There are so many incredible and beautiful places to visit in Spain. It’s a country with vastly different regions, so it might even be overwhelming to figure out where to visit if you’re going for the first time. This list barely scratches the surface of all the things to do in Spain, but it’ll help you figure out the types of destinations in Spain you want to visit on your next trip. Maybe it will be the Moorish-influenced south or the Roman ruins in the north.
When to Visit Spain
Spanish tourism season is pretty similar to the rest of southern Europe – summer. You can visit in the summer, but you’ll encounter a lot of crowds, be really sweaty, and typically pay a little more. I almost always recommend visiting at the beginning or the end of the summer – late May/early June or September. There are a few places that you might want to experience in the heat of July – Ibiza for one. Otherwise, try to avoid July and August.
Getting Around Spain
Spain is usually very easy to get around. There are a couple of regions that are a little more rural, so they have limited bus schedules, and/or Renfe, the Spanish train company doesn’t have a huge presence there. If you want to see some less-visited places, then rent a car and do a road trip. As an American, it was a very comfortable experience to rent and drive a car in Spain.
If you are traveling around Spain via public transportation, then you’ll want to look at the Renfe website for train options or Alsa, the country-wide bus operator. The bus is usually better because there are more options and it’s more widespread than Renfe. If you are traveling around a region and don’t see a route option on Alsa, then check if there is another bus company that operates a lot of that specific region’s routes. For example, in Galicia, the regional bus operator was Monbus when I lived there. If I wanted to travel from Lugo to Santiago de Compostela, I used Monbus. If I wanted to travel from Lugo to Madrid, I used Alsa.
SOUTHERN SPAIN: Places to Visit
This is where you go to drink a glass of sangria or a tinto de verano in sunny Spain surrounded by Moorish-influenced architecture. There are tons of amazing destinations in Southern Spain, so this list barely scratches the surface. You’ll find a new place to visit every time you venture here.
Sevilla is the capital of Andalucía, the largest province in Spain that encompasses most of southern Spain. The region was under Moorish rule from the 8th-15th centuries and cities like Sevilla and Granada show their influence strongly. Eat tapas outside, then hang out in Plaza los Terceros for the evening.
Sevilla is one of the best places to visit in Spain if you want to see flamenco. If you can, try and visit during Sevilla’s feria where locals wear the traje de flamenco (the iconic red skirt and top) and the partying lasts all day and night. Spending a summer night in Sevilla is one of the best things to do in Spain.
Málaga has undergone a massive facelift in the past decade. When I first visited Málaga in 2010, it was a city rife with construction. An underground metro was being built and it made the city feel a little underwhelming and stark. The metro was finished in 2014 and when I visited Málaga recently, I fell in love. It’s a lively city with nightlife to rival Barca or Madrid. The food is exquisite whether you eat at a hole-in-the-wall or a Michelin restaurant.
Málaga is also a coastal beach city, so you can lounge at the beach in the afternoon. If you don’t like the crowded beaches right in the center, then you only need to take a cab 10 miles away in either direction to find less crowded beaches. It’s also the gateway to the Costa del Sol, an area along the coast known primarily for resorts, but also filled with easy-to-visit seaside towns and great beaches.
The Alhambra in Granada
Granada is one of my other favorite places in Spain. It’s a university city at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is home to the Alhambra. The Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage palace and a fortress that sits on a hill overlooking the city. It’s considered one of the most famous and best-preserved palaces in the historic Islamic world. There is an extensive network of state-sponsored hotels called Paradores in Spain that are primarily found in historic properties like palaces and monasteries. The Alhambra has a Parador that you can stay in and experience sleeping at the Alhambra.
Granada is also still one of the remaining places left in Spain where you always get free tapas with a drink. Most places do free chips or free olives, but bars and cafes in Granada will serve proper-sized tapas. It’s a boon to the many university students in the area.
Ronda is most known for being the birthplace of bullfighting. (Bullfighting is a divisive subject for many people these days, Spanish included, so keep that in mind when you’re visiting.) It’s also one of the most dramatic-looking cities in Spain. A deep gorge separates the Old Town and New Town. You walk across the gorge via Puente Nuevo, a stone bridge that has incredible views. Seeing how ridiculously close to the edge humanity will live is worth the visit.
The city of Cádiz is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. Not only did the Romans live here, but the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Moors have all been known to live there. It’s usually less visited than Sevilla, Granada, and the other Andalucián cities, but it’s got a great food scene, tons of history, and feels like the kind of city you might actually want to live in.
Cádiz has always been a massive port city so it has over 100 watchtowers, some of which you can climb to the top of for gorgeous views of one of the best destinations in Spain. It also has a beautiful cathedral that rises atop the city along the waterfront that’s worth a visit.
Another small city in Andaluciá, you’ll want to visit Córdoba to see the Mezquita de Córdoba. It was a massive mosque that was converted to a Catholic church after the Moors were ousted from the city in the 1200s. It’s unique in that the cathedral is built in the middle of the mosque. The city is also one of the best places to visit in Andaluciá if you want to really get a taste of typical Andalucián life. If possible, try and visit in May during the Fiesta de los Patios, a festival that celebrates the flowers on patios across the city.
Northern Spain: Places to Visit
Northern Spain encompasses everything from deserts to mountain ranges geographic-wise. It’s also a vast area with many different regions, some of which speak their own languages, like Galicia and Basque Country. I love the area and even did a couple of Northern Spain road trips that took me all over the region.
La Rioja is an entire province. There are a couple of cities and large towns you can visit, like Logroño, but the real reason to visit La Rioja is wine. This is Spain’s Napa Valley. There are hundreds of wineries ranging from large commercial producers to small traditional bodegas that don’t sell wholesale. I recommend taking a tour if you can afford it so you can see several wineries. If you’re staying in the area for several days, then bring a car and go slow, visit a winery a day.
San Sebastian is a large resort town in Basque Country. San Sebastian is the kind of place where surfers leave the beach and walk barefoot through the town next to a woman in heels walking out of a Chanel store. It’s full of contradictions, but it works. It’s also an amazing place to eat. They don’t serve tapas in Basque Country. They serve pintxos. Pintxos are small servings that allow you to try a dozen different specialties over the course of a long night drinking txakoli, a lightly sparkling wine from the area.
Picos de Europa
The Picos are one of the best places in Spain to visit. They are a mountain range in the northwest and a Spanish national park. The Pyrenees along the French-Spanish border get all the attention when people talk about mountains in Spain, but I prefer the Picos. There are tiny towns dotting the entire range, the mountains look photoshopped in good weather, and it’s much less visited than the Pyrenees.
There are lots of wildlife in the Picos so you might see some mountain goats or wild boar (stay away from these guys). Go on at least one hike and see gorgeous backdrops like the Lakes of Covadonga. Driving through the mountain range is crazy because you drive through the mountains, taking tight curves with huge nets above your head to catch any falling rocks. It’s an incredible place to visit that you won’t experience anywhere else.
Gaztelugatze is Basque in case you can’t tell. It’s an inlet connected to the mainland by a bridge that Game of Thrones fans will recognize. (In case you know nothing about Game of Thrones, a lot of filming took place in Spain over the show’s run. You’re pretty much guaranteed to hear at least one group of American tourists debating if the final season was as awful as everybody says it was.) The bridge leads to a small chapel at the top. Even if you’re not a fan of the fantasy show, this is worth the visit. It’s a magical-looking place that looks like it should exist in, well, a fantasy world.
Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage route across Spain. There are several different routes, some even starting in France, but they all end at the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It isn’t only practicing Catholics who do this pilgrimage. It’s a famous walking path that many non-believers do too. It covers thousands of miles, crossing cities, rural areas, and more.
You can walk a little portion of it, or you can walk an entire route. Keep in mind that some of the routes take months to walk in their entirety so that is not something to be done lightly. It’s one of the most incredible things to do in Spain and you’ll encounter hundreds of people along the way, whether you just walk a couple of miles or hundreds of miles.
ASTURIAS: Places to Visit in Spain
Asturias is also an entire province. It’s also not the typical region people think of when they think of Spain. It’s filled with rolling green hills, and tons of cows, and cider is their most famous cuisine. Asturias is an amazing destination in Spain because it’s a little off the beaten path. Most people visit the south or Catalonia on their first few trips to Spain. If you visit Asturias, you’ll get to see a different side of the country.
There are tons of quaint fishing villages in Asturias, like Cudillero. The Picos are a part of southern Asturias. You can also visit beaches, like Playa de Torimbia, that look more like southeast Asia than Spain. Earthy cider is the drink of choice here and you must drink it right after it’s aerated. It cannot sit. You can’t go wrong in Asturias, whether you visit the capital Oviedo or a rural mountain town.
A lot of people don’t know there is a desert in Spain. Bardenas Reales is a small desert in Navarre that might make you think you’re in the U.S.A southwest. These badlands are made up of clay, chalk, and sandstone. The erosion over time has made incredible shapes in this region. It’s a small area so you could see most of it in one day. It’s not the kind of place where you can hike the naturally forming structures though. You must stay off them and take pictures from there.
Bardenas Reales is best explored by car. You’ll want to stop, get out, walk around for 10 minutes, take pictures, repeat. It’s an incredibly quiet, serene place as it doesn’t see a lot of tourists. It’s best to keep an eye on the news if you’re going to visit. As of summer 2022, the region has been seeing a lot of fires.
CATALONIA: Places to Visit in Spain
Barcelona. What more is there to say? Everybody should visit Barcelona once in their life. It’s the biggest tourist destination in Spain, and one of the top tourism destinations in the world. Catalonia is more than just Barca. The northern part of Catalonia, known as Costa Brava, encompasses the Pyrenees and charming medieval towns. The southern part has stunning beaches. It’s also a fiercely nationalistic region that continues to fight for its independence from Spain.
I recently spent a week in Barcelona and I feel like I didn’t see or do everything I wanted to. It’s a huge city brimming with cultural institutions, amazing restaurants, shopping, and beaches. You’ll have something to do every day in Barcelona. You’ll want to see at least one creation by famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, like the stunning Sagrada Familia or the never completed Parc Güell.
Make sure to visit one of the man-made beaches of Barcelona after you walk through La Barceloneta. It’s not as picturesque as many of the beaches further along the coast or the Balearic Island beaches, but it’s a great place to spend the afternoon and see locals and tourists alike with a drink in hand. There are dozens of neighborhoods in Barcelona, but you’ll want to walk through the Gothic Quarter and El Raval to soak up Catalonia.
La Costa Brava
Costa Brava is the coastal region north of Barcelona. There are numerous beautiful towns that would all be amazing destinations in Spain. The key is to visit at least one as the entire region is one of the best places to visit in Spain. Some towns have Roman ruins like Tossa de Mar’s Roman wall. Cadaqués has Cuban-style houses thanks to a unique history. Sitges is also a classic town to visit as an easy day trip from Barcelona. The further north you go, the Pyrenees Mountains also provide a stunning background. Just pick one town with a great beach to visit if you’re limited on time and visit from Barcelona for the day.
Girona + Figueres
Girona is the gateway to the Costa Brava region. It’s also well-known for a few other reasons. The city boasts one of Europe’s largest and best-preserved Jewish quarters from the 13th century. There is a Jewish museum here that details how and why the quarter has been preserved. (If you don’t know much about Spanish history, I recommend looking up the Reconquista period in Spanish history to better understand why the preservation of anything Jewish or Muslim in Spain is incredibly special and prized.)
Girona is also a popular destination in Spain for Game of Thrones fans. It was a major filming location for the television show. There are whole tours dedicated to leading you around the city to see the dozen shooting locations. It makes sense that Girona was used as a site. It’s an incredibly charming city.
Must-visit: If you love Salvador Dalí, visit the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres (40 minutes north of Girona). It’s in his hometown and Dalí designed the museum himself. It’s a surreal space from one of the most prolific surrealist artists. The museum has interactive elements to it so consider spending more time here than you normally would if you’re not a big museum person.
The Balearic Islands: SPAIN DESTINATIONS
The Balearic Islands are an archipelago off the eastern coast of Spain. If you want to visit Spain for 1 week, party your heart out, get some beach time in, and soak in the uniquely Catalonian culture, then this is the perfect 1-week itinerary. You’re most likely going to need to fly into Barcelona before you go to the Balearics so spend 2-3 days in Barcelona, then fly to one of the islands below for 4-5 days, then go home. You might be tired, but you will have spent your time wisely.
Ibiza was the IT place to visit when I was in university 10 years ago. It was the poster child for Spanish partying. Some people say it’s past its prime. I disagree. It’s still got a rousing club scene and beautiful beaches. If that’s not your thing, then visit one of the quiet villages, the contemporary art museum, or go to one of the many yoga retreats offered on the island.
There are tons of beaches in Ibiza to pick from. You could spend the day along the main beach drag at Platja d’en Bossa or spend the afternoon at the salt pans and visit the Platja de Ses Salines right there. Ibiza at night is like no other – so even if you’re not into the EDM music club scene, take a walk through Old Town to Platja d’en Bossa one night, and see what all the fuss is about. Old Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Can’t decide if you want to relax in a secluded locale or party the night away? Do both in Mallorca, the biggest Balearic Island. Mallorca is the perfect place in the Balearics if you want a little taste of everything the islands have to offer in one place. The nightlife is big, but not as notorious as Ibiza. If you want to hunker down at a resort surrounded by beautiful cliffs, then this is also the best place to visit in Spain.
The capital of the Balearics, Palma, is in Mallorca. In Palma, there are loads of places to eat fabulous seafood, make sure to take a walk through the Old Town and check out some small art galleries, and then leave the capital to take in the stunning nature on the rest of the island. Mallorca will have things to occupy you every day if you want. Or if you want to just walk, eat tapas, and sit on some of the prettiest beaches in Europe, you can also do that here.
You are not here to party. You are here to sit. Then drink a cocktail. Then take a leisurely walk along a beach before you have another cocktail. Menorca is where you belong. White sand beaches and small coves dot the entire island. It’s more rural than Ibiza and Mallorca, so you might want to rent a car for a day or 2 if you want to explore the various beaches across the island.
You don’t need to go to expensive, busy Greece to see whitewashed houses on an island in the Mediterranean. Visit Binibeca in Menorca for the morning, then go to the beach. The next day, go to a vineyard or a cave bar before you hit the beach. This is the type of place that will ensure you truly feel like you have been on a vacation.
Formentera is similar to Menorca. It’s best for people who are looking for a more laid-back beach trip. It’s only a 30-minute ferry ride from Ibiza so you could always just visit for the day to see why this place is a nature- and adventure-lovers paradise. It’s the perfect island to do a water activity or to go on a hike. If you have the time, make a trip to the town of Pilar de Mola. It’s the highest point on the island with breathtaking views of one of the best destinations in Spain. If you visit on Wednesday or Sunday from spring-fall, it also has a massive craft market where you will buy at least 2 gifts.
Central Spain: Places to Visit
For the sake of this list, Central Spain covers the entire country from west to east in the center. Typically, Central Spain only refers to the area around Madrid as the capital is in the center of the country. So Central Spain covers a lot of distinct regions and provinces. It’s all pretty accessible by public transportation if you don’t want to rent a car and aren’t looking to see a lot of rural nature.
Madrid + Barrio de las Letras
Madrid itself has hundreds of awesome things to do and places to visit. My favorite destination in Madrid is Barrio de las Letras. Known as the Literary Quarter, it was home to great Spanish writers over the centuries. It’s now a lively area with small, cobbled streets, cute coffee shops, and small theaters.
Some of my favorite things to eat in Spain can be found here, like the bread at Moega Empanadas. Have a coffee and sit outside and people watch. If you want to go for a nice walk or run, Retiro is a 10-minute walk away. As is the world-famous Prado Museum. It’s a great location to stay if you’re visiting Madrid for a few days. It’s one of my favorite places in Spain!
Plaza Mayor in Salamanca
Almost every city has a Plaza Mayor in Spain. It’s the main square in the heart of the city. The most famous one is obviously in Madrid. But the best one to visit in Spain because it’s the most picture-perfect version of a Plaza Mayor is in Salamanca. In Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, people sit on the square or the benches at all hours of the day, chatting and eating ice cream. You can have a glass of sangria at one of the cafes around the edges of the square and soak in the vibe, especially at nighttime.
Salamanca is also home to two cathedrals: aptly nicknamed the Old Cathedral and the New Cathedral. Salamanca University is the first university founded in Spain. The university’s historic buildings are scattered throughout the city. Hang out in Salamanca for a few days to get a really lovely warm taste of Spanish life.
Valencia is home to paella. Don’t make the cardinal mistake of thinking paella is a general Spanish cuisine and should be eaten in any and every province. There are some great paella restaurants across the country, but the key is that it specializes in paella. It should also not be bright yellow and advertised as such on a picture outside the restaurant. If you want to truly respect the history and nuance behind this iconic dish, then travel to Valencia and eat paella in the city it was created.
Visit Valencia to eat the paella, but stay for the plazas, beaches, museums, and general atmosphere. It’s a city that doesn’t have a unique claim to fame like Barcelona, nor is it the capital like Madrid. It doesn’t need to be either of those cities as it’s incredibly charming by being so quiescently… Spanish.
There are several alcázars in Spain. Alcázars are usually a type of Islamic castle built during Muslim rule. Many have been used as armories or converted into palaces for the Christian royals who took over after ousting the Moors. In Segovia, the alcázar is one of the most visited monuments in Spain. You can take a tour and explore the history of the place, as well as wander the grounds in front.
It’s also worth a trip to Segovia, to see one of the best-preserved elevated Roman aqueducts in the world. The Roman influence across Spain is an intrinsic part of its culture, as evidenced by these still-standing structures.
Toledo is one of the oldest cities in Spain. It was even the capital before Madrid. It makes sense why it has so many historical sites. It was known as a “city of three cultures” because Jewish and Muslim communities lived peacefully alongside Christians for hundreds of years. The city is overflowing with places to visit, including plazas, the second biggest cathedral in Spain, an old Moorish medina, and more.
The Old City is also beautifully located on a hill overlooking a river and surrounded by a wall first built by the Romans and added to by the Visigoths, the Moors, and then the Spanish over centuries. While you’re wandering the streets of Toledo, keep an eye out for the many traditional crafts, like damascene metalwork, that come from here so you have some gifts to bring home.