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Spain is a fascinating country rich in diversity, history, and tradition. From the coast of Celtic Galicia, over the Basque country and Castile down to Andalucía, this country is abundant in different architectural styles, cuisines, landscapes, and attractions. Whether you’re a foodie on the hunt for your next gourmet adventure, a lover of art and architecture, wish to wander through cities with a historic past, or simply want to enjoy an unforgettable vacation, you’ll surely get your fill. Here are our top six Spanish city destinations that will easily make you understand why Spaniards are so proud of their nation!
1. Madrid – The Capital of Tapas
Madrid isn’t just the Spanish capital or home to King Felipe VI and his Letizia, it’s also indisputably the capital of Spain’s most popular export – tapas! Tapas are little portions of famous regional dish at a lower price. As you can imagine, it’s possible to eat your way through a large range of dishes in just one evening! Madriders are notorious for flocking into the streets in the vicinity of the Plaza Mayor to enjoy tapas and beer with friends after work – particularly on Friday evenings. Here is a selection of the most frequented, traditional tapas bars in Madrid. Having suffered from a tremendous loss of customers, the Mercado de San Miguel diversified its product range and transformed into a foodie paradise (it has been referred to as “a mini Disneyland for foodies”) offering tapas in a nice atmosphere. This market is an absolute must if you want to have a bite in a beautiful spot! Also, if you like street music, walk a few steps over to the Puerta del Sol, where you’ll most likely be able to sit down on the side of the fountain and listen to one of the many bands competing for listeners.
Having only been declared the capital city in 1561, Madrid is rich in Philipp II’s Herrerian, Baroque, and classical architecture. Also, it’s home to many museums and art galleries. Besides many other magnificent works of art, one of the must-sees is definitely Diego Velazquez’ Las Meninas at the Museo Nacional del Prado.
2. Barcelona – Gaudí’s Chosen One
Besides having been the title of a song by Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Barcelonean opera singer, Montserrat Caballé, Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city and the country’s economic epicenter. According to legend, it was built around the 3rd century BC by either the Greeks or the father of Hannibal and then became part of the Roman Empire. Traces of their presence can still be found in the walls of the cathedral. Barcelona’s city center, the Gothic Quarter, was mainly built during the Middle Ages and is one of its major attractions. An absolute must-see is the Gothic cathedral, Catedral de la Santa Cruz y Santa Eulalia.
But, of course, Barcelona’s stars are Gaudí and Picasso. Do pay a visit to Gaudí’s Park Güell – designed by the architect and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site – along with Casa Milà and Casa Batlló. Gaudí tried to imitate nature with his masterpiece, the basilica Sagrada Familia. That being a difficult objective to achieve, the building is still unfinished today! Nonetheless, do walk through its nave and marvel at how the pillars and arcs resemble trees. Should you get tired, take a break and delve into one of the traditional dishes of this region: Escudella i carn d’olla or Botifarra Amg Monteges (Botifarra sausage with beans). Given all of Barcelona’s splendour, it comes as no surprise that Picasso’s formative years were spent in this city. It is here that he met with other artists and avant-garde thinkers, and held his first exhibition at the Els Quatre Cats. Today, the Picasso Museum features various paintings from his Blue Period.
3. Seville – The Heart of Andalucia
Despite what many believe, the Sevillana was not invented in Seville and technically isn’t Flamenco. Nonetheless, it’s the dance most commonly performed during the Feria de Sevilla – one of the city’s most important yearly events, during which people build casetas (individual decorated marquee tents) on the far bank of the Guadalquivir River, wear traditional dresses, dance Sevillanas, and party into the early mornings to tapas, wine, and Sherry. The daily parades of carriages and riders in the bullring are quite picturesque.
Seville is the capital of the autonomous region of Andalucía and, through a series of invasions, has a very unique character. The city was held by the Romans for several hundred years, and their traces can still be found in the form of an aqueduct and the columns of La Almada de Hercules. Following invasions by the Vandals, the Suebi and the Visigoths, Seville was taken by the Moors in 711 AD and flourished under their rule. Contrary to what the Spanish kings would later try to make us believe, the Spanish city had a Golden Age under Moorish rule and saw Muslims, Jews, and Christians living together peacefully – resulting in a unique cultural and architectural fusion. The Moors left their traces in Andalucía: It is thanks to them that we nowadays have guitars, can enjoy Flamenco and eat Gazpacho. Yes, Seville is the home to Gazpacho Sevillano – a soup introduced from North Africa and later adapted to local taste. Therefore, leaving Seville without eating Gazpacho or visiting a Flamenco show can be considered barbarism! After having visited the amazing Alcazár de Sevilla, the Giralda, and the Seville Cathedral, you’ll surely be hungry enough to give it a try! Also, don’t miss the walk through the Barrio Santa Cruz.
4. Granada – Nasrid Palace City
Imagine a building so splendid that even your worst enemies wouldn’t dare destroy it. That’s what happened with the Alhambra in Granada. Built during the Nasrid period, this magnificent and geometrically perfect palace survived the Reconquista and, whereas not officially declared one of the World Wonders, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The splendor of its details will make you understand how generations of Spanish monarchs marvelled at it rather than tear it down.
Granada was originally built by Jews around the time of the Moorish invasion and later transformed into the most important city of Al Andalus. The 13th century saw the start of the Nasrid dynasty and the foundation of the Emirate of Granada in 1238. The city was the last one to fall into the hands of Ferdinand II and Isabella of Castilia during their Reconquista of Spain. Even though their son, Carl V, built a renaissance structure into the Alhambra, the building survived all of Spain’s violent times – even the Civil War – without too much damage. Besides visiting the Alhambra itself, we highly recommend a trip to the Alhambra Museum with its rich display of Spanish-Moorish art. Also, the Palacio De Los Olvidados (Palace of the Forgotten) is the go-to place for anyone interested in the original founders of the city – the Spanish Jews that had to face conversion or expulsion during the Reconquista. For anyone interested in churches, the Basilica Nuestra Senora de Las Angustias, with its distinct Baroque style, is another must. Round off your trip to Granada with a typical regional experience, Jardines Zoraya‘s Flamenco show.
5. Valencia – Home to Paëlla and El Cid
Besides being the city where Paëlla (yum!) originated, Valencia is also the home of Spain’s national hero – El Cid. This Castilian nobleman led a siege against the city with a Christian and Moorish army, which ended the Moorish rule for several years. He is now a legend in Spanish folklore, and there is even an opera based on his story – Le Cid de Massenet!
Valencia was originally founded by the Romans in 138 BC and then, amid invasions of Suebi, Vandals, and Alans, saw longer periods of rule by the Byzantines, Visigoths, and Moors. Today, the city’s old town is majorly made up of magnificent Gothic architecture. One example of this is the Valencia Cathedral, which is said to hold the Holy Grail – the cup Jesus drank from at the last supper. Other must-sees in Valencia are La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia, a Gothic exchange market and symbol of the city’s economic power by the time of its foundation, and the Torres de Serranos, the medieval city gate.
Most of Valencia’s nightlife can be found in the Barrios de la Carmen – the crazy maze of alleyways from Arab times. How about discovering this amazing old part of town and then stopping off for a drink and a Paëlla? Another one of Valencia’s main attractions is the yearly Fallas festival. In the course of a year, each neighborhood produces a construction, called Falla, which is then burnt in huge bonfires on March 19th. On the two days preceding this event, there is usually a beautiful flower offering to the Virgen de las Desamparados.
6. Cartagena – Hannibal’s Hometown
Let’s for a moment imagine the panic an army marching with elephants must have incited when appearing in Italy in 218 BC. Yep, Cartagena was Hannibal Barca’s hometown, from which he marched north with 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 38 elephants and crossed the Pyrenees, the Gallic territory and the Alps into Italy. Less than 50% of his army actually made it that far. Yet, he raged in the Roman territory for 15 years before being called to North Africa in 201 BC! Nowadays, no traces can be found in Cartagena – yet, the ancient Punic city walls can still be visited. The city was conquered by Rome in 209 BC – and this is where most of its older landmarks originate.
Nowadays, the ancient Roman theatre is one of the major and most impressive landmarks in what they used to call Cartago Nova. Besides that, Cartagena was a major port with its natural harbor, therefore, a visit to the Naval Museum is another option. Being right at the border of the Mediterranean Sea, trying a seafood dish is an absolute must. In case you aren’t into fish, Zarangollo – a traditional vegetable dish of the region of Murcía – is another option.
What’s your favorite city in Spain? Let us know in the comments below!
Images courtesy of Tourspain