Look beyond the cliches of paella, sangria, and siesta and you're sure to get the best out of your travels to Spain in this amazingly diverse country. Even in the most over-touristed resorts of the Costa del Sol, you'll be able to find an authentic bar or restaurant where the locals eat, and a village not far away where an age-old bullfighting tradition owes nothing to tourism.
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The large cities of the north, from Barcelona to Bilbao, have reinvented themselves as essential cultural destinations (and they don't all close down for hours for a kip every afternoon). When the world looks to Spain for culinary inspiration - the country has some of the most acclaimed chefs and innovative restaurants in the world - it's clear that things have changed. Spain, despite the ongoing economic uncertainty, sees itself very differently from a generation ago. So should you - be prepared to be surprised.
Facts about Spain
- Spain’s land area is around half a million square kilometres – about twice the size of the UK or Oregon. The population is around 46 million – some eighty percent of whom declare themselves nominally Catholic, though religious observance is patchy.
- Politically, Spain is a parliamentary monarchy; democracy was restored in 1977, after the death of General Franco, the dictator who seized power in the Civil War of 1936–39.
- Spaniards read fewer newspapers than almost any other Europeans – tellingly, the best-selling daily is Marca, devoted purely to football.
- Spanish (Castilian) is the main official language, but sizeable percentages also speak variants of Catalan (in Catalunya, parts of Valencia and Alicante provinces, and on the Balearic Islands), Galician and Basque, all of which are also officially recognised languages.
- A minority of Spaniards attend bullfights; it doesn’t rain much on the plains; and they only dance flamenco in the southern region of Andalucía.
- The highest mountain on the Spanish peninsula is Mulhacén (3483m), the longest river is the Rio Tajo (716km).
- Spain has 43 sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list – more than twice as many as the USA.
- Between them Real Madrid and Barcelona have won the Spanish league title over fifty times and the European Cup (Champions League) thirteen times and counting.
Places to visit in Spain
If you’re planning to travel to Spain for the first time, be warned: this is a country that fast becomes an addiction. You might intend to come just for a beach holiday, a walking tour or a city break, but before you know it you’ll find yourself hooked by something quite different – the wild celebration of some local fiesta, perhaps, or the otherworldly architecture of Barcelona. Even in the best-known places to visit – 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. Soon, you’ll notice that there is not just one Spain but many – and indeed, Spaniards themselves often speak of Las Españas (the Spains).
Best time to visit Spain
Although the summer months are beautiful along the coasts, thanks to the cooling breeze, the heat can be unbearable in inland areas such as Seville and Madrid. The best time to visit Spain is generally during spring and autumn when the weather is warm and pleasant, yet not uncomfortable. For an in-depth view of the Spanish weather, visit our weather page.
Itinerary for when you travel Spain
With multiple beautiful cities and coastal towns to discover in Spain, creating an itinerary can be quite a task. Although holiday packages seem to dominate the tourism industry in Spain, if you would like to explore the country with a tailor-made plan, Rough Guides can help! Below, we've created you an itinerary with a splendid mix of city, sun and culture. For a more specific route, we've made some itineraries which round up the best routes depending on what you are wanting on your travels to Spain.
Days 1 - 2: Madrid
Spain's capital, Madrid, offers style and elegance. Visit the three major sites; The Royal Palace, the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor. For Museums head to the Prado Art Museum, famed as being one of the best galleries in the world, and the National Archaeological Museum. To experience Madrid at it's best, stroll down Gran Via in the late afternoon when the streets are buzzing with life.
Days 2 - 4: Seville
Seville is your place if you are wanting Spanish culture. Packed with Moorish history, flamenco bars, tapas, and more sangria than you will be able to manage, this charming historical city is an underrated gem. Visit the Plaza de Espana, explore the Old Quarter, and enjoy the palace gardens at the Royal Alcazar. Seville cathedral is where you will find the grave of the famed Christopher Columbus, and a small climb up the Las Setas de Sevilla wooden sculpture will give you scenic views over the city.
Days 4 - 6: La Malvarrosa
La Malvarrosa is the closest beach to the city, although for a day trip it is worth travelling a little further to the charming Roman town of Sagunto where you will find a beautiful beach that stretches for a mile and a half. As for the city of Valencia itself, check out the Central Market, the Science and Cultural Museum (Ciudad de las y las Ciencias), the Cathedral and la Lonja de la Seda.
Days 6 - 10: Barcelona
Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, has long been praised as the best spot in Spain for it's wacky Gaudi architecture and historical art scene. Must-see sights include La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, and Casa Mila and Batllo. There is a charm to Barcelona like no other, found by simply strolling it's charismatic streets and indulging in its lively atmosphere. Explore the Gothic Quarter, and dine to your heart's content.
When you travel Spain, you'll notice a diversity between cities that is unlike anywhere else. Partly, this is down to an almost obsessive regionalism, stemming from the creation in the late 1970s of seventeen comunidades autonomías – autonomous regions – with their own governments, budgets and cultural ministries, even police forces. You might think you are on holiday in Spain – your hosts may be adamant that you’re actually visiting Catalunya, and will point to a whole range of differences in language, culture and artistic traditions, not to mention social attitudes and politics. Indeed, the old days of a unified nation, governed with a firm hand from Madrid, seem to have gone forever, as the separate kingdoms that made up the original Spanish state reassert themselves in an essentially federal structure.
Food and drink in Spain
There is more than meets the eye when it comes to cuisine in Spain than paella, tapas, and Sangria. Of course, seafood dishes are popular on the coasts and inland, meat is the preferred option. Traditional dishes include croquettes, omelette, and pisto. The Spanish celebrate good food, as with most Mediterranean cultures, so finding a huge market selling everything from chorizos to fresh prawns will be no problem. For more food inspiration, read further on food and drink in Spain!