Bilbao and San Sebastian
The beautiful city of Bilbao is in the northern part of Spain, in the middle of the Basque Country. It is a showcase of Spain’s most modern side. Bilbao dazzles with its rich historical and medieval atmosphere, combined with modern life and the vivid reflection of its industrial past.
Art and history intertwine in this magnificent city that is home to one of the most famous art institutions in Europe, the Guggenheim Museum. Its unmistakable futuristic design of curvilinear and twisted forms, covered with limestone, glass curtains, and titanium plates, has become a symbol of Bilbao. After visiting his art collection tomorrow, the best thing to do is undoubtedly take a good walk along the Nervión.
Its enviable location in the Bay of Biscay, on the shores of the Cantabrian Sea, allows Bilbao, along with San Sebastián, to have excellent seafood and fish. Here any ingredient is an undisputed star, from ham, prawns, or anchovies to cheese, chorizo, or delicious mushroom croquettes.
In fact, both cities compete for first place as gastronomic destinations in Spain. Three restaurants in San Sebastian have been awarded the highest gastronomic recognition in the world: the prestigious Michelin stars. One of the best ways to tour its neighborhoods and get closer to its culture is through its gastronomy.
If your choice is the Basque Country, another unmissable place to visit is the coastal town of Getaria. Continuing with the gastronomic description, its privileged location between the sea and the slopes makes grape cultivation possible, from which the Chacol wine comes, which is widely recognized for its acidity.
But let’s go even further into the interior of this country; Pamplona awaits us.
Another of the most beautiful cities in Spain is Pamplona. Just 150 kilometers from the Cantabrian coast we find the home of San Fermín and its famous bullfights. But Pamplona is much more than this controversial and popular festival. Regardless of the festival, held in July, the city is worth visiting, as it still retains its medieval defensive walls, declared a National Monument. They are so imposing that today the walls have become the perfect setting for hundreds of leisure activities.
During the month of August, the Wall Festival is celebrated, which consists of a cycle of shows and activities that revolve around the circus, music, and dance and becomes a classic in the afternoons and evenings of the month of August in the Navarran capital. It is a fun and different program, open to all audiences, and free.
Undoubtedly, a good place to start our tourist visits for the day and end it at night tasting the famous Pamplona pinchos.
Going further into the continent we find the impressive city of Zaragoza.
Zaragoza is not one of the most common destinations, but due to its location on the way to Barcelona, making a stop in the city never hurts. The Aragonese capital, which reflects all its exuberance on the banks of the Ebro River, is famous for its folklore, local gastronomy, and emblematic places such as the Pilar Basilica, the Salvador Cathedral, or “la Seo,” and the Aljafera Palace.
These last two, among many others, are part of the Mudejar architecture of Aragon and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And obviously, we cannot fail to mention the Fiestas del Pilar, one of Spain’s busiest patron saint festivals.
But we must continue exploring the country because Spain has a lot to offer, and our next stop is Barcelona.
The illustrious Catalan capital is home to ancient Roman ruins, modern-era masterpieces, gothic palaces, retro cocktail bars, and one of the world’s most revered football stadiums.
The Sagrada Familia is undoubtedly one of the icons of Barcelona that you should visit. Walking the Rambla is another of the things you can’t stop doing. It is the most famous street in the city, starting at Plaza Catalunya and descending to the Columbus monument.
If you go to Barcelona and you like travel (and books), you can’t stop going to Altair, a two-story bookstore specializing in travel. In addition to travel literature, it is the ideal place to stock up on guides and maps of the most remote destinations, especially if you have a long trip on your doorstep.
Cuenca, one of Castile’s provinces, is situated between the gorges of the Jcar and Huécar rivers, giving it a distinct setting.
Cuenca is home to the famous hanging houses, which are so named because part of them is cantilevered. Its wide balconies, protruding from the high rocky ledge of the Huécar River gorge, are worth seeing. The only three examples, which still have balconies, are the Mermaid House and the two Houses of the Kings, built between the 13th and 15th centuries.
These structures helped the walled city of Cuenca earn the designation of World Heritage Site in 1996, together with its Gothic cathedral. Throughout their history, they have gone through various renovations, the most recent being those carried out during the 1920s, when there were still eight, and in 1966, due to the high state of degradation of those that remained standing. They have been used as homes for private use and as town halls.
Another architectural singularity is the skyscrapers of Cuenca. These buildings have the particularity of being three or four stories high when looking at them from Calle Alfonso VIII. However, as there was hardly any room to build, the people of Cuenca had the idea of building downwards, thus extending the buildings towards Santa Catalina Street up to even 6 floors below, which was quite a prodigy for the time.
Cuenca is also home to two archaeological sites (Las Hoyas and Lo Hueco). Thus, in 2015, the MUPA, or Paleontology Museum of Castilla La Mancha, was born, where we can find remains of the deposits, some of which are unique pieces.
And now it’s time to enter the heart of the country to visit Madrid and Toledo.
Madrid and Toledo
It would be an unforgivable mistake not to visit Madrid at some point during your stay in Spain. The capital is a magnificent destination envied throughout Europe and well worth a good weekend trip.
Madrid exudes elegance and class thanks to its ornate architecture and perfectly manicured parks. Art lovers can treat themselves to a cultural feast by visiting the Reina Sofa National Art Center Museum and the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, all three of which form the so-called Madrid Art Triangle.
There is no chance of getting bored in this capital, with infinite places to visit, but the impressive city of Toledo is a must if you want to rest from the tumult of the Spanish capital.
Located at a discreet distance from Madrid (about 70 km), Toledo attracts a sophisticated public, offering nature and urban life in one place. Located on a hill above the Castilla La Mancha plain in the heart of the country, Toledo is respected for its architecture and ancient history.
Visiting the Cathedral, dating from the 13th century, the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz, dating from the 10th century, and the impressive surroundings of the Alcázar are some of the many options offered by this Spanish city. Toledo is indisputably the cradle of culture, where Christian, Jewish, and Muslim histories intertwine.
Furthermore, Toledo was a royal residence during the country’s greatest moments, with all that that implies: palaces, castles, ecclesiastical buildings, and defensive walls. From the first moment you see it, Toledo has the power to captivate you.
And let us now travel south to visit our final destinations, Cordoba and Granada.
Cordoba and Granada
Undoubtedly, Córdoba is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. Its tiles, flowered balconies, and patios make it a photogenic city to explore on foot, with your finger ready on the shutter.
Known as the city of three cultures, the interaction between Jews, Muslims, and Christians has left behind a superb architectural fabric that, when walked through, reveals the very roots of Andalusia and Spain.
Cradle of as many philosophers as artists, this city rises in the deepest part of Andalusia, suffering from suffocating heat in summer. Its architecture reflects the need for shade, a precious commodity on occasion.
In fact, something to see in Córdoba is its patios, which are as aesthetic as they are functional, offering an essential shelter for the dry summers of this part of the peninsula. Traditionally decorated with colorful flowers in hanging pots and, in some cases, with fountains, whose origin goes back to the status given in Moorish culture to refreshing environments with water fountains,
Many houses have their patio doors open (if so, you can go inside to snoop), but the best time of year to visit them is by far the second week of May, during the Festival of the Patios. At that time, local families open the doors of their patios to visitors from all over the world and Sevillanas are danced in the streets.
Perhaps the most famous patio, and one that you should not miss, is the Courtyard of the Orange trees (from where you can take good photos of the mosque), which is accessed from a door around the corner of the mosque, free of charge. Inside are symmetrical rows of immemorial orange trees, like a public park.
You cannot miss visiting this corner of the world without entering its Mosque-Cathedral, which dates from the 10th century and was built on top of a Catholic church later to become a Christian cathedral with its choir and altar.
Moving east, we can visit the Costa Tropical or the jewel of Muslim art in Spain, the Alhambra, in Granada. The Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its name means “the red one” due to the bright red or even crimson color it takes on when the sun’s rays reflect off the building.
You can get to know Granada by getting lost in its narrow streets or there is another way to capture its essence: through the view offered by its viewpoints, the most famous being that of San Nicolás, with the Alhambra in the background.
A curious fact is that the poet and playwright Federico Garca Lorca, one of the most renowned Spanish writers, is a symbol of Granada. There are three museums where you can get in touch with the author and his work: the Birthplace Museum in Fuente Vaqueros, the Museum House in Valderrubio, where he spent his youth, and the Garden of San Vicente Museum, the summer home of the poet in Granada.
Spain is a country worth exploring, and any destination is well worth a visit. Each corner conceals and houses a distinct essence. I hope this brief article about the most beautiful cities in Spain has helped you plan your trip to the peninsula. Good roads!