From fiestas and sizzling cuisine to world-class museums and cutting edge art galleries, there is a reason why Spain endures as one of the world’s most popular destinations. Like the country’s famous tapas, Spain itself is a tempting smorgasbord of bustling cities, scenic countryside, and sunny islands, which visitors can nibble away at on repeat trips or consume in one giant feast. This is one appetizing nation!
In spite of its myriad attractions, most come to Spain for sun, sand, and self-indulgence, flocking to the likes of the Costa del Sol and Costa Brava, to while away days on beaches and nights in clubs. From the Balearics to the Canary Islands, it’s not all resorts and hotel complexes – quaint fishing villages, retreats, and secluded beaches are plenty, allowing to veer off the tourist trail.
Spain is much more than holidays in the sun – away from the beach, there is an extraordinary variety of things to do, from climbing snow-capped peaks in the Pyrenees, to hiking the ancient pilgrimage route of St. James Way, from driving in the protected Medes Island to stargazing in Tenerife. Alternatively, you could drop at one of the country’s many festivals, such as ‘Running of the Bulls’, ‘La Tomatina’, and the ‘Baby Jumping Festival’, a somewhat bizarre event that happens annually in Castrillo de Murcia.
And then there is the cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville, Valencia….the list goes on. Each one of those vibrant metropolises has their own distinct flavor – the Dali architecture and sweeping beaches of Barcelona seem a long way from the wide boulevards and soaring skyscrapers of Madrid. From the capital, Madrid, to the Costas, from the high Pyrenees to the Moorish cities of the south – there are genuinely surprising attractions at every turn, whether it’s hip restaurants in the Basque country, the wild landscapes of the central plains, or cutting-edge galleries in the industrial north.
Spain’s cities are among the most vibrant in Europe. Exuberant Barcelona, for many, has the edge, thanks to Gaudí’s extraordinary Modernista architecture, the lively promenade of Las Ramblas, four miles of sandy beach and the world’s best soccer team. Madrid claims as many devotees – immortalized in the movies of Pedro Almodóvar, and shot through with a contemporary style that informs everything from its major league art museums to its carefree bars and summer cafés. Then there’s Seville, home of flamenco and all the clichés of southern Spain; Valencia, the vibrant capital of the Levante, with a thriving arts scene and nightlife; and Bilbao, a not-to-miss stop on Spain’s cultural circuit, due to Frank Gehry’s astonishing Museo Guggenheim. But for all their disparities, Spain’s cities are bound by their remarkable history and enviable cultural feats, which are proudly displayed in the country’s museums, galleries, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spain is the country with the second largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which makes it a paradise for culture buffs.
The Spanish landscape, too, holds just as much fascination and variety as the country’s urban centers. The evergreen estuaries of Galicia could hardly be more different from the high, arid plains of Castile, or the gulch-like desert landscapes of Almería. In particular, Spain has some of the finest mountains in Europe, with superb walking – short hikes to week-long treks – in a dozen or more protected ranges or sierras – especially the Picos de Europa and the Pyrenees. There are still brown bears and lynx in the wild, not to mention boar, storks and eagles, while over three thousand-mile coastline means great opportunities for fishing, whale-watching, and dolphin-spotting.
Agriculture, meanwhile, makes its mark in the patterned hillsides of the wine and olive growing regions, the baking wheat plantations and cattle ranches of the central plains, the meseta, and the rice fields of the eastern provinces of Valencia and Murcia, known as the Levante. These areas produce some of Spain’s most famous exports, and with the country now at the heart of the contemporary European foodie movement, there’s an entire holiday to be constructed out of simply exploring Spain’s rich regional cuisine – touring the Rioja and other celebrated wine regions, snacking your way around Extremadura and Andalucía in search of the world’s best jamón serrano (cured mountain ham), or tucking into a paella in its spiritual home of Valencia.
And finally, there are the beaches – one of Spain’s greatest attractions, and where modern tourism to the country began in the 1960s. Here, too, there’s a lot more variety than the stereotypical images might suggest. Long tracts of coastline – along the Costa del Sol in Andalucía in particular – have certainly been massively over-developed, but delightful pockets remain, even along the biggest, concrete-clad Costas. Moreover, there are superb windsurfing waters around Tarifa and some particularly low key resorts along the Costa de la Luz. On the Costa Brava, in the northeast in Catalunya, the string of idyllic coves between Palamos and Begur is often overlooked, while the cooler Atlantic coastline boasts the surfing beaches of Cantabria and Asturias, or the unspoiled coves of Galicia’s estuaries. Offshore, the Balearic Islands – Ibiza, Formentera, Mallorca and Menorca – also have some superb sands, with party-fueled Ibiza in particular offering one of the most hedonistic backdrops to beach life in the entire Mediterranean.
There are many reasons why Spain is pretty much irresistible and infectious. Wherever you are in the country, you can’t help but notice the Spaniards’ wild enthusiasm for having a good time. Festival time is a case in point – these aren’t staid, annual celebrations, they are reaffirmations of life itself, complete with fireworks, fancy dress, giants, devils, bonfires, parties, processions and sheer Spanish glee. Even at outside fiesta time there’s always something vibrant and noisy happening – from local market to late-night bar, weekend soccer match to beachside dance club. Meals are social affairs – and long lunches and late dinners are the norm throughout the country.
Spain is also a top destinations for eco-tourism, offering many amazing opportunities for outdoor recreations. One of Spain’s most popular ecotourism destinations is the Sierra Nevada National Park, which offers a lot more than the skiing for which it is best known for. With 20+ peaks over 10,000 ft. tall, the park boasts spectacular scenic vistas, as well as numerous natural mineral springs, and more than 50 mountain lakes. Covering over 85,000 hectares, stretching from the Alpujarra to El Marquesado and the Lecrin Valley, the park’s diverse ecosystems are home to 2,100 plant species (60 of which are unique to the area). The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is also home to an array of animals, including the Eurasian eagle-owl, wild boar, badgers and a thriving population of Iberian ibex.
Andalusia’s Doñana National Park encompasses marshland, shallow streams and sand dunes on Spain’s southern Atlantic coast. Purchased by World Wildlife Fund in partnership with the government in 1963, the wetlands offer an impressive biodiversity that makes it unique on the European continent. The variety of ecosystems contained within the 85 square miles protected area include thousands of migratory birds (from Europe and Africa), Spanish red deer, European badger, Egyptian mongoose, and the critically endangered Iberian lynx and Spanish imperial eagle. In short, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see for Spain eco tourists.
When to Go?
If Spain is a country of many regions, it’s also a country of many climates. The best time to visit depends on where you’re going and what you’re planning to see. The high central plains (which include Madrid) suffer from fierce extremes – very hot during the summer months, bitterly cold and swept by freezing winds in winter. The Atlantic coast, in contrast, has a tendency to be damp and misty, with a relatively brief, humid summer. The Mediterranean south is warm virtually all year round, and in parts of Andalucía it’s positively subtropical – it’s often pleasant enough to take lunch outside, even in the winter months. On a general holiday or city break, in most regions spring, the early part of summer and fall are the best times to visit. Temperatures will be fairly moderate, sites and attractions open, and tourist numbers relatively low.
Between January and March magic falls over the Spanish landscape. It’s the blossoming of almond trees, and hues of white and pink flood the Mediterranean scenery – for many, this is a taste of spring. Fields of almond trees are dressed in an elegant coat of colorful blossoms, a beautiful landscape to see, especially in the Andalusia region.
AirlinePros partners Wamos Air (EB/460), headquartered in Madrid, and Volotea (V7/712), based in Barcelona, offer domestic and international flights, connecting Spain with major European cities, as well as popular destinations in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.