-like floats (fallas) in preparation for the festival. The neighborhoods display these floats in every Valencia neighborhood once the festival begins in March. The end of the festival is most exciting, when every float is set on fire! The festival offers lots of food (e.g., Buñelos), parades, contests, etc., so it is definitely an experience not to be missed.
Sagunto is the city where I lived while studying abroad in Spain as a college student. It’s a quaint city with a long history, as it was once occupied by Romans over 2000 years ago. This city is really what made me fall in love with travel, from the friendly residents to strolls in the very walkable city, it just has so much charm.
Here are a few of the best attractions in the city:
- Sagunto Castle and Theatre: This castle was built by the Romans as a fortress and was used during battles with the Carthaginians. It sits atop the highest mountain in the city, and provides sweeping views of the area. Nearby is the partially reconstructed theatre that was also built by the Romans. You can sometimes catch the occasional show there too.
- Sagunto Beach: A really nice beach on the Mediterranean, this is a nice place to go and unwind. There are plenty of options for eating nearby as well.
As Sagunto is not a popular tourist destination, its most popular to visit this city as a day trip from Valencia. Here is a great option if you’d like to find out more. For more information on this city, see this post on the best 2-day Sagunto Itinerary.
Final Thoughts | The Best Places to Visit in Spain
Overall, my favorite parts of Spain are its warm and friendly people, and delicious food! I also really appreciate the way of life in Spain. Things just happen at a slower pace, which is a nice change from my day-to-day in D.C. I’ll add more to this list as I get to see more of the country. So stay tuned!
Have you visited Spain before? What are your favorite places to visit there? Comment below!