Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Malaga, Alicante – the names trip off the tongue not just as the most visited cities in Spain, but as some of the hottest tourist destinations in all of Europe.
Culture, food, history, golden sun-kissed beaches – Spain’s most famous cities offer it all. But the same applies in equal measure to many of Spain’s less-heralded cities.
In fact, if you would rather not follow the tourist herd and have your heart set on exploring Spain a little deeper, seeking out alternatives to the best-known destinations can give you a rewarding insight into the ‘real Spain’ in all its rich variety.
Here are just six Spanish cities that are well worth your attention.
Santiago de Compostela
First of all, it should be pointed out that Santiago de Compostela is no stranger to visitors. In fact, in many ways, it is the original Spanish tourist destination, the final stop on the legendary pilgrimage route the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James.
The capital of the northwestern region of Galicia itself takes its name from Jesus’s disciple and is supposedly the final resting place of the aforementioned St James the Great (Santiago in Spanish). The entire old town that built up around the shrine of St James (now an enormous cathedral with a fascinating architectural history all of its own) is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Expect history, expect religion, expect beautiful architecture and, as a major university city, expect a vibrant modern cultural scene to go with it, including great nightlife and fantastic food.
If Santiago de Compostela is the box to tick if you want to discover more about Spain’s medieval past, Bilbao is all about the country’s industrial heritage. This bustling northern port is also the largest city in the autonomous Basque Country, with its own unique culture boasting Europe’s oldest language.
Like Madrid, like Barcelona, Bilbao is a model city destination, with something to appeal to every type of visitor. With beaches to the north and the enchanting Basque hill country penning in the slender Nervion river valley which the city fills, Bilbao will suit you equally whether your ideal holiday is putting your feet up, hiking through the hills or ticking off historical and cultural sites.
Throw in fabulous bars and restaurants, countless family attractions, and one of only four Guggenheim Museums in the world, and it becomes easier to list reasons not to visit.
As the fifth largest city in Spain, Zaragoza probably deserves to rank higher than it does in lists of must-see Spanish cities. It’s not through lack of things to draw visitors in, either. On the contrary, the capital of the north-eastern Aragon region has cultural attractions and sights to rival any city in Spain, reflecting a unique and remarkable history.
The city’s two famous cathedrals, for example – the iconic Basilica del Pilar, rated by many as the most beautiful in Spain, and La Seo – both demonstrate the unique Aragonese Mudejar architectural style found all over the city.
Mudejar is an obviously Islamic-influenced style more often associated with Spain’s south, and a reflection of the fact that Zaragoza was part of an independent northern Moorish kingdom up until the 12th Century. Another example of this heritage is the UNESCO-listed Aljaferia Palace, built in the same style as the more famous Alhambra in Granada.
Throw in the remains of a Roman city, a castle and numerous art galleries (Goya is one of the city’s most famous sons), and you really do have a dream destination for any culture and history buff.
Renowned as Europe’s ‘oldest city’ with records of continuous inhabitation stretching back 3000 years, Cadiz has an atmosphere and a charm unique even by Andalusia’s laid-back standards.
Cadiz has seen it all – Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Moorish and Christian cultures have come and gone. It was also a major port involved in the Spanish ‘gold rush’ that followed the discovery of the Americas, which funded much of the city’s most grandiose, and now faded, architecture.
The city’s location alone makes it worth a visit. The oldest quarters are packed onto a slender spit of land jutting out into the Bay of Cadiz, itself a calm haven from the churning Atlantic beyond. Surrounded by beaches and baked in year-round sunshine, Cadiz’s winding streets, plentiful tapas bars, and ornate churches seem in a perpetual state of peaceful slumber – except, that is when Carnival season comes around each February, renowned as one of the most theatrical and raucous in Spain.
Segovia & Toledo
We’ve grouped our final two picks together not because they don’t each deserve exploring in their own right, but because both have a very similar attraction to visitors – picture-postcard scenery and magnificent historic architecture.
Smaller than the other cities in this list, you could pick either to see yet another side of Spain – or even take in both on the same trip, as they are both easily accessible from Madrid, Segovia to the north, Toledo to the south.
Occupying a magnificent hilltop location overlooking the river Tagus, Toledo was the capital of Spain until 1560 and home to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled over an empire covering most of Western Europe in the 16th Century. It is known as the City of Three Cultures with very prominent Moorish, Christian, and Jewish influences. With the whole old town designated a World Heritage Site, it is as picturesque a city as you could ever hope to visit.
Equally, Segovia is famous for its stunning Roman aqueduct and a palace that can only be described as a fairytale. In fact, rumor has it that it was the inspiration for the castle in Disney’s Cinderella, now reproduced at all of Disney’s world-famous resorts!
We hope these ideas have ignited a desire to explore Spain beyond the tried and tested tourist routes. If you decide to book a trip this year, don’t forget your travel insurance for Spain, complete with cancellation cover in case COVID-19 gets in the way.