In this guide I share with you my personal must-sees in Andalusia plus some of my pro-tips to getting around this wonderful region which offers so much to see and do! I grew up here and spent over 20 years in this region showing clients, friends and family the best this region has to offer. Why not join me on one of my small group tours, to experience the magic of southern Spain and discover why I believe it is such a beautiful region.
Visiting Andalucia is always a good option. Art, culture, gastronomy, sports, a good climate. There are a number of things you can see and do in Andalucia. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer, winter, autumn or spring. Being a tourist in Andalusia is a pleasure at any time of the year.
The autonomous community of Andalucia, in southern Spain is the cradle of iconic Spanish Culture. Stretching from the Mediterranean coast to the Sierra Morena mountain range, Andalusia, the birthplace of Flamenco, has also given the world Spanish guitar, the sport of bullfighting, and world-renown sherries. From the miles of hilly terrain, dotted with olive trees, comes the liquid gold we know as Spanish olive oil. With the Mediterranean Sea to the east, and the Atlantic ocean to the west, it’s no wonder the widely-known Spanish dish, Paella, saffron scented and bursting with goodness from sea and land, originated in Andalucia.
The rich history and culture of this region of southern Spain involves many religions and ethnicities. As the original melting pot of the world, Andalusia’s geographical gateway between the continents of Africa and Europe provided the earliest travel routes for ancient civilizations. Throughout the centuries Greeks, Romans, and Moors have all left their influence on the culture of Andalusia. Wherever their roots began, many people call the Andalucia home, including myself (having grown up in this region) living together and enjoying sun-drenched southern Spain and a love of life that comes naturally to this region.
Must-Sees in Andalusia
1. The Alhambra in Granada
If you only see one monument in Andalusia, it has to be Granada’s UNESCO-listed complex of palaces built around dazzling courtyards of flowering trees, pools and fountains. Did you know it is hailed as the most exciting, sensual and romantic of all European monuments? Set on a wooded hill above the city of Granada, in Andalusia in Southern Spain, the Alhambra Palace was built in the 14th century by the then sultans of Granada, and it reveals the brilliance and spirit of the Moorish culture in Andalusia at a time when the rest of Europe was only just beginning to emerge from the Dark Ages. This is a very busy attraction so please read our detailed guide to Visiting the Alhambra & insider Tips before you travel to Granada.
Of course, there’s plenty more to see and do in the city! We recommend exploring the Albaicin neighborhood – which is the largest still-inhabited Moorish quarter in Spain and the original site of an ancient Roman settlement. It is the location for many stunning ‘carmens’ or villas and you are also rewarded with some pretty special views of the Alhambra too. For families with older children we highly recommend doing a Segway tour of the steep Albaicin and Sacromonte – it’s great fun for all ages and superb views can be enjoyed from the Sacromonte Caves.
You should also visit the Barrio del Realejo (the old Jewish neighborhood) and keep your eyes peeled for the wonderful street murals by El Niño de Granada. Check out the city’s cathedral where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Catholic monarchs who reconquered Spain from the Moors in 1492 are laid to rest. And don’t leave Granada without tasting some of the complimentary tapas in the city’s great bars and restaurants. Want somewhere special to dine? We are big fans of the Parador’s restaurant which overlooks the Generalife but we also recommend Restaurante Mirador de Morayma in the Albaicin which is a 5 min walk from the charming gardens of the Casa del Chapiz. The restaurant offers terrific views of the Alhambra in a cosy, charming setting.
Seville’s stunning fortress and its amazing grounds and gardens can’t be missed!
2. Seville’s Alcazar
Seville is the most romantic of all Spain’s cities – where else will you wake up to the scent of orange blossom and find horse-drawn carriages in the park? The city was named Lonely Planet’s Top City for 2018 so you can expect it to be busier than ever. First must-see in Seville for us is the city’s 9th century Alcazar (meaning castle). It’s Spain’s oldest active royal palace and gardens – a real must-see in Seville. The interior is highly ornate but the most memorable part are the gardens which are wonderfully quiet first thing in the morning.
3. Seville’s Cathedral
Seville’s enormous cathedral dates from 1506 and is the final place of rest for explorer Christopher Columbus. The cathedral actually houses an old minaret from the Arab mosque that had previously occupied this site. It is best described as eclectic with styles ranging from Mudejar, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classical styles. After exploring it in depth, visit the adjoining Giralda Tower which offers outstanding views over the city and the Patio de Los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees) right beside the cathedral.
4. Seville’s Plaza de España
Seville’s best loved park – the Maria Luisa – is the location for the beautiful Plaza de Espana. The combination of blue and white tiled bridges and elegant water fountains set against the bluest of skies makes this one of the prettiest places in Spain. NB Bring a spare battery pack for your camera!
If you start early, it is possible to see Seville’s three must-sees in one day but don’t underestimate how busy the attractions will be. Visitor numbers have increased significantly since the HBO series Game of Thrones was filmed here so plan everything before you travel. In addition to the three must-sees, you should also check out the old Jewish quarter known as Barrio Santa Cruz, the glistening Torre de Oro and the Royal Tobacco Factory – the workplace for Bizet’s Carmen. At night it’s well worth checking out the Metropol Parasol Sevilla ‘Setas de Sevilla’ an amazing wooden structure located at La Encarnacion plaza which has a buzzing atmosphere.
5. Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral
The Cathedral of Cordoba (also known as the Mosque or Mezquita) is without doubt one of the most famous constructions in all of Spain. A Catholic church stood first on this site and that building was divided into Muslim and Christian sections until the structure was levelled in the second half of the 8th century by Abd ar-Rahman. The current mosque was build and over the centuries, many additions and extensions were made. Following the Christian conquest by Kind Ferdinand III of Castile it was consecrated as a Cathedral in 1236. Significant re-designs took place including the building of a church with the church and the 40 or so side chapels. But it is still the 856 columns with the red and white arches, the golden mihrab and the enormous prayer hall that make this such an unusual and outstanding place to visit.
Outside the cathedral walls you can experience more of what was once the great Moorish capital of Al Andalus plus one remaining synagogue dating from 1315 in the old Jewish quarter. Soak up the city’s unique atmosphere as you sample some of Cordoba’s delicious local dishes such as salmorejo (a chilled tomato soup), fried aubergine (eggplant) and slow-cooked oxtail stews. (And if you like horses, then we highly recommend an evening show at the Caballerizas Reales – see below for more details).
6. Cordoba’s Floral Courtyards
The city’s patios (courtyard gardens) are especially beautiful in the month of May when the annual courtyard festival is held and really merit a visit to the city. If you don’t have much time in Cordoba, visit the Palacio de Viana which boasts a dozen or more courtyards on its grounds.
7. Sherry Wineries in Jerez
The renowned Tio Pepe/Gonzalez Byass Winery in the city of Jerez is one of the largest and best known of the many Jerez sherry producers. Take a bodega tour here to learn about this fortified wine in all its forms. We also recommend visiting a smaller niche bodega and often suggest Bodegas Tradicion that produces aged-sherries and its tour includes a viewing of its small but celebrated exhibition of Spanish art. Housed in one of the oldest family-owned winery buildings in Jerez and restored in 1998 by the descendants of the original family, it adheres to the ancient tradition of ageing and maturing sherry by hand. BTW If you prefer to visit sherry wineries along the coast, look up the many bodegas located in Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda.
8. The Dancing Horses in Jerez & Cordoba
Whether you like horses or not, you can’t fail to be impressed by the performances provided at the Royal Stables in both Jerez and Cordoba. The horses perform astonishing feats of delicate footwork, high stepping, hopping, skipping, jumping, and leaping in the air like ballet dancers. The work of the riders is equally impressive and some performances also feature a flamenco dancer. It may seem frivolous but many of the drills and steps performed by the horses relate to working in the fields and preparing for battle. When the show is over, you can go behind the scenes and watch the horses being schooled.
9. Malaga’s Museums
Malaga’s best known museum is the Picasso museum inside a 16th century palace – and Picasso fans should also visit the painter’s childhood home in Malaga too. We are big fans of the Carmen Thyssen Museum where we go to see the old masters, the fin-de-siecle works and a selection of paintings reflecting the region’s folklore and traditions. You can also visit the Russian Art Museum which is in an old tobacco factory. We also recommend the Classic Car Museum and the Glass Museum which contains a superb private collection and makes for a really fascinating visit. And the Pompidou Malaga on Muelle Uno – which is the regenerated harbor area with bars and restaurants – take a stroll and go for a drink in this area which leads on to the beach area and esplanade. (You should also stroll around Calle Larios which is a pleasure to walk along.)
Malaga’s 100% authentic Atarazanas food market isn’t a museum but it certainly is a pleasure for the senses. It’s the best place to pick up a huge variety of foods including exotic fruits, breads from Morocco, a dazzling array of fish and shellfish, and multiple varieties of olives. We don’t have to remind you of the beautiful stained glass at the market– you can’t miss it!
Of course, you’ll find dozens of excellent food markets in the other major cities including Seville and throughout Andalusia. Wherever you are, we can book a private gastronomy expect to do a market tour which can be followed with a tapas tour or a cooking class – allowing you to put your newly purchased ingredients to the test.
The popular ‘tapas’ featured in so many upscale eateries in the US and around the globe, originated in Andalucia. Small plates with local specialties allow you to taste at your leisure and experience some of the traditional Andalusian dishes. Many foodies and gastronomes consider Jamon Iberico to be the finest ham in the world. The meat comes from prized black pigs, many of whom live freely to roam the hillsides of Andalucia, grazing on acorns in the fall. The climate cures the hams like no other on earth. The finished product is the pride and passion of Andalucia, and Spain.
In addition to the ham, tapas, and paella, the region is known for a delicacy known as rabo de toro estofado, or bull’s tail stew. The unfortunate bull who falls to the matador provides the tail for the stew and it’s traditionally served at the next day’s bull fight. The region’s beautiful and bountiful produce contribute to the best (and authentic to Andalusia) gazpacho you’ll ever taste.
You might wish to visit some of the countryside to see where the food is grown. We enjoy driving out to the hills surrounding Jaen & Ubeda to see the amazing views of the olive oil groves and visit an olive oil cooperative.
Some of the dishes to try are:
- Migas: means crumbs. This filling dish is made from breadcrumbs or from flour depending on the recipe. They may be served with sardines, green peppers, roast onion and even melon across most of Andalucia.
- Salmorejo: Cordoba is famous for its Salmorejo. This thick tomato soup is served cold with Spanish ham and egg in hot summer months. Gazpacho is a similar dish; this is served without breadcrumbs in the recipe so it is more fluid and not as thick. Porra from Antequera is very similar to Salmorejo and can be found in the Inland Malaga region.
- Piononos: These golden cakes from Granada are bursting with flavor. They are made from sugar, egg and cinnamon. The piononos of Santa Fe are named after a village next to Granada´s airport. The Pionono name comes from were named after the Pope Pius IX which is Pio Nono in Italian. They are sold in cake shops and some restaurants throughout the city of Granada.
- Breads and pastries: Andalucia has a huge variety of little cakes, pastries, chunky rustic breads and a whole assortment of biscuits and sponge cakes. Each village or area will have it´s own recipes and traditions.
Flamenco Shows in Andalusia
Jerez is considered the cradle of flamenco and is a great place to attend a flamenco stage show. If you prefer to wing it and try catch a more informal performance in the bars around the city, we recommend Tabanco El Pasaje. Seville is also a great place to catch a live flamenco show and it’s the location for the Bienal de Flamenco which began in 1980 and is celebrated every two years across different theatres of the city. BTW If you visit Seville during the Feria de Abril meaning April Festival, you’ll see an amazing array of flamenco-style dresses and you’ll get to see ‘sevillanas’ being danced.
Semana Santa in Andalusia
If you are travelling to Andalusia at Easter, be aware that the most popular Semana Santa processions of Spain are the ‘pasos’ in Seville. You’ll need a lot of planning or insider help to get a good view of the proceedings but with 50 or so taking place every day, it’s impossible not to catch some of the action!
The Malaguenos also put on a very vibrant Holy Week. While not as famous as those of Seville, Malaga’s processions are very popular, very lively and quite different to elsewhere in Andalusia. The actor Antonio Banderas is always back home in Malaga for Semana Santa so if you think you see a lookalike leading a procession, it might actually be him. In between the ‘pasos’ you should try visit the changing of the Spanish Foreign Legion guard at the Santo Domingo church.
Day Trips in Andalusia
We always suggest at least one excursion into the countryside or to the coast – so what about visiting:
- Ronda is an easy drive from Malaga, Seville or Granada. Our clients love the bridge over the gorge, the Parador, bullring and its connection with Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- White-Washed Villages. Strategically erected on hilltops throughout the area are the Pueblos Blancos, or “White-Washed Villages”. These small towns are seemingly untouched by the fast-pace of the region’s larger cities and offer an easy, relaxed immersion into Spanish culture.
- La Sierra de Aracena. Breathtakingly unspoiled, La Sierra de Aracena is a natural park located northwest of Seville, is Andalucia’s treasure. Crystalline streams and lush woodland give way to stunning views. Walnuts and chestnuts flourish amidst groves of olives and orchards, prolific with fruit. Beyond the forests you’ll find rocky ridges bearing citrus and wildflowers.
- Doñana National Park consists of 542 square km of marshlands, lagoons, woodlands and sand dunes. It is said that half of Europe’s bird species can be spotted here at one time or another.
- Learning about your Jewish heritage? Then places like Cordoba, Seville, Lucena, Granada and more will be of interest.
- If you’re looking for coastline, there’s so much to choose from – to avoid crowds explore the Huelva coastline and also the Costa de la Luz, as well as the Cabo de Gata area in Almeria. There’s a beach for every taste.
- For anybody keen on archaeology, we’d recommend the Medina Azahara – an Arab Muslim medieval town and the de facto capital of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, just outside Cordoba.
- Walk the Camino del Rey: The Camino del Rey is one of the most famous walks in Spain: 8km of narrow trails gripping the side of a cliff face suspended 100 meters above ground level. Walking the Camino del Rey is not for the faint-hearted, and the plunging views are sure to strike dread into the heart of vertigo sufferers. But, for those brave enough, tackling the walk makes for an unforgettable experience. The Camino is set in miles of luscious parkland, with emerald green lakes and pine forests surrounding it, and provides a beautiful backdrop for some unforgettable photo opportunities. You can get tickets for the Caminito del Rey on the official website, but be sure to book in advance as they tend to sell out quickly.
- If you want to get another stamp or two on your passport – you can include a day trip to Gibraltar or Tangiers with us, but be aware, you’ll need to dedicate a full day to visit as delays are common on the Gibraltar border.
- Caves of Nerja: A journey to the center of the Earth if there ever was one – this spectacular series of caverns near Nerja stretches for almost 5 kilometers and comprises a surprising variety of natural formations, with abundant stalactites and stalagmites. The caves are now one of Spain’s most popular attractions since their opening in the 1960s; lucky tourists may even be able to catch a unique concert in one of the naturally amphitheater-shaped chambers.
- Visit the Almerian Wild West: Of all the places to find an homage to the Spaghetti Western, the Tabernas desert in Almería is probably the last place you’d think to look. Forming the focal point of films such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Forte Bravo is an iconic slice of Western culture. Restaurants and themed entertainment have sprung up nearby, making Forte Bravo a family-minded day out, but eclipsing none of its original beauty. If you are longing for more, then make sure you check out the village of Los Albaricoques, on the other side of Nijar, where the ghosts of cowboy culture continue to make their presence felt.
- You’ll find a few more ideas in our post here.
When to visit Andalusia
The best time to see Andalusia is in late Spring when the gardens are looking wonderful and the temperatures aren’t too hot. Before you book your flight, check the temperatures and prepare and pack accordingly. I personally love fall the best (September, October). Although July and August are the hottest months in Andalusia, you’ll find they are actually low season in cities such as Seville and Jerez because the Spanish holidaymakers shun the cities for the coastline.