THE 17 WONDERFUL REGIONS OF SPAIN & Two Autonomous Cities: Ceuta and Melilla
Many people who are new to Spain and not sure what to visit want to know about the best cities in Spain. But what if you don’t want to spend all your time on a train, joining the dots between Spain’s far-flung cities? It’s best to stick to a single region and exploring that in depth before moving on.
Spain ticks all the boxes for a great holiday, but where to go? City or coast? Or what about exploring one of the country’s less visited areas? The choices are endless considering Spain has 17 regions (not including Ceuta and Melilla on the African continent). Each region has its own distinctive culture and traditional festivals. Fortunately, we’ve broken it down for you with a whistle-stop tour of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions known as “‘Comunidades Autónomas’. Besides these ‘communities’ the country is further divided into 50 provinces (‘provincias’). In the following summary of each ‘comunidad’ we’ve listed which province belongs to which community. However, there are seven ‘Comunidades Autónomas’ which we’ve referred to as “single province regions” which means that they are considered to be both an autonomous region AND a province. “Autonomous communities” have their own parliaments, institutions, cultural identities and even languages.
Once a great global empire, an incredible colonial power, Spain stood strong among many countries and ruled territories in many parts of the world throughout history. However, Spain’s might of the olden days is now transformed into a country with an unhurried, relaxed environment. A place that is ever welcoming to travelers from all over the world. Although known for its great sandy beaches, Spain is waiting to be discovered more, from its ice-capped mountains, green lands, arid zones, historical cities’ narrow streets, and grand display of art and architecture
Though “Spanish”, often referred to as “Castilian”, remains the main language spoken in modern Spain, it is by no means the only language. In Catalonia, the most prosperous region of Spain, the official language is Catalan; and in the Basque country, Basque (also known as Euskera) exists alongside Spanish. But even in some provinces where Castilian Spanish is widely spoken, it exists alongside regional dialects or languages. This is the case in Valencia and Galicia.
- Balearic Islands
- Basque Country
- Canary Islands
- Castilla La Mancha
- Castilla y León
- La Rioja
The regions of Aragon and Cantabria are nice regions, but a little dull, especially considering the sights in the surrounding regions: They mainly suffer from simply not being different enough from the more impressive regions nearby. If you really want to be off the beaten path, these regions still offer traditional Spanish cuisine, architecture, and the varied landscape that makes Spain famous. If you hate to see another tourist on your travels, these could be the regions for you. All other regions are worth a visit. They represent the full spectrum of what Spain can offer the visitor.
- Seville is the archetypal Spanish city – it looks exactly how you always thought a Spanish city would. It has flamenco, bullfighting, great tapas, and one of the biggest and most impressive cathedrals in the world.
- Granada‘s tapas is also fantastic – but in a different way. Here your tapas comes for free with every drink, which encourages a vibrant culture of eating, drinking and bar hopping. And then there’s the Alhambra, the epic Moorish fortress and garden complex, across the valley from the medina-like Albayzín.
- Visit Cordoba for the Mezquita-Catedral, the mosque-cathedral hybrid that has been the city’s biggest place of worship for two religions.
This is possibly the region which typifies Spain in the minds of tourists; from beaches to quaint whitewashed villages, flamenco to fiestas, Andalucia has it all. With varied landscapes Andalucia also has a collection of amazing beaches along Costa del Sol and Costa de la Luz, as well as the second highest peak in Spain, the Sierra Nevada mountain range and extensive olive groves in Jaén. Many of the Andalusian cities are tourists’ hotspots, especially in summer. Cultural travelers are huge fans of artwork and architectural marvels in Granada, Cordoba and Seville, while beach lovers flock to the shorelines of Malaga, Cadiz and Almeria. Some of the essential sights in this region include the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the cathedral in Sevilla, visiting small towns along Costa del Sol and the white villages like Ronda.
You’ll also be able to experience festivals such as Easter Week, the Carnival in Cadiz, the Rocío pilgrimage in Huelva and the April Fair in Seville. You can visit the Doñana National Park, also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or go skiing in the Sierra Nevada ski resort. Finally, remember that Andalusia has many different foodie experiences waiting to be tried. From the sherries of Jerez (Cadiz) and Montilla, Moriles (Cordoba), to the classic platters of fresh fried fish known as “pescaíto frito” from Cadiz and Malaga, cured ham from Huelva and Cordoba, olive oil, and other such typical dishes as gazpacho and “salmorejo” (a kind of thicker gazpacho).
Best for: Everything but rolling green hills!
Alternatively… You can’t compete with Andalusia on its own merits. But for something as far from Andalusia as possible, Galicia fits the bill
Provinces: Cádiz, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga, Seville, Huelva, Jaén, Almeria
Aragon in the north/north-east of Spain is often overlooked by visitors perhaps because it is landlocked, sparsely populated, mainly rural and doesn’t boast any of Spain’s more well-known cities. The northern part of Aragon is made up of the Pyrenees mountains which, on this southern side, are fairly dry and arid. Narrow valleys with rocky gorges are characteristic of this region. South of the Pyrenees, the wide Ebro valley around Zaragoza or Saragossa is a fertile agricultural region. In the south east, between the fertile agricultural plains and the coast, lies a dry hilly area of Mediterranean pine forest and olive groves. This part of Spain is, like most regions, rich in history and culture, particularly visible in the Moorish and Mozarab heritage of Zaragoza , the Mudejar heritage of Teruel, and ancient castles such as the Romanesque fortress at Loarre. Zaragoza has two cathedrals, both of which are great, but then I could say ‘there is a nice cathedral’ for every region in Spain.
Alternatively… La Rioja and the Basque Country are nearby but with a whole lot more to do.
Capital: Zaragoza (Saragossa)
Provinces: Zaragoza, Huesca, Teruel
Drink cider like only the Asturians do and find out why the Spanish say “Asturias is Spain, the rest is just conquered’. Oviedo is the capital of the region, with its Bulevar de Sidra (Cider Boulevard) a popular tapas and cider destination. Up on the hilltops overlooking the city are three fantastic pre-Romanesque churches.
If there’s such a thing as the perfect combination of culture, nature and gastronomy, then you’ll find it in Asturias. Asturias, on Spain’s north coast, is possibly the most beautiful of all of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, nicknamed “Switzerland on the sea” and known for its spectacular scenery. The lush landscape comes at the price of higher annual rainfall, but it still draws climbers, walkers, and nature lovers to the peaks of the Picos de Europa National Park with the legendary site: the Covadonga Lakes. Large centers of population in Asturias include the cities of Gijón, which is located on the Bay of Biscay’s west side and about 12 miles north Oviedo, the region’s capital.
As well as the mountains, you’ll be able to enjoy beautiful beaches in holiday resorts and beautiful sandy beaches such as Llanes, Ribadesella, Gijón and Cudillero. These magnificent settings are ideal for contemplating from any of the numerous viewing points.
Gastronomy in Asturias is synonymous with a total dedication to the cult of good food. Cabrales cheese, the typical Asturian bean stew known as “fabada”, cider made from local apples… There are a whole host of typical dishes and products that are guaranteed to leave visitors with a delicious aftertaste. Its cultural attractions include a range of important monuments in Oviedo and in the Kingdom of Asturias (the delightful churches of Santa María del Naranco, San Miguel de Lillo and San Julián de Prados, for example) which have been declared World Heritage sites by the UNESCO, as well as the various archaeological sites, caves and museums of rock art to be found throughout the area, featuring spectacular paintings and engravings dating from as long ago as 25,000 years B.C.
Best for: Cider and the unique Asturian food
Alternatively… There is cider in the Basque Country too, though it’s not quite as prevalent. There is no substitute for Asturian food
Provinces: Single Province Region
BASQUE COUNTRY/EUSKADI /PAIS VASCO
- San Sebastian is one of the two most famous cities in Spain for its pintxos and cider while also having the best city beach in the country, Playa la Concha. But don’t forget to bring your raincoat to protect yourself of the“txirimiri”, the typical very fine rain.
- Bilbao is home to the Guggenheim Museum, an attraction more famous for its architecture than for its exhibits (though those are great too).
Then there’s the coastline (great for surfing) and local wines (the Txakoli, a bit sour and ever so slightly sparkling, is as great as it is unique) and the proximity to the Rioja wine region and France.
The Basque Country is a little different from Spain’s other regions. Located in the north on the Bay of Biscay and bordering France, this region is made up of three provinces and is fiercely independent. The cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian are fabulous places to spend a few days whilst the interior presents a beautiful, almost Alpine, landscape.
Though renowned through Spain and beyond on account of its violent separatist movement ETA, the Basque country is actually the most prosperous region in Spain in terms of GDP per inhabitant, thanks to its industrial sector, its tourism and its agricultural activity. There are two official languages in the Basque Country, Basque (Euskara) and Spanish (Castilian): having totally different origins, the Basque language is completely different from Spanish, which explains why many places in the Basque area have two quite different sounding names. The Basque Country has a range of spectacular natural resources (both nature reserves and biosphere reserves) and offers yet another good reason to set out on the popular Way of Saint James pilgrim route which passes through this part of Spain.
Best for: Superlative cuisine, ravishing coastline, stunning landscapes, and the Guggenheim museum
Alternatively… Only Madrid and Catalonia can offer such cosmopolitan culture, though it is more concentrated here in the Basque Country
Provinces: Vizcaya, Álava, Guipúzcua
This single province region finds its home on Spain’s north coast. Capital and port Santander welcomes many ferries from the UK daily and is steeped in history; the cave paintings at Altamira prove that people were living in Cantabria over 15,000 years ago. The Picos de Europa mountain range is found partially in Cantabria, but you can visit them from Asturias too.
The Costa Verde also spans this region along with the short Costa Cantabria, giving visitors plenty of beaches to choose from. Santander is the Spanish Royal’s summer residence, and sits overlooking the Bay of Biscay.
One of Gaudi’s lesser known works, El Capricho de Gaudi, can be found in Comillas.
Best for: Greenery, seafood, and being even more off the beaten path than the other quiet green, seafood-obsessed regions nearby
Alternatively… Galicia and Asturias are just as green and relatively tourist-free
Provinces: A single province region
CASTILLA LA MANCHA
Castilla la Mancha is another sparsely populated region, the second largest region in Spain which lies between Madrid and Andalucia, but it has three cities that are well worth visiting:
- Toledo is the most popular day trip from Madrid. The city of three cultures has a strong Christian, Muslim, and Jewish heritage.
- Consuegra is the best city to visit for the classic view of the windmills, made famous by Cervantes’ Don Quijote. Consuegra is easily visited from Toledo.
- Cuenca, on the high-speed AVE train line from Madrid to Valencia, is known for its casas colgantes, houses that appear to hang off the side of a steep cliff! The city also has an unusually high number of modern art galleries!
Between the cities of Albacete and Ciudad Real vast wheat fields stretch as far as the eye can see, and there are also important vineyards and other crops. Any trip to this area in inland Spain should definitely include a visit to its World Heritage cities such as Cuenca with its famous Hanging Houses, and Toledo, home of the Spanish painter El Greco. Among old Spanish cities, Toledo is one of the many jewels in the crown. The old city stands on a hill in a loop of the river Tagus. The river is crossed by two historic bridges, including the Roman Alcantara bridge, and the old city is partly surrounded by defensive walls. The walls are pierced by ancient gates, notably the 14th century Mudejar style Puerta del Sol, and the Roman gate at the end of the Alcantara Bridge. Old Toledo is like a living museum; a UNESCO world heritage site, it is the city that brings together, like no other, the three historic strands of Spanish art and culture – the Christian heritage, the Moorish heritage, and the Jewish heritage.
Castile la Mancha has come to represent the heart of Spain. This is in part due to the region’s most famous – but fictitious – son, the world renowned Don Quixote. In the novel, often regarded as the founding novel of modern European literature, Miguel Cervantes tells the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha, a rather senile country gentleman who sets off on a picaresque mission to recreate the age of chivalry. Among the best known episodes in the novel is the section where Don Quixote picks a fight with windmills, imaging them to be dastardly giants.
While Cervantes did not specify exactly where don Quixote tilted at windmills, Castile la Mancha’s windmills have become icons of the region. There is a Don Quixote trail starting from the small town of Orgaz, south of Toledo, which takes in several sites with hilltop windmills, including the most famous of these at Consuegra, where there are still eleven historic windmills for visitors to tilt at. The mills are monuments to the region’s traditional economy; this part of the southern Meseta of central Spain has for centuries been a major wheat growing area, and wheat is still the principal agricultural activity in the region today. The area is also home to large and small flocks of sheep, and has achieved one of Spain’s modern agribusiness success stories, by making the local sheep’s cheese, just known as Manchego, into a major export product.
Castilla la Mancha is also Spain’s largest wine producing region, producing over half of the country’s wine. The La Mancha DO ( Denominación de Origen or Geographical appellation) wine region, located mostly in the south of the region, is the largest wine appellation area in the world; but it is not very well known, being well away from most tourist routes. The largest concentration of vineyards is in the province of Ciudad Real. The hot dry conditions prevalent in this part of Spain are ideal for the large-scale production of table wines; but in the last thirty years, more and more of La Mancha’s wine producers have been putting quality before quantity, and good wines from la Mancha can now hold their own against many better known names from elsewhere in Spain, and other countries.
Best for: Experiencing the Castilla of old, with its stories of castles and knights in shining armor
Alternatively… Castilla y Leon is the other half of historic Castilla
Provinces: Guadalajara, Toledo, Cuenca, Ciudad Real, Albacete
CASTILLA Y LEON
Visit Old Spain – the roots of the Spanish language and civilization can be found in this region.
- Leon is one of the best cities in Spain for tapas, not least because the food all comes for free if you buy a drink!
- Segovia is famous for its 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct and Disney-esque fairytale castle.
- Salamanca Salamanca has the most beautiful main square (Plaza Mayor) in the whole country, while the cathedral in Burgos is worth a visit.
Historic Castilla y León is the largest of Spain’s autonomous communities borders Portugal. This is the heart of Spain. The historic region of Castile was the area round the capital Madrid, and the historic heart of Spain. Madrid itself, historically the capital of Castile, is now an independent autonomous metropolitan region
In the past, Castile was a wild desolate area, where people lived together in fortified cities or castles; many of these survive to this day, including some of the jewels in the Spanish crown, the cities of Avila, the university city of Salamanca or the roman city of Segovia, all classed as UNESCO world heritage sites – not forgetting the great cultural heritage of other cities such as Leon, Valladolid or Burgos, or the amazing Romanesque cloisters of the monastery at Santo Domingo de Silos, unique attractions such as Burgos Cathedral and the Atapuerca archaeological site, which contains traces of the first settlers in Europe.
The famous Way of Saint James also runs through the Castile-León region, and is one of the world’s most important pilgrim routes.
If you feel like treating yourself to some truly spectacular scenery you can choose from any of the nearly 40 protected natural spaces such as the Picos de Europa National Park, where you’ll see some of Spain’s finest Atlantic forests. All these areas are perfect for climbing, cycle touring, kayaking… And for a relaxing walk, why not try Las Médulas, the largest open-air golden mine excavated during the period of the Roman Empire? And when it comes to good food, the Castile-León region specializes in traditional hearty fare, with such typical dishes as roast milk-fed lamb, black sausage, “botillo” (stuffed cured meat), roast suckling pig… and first-rate wines such as those from the Ribera de Duero region. Simply delicious!
Best for: Walled cities and historic castles and churches
Alternatively… A visit to Castilla isn’t complete without visiting the cities of Castilla y Leon too
Provinces: Léon, Palencia, Burgos, Zamora, Valladolid, Segovia, Soria, Salamanca, Avila
The biggest attraction in Catalonia is obviously Barcelona, which is enough to elevate it to above most other regions in itself. But you also have the Roman ruins of Tarragona and the walled city of Girona as well as the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres.
Catalonia is the richest and, with almost seven million inhabitants, the second most heavily populated region of Spain. The first thing that surprises many visitors when they first visit Catalonia is that people in this region don’t speak Spanish. Freed from the constraints of the Franco era, when Castilian Spanish was imposed throughout Spain, Castilian autonomous governments have reinstated Catalan as the regional language, to the point where it is now usually the only language used. For example, in museums, items are sometimes labeled in Catalan and English, but not in Castilian Spanish. The area round Barcelona, Spain’s second city, a thriving business city and one of the major ports on the Mediterranean, is fairly densely built-up. The densely populated areas extend along the coast, and into the valleys northwest of Barcelona, where there is still a fair amount of heavy industry. Barcelona is linked to Madrid by the AVE, Spain’s high-speed rail network, and work will soon be completed to the French border, allowing direct high-speed train services between Barcelona and Paris.
The Costa Brava was the first part of Spain to rush headlong into mass tourism development. North and south of Barcelona, the coast is a string of suburban and holiday developments, crowding in on the small seaside towns. Today there are nevertheless still a few unspoilt places along the coastline, particularly in the north of the region; but it is the region’s hinterland that offers the wide spaces and the natural areas that attract visitors in search of an escape from the crowds. The Catalonian Pyrenees, popular with hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, offer some magnificent rocky mountain scenery, dramatic gorges, peaks and magnificent vistas, but also a rich collection of historic sites, such as the UNESCO World Heritage listed mediaeval churches in the area of Tahull.
You’ll find so many interesting examples of culture that you won’t even know where to begin: unique buildings in Barcelona (known as “the capital of Modernism”) such as the Sagrada Familia Cathedral or the Palau de la Música Catalana Auditorium, the outstanding archaeological site at Tarraco, the monastery of Poblet in Tarragona, the churches of the Boí valley in Lleida… all declared World Heritage sites by the UNESCO. What’s more you can opt to enjoy a whole range of events thanks to the program of world-class museums like the National Art Museum of Catalonia and the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres. Visitors to this area in northeast Spain should also make a point of stopping off at the spectacular beaches of the Costa Dorada, Costa Barcelona and Costa Brava, with such internationally renowned resorts as Salou, Sitges, Tossa de Mar, Cadaqués, Lloret de Mar and Roses.
The mountain Montserrat with the Benedictine Monastery Santa Maria de Montserrat is located about 45 km northwest of Barcelona. Already from far away, the 1,236 meter high mountain offers a magnificent view. Even from the top you can experience the panoramic view far into the hinterland of Catalonia. If you love mountain scenery, what could be better than an excursion to the Catalan Pyrenees (featuring ski resorts which are tailor-made for snow tourism) or to the National Park of Aigüestortes y Estany de Sant Maurici? Head up to the coastal city of Tarragona and stroll along its Archaeological Promenade and Roman Praetorium, or catch a 1-hour bus to Girona where beautiful riverside cafes and bars await. The fact that this region is home to some of the best restaurants in the world is guaranteed to leave you with a delicious aftertaste. Why not try some of the traditional recipes such as “pa amb tomàquet” (bread with tomato)?
Alternatively… Madrid is Spain’s other major city and it has better day trips
Provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, Tarragona
This region is Spain’s best kept secret as far as tourism is concerned. What it lacks in coast, Extremadura makes up for in stunning historic towns and mountains, forests and lakes.
A region of contrasts where you’ll be able to visit exceptionally valuable monumental sites, 3 UNESCO world heritage sites (Merida’s archaeological sites, Guadalupe’s royal monastery, Caceres medieval city center), enjoy a whole host of natural landscapes, and sample one of Spain’s most highly-prized cured hams. Bordering to its west on Portugal, Extremadura is, and has long been, the poorest region in Spain; in the past, its poverty led to many of its population fleeing elsewhere in search of better fortune, often to South America. Two of the greatest “Conquistadores”, Pizarro and Cortés, were from this region, and they and others like them brought back from South America great wealth which they spent on large country estates and prestigious palaces in towns such as Caceres and Trujillo.
Further south, the regional capital Merida, was once an important Roman city, and boasts the finest Roman remains in Spain, including an amazing long Roman bridge and a large Roman theatre – as well as the Spanish national museum of Antiquity.
Another great reason for visiting Extremadura, is to enjoy its amazing wines. All throughout the region, there are vineyards you can visit for experiencing tours and wine tastings. When in Extremadura, make the most of getting to know and experience their varying classifications of wine. There are Vinos de Pago, wines from official estates and vineyards, and vino de la tierra, which means wine of the earth and is one step below DO (Denomination of Origin), but still very good. Then there are Pitarra Wines, which are artisan wines homemade at family vineyards and kept in earthenware jars called tinajas. The world of wine in Extremadura includes reds, whites, rosés, and even cavas.
Best for: Roman ruins
Provinces: Caceres, Badajoz
Catalonia may claim to be different from the rest of Spain, but Galicia really is. The old town in Santiago de Compostela is probably the most beautiful in the country, its centerpiece being the 12th-century Gothic cathedral. Santiago de Compostela is the highlight of the region for most visitors (staging ground for el camino de Santiago, the religious pilgrimage route) but make sure you head inland to visit the hidden valleys and take a trip along the wild coast to Cabo Finisterre.
But it’s not just about culture. Galicia is home to also has the most beautiful beaches in the country (on the Cíes Islands, just off the coast of Vigo) as well as the warm springs of Ourense.
But it’s the breathtaking Atlantic coastline and rolling green hills – best experienced by walking some of the Camino de Santiago – and the best seafood in the country that makes Galicia such a wonderful region to visit.
Galicia like Brittany or Wales or Ireland, belong to Europe’s Celtic fringe and share certain cultural traditions such as bagpipes. Galicia, a Celtic land, is situated on the north-west coast of Green Spain, just above Portugal, making it a geographically, scenically and culturally different to many of Spain’s better known southern provinces. It has a warm but temperate climate and a lush landscape with mountain ranges, rivers and 1500km of coastline that indented by a series of rías (coastal inlets), which carve fjord-like into the land to create sandy beaches, while their shallow waters provide a harvest of shellfish.
From Santiago de Compostela, take a few days out to see the coastal towns of A Coruña and Vigo, both littered with charming fishermens’ villages and seafood restaurants. A Coruña has its Roman lighthouse – the oldest in the world – and a great tapas scene.
The region’s largest centers of population are the university city of Santiago, La Coruña, which is noted for its Tower of Hercules lighthouse, and Vigo. Further south, the fishing port of Cambados is seen as the capital of Albariño, Galicia’s delicate and fragrant white wine.
Best for: Greenery, seafood, and some of the oldest sights in Europe
Alternatively… Asturias is just as green
Capital: Santiago de Compostella
Provinces: A Coruña, Pontevedra, Lugo, Orense
Think Rioja, think wine! This single province region has more than 500 wineries, many of which offer guided tours and tastings, and is internationally famous for the quality of their produce. As well as wine tasting, this area, located just under the Basque Country, is also geared up for rural tourism.
Situated in north-central Spain on the edge of Basque country and just south of Bilbao and the coastal resort town of San Sebastian, Rioja is still a relatively undiscovered but up-and-coming travel destination for those who want to escape the tourist throngs and immerse themselves in the Spanish culture and attractions of a stunningly beautiful agricultural region. Among the many attributes of Rioja are the unspoiled natural beauty, the historical sites, cultural attractions, recreational activities, the food, and especially the wine, famous for the distinctive, earthy flavors of the Tempranillo grape. Here are just a few of the region’s high points which offer something for everyone.
Apart from its capital, Logroño country’s best tapas crawls, you’ll be able to explore other places such as Santo Domingo de la Calzada and its cathedral, San Millán de la Cogolla, site of the Suso and Yuso monasteries, declared World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO, and known for being the birthplace of the first written words in the Spanish language. Don’t miss the Sierra de Cebollera Nature Reserve or the Arnedillo Biosphere Reserve.
Best for: Wine and tapas. La Rioja is close to the Basque Country and makes a great excursion from San Sebastian or Bilbao.
Alternatively… Nearby Basque Country is more famous for its tapas, though it is more expensive and not necessarily better. Seville and Granada are also renowned tapas cities
Provinces: A single province region
You’ll know Madrid as the country’s capital, but is also the name of the single province region (the city of Madrid sits in the middle of it). Madrid boasts the stunning Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains, which hide many secluded villages for visitors to explore.
Historically part of Castile, Madrid today is its own autonomous region, and the most densely populated area in Spain. The Spanish metropolitan area is home to about 6 million people, and is a bustling and prosperous area, with a strong serviced-based economy. The area has seen massive development in the past decades.
Old Madrid is famous for its urban architecture, its ornate churches and its world-famous museum and art-gallery the Prado. Like the rest of central Spain, Madrid enjoys a continental climate, hot and dry in summer, cold and largely dry in winter. The city lies at an altitude of almost 650 metres above sea level, making it the highest capital city among European Union member states.
The city of Madrid is open and welcoming, modern yet traditional, stately yet popular, lively yet peaceful… But more than anything else it is a cultural paradise. It is home to what is known as the Triangle of Art, which contains within a limited area the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofía Art Centre and the Thyssen-Bornesmiza Museum. You’ll also be able to visit such impressive monuments as the Royal Palace, places with their own particular charm like the Plaza Mayor square or the grand avenue known as the Gran Vía, or enjoy what is considered by some to be possibly the most exciting nightlife in Spain… as well as wander in large green spaces such as the Retiro Park, and drop into typical bars and taverns to sample a range of delicious tapas.
But more than with any other region in Spain, it wouldn’t be fair to judge Madrid solely on what is in the official Madrid jurisdiction. You’ll find the Madrid Region offers much, much more. For example, the cities of Aranjuez (the king’s spring residence), Alcalá de Henares (a UNESCO world heritage site) and San Lorenzo del Escorial (historical residence of the king), all of which have been declared World Heritage Sites. Segovia, Toledo, Avila, and the Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los Caidos) are all an easy day trip away, and even Cordoba in Andalusia can be reached on the high-speed AVE train. Or small picturesque towns such as Chinchón, and the charming villages in the mountains. These beautiful cities make for excellent day-trips from Madrid and are definitely worth a visit.
Best for: Madrid is the capital of Spain in every sense of the word. Culture, food, wine, museums and more can be found in Madrid
Alternatively… Barcelona is the obvious other choice
Provinces: A single province region
Home to the Costa Calida, this single province region sits in the bottom right-hand corner of Spain. It attracts many loyal sun worshipers to its beaches because of its all year-round rays! This region is great for activity lovers too, thanks to its many top golf courses and well-known walking and cycling trails. Plus, diving here is among the best in Spain! Cartagena has some impressive Roman ruins.
Provinces: A single province region
The single province region of Navarra often gets overlooked as a tourist destination, with France to the north and the Basque Country and wine region of La Rioja alongside.
Pamplona is the only well-known destination in the region of Navarra and is a city that’s well worth a visit even when there aren’t bulls running down the street. Elsewhere you can drive around the countless villages that make up this rural land and find out the true meaning of the “Green Spain” that so many visitors come to find. Outdoor activities abound as you head into the mountains of the Navarran Pyrenees. Pamplona, famous for the Running of the Bulls, is fast becoming a regional star for its cuisine, but then so are nearby San Sebastian and Logroño. Navarra is wine country, but the nearby regions of La Rioja and the Basque Country are both better and more accessible for visitors.
To the south of Aragon, Rioja, along the upper Ebro valley, is the smallest region in Spain, and notably famous for its wines.
Provinces: A single province region
As well as being Spain’s 3rd city, Valencia is also capital of its own ‘comunidad’ which stretches along the Mediterranean coast from Catalonia to Murcia. This region sits halfway down Spain’s Mediterranean coast and is home to the Costa Blanca, where Benidorm and Alicante can be found, and the less well known Costa Azahar, which is known for its its orange and citrus groves. The Moors introduced the cultivation of palm trees into this area, and the city of Elche, near Alicante, boasts Europe’s only extensive palm groves.
In this dry central eastern part of Spain, it is on the coastal strip that the large majority of the population is concentrated; and it is a population that has vastly expanded in recent decades with the over-development of mile after mile of coastal resorts, “urbanizaciones” and their associated infrastructure. Yet the coastline is long, and there are still some relatively unspoiled sections of beach, or rocky coves, for those who want to get away from the crowds.
The newly redeveloped city itself is well worth a visit even if it’s only to see the incredible City of Arts and Sciences. Whilst recent years have seen Americas Cup sailing and Formula One Grand Prix in Valencia, the vast majority of visitors to the region rarely get beyond the popular holiday resorts of the Costa Blanca to the south. Valencia is the birthplace of the country’s national dish, paella – and many say this is the best place in the world to eat it!
Best for: Paella and beaches
Alternatively… You can get good paella all over Spain, even in Catalonia (if you know where to look)
Provinces: Valencia, Castellon, Alicante
Closer to mainland Spain than the Canary Islands, makes it a cheaper destination and allows for visiting other Spanish cities on your trip, but you’re mainly coming here for the beach and nightlife.
Whilst the Balearic Islands of Majorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera are well established on the tourism map they don’t get the praise they deserve for their natural beauty. There are some great holiday resorts in the Balearics but the islands have so much more to offer beyond their tourist developments. The group of Balearic Islands receives over 300 days of sunshine each year, pulling in crowds from all over Europe. In summer, the populations on these islands usually triple. As you can expect, these islands depend largely on tourism to survive.
The world’s most famous party island, Ibiza is crowded with tourists and people who love to party into the night with famous DJs from June to September, nudist beaches, hip bars, pubs, fashionable cafes and restaurants.
- Menorca is more conservative and modest than the other islands. It’s actually a biosphere reserve, with archaeological ruins and wetlands that protect the island from further development. There’s not much to see and do (other than enjoy the pristine beaches), but if you’re looking for peace and for some beautiful, relatively isolated beaches with turquoise waters, Menorca is probably your best Balearic choice.
- Mallorca is the one island in the group you might visit for reasons other than the beaches and nightlife. This main island has mega-resorts and shopping centers unlike all the other Balearics, but it also has the beautiful Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, perfect for hiking, Gothic cathedrals, Stone Age ruins, quaint fishing villages, and endless orange and olive groves to explore. Palma, the capital, has a well-preserved historic quarter as well.
- Formentera, small and somewhat isolated, is perfect for celebrity recluses, environmentalists, and off-the-beaten-track travelers. Green lizards sun themselves on rocks and wild rosemary scents the air. Some of Spain’s longest, whitest, and least-crowded beaches are available to visitors seeking escape, not sophistication. Most people visit Formentera as a day trip from Ibiza.
Provinces: Single Province Region
Lying off the northwest coast of Africa, across from Morocco, the Canary Islands are made up of thirteen islands and one of Europe’s top destinations for beach holidays. Year round sunshine attracts over 12 million visitors to the islands. The top tourist destinations are Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura whilst the smaller islands of El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera offer a quieter experience. The variety of activities to do on these islands is beyond your imagination: lounge on the beaches, climb a volcano, scuba dive or even kite surf at the beach. On Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Lanzarote you’ll find the requisite plush resorts. These luxury accommodations boast gourmet restaurants, sprawling golf courses and prime beach access.
But the Canaries are as much about the four natural parks as they are about beaches and resorts. Take the Parque Nacional del Teide on the island of Tenerife, for instance: It contains the globe’s third-largest volcano — and visitors can hike it. Lanzarote houses Timanfaya National Park, where travelers can take camel rides across the almost lunar-looking terrain. Choose for the cheapest airfares and accommodations in November and early December, and April through June.
Provinces: Las Palmas, Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Melilla and Ceuta are both Spanish enclaves in North Africa and amount to the same thing to the visitor to Spain: They are there as ports to catch a ferry from mainland Spain to Morocco. But you’re better going to Tangiers in Morocco itself instead. Melilla is even worse than Ceuta because the stretch of the Mediterranean between here and mainland Spain is so wide that the crossing takes much, much longer.
Alternatively… Visit Morocco by traveling from Tarifa in Andalusia to Tangiers.
The better of the two Spanish enclaves, but you’re still better off going to Tangiers instead.
Best for: That Gibraltar connection again
Alternatively… Travel from Andalusia to Morocco