Six Must-Visit Cities in Spain

Now that a Vaccinated Travel Lane has opened between Singapore and Spain, we’ve put together a roundup of unmissable destinations for those keen to venture beyond Madrid and Barcelona. Here are six of the best from north to south.

A bird’s-eye view of San Sebastián. (Photo: Ultrash Ricco/Unsplash)

San Sebastián

Also known by its Basque name, Donostia, this glamorous resort town on shell-shaped La Concha Bay has been a preferred retreat for well-heeled European travelers since the mid-19th century. A stroll along the wide Concha Promenade is a must, and be sure to take a detour into the manicured gardens of the baronial-looking Miramar Palace (built in 1892 as a royal summer retreat), where you’ll find pieces by the late and great Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida. One of his most celebrated works, El Peine del Viento (The Wind Comb), is visible at the western end of the esplanade past Ondarreta Beach: it comprises a trio of steel sculptures anchored to the wave-beaten rocks. The lower station of the century-old Mount Igeldo Funicular is just 10 minutes away on foot; a short ride brings you to a charming Belle Époque–era fairground at the summit, but the main attraction here is the terrace with jaw-dropping views of San Sebastián. More vistas beckon at Mount Urgull on the far side of La Concha Bay: the vantage point of choice is the medieval fortress of Castillo de la Mota, where there’s a small museum and a 12-meter statue of the Christ. In the summer months, a motorboat ferries Donostians and visitors from the nearby port to the tiny island of Santa Clara out in the bay.

Gourmands will no doubt have heard of the avant-garde restaurants in and around San Sebastián, but there’s more to the local culinary scene than Michelin-starred venues. At the foot of Mount Urgull, the streets of the compact Old Town are lined with cozy bars offering a dizzying variety of pintxos, tapas skewered with a toothpick and often served atop slices of bread. Pintxos usually showcase local ingredients such as txangurro crab and intensely smoky idiazábal cheese, and are often paired with a small glass of beer (zurito) or a dry, lightly sparkling white wine called txakoli. It’s recommended to join a guided food tour to get the full bar-hopping experience. Those with a sweet tooth will want to make a stop at La Viña, where chef-proprietor Santiago Rivera invented the Basque burnt cheesecake in 1990; the legendary dessert has since taken the world by storm.

Also read: A Guide to San Sebastián’s Best Pintxos Bars

And while San Sebastián’s September film festival draws the who’s who of the cinema world, the real highlight of the calendar is Semana Grande (or Big Week) held around August 15. Festivities run the gamut from an international fireworks competition at La Concha Bay to outdoor music concerts, parades with giant customed figures, and exhibitions of traditional Basque rural sports.

 

Bilbao’s Ribera Market and the Nervión River at sunrise. (Photo: Jon Chica Parada/iStock)

Bilbao

Frank Gehry’s outlandish outpost of the Guggenheim Museum put Bilbao on the map and inspired other places around the world to commission their own cultural landmarks in the hopes of stimulating a similar “Guggenheim Effect.” The daring, controversial project kick-started Bilbao’s transformation from a declining industrial city to a thriving tourist hot spot, high-tech hub, and financial center of northern Spain.

Of course, the Basque Country’s biggest metropolis has plenty more to offer beside its renowned contemporary art museum. Situated within a bend of the Nervión River, the pedestrianized Casco Viejo (Old Town) is home to attractions like the neo-baroque Arriaga Theater, several centuries-old churches, and the Plaza Nueva, an arcaded square lined by traditional taverns and pintxos bars. The recently revamped Ribera Market in the Old Town was described as “a veritable temple of food” soon after it opened in 1929; those words still ring true today. After browsing the stalls overflowing with fresh produce, you’ll want to settle down for dishes like grilled octopus, thinly sliced ibérico ham shoulder, and sous-vide Biscayan hake on the riverside terrace at Café-Bar La Ribera.

Directly across the Nervión from the Arriaga Theater is the impressive glass, ceramic, and wrought-iron facade of La Concordia Railway Station, dating from 1902. Abando Station, the city’s main transit hub and situated just behind La Concordia, is well worth a look for its enormous stained-glass window depicting the history and industrial development of the region. For another glimpse of that period, hop aboard the metro (courtesy of Foster + Partners) to the town of Portugalete at the river’s mouth. The area is dominated by the UNESCO-protected Vizcaya Bridge, built in 1893 to a design by Alberto Palacio, one of Gustave Eiffel’s students. This soaring, delicate-looking iron behemoth ranks as the world’s oldest transporter bridge, connecting both sides of the river without disrupting its maritime traffic. It remains fully functional and visitors can make the crossing on foot via a platform suspended some 45 meters above the water.

 

The view from the northwest tower of Zaragoza’s Basilica del Pilar. (Photo: RossHelen/iStock)

Zaragoza

The capital of Spain’s northeastern region of Aragon is largely overlooked by international travelers despite its rich heritage and convenient position on the high-speed railway line between Madrid and Barcelona (the journey takes just 90 minutes from both cities). The Romans established a city beside the Ebro River named Caesaraugusta, and the perpendicular main streets of Zaragoza’s historic center still follow the original ancient layout. Archaeological excavations from that period are showcased at a quartet of museums, but if you must choose only one, go for the Caesaraugusta Theater Museum. Built beside the ruins of the 1st-century landmark, it offers insights into Roman drama as well as an immersive 15-minute audiovisual presentation.

Zaragoza makes for the perfect introduction to the Aragonese Mudéjar style, a Hispano-Islamic form of decorative art named after the Muslims who were allowed to remain in Iberia after the Christian reconquest. About a 20-minute walk from the historic center, the UNESCO-listed Aljafería is a fortified palace that started out as the seat of the Taifa of Saraqusta, an independent Muslim-ruled kingdom in the 11th century. Its plain, castle-like appearance belies the magnificent decor within; the Aljafería has been described as a “little sister of the Alhambra” thanks to its architectural beauty and refinement. Well-preserved portions from the Taifa-period palace include the scalloped interlacing arches of the Golden Hall, a courtyard garden, and a small but high-ceilinged octagonal mosque. Subsequent Christian monarchs commissioned Mudéjar craftsmen to make sympathetic additions to the complex; don’t miss the late-15th-century throne room with its remarkable coffered ceiling.

Also included in the same UNESCO World Heritage listing is La Seo, the older of Zaragoza’s two cathedrals and a unique blend of gothic, romanesque, baroque, and Mudéjar architecture. Its more famous counterpart? The enormous Basilica del Pilar, a confection of colorfully tiled cupolas and soaring corner turrets. Built on the site where the Virgin Mary was believed to have appeared to St. James the Apostle (Spain’s patron saint) in 40 A.D., the sanctuary and its namesake plaza act as center stage for Zaragoza’s Fiestas del Pilar, a weeklong religious festival in the middle of October. While exploring the cavernous interior, look out for the revered wooden image in the Chapel of the Virgin and the Regina Martyrum dome with frescoes by celebrated romantic painter Francisco de Goya, who was born in a small town a little to the south. For a small fee, an elevator can whisk you up the northwest tower to enjoy panoramic views over the basilica, the centuries-old stone bridge spanning the Ebro, and the city; a spiral staircase leads to an even higher observation deck some 80 meters above the ground.

Art aficionados should also make a beeline for the neighboring Goya Museum. Housed in a 16th-century residence originally built for Renaissance nobility, the collection includes more than 60 prominent pieces by the famed artist. And if you’re hungry after all that sightseeing, the place to go is the El Tubo quarter, whose narrow lanes are lined with colorful murals and a plethora of tapas bars, each one specializing in morsels made with specific ingredients.

 

The patio at the University of Salamanca’s Edificio de las Escuelas Menores. (Photo: James Louie)

Salamanca

First settled in pre-Roman times, this ancient city has been an intellectual center since the University of Salamanca was established in 1218, making it the first institute of higher learning in the Spanish-speaking world and the fourth-oldest in Europe. Salamanca is also a popular tourist destination thanks to its astonishing baroque and Renaissance-era architecture. The distinctive hue of the Villamayor sandstone used in its churches and secular buildings has given rise to the nickname La Dorada (“the golden [city]”). The entirety of Salamanca’s Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1988, and it deserves more time than a rushed day trip from Madrid.

Developed out of an eclectic fusion of gothic, Mudéjar, and Italian Renaissance elements, the Plateresque style (the name means “in the manner of a silversmith”) reached its peak in 16th-century Salamanca. Standouts include the Convent of San Esteban and the Palacio de Monterrey, where small-group tours allow limited numbers of visitors into its rooms and a fortified tower. But the most famous example of Plateresque architecture is the richly adorned facade of the university’s main building, the Edificio de las Escuelas Mayores. Tourists can often be seen craning their necks to spot a famous carved frog amid the ornamentation; if it’s possible, go inside to visit the classrooms and Europe’s first public library. Across the square, the Edificio de las Escuelas Menores is a must-see for its picture-perfect colonnaded courtyard and the Cielo de Salamanca, a 15th-century painted ceiling moved from the university’s chapel, where it was rediscovered during restoration work in the 1950s.

Just behind the university, and accessed via the Plaza de Anaya, Salamanca’s Old and New Cathedrals stand side-by-side in perfect harmony. Look out for carvings of an astronaut and a faun holding an ice cream cone to the left of the entrance portal: these are the playful marks of a stonemason who helped restore the structure in 1992. Inside, buy a ticket for the Ieronimus tour of the towers, which includes access to several exhibition spaces and a roof terrace offering close-up views of the Old Cathedral’s romanesque dome. A nearby attraction worth visiting is Casa Lis, an art nouveau mansion atop the old city wall that has been transformed into the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The building is as much of a draw as its permanent collections: the covered courtyard boasts delicate wrought-iron details and a sublime ceiling of stained glass.

No visit to Salamanca is complete without spending time in the Plaza Mayor, which ranks among the most beautiful urban squares in the country. Incorporating the facade of the City Hall, the unified baroque ensemble is tastefully floodlit after dark, and the outdoor tables set up by restaurants in the surrounding arcades are ideal for people-watching while tucking into Castilian comfort food. Right on the square, Café Novelty has been a hit with literary figures and artists since opening in 1905; notable patrons over the years have included Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who served as rector of the university.

 

Night falls over the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. (Photo: Papagnoc/Pixabay)

Valencia

About three hours down the tracks from Barcelona (and only 1 hour and 40 minutes by high-speed rail from Madrid), the third-largest metropolitan area in the country is known for Las Fallas, a raucous multiday festival held every March to welcome the arrival of spring. Expect firecrackers galore, daily pyrotechnic displays, and public art in the form of giant papier-mâché sculptures placed in neighborhood squares and intersections. The biggest celebrations are found in and around the Old City, known in local parlance as Ciutat Vella, but there’s plenty to see no matter which time of year you visit. Chief among the area’s sights is the Cathedral, which has translucent alabaster windows, an elaborately decorated baroque chancel, and a wealth of artistic treasures. (Stop by the Chapel of San Francisco de Borja to see large-scale paintings by Goya and his Valencia-born contemporary Mariano Salvador Maella.) For panoramic views of the city, climb the spiral staircase to the rooftop terrace of the cathedral’s 58-meter-high bell tower, El Micalet.

Other landmarks in the Old City range from the Torres de Serranos, a massive 14th-century gateway that made up part of Valencia’s medieval fortifications, to the Marqués de Dos Aguas Palace, considered one of the finest examples of rococo architecture in all of Spain. The latter houses the National Ceramics Museum, whose collection takes in a broad sweep of history from the eighth century up to modern times. Architecture enthusiasts should seek out two market halls designed with a Valencian twist on art nouveau: the Mercado de Colón and the much larger Central Market, where you can pick up traditional products and edible souvenirs to bring home.

A few steps away from the latter, you’ll find Valencia’s 15th-century silk exchange, the Lonja de la Seda. Recognized as a standalone UNESCO World Heritage site, the Lonja has a grand trading hall whose twisting columns and vaulted ceiling bring to mind a canopy of palm trees. This gothic masterpiece deeply influenced the work of Santiago Calatrava, the locally born architect-engineer known his daring designs inspired by the natural world and the human form. Calatrava’s greatest contribution to his hometown is a series of monumental buildings in the City of Arts and Sciences, part of a sunken linear park occupying the former bed of the diverted Turia River. These include a futuristic opera house, a science museum reminiscent of a whale’s skeleton, and L’Hemisfèric, where an IMAX cinema and planetarium take up an eye-like structure in a reflecting pool.

When it comes to food, Valencia is famed as being the birthplace of paella. The original paella valenciana uses chicken, rabbit, and lima and green beans, but the star ingredient is bomba rice. This prized grain has been cultivated around La Albufera, a freshwater lagoon on the outskirts of town, for the past 1,000 years. Other local specialties include fideuà noodles cooked with seafood in a paella pan, and horchata, a refreshing drink made from tiger nuts that’s best enjoyed with spongy, sugar-glazed pastries called fartons. Those prepared at the Horchatería Santa Catalina, a two-century-old local institution in Ciutat Vella, are hard to beat.

 

A scene in Córdoba’s UNESCO-listed historic center. (Photo: Jean-Baptiste D./Unsplash)

Córdoba

Seville and Granada may take up much of the international limelight when it comes to Andalusian destinations, but heritage-lovers should also spend some time in Córdoba. Whitewashed buildings line the warren of narrow streets and cobbled laneways of the UNESCO–listed historic center, whose landmarks from different eras testify to the complex, layered history of an important city successively ruled by the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors before its capture by the forces of Castile and León (one of the two kingdoms that united to form modern Spain). Córdoba emerged as a world-leading center for culture and scientific development during the 10th and 11th centuries, when it served as the capital of the powerful Umayyad caliphate.

The primary attraction dating to the Moorish period is the hybrid Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. Here, a Renaissance nave was superimposed on the original Muslim prayer hall with horseshoe arches and columns recycled from earlier (sometimes Roman) buildings. Look out for the mosaic-clad mihrab pointing the way to Mecca and the domed maqsura (a prayer room reserved for the local ruler) directly in front of it. On the far side of the Roman Bridge across the Guadalquivir River, the Calahorra Tower is home to the three-story Living Museum of al-Andalus. Its deeply informative galleries shine a light on the pluralistic society of Muslim-ruled Córdoba, which was the largest and most advanced European city of its time. History buffs will also want to check out the Archaeological Museum for its impressive variety of artifacts and the remains of the Roman Theater discovered during construction. Also of note is the Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs; its attractive gardens planted with cypress and orange trees make for a stark contrast to the sparsely decorated exterior of the medieval fortified palace. If time allows, opt for a half-day excursion to the ruined Umayyad palace-city of Medina Azahara, Spain’s largest archaeological site and a recent addition to the World Heritage List.

While Córdoba celebrates Holy Week and the Feria as in other parts of Andalusia, one festival unique to this place is the Fiesta de los Patios, usually held in the second week of May. A citywide competition sees quaint residential courtyards in the older neighborhoods spruced up with floral displays and opened up for public viewing; it’s a tradition that has been going on for more than a century. Córdoba’s food is characterized by hearty dishes such as flamenquín, or breaded ham and pork loin; rabo de toro (oxtail stew); and egg-flecked salmorejo, gazpacho’s creamier cousin.

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