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Seville

Seville Sevilla Travel Spain Andalusia

Seville sits on the banks of the river Guadalquivir, at the heart of Andalusia. Travelers to Spain will find here some of the richest windows into Andalusian culture and history, from the Islamic and Mudejar artistry of the exquisite Real Alcazar to the warm air pulsing with the sounds of flamenco and horse-drawn carriages passing by.

Stay: 3–4 days

Region: Andalusia

Fast Fact: The dance song "Macarena" was recorded by a Seville band, Los del Río.

Nearby Destinations: Granada, Córdoba, Málaga, Costa del Sol

The city traces its origins to some three thousand years ago, as the splendid and somewhat mythical city of Tartessos — a city mentioned in both Ancient Greek writings and in the Bible. Tartessos was said to be located at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River — or, according to Herodotus, beyond the Pillars of Heracles, which stood at the Strait of Gibraltar.

Tartessos disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared.

Straits Gibraltar Pillars of Heracles
In antiquity, the Pillars of Heracles were said to stand on each side of the Strait of Gibraltar. The Rock of Gibraltar, shown here, stands in Spain on the European side of the strait.

The Roman period began with the defeat of the Carthaginians in the area in 206 BCE. The city became the grand metropolis of Hispalis, and an important center of trade. Important members of the Roman aristocracy, including the emperors Hadrian and Trajan, were born here.

The Vandals of Germany, then the Visigoths, took control of the city beginning in the fifth century CE. Then, in the year 712, the Muslim governor-general Musa bin Nusayr conquered the city for the Umayyad caliphate. The Islamic era in Seville would last for five centuries, during which time Seville (then known as Isbiliya) became the most important city in Al-Andalus, the medieval Muslim territory in the Iberian Peninsula.

It is, of course, from Al-Andalus that Andalusia takes its name. In fact, every Spanish word that begins with “al-” — from almendra (almond) to almohada (pillow) — derives from Arabic.

The Christian king Fernando III conquered the city in 1248 after a 15-month siege. But the artistic and architectural styles that had arisen during the Islamic period survived, and became what is known as the mudéjar style. This intricate artwork, built on patterns and forms inspired by the natural world rather than realistic representation, is on full display at the Real Alcazar, a fortress dating from the Islamic era. More on that below.

Seville’s strategic and commercial importance continued for several centuries. It was a principal port for trade with Italy and England in the 1500s, but by the 1600s saw a strategic decline and Seville became known as the “city of convents.” The city was revived with the infrastructure improvements that accompanied the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition, for which the Plaza de España (more on that below) was built.

Seville is a culturally rich and energetic city, and a wonderful introduction to what makes Andalusia special. For a fabulous resource on tapas and flamenco tours in Seville, check out Spanish Sabores.

Seville makes the perfect hub for visiting the rest of Andalusia. Visit Granada to see the unforgettable Alhambra, or travel to Cadiz, which may be Spain’s most enchanting and historic beach town.

Top Things to Do

El Real Alcazar

Real Alcazar Seville Andalusia Spain
The Real Alcazar of Seville in Andalusia, Spain, is an exquisite example of Islamic and Mudejar architecture, and offers a window into Spanish history. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

If you only have time for one activity during your stay in Seville, you absolutely must visit the Alcazar. This stunning edifice boasts some of the most intricate artistry and stunning tilework of the era of Islamic rule in Spain (711–1492 CE). Room after room, it is simply breathtaking.

In 913 CE, Abdurrahman III an-Nasir, the caliph of Cordoba, ordered the construction of new Umayyad government buildings at the site where the Alcazar stands today. A palace was built, and later expanded. Under the name al-Mubarak, that palace was to become the center of cultural and governmental activity.

Several more additions would be made over the coming centuries, and grand changes would have to be made after an earthquake destroyed much of the original palace in the 14th century.

When the Castilians captured the area in 1248–1249, the Real Alcazar became a royal residence for the Catholic rulers. They would make changes and additions of their own. You can see evidence of this firsthand in the iconic Patio de las Doncellas (Damsels’ Courtyard), an enclosed, open-air courtyard and reflecting pool surrounded by delicately carved arches. The upper floor of the patio was redesigned in a Renaissance style, and stands out stylistically from the floor below.

Real Alcazar Seville Andalusia Spain
Tiles in the Real Alcazar reflect the rule of the kingdoms of Castille ("castle") and Leon ("lion").

Even after the area was reconquered, the Spanish would use Muslim architects to design many of their structures. The hybrid style that emerged would be called mudéjar.

You’ll also see evidence of the Christian monarchs throughout much of the tilework, in which you’ll see the iconic lion and castle emblems of the kingdoms of Castilla y León (an area still today called Castile and Leon). These were the heraldic emblems of Peter I (Pedro I de Castilla, 1334–1369), who lived in the Alcazar.

The Hall of Ambassadors offers up one of the most stunning examples of this marriage of two worlds. It is crowned with a gilded, intricately carved dome. While the patterns are of Islamic origin, and seashells representing the ears of Allah line the walls, the castles of Castilla are also incorporated into the design.

After exploring the many palaces contained within this single complex, make sure to wander through the palace gardens, whose lavish fountains and ponds feature prominently in a few episodes of Game of Thrones. (If you’re a fan of the show, visit these five Spain destinations that feature prominently in Game of Thrones.)

Address: Patio de Banderas, s/n, 41004

Hours: 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. (October to March); 9:30 a.m.–7 p.m. (April to September). Close Jan. 1 and 6, Good Friday, and Dec. 25.

Admission: €11.50 for adults; €2 ground-floor admission for seniors and students 17–25 years of age

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Catedral de Sevilla (Seville Cathedral)

Seville Catedral Sevilla Andalusia Spain
The belltower — called la Giralda — of the Seville Cathedral dominates the landscape. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

This UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Indeed, this 11,520-square-meter (124,000-square-foot) structure dominates the landscape for blocks. In size, it rivals St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Seville Cathedral, called Santa María de la Sede, was constructed between 1401 and 1506 on the site of a former mosque. That structure, built in the 1100s, was called the Aljama mosque, and was built by the Almohad dynasty.

During the Reconquista (“Reconquest”) — the centuries-long campaign of Christian monarchs to take control of Muslim-held lands on the Iberian Peninsula — it was not uncommon for religious and governmental strongholds built by Muslim rulers to be replaced or repurposed for Christian use. This was also the case for the Alhambra in Granada.

You can see remains of this history in the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Pardon) and the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of the Orange Trees) on the north side of the cathedral. The earliest mention of the Puerta del Perdón dates from 1196 CE, during which period the city was still ruled by a Muslim dynasty. At the time, the gate probably had a military function, though it also served as an entryway to the mosque.

It gained the name Puerta del Perdón after it became an entrance to the cathedral. In fact, this is a common name for an entryway to a cathedral in Spain — especially for the doorway through which repentant sinners would enter.

Look closely at the door itself and you’ll notice intricate Arabic carvings in bronze that read, “Power belongs to Allah” and “Eternity belongs to Allah.”

Once you pass through the door, you’ll find yourself in a meticulously maintained garden of orange trees. It’s flanked by pointed arches typical of Moorish and Mudejar architecture. The construction of this patio dates to the 1100s.

The belltower, called la Giralda, is the only other remnant of the Moorish dynasty on the site. Two-thirds of the lower portion of the tower were built in the 12th century.

This map will help you find the Puerta del Perdón and other sites around the cathedral: 

Inside the cathedral, you’ll find an incredible 80 side chapels and a 42-meter nave.

Address: Av. de la Constitución, s/n, 41004

Hours:

September to June:

  • 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. (Mondays)
  • 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday)
  • 2:30–6 p.m. (Sundays)

July and August (except July 17–25):

  • 10:30 a.m.–4 p.m. (Mondays)
  • 10:30 a.m.–6 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday)
  • 2–7 p.m. (Sundays)

It is recommended you buy your ticket one hour before closing time.

Closed Jan. 1 and 6. and Dec. 25. Reduced hours Jan. 5 and Dec. 24 and 31.

Admission: €9 general admission. €4 for seniors and students 25 years or younger. Free for children 14 or younger accompanied by an adult. Audioguide €3. Free admission on Mondays, 4:30–6 p.m.

Find a place to stay in Seville:

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Plaza de España

Built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition, this monument showcases each province of Spain in one of 48 distinct alcoves, each with its own province-specific painting on tile along with a map. A moat — complete with rowboats for anyone who wants to take a leisurely ride — is crossed by four bridges, each representing one of the Iberian Peninsula’s four ancient kingdoms: Aragon, Navarre, Castille, and Leon.

There are, in fact, 50 provinces in Spain, but there are only 48 alcoves because at the time of the plaza’s construction, Tenerife was part of Canarias and because Seville actually doesn’t have its own alcove.

Colorful blue-and-yellow tiles, or azulejos, typical of Andalusia sparkle in the sun. Meandering along the alcoves offers a unique look into what makes each province distinct. Duck into the shade and meander along the interior esplanade for some relief from the heat, or get a full view of the plaza from one of the balconies.

You can rent a boat for €5 per 45-minute session.

This video offers a great introduction to the history of the Plaza de España, with flamenco accompaniment:

When you’re done exploring the Plaza de España, cross the street and explore the greener parts of the Parque de María Luisa.

Address: Avenida de Isabel la Católica, 41004

Hours: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m., every day

Admission: Free

Parque de María Luisa (Maria Luisa Park)

Wandering through the swaying palms, shaded gazebos, and hidden fountains and ponds of the Parque de María Luisa is the perfect way to spend a hot Seville afternoon.

This huge green space was part of the same 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition for which the Plaza de España was built. That’s why, as you wander through its lush green spaces, you’ll also find lush pavilions in Renaissance and neo-Mudejar style that were originally built for that event. One, the Pabellon Mudejar, is now the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares (Museum of Popular Arts and Customs), while another, once the Pabellon de Bellas Artes, is now Seville’s archaeological museum. Find both of these on the southern end of the park on the Plaza de las Americas.

As you explore the park, you’ll also discover monuments to some of Spain’s most notable writers, including Miguel de Cervantes and Gustavo Adolfo Becquer.

Address: Paseo de las Delicias, s/n/, 41013

Hours: 8 a.m.–12 a.m. (summer); 8 a.m.-10 p.m. (winter)

Admission: Free

The Story of Flamenco

Learn about the Roma people and the history of how this world-renowned art form was born.

Metropol Parasol / Setas de Sevilla

Metropol Parasol Seville Travel Spain
The Metropol Parasol is a 26-meter-tall (85-foot-tall) sculpture in Seville completed in 2011.

The Metropol Parasol has been known informally as the “Setas de Sevilla” (“Mushrooms of Seville”) since they were officially completed in 2011. Located in the Plaza de la Encarnación, the sculptures are 70 meters wide, 150 meters long, and about 26 meters tall.

The structure shelters an area that was a market in the 19th century. Over time, the market fell in disrepair, until in 2004, the Seville city government announced a contest to design a public plaza and market for the space.

Below the Metropol Parasol, you can visit archaeological ruins from the Roman and Moorish periods at the Museo Antiquarium. These ruins were discovered during excavations for underground parking in the 1990s.

Address: Plaza de la Encarnación

See More Andalusian Marvels

This architectural and artistic wonder, which rivals the Real Alcazar, is a must-see in Granada.

Eat

Seville is a wonderful place to experience tapas culture. So while we’ll offer a few recommendations for places to eat here, remember that, for the full tapas experience, you should be bar-hopping.

Order a drink at any given restaurante or bar and you’re likely to get a free tapa with it. Eat, enjoy, move on to the next place, and repeat. This means that the best bar for tapas is often the one that is closest to you.

Mercado de Triana

Specialties: Fresh produce, affordable snacks and lunches

Address: Calle San Jorge, 6

Price Point: $$$$

There’s really no more vibrant place in any town in Spain than the local market. And the Mercado de Triana is no exception. It’s a fabulous place to try a broad variety of fresh, local foods.

You can choose between Andalusia-produced jamón (ham), chorizo, cheese, salads, pastries, anchovies (much better than the ones that come on American pizza) and much more.

Bodega Palo Santo

Specialties: Tapas with a gourmet twist

Address: Plaza de la Gavidia, 5-B

Price Point: $$$$ 

Bodega Palo Santo has an open and airy atmosphere and a sidewalk terrace to boot. But that’s not why you should go. The broad variety of tapas and porciones (larger plates) are all made with care and precision. Many are presented with the flourish of a fine-dining establishment, rare among tapas bars.

It’s not just the usual tapas fare, either. You can expect delicious gambas (shrimp) and stews that are quintessentially Spanish. But you’ll also find dishes with unusual takes on tradition — combined with couscous or quinoa, or the delicious chipirones en su tinta (squid in squid ink) … in a crepe! Cool off with some salmorejo, a delicious cold soup similar to gazpacho but less acidic.

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Café Bar El Comercio

Specialties: Churros with chocolate

Address: Calle Lineros, 9

Price Point: $$$$

Churros are delicious pieces of deep-fried dough that are often dipped in melted chocolate. Try this bar for the perfect after-dinner treat — or for breakfast.

Just remember, churros don’t usually come with chocolate automatically. This would seem to imply that the chocolate isn’t necessary, but let me tell you — it absolutely is. So make sure to order chocolate along with your churros. Ready, set, indulge.  

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Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Santiago 15 Hotel Casa Palacio

Address: Calle Santiago, 15

Price Point: $$$$

This hotel at the heart of the old city of Seville features a luxurious open patio in the center. It’s the perfect place to relax after a long day exploring and eating tapas. An outdoor roof deck is the perfect place to luxuriate with a coffee in the morning. The rooms, meanwhile, are impeccable and beautifully decorated. And, most importantly — there’s air conditioning! 

Book your room at Santiago 15 Hotel Casa Palacio.

Hotel Patio de las Cruces

This hotel, which features a lush, green patio, is just a few minutes’ walk away from the Alcazar of Seville and the Seville Cathedral. It’s also perfectly situated near the Plaza de España and Maria Luisa Park, the ideal place for escaping the midday sun. The rooms are clean and breezy, making this one of the best options for staying in Seville.

Book your room at Hotel Patio de las Cruces.

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5 Spain Festivals You Can’t Miss This May

Feria del Caballo Jerez Spain
For any traveler in Spain, festivals offer an incredible view into local culture and rare opportunities to connect with locals. And there's no better time to experience these events than in May. With spring finally here and the heat of summer not yet at full force, cities all over Spain dedicate May to celebrating.

In fact, planning your trip around festivals, ferias, and fiestas is a great way to ensure an unforgettable experience.

Let's take a look at five of the most remarkable festivals you can experience in Spain in May.

Fiestas de San Isidro

Traditional Dance Fiestas de San Isidro
A traditional dance from Andalusia is performed on an outdoor stage in central Madrid as part of the Fiestas de San Isidro. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

When: May 10–15, 2019

Where: Madrid

The Fiestas de San Isidro take hold of all of Madrid in central May, transforming every plaza into a stage for music, dance, and celebration. 

View traditional dances on large outdoor stages. Visit the Plaza Mayor or the Puerta del Sol to see world-class buskers who have traveled from far afield just for the Ferias de San Isidro. And don't miss the outdoor carnival, where a ride to the top of a Ferris wheel will afford lovely views of Madrid — and of some pretty unique carnival rides, including a mechanical bull about 10 people can ride at once. 

The spirit of celebration and joy that grips Madrid during the Fiestas de San Isidro is unmatched. There's no better time to get to know this marvelous city. 

To plan your trip, view our definitive city guide to Madrid

Feria de San Isidro

Bullfight Feria de San Isidro Madrid
A bullfight at the Feria de San Isidro, Madrid. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

When: May 10 – June 10, 2019 

Where: Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid

During the Fiestas de San Isidro, you also have the opportunity to attend the world's largest bullfighting festival. 

Bullfighting certainly isn't for everyone, and expect to walk away feeling a little queasy. But while many Spaniards oppose the practice, it remains one part of the culture and history of the Iberian Peninsula. 

At the Feria de San Isidro, you'll have the opportunity to see some of the best matadors in Spain. Each event generally starts with newer, less experienced bullfighters, and with each successive bull, increases in the size of the bull and the matador's level of skill. 

Feria del Caballo (Horse Festival)

Feria del Caballo, Jerez, Spain
The Feria del Caballo in Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain. Festivals offer a fabulous way to dive into local culture. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

When: May 11–19, 2018

Where: Parque González Hintoria, Paseo las Palmeras, 2, 11405 Jerez de la Frontera

The Feria del Caballo, or Horse Festival, takes place at the heart of where flamenco, a traditional style of music and dance, was born. Jerez de la Frontera is a small, charming city at the heart of Andalusia, and every May, the Feria del Caballo brings the best of local tradition to life.

The Feria del Caballo is organized on a bright grid of stall-lined walkways, where horses, riders, and carriages in their best regalia march up and down for much of the day.

Meanwhile, attendees come dressed in their finest flamenco-style dresses and suits. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to see something truly special: most attendees seem to know a few basic styles of flamenco dance, and you’ll be able to see them dancing in the large, gorgeous pavilions or in one of the stalls almost any time of the day or night. This isn’t the kind of masterful flamenco you’d see on stage at a performance — it’s the kind that everyday people know. And, with the help of a kind stranger, you’re likely to learn a few dance steps yourself.

While you’re at the Feria del Caballo, help yourself to the local sherry, manzanilla — “Jerez” actually means sherry, since this is where the drink originated — or to a rebujito, a mixed drink made with wine, lemon-lime soda, yerba buena, and lots of ice.

Of all the events you could attend on your trip to Spain, festivals included, the Feria del Caballo would be ranked in the top five. 

Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba (Courtyard Festival)

Cordoba Feria Patios Flowers Spain Festivals
The blooming patios of Cordoba are celebrated annually at the Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba. If you're in Spain, festivals like this are not to be missed. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

When: May 6–19, 2019

Where: Cordoba, Andalusia 

The whitewashed, flower-lined streets of Cordoba’s old city are at the core of its charm. And never are they in fuller bloom than during the Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba.

This UNESCO World Heritage event celebrates the patio — the outdoor area at the heart of a traditional private home. You can visit many of these patios for free and without a reservation during this Spanish festival. View an interactive map of patios you can visit here.

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Feria de las Flores de Girona (Flower Festival)

Called the Temps de Flors in the local Catalan language, the Feria de las Flores, or Flower Festival, in Girona's old city is one-of-a-kind.

Girona is perhaps best known for its prominent appearance in Game of Thrones, but it's also known for its celebrations. Of all the Spain festivals you could attend, few welcome the spring quite like the Feria de las Flores. 

The festival features multiple events, including an a cappella festival, a museum night, and an interior decorating competition. You can attend live music performances or take a guided tour of the city. Check out a map of festival-related floral exhibitions, patios, gardens, and landmarks here

Watch our Culture & History page for more Spain festivals, events, and unique opportunities to experience the Iberian Peninsula's many cultures live and in person. 

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Cadiz, City of a Hundred Towers

Cadiz Let's Travel Spain city
Cadiz may be best known for its winding, ancient streets and its glittering beaches. This peninsula in southwestern Andalusia is surrounded by water, and a seawall encloses most of the Old City, or casco viejo, offering picture-perfect views of the Atlantic Ocean.

But this enchanting city is also known for the 126 watchtowers that punctuate the skyline of the casco viejo. These make Cadiz one of the most architecturally fascinating cities on the Iberian peninsula.

The city's unique access to the sea and strategic location just west of the Strait of Gibraltar hold the key to why these watchtowers have become a symbol of Cadiz.

Cadiz, City of Commerce

Cadiz is Western Europe's oldest town, with thousands of years of history. By the 17th century, the city was overflowing with successful merchants. Traders traveling to and from the West Indies moved in and out of this important Spanish port on a daily basis.

King Felipe V relocated the Consulate of the West Indies to Cadiz in 1717, giving the city a monopoly on this trade through 1765. Prosperity grew as a result, and the city in that era glittered with tall buildings and newly paved streets. 

Each merchant needed a way to clearly see his ships whenever they entered the harbor. So over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, dozens of merchants erected watchtowers on the roofs of their often-lavish homes. They also included distinctive flags on the tops of their towers so they could be recognized from far away.

Cadiz Spain Tower Watchtower
A watchtower visible from a Cadiz street. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

By 1777, the city of Cadiz had 160 watchtowers. Today, 126 remain. 

The extreme heat of the summer months made the roof patios, or azoteas, of Cadiz's buildings a popular place to relax, play games, and fly kites. The towers were not only places from which to clearly view the harbor, they were also sites for family recreation and symbols of the wealth of those who built them. 

Cadiz Spain Towers Azotea patio
The rooftops patios, or "azoteas," in Cadiz have been popular recreation spots for centuries. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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Types of Watchtowers in Cadiz

The architectural style of the towers in Cadiz are typical of Andalusia. But like so much Andalusian art, they also have origins in North Africa. 

Among the various types of towers visible around the city, four distinctive types emerge, beautifully illustrated by the Torre Tavila museum, which we'll talk about in a minute: 

Types of Towers Cadiz Spain
The four types of watchtower in Cadiz, courtesy of the Torre Tavira museum.

The most common type of watchtower is the torre de garita (sentry box tower), which often has a miniature cupola emerging from the top. You can ascend to this by means of a spiral staircase, and look out through small peepholes in the walls.

Here's an example of a torre de garita: 

Cadiz Spain towers watchtowers
A watchtower is visible from the Torre Tavira, a highly recommended museum where you can learn more about Cadiz's towers. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Torres de sillón, appropriately named "armchair towers," have an open patio at the front with the weight of the highest part at the center of the building. If this tower is combined with a small cupola or other elements, it might be called a torre mixta, or mixed-style tower. 

Torres de terraza, or terrace towers, lack the small cupola of the torres de garita. The Torra Tavira, perhaps the most iconic viewpoint in Cadiz. Speaking of which, it's high time we talk about how you can see and experience these towers on your trip to Cadiz. 

Find a Hotel in Cadiz

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Where & How to See Towers in Cadiz

Most of the watchtowers in Cadiz are located in the oldest part of the city, in the northeastern area of the peninsula's tip, where the Old City resides. 

Here's a map, courtesy of Torre Tavira, that offers an excellent look at where the towers are:

Watchtowers Find Cadiz Spain Map
A map of where watchtowers can be found in the Old Town of Cadiz, courtesy of the Torre Tavira museum.

The problem is, it's not always easy to see these towers from the street, especially given how narrow many of the streets can be. 

So if you want to learn more about these towers — and/or simply check out the most stunning views that this city has to offer — you can't miss the Torre Tavira. 

This museum offers an in-depth history of trade in Cadiz and a chance to ascend to the highest point in the city. The tower's terrace stands at 45 meters above sea level. 

Cadiz Spain towers watchtowers
Several watchtowers are visible from the Torre Tavira, a highly recommended museum where you can learn more about Cadiz's towers.

You can also check out the museum's camera obscura, which projects a 360-degree, live-action view of the city in a darkened room. 

The museum is open every day of the year except for December 25 and January 1 and 6. Between October and April, you can visit it between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. From May to September, opening hours are between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. 

Tickets are 6€, with reduced prices for seniors over 65, large families and groups, disabled individuals, and students. 

Try to drop in ahead of the time you wish to visit, as the tower can be busy and the number of people allowed to enter at any one time is limited. You may need to schedule a time to come back later. Learn more about visiting the Torre Tavira here

Even if you only have one day, the Torre Tavira is well worth your while. It offers a wonderful overview of the history of the city — and stunning views of the city itself. 

For other essential places to visit in Cadiz, check out this map:

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Incredible Hiking, Incredible Views: Drone Video Over Bilbao

Bilbao Spain incredible hiking drone video
Basque Country and Spain’s northern coast are among the greenest areas in the entire country. They offer some incredible hiking opportunities for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Even if you’re not following the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a traditional pilgrimage whose trails criss-cross the northern landscape, you can follow parts of those trails for some one-of-a-kind views. But they’re not the only great hiking trails you’ll find.

I visited Spain in November and, only having a few days in Bilbao, I wanted to see as much as I could of the city but also explore the surrounding natural beauty. I looked around online for local spots, came across a perfect viewpoint, and began to plan the route for my hike.

I woke early from my stay in the Hotel Gran Bilbao and started making my way to Mamalmasin Mendiaren Gailurra park. I was greeted on the way by morning hikers and bike riders. It took me about 30 minutes following the main road before I could turn into the park and garden area and start my assent to the top.

In total it took me a little over an hour to get from the hotel to the peak.

The ascent was not too taxing for the most part — just a few larger rocks to clamber over — but since rain from the day before combined with morning dew left the ground a little slippery, especially on the way down, so care must be taken on the descent.  

However, the breathtaking views over Bilbao and the surrounding mountains made it more than worthwhile. On the day of my hike, it wasn’t windy, and the were clear views of the city with blue skies and rolling clouds over Basque Country. It’s a very tranquil place, and I highly recommend spending some time to relax and take in the views. For my part, I took this opportunity to set up my drone so I could get some shots of the scenery. Check out my drone video overlooking Bilbao and Basque Country at the top of this post.

I would recommend this hike to anybody visiting the area. Unfortunately, I only had the morning free for this little adventure, but you could easily spend the whole day there exploring Mamalmasin Mendiaren Gailurra park.

Bilbao Spain incredible hiking drone video
A view over Bilbao, located in Basque Country, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
Happy exploring!
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Granada

Granada Alhambra Spain

At the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains lies one of Spain's most enchanting cities. Granada offers the chance to see not only some of the most important historical and cultural sites in Spanish history; it's also a joy to explore. The hilltops offer stunning views of the Alhambra at dusk and the whitewashed Albayzín neighborhood, and on a clear day, glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea, just an hour's drive away. 

Stay: 3 days

Region: Andalusia

Fast Fact: Granada is the hometown of famous poet Federico García Lorca.

Nearby Destinations: Málaga, Córdoba, Costa del Sol

As the 13th-largest city in Spain, Granada is manageable on foot while the occasional taxi ride is convenient for arriving at the most breathtaking viewpoints. It's also just a short drive from some of Spain's loveliest olive groves, where you can sample some of the freshest olive oil you've ever had. 

The area of Granada has been populated since at least 5500 BCE, but beginning in 711 CE, much of the Iberian peninsula was ruled under Muslim caliphates. For many centuries, Granada constituted a relatively unimportant capital in this web of kingdoms — that is, until Christian pushback from the north as part of a campaign called the Reconquista ("Reconquering") toppled the once-formidable Umayyad caliphate in the early 11th century. 

At that time, Granada was heavily populated by Jews and was a center of Jewish scholarship and culture. Zawi ibn Ziri as-Sanhaji, a Berber, established the Taifa of Granada in 1013. 

Two hundred years later, the region gained greater cultural influence with the rise of the Nasrid Dynasty. The Nasrids would become known for the particular styles of art seen throughout the Alhambra. Construction began on the palace that would come to define the city in the mid-13th century under King Mohammed ibn Yusuf Ben Nasr.

This city, called in the 14th century the "metropolis of Andalusia and the bride of its cities," would witness the final battle in the Catholic Monarchs' campaign to retake the Iberian Peninsula. In 1482, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon launched a series of campaigns to take the city, which was the last remaining Muslim holdout on the peninsula. In 1492, King Boabdil surrendered the Alhambra and the city. Eight hundred years of Muslim rule in Spain had come to an end. 

That same year, Jews faced forced conversions, and those who refused either had to flee or faced possible execution. A decade later, the Muslims that remained in the city were also ordered to convert to Christianity or leave. 

Today, with the renovation of many of its most important historic sites, Granada has regained some of the cultural vibrancy of that era, if not the diversity. It nonetheless retains some of its Roma heritage in the Sacromonte district, where you can see some incredible flamenco performances. 

Top Things to Do

The Alhambra

Granada Alhambra Spain
The Alhambra of Granada is seen at dusk. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

You can't go to Granada without visiting the Alhambra. In fact, it could be said that you can't go to Spain without stopping to see this marvel of Moorish architecture and artistry. Check out our complete guide to the Alhambra.  

But visiting the Alhambra takes planning. You can't just show up at the ticket office on the day you want to go. (I've heard of one or two people doing this successfully, but they got in line at 6 a.m. and were, on top of that, very lucky.) You'll want to book your ticket at least a month in advance during the summer months. You can book your ticket here

I'd also highly recommend doing a tour. You learn a lot more history than with the minimal signage throughout this colossal site, which can be confusing to navigate on your own. In particular, based on my own tours of the site, I'd highly recommend the Viator tours linked below.

See More Incredible Photos of the Alhambra

This architectural and artistic marvel is a must-see in Granada.

The Albaycín

Albaycín neighborhood Granada Spain
Granada's oldest neighborhood, the Albaycín, is visible on the left from the vantage point of the Alhambra.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the Albaycín is one of Granada's most historic — and enchanting — neighborhoods. Its whitewashed houses, speckled with touches of blue tile and trim, occupy the slope facing the Alhambra.

Exploring the winding, narrow streets of the Albaycín on foot, while well worth it, is no easy task. For those who don't like climbing steep hills in the sometimes-sweltering Andalusian heat, consider taking a taxi or bus to the Mirador de San Cristobal or the Mirador de San Nicolas, two incredible lookout points, then winding your way down.

The Mirador de San Cristobal offers incredible views of the Alhambra at dusk. The Mirador de San Nicolas, meanwhile, features a small collection of open-air vendors many days of the week. Many fabulous tours of the Albaycín — a highly recommended way to learn the history of this place — start here.

As you walk around you'll see sometimes massive homes with names spelled out in tiles on the sides of them. These are called "cármenes" — large, traditional homes that enclose a garden or orchard within a high wall.

Contained within this district is also the Realejo, the historic Jewish neighborhood, and ancient city walls. You can see them lacing the hills, along with the remains of their older counterparts, replaced with larger enclosures as the city's population expanded.

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Sacromonte & Flamenco Shows

Flamenco is a musical style believed to have originated among the Roma people. (While they are commonly known as gypsies, many Roma consider the term offensive.) And in Granada, the traditional neighborhood of the Roma people is Sacromonte. Located just between the Albaycín and the Generalife, a part of the Alhambra compound, Sacromonte is pockmarked with whitewashed houses and traditional cave houses, cut into the land itself.

A "zambra" is a type of flamenco show traditionally held in one of these cave houses. Attending one of these shows is sure to be one of the main highlights of any visit to Granada. The Zambra María la Canastera is one highly recommended option (tickets are 28€ each).

To try your hand at learning flamenco yourself (disclaimer: it takes years of study), try the Escuela Carmen de las Cuevas. It makes for an incredibly fun afternoon, even if you only walk away with a few signature moves. 

The Story of Flamenco

Learn about the Roma people and the history of how this world-renowned art form was born.

Arab Baths

Arab baths in Granada, Spain

After a long, hot day of climbing the hills of the Albaycín (or the formidable hill leading up to the Alhambra itself), there's no better way to relax than in a traditional Arab bath.

These "hammams" are steam baths set at different temperatures across a variety of rooms. Combine your visit with a massage, aromatherapy, and tea for a truly relaxing experience that recalls traditional methods of self-care from centuries ago.

You can find a number of incredible options around Granada. One of our favorites is the Hammam Al Ándalus Granada (Calle Santa Ana 16), which offers incredibly luxurious baths right at the foot of the Alhambra. You can book a reservation online.

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Centro Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca Museum Granada

Federico García Lorca, one of the most formidable Spanish poets of all times, hailed from Granada. Born in 1898 a few miles west of the city, Lorca rose to prominence as part of the Generación del 27 (Generation of '27), an innovative group of writers and artists that included Salvador Dalí.

Lorca was not only interested in surrealism, but he also pioneered a resurgence in interest in the "romance," a traditional Spanish ballad form. Lorca was also an incredible playwright, and founded a group designed to bring theater to the remotest regions of the Iberian Peninsula.

Lorca was murdered in 1936, soon after the start of the Spanish Civil War, by the conservative forces of General Francisco Franco, possibly because of his sexual orientation.

The Centro Federico García Lorca holds special exhibitions and educational activities dedicated to preserving the memory and disseminating the work of this incredible poet, dramaturg, and visual artist.

Address: Plaza de la Romanilla, s/n

Hours:
Summer
Tuesday–Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-9 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Winter
Tuesday–Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Closed on Mondays

El Centro

The downtown center of Granada, just a few steps away from the Albaycín, is a lovely area to explore. Tiled plazas and fountains glimmer beneath swaying palms. There's good food to be had on almost every corner, and great shopping, as well. 

If your ears perked up when I said "shopping," you can't miss the Alcaicería, a semi-open-air bazaar that sells everything from spices and souvenirs to Arabic silks. It's a remnant of the Moorish style markets common during Muslim rule. The original market, built in the 15th century, had some 200 shops, and was destroyed by fire in the 19th century. Today's market is smaller but still great fun.  

It starts just beyond the Catedral de Granada in a series of narrow, interlocked pedestrian streets. Once you're close, it's hard to miss, but if you're turned around, look for Calle Alcaicería on the map. 

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Catedral de Granada

Royal Chapel of Granada Spain

At the heart of el Centro neighborhood, just a few blocks from City Hall and the entrance to the Albayzín, stands the imposing chapel where the Catholic Monarchs are buried. Arguably the most famous rulers in Spanish history, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille are also some of the most controversial. They led the final charge of the Reconquista — the retaking of Spain from its Muslim rulers after 800 years of domination. They also oversaw Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas. 

The figures of these two monarchs are carved in stone over the area where they are interned. The signage within the chapel is reverent toward these rulers, making no reference to the forced conversions and mass expulsions of Jews and Muslims that took place under Isabella and Ferdinand's tutelage, nor of the massacres of Native Americans that Columbus would oversee, bringing back kidnapped individuals to show off in the Spanish royal court. 

Still, it's a sobering reminder of how much history can change whom we define as heroes — and at the same time, how little has changed. The displays of royal robes and crowns from the epoch are fascinating, as is the collection of late medieval religious art. 

Hours: Monday–Saturday 10:15 a.m.–6:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.–6:30 p.m.

Admission: 5€ with free audioguide; free for children under 12 

Eat

Restaurante Carmela

Specialties: White chocolate and cauliflower croquetas, merluza (hake) 

Address: Calle de la Colcha, 13

Price Point: $$$$

Restaurante Carmela, right at the heart of el Centro, offers the perfect post-Alhambra meal. In fact, it served up one of the most unique and delicious meals I've had in all of Spain.

Let's start with the cauliflower and white chocolate croquetas. Now, I understand your hesitation. But these are surprisingly delicious, and like no flavor you've ever experienced. The croquetas are quite large, and one serving of three is likely enough for a party of four or five.

The restaurant also offers up a wide variety of delicious seafood (try the squid-ink risotto), cheese plates, and snacks to share. Everything I tried here was delicious.

But one meal took the cake. Merluza (called "hake" in English) is already my favorite fish. I eat it as much as I can in Spain because it's nowhere to be found in the United States. It's a fresh, light, and incredibly moist fish. The Restaurante Carmela combines it with a pumpkin cream sauce and a beet foam for one of the most incredible servings of fish I've had in my life.

TL/DR: You absolutely cannot miss the Restaurante Carmela while you're in Granada.

Wild Food

Wild Food Granada Spain

Specialties: Vegetarian food

Address: Plaza de Isabel la Católica, 5

Price Point: $$$$ 

Burrata dish from Wild Food Granada
A vegetarian burrata-and tomato-dish from Wild Food in Granada.

Vegetarian fare can be hard to find in Spain, so it's a special treat when you can find something that not only has lots of options, but is truly delicious.

Wild Food is a great place for sharing. Offerings vary widely from burrata salads to sushi, and meat-eaters will find their share of options too. But vegetarians and vegans will find a much-needed respite from a diet of patatas bravas and tortilla española.

This restaurant is located right in the heart of Granada, close to the Alhambra and the Albaycín. Even if you're not vegetarian, it's worth a visit.

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Sabor a España

Sabor a España nuts shop Granada

Specialties: Dried nuts, fruits, and snacks

Address: Calle Zacatín 16

Price Point: $$$$

If you're looking for some truly delicious snack food, look no further than Sabor a España. All the candied nuts and fruits sold here are roasted in the store, lending them a freshness that will stay delicious for days.

The offerings come in small enough quantities that you can (and should) try several varieties. Among my favorites were the candied pipas (sunflower seeds) and the coconut flakes.

Los Italianos

Los Italianos Granada Spain

Specialties: Ice cream

Address: Calle Gran Vía de Colón

Price Point: $$$$

As far away as Cuenca, if people hear you're visiting Granada, they tell you to stop by Los Italianos. Once you've tried their ice cream, it's easy to understand why.

This hand-crafted ice cream is offered up in more flavors than you can count, at a highly reasonable price of just a few euro per cone. That's why it's necessary — and highly recommended — that you visit every day around the time that the heat gets intolerable, and try a new flavor.

The lines look long but the staff is incredibly efficient. Anyway, it's well worth the wait.

Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Hotel Anacapri

Hotel Anacapri Granada Spain
The lobby in Hotel Anacapri, at the heart of Granada.

Address: Calle Joaquín Costa 7

Price Point: $$$$

Comfortable rooms (with particularly dreamy pillows!) and a lovely lobby with plenty of space to relax make Hotel Anacapri a pleasant place to stay. But even better is the location. It's half a block away from the Catedral de Granada and the Centro neighborhood. Just a few blocks more in the other direction, and you'll find yourself in the Albaycín, within full view of the Alhambra. Oh, and did I mention it's half a block from Los Italianos ice cream? Book your stay at Hotel Anacapri.

Looking for more great spots? Check out these deals:

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A Look Inside the Iconic Alhambra of Granada

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If you've never visited the Alhambra in Granada, you're missing out on one of the most important historical sites in all of Spain. The artistic value alone of a visit to this incredible place is absolutely stunning. But it also offers a key look inside the 800 years of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.

In fact, as you travel around Andalusia, you're sure to see pieces of art whose origins date back to the Muslim era everywhere. From the Alcázar in Seville to the tilework in a typical Spanish house, the geometric and organic patterns you see throughout the region — and in much of Spain — are derived from the Berber and Arab peoples who lived in Granada and throughout Andalusia.

As you plan your visit to the Alhambra and to Granada, take a look at our gallery of photos from the Alhambra. Then, when you're ready to plan your trip, check out our definitive guide to Granada.

Find Your Dream Hotel in Granada:

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The Alhambra: Unlocking Granada’s Royal History

Alhambra Granada Spain history
Among the most iconic images of Spain is that of the Alhambra: a seemingly impenetrable fortress with red-twinged fortifications, mounted on a hill at the heart of Granada. It's one of the places you simply must visit on a trip to Spain: it lives up to every expectation and even exceeds it.

But no visit to the Alhambra is complete without some background on the history of this fascinating structure.

The Muslim Conquest of Spain

In the year 711 CE, commander Tariq ibn Ziyad led a force that invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa. So began nearly 800 years of Muslim rule throughout much of the peninsula. Only a few bastions of Christian or non-Muslim rule survived in the north. These groups would lead what came to be known as the "Reconquista," or Reconquering, of Spain. Over a period of several centuries, Christian forces would push back slowly southward, reclaiming territory as they went.

Meanwhile, the Umayyad Caliphate — for which Tariq ibn Ziyad had fought — established a kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next 800 years, power would shift between several different dynasties. The influence of Arabic-speaking Muslims can still be heard in Spanish today, and their style of art is widespread especially in the region of Andalusia — and quite visible in the Alhambra.

The Origins Of The Alhambra

Granada became home to the royal residence of the Nasrid Dynasty in the mid-13th century, and it was King Mohammed ibn Yusuf Ben Nasr, also known as Alhamar, who ordered the construction of the first palace on the site. Construction continued through the 15th century as defensive towers and high walls were built.

Granada Alhambra Spain

The Alhambra consists of two sections: one dedicated to military matters, including a barrack, and the royal palace. While it looks plain on the outside, the interior of the palace include elaborate decoration and tile work. Both plebeians and nobles lived within this area of the complex. 

Just a short walk away, one hill over, is the Generalife, a house built for the recreation of the caliphs who lived in the Alhambra. While its interior is more simply designed, the 13th-century palace is characterized by lush orchards and gardens. 

Generalife Alhambra Granada Spain
The Generalife, a palace that forms part of the Alhambra complex. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Reconquista Reaches Granada

By the late 15th century, the Reconquista had retaken most territory on the Iberian Peninsula, and Granada — seat to a once–relatively unimportant caliphate — remained the last holdout of Muslim power. 

Beginning in 1482, the Catholic Monarchs — Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon — undertook a series of military campaigns against Granada. Meanwhile, infighting among the Granadan royals weakened their military strength. On January 2, 1492, King Boabdil surrendered the city — along with the Alhambra palace — to the Christian Monarchs, heralding the end of 800 years of Muslim rule in Spain. 

Charles V (1516–1556) undertook a project to rebuild parts of the Alhambra in Renaissance style, though much of his work would be left incomplete. Still, you can see his seal in some of the tilework during your visit.

Further modifications took place over the ensuing centuries, but eventually the elegant palace fell into disuse and disrepair. When American writer Washington Irving moved into the Alhambra in 1829, he would find a structure much reduced from its former glory. (Irving would author a fascinating book, Tales of the Alhambra, about his time there.)

Court of Lions Granada Alhambra Spain
The Court of the Lions is perhaps the most iconic part of the Alhambra. Surrounded by filagree walls and a marble collonade is an alabaster fountain with 12 lions. Each hour of the day, one lion would shoot water from its mouth to mark the time. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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The Alhambra Today & How to Visit

Restoration efforts at the Alhambra began with Rafael Contreras, who started work on the Nasrid palace in 1847. He also worked to revive historical techniques of working with plaster as he built an industry selling Nasrid-inspired art to tourists who were beginning to come visit the Alhambra. 

Reconstruction has continued and today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by as many as two million people a year. 

It is highly recommended that you book your tickets ahead of time — at least a month in advance during the summer months — since it is almost impossible to buy a same-day ticket. 

Tours also come highly recommended. I've done two tours at the Alhambra and would highly recommend this option, as it helps you steer around the crowds and gain a lot of historical context as you go. Check out the Viator tours linked below (I really recommend their guides — they're always incredibly knowledgeable) or book a ticket here

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Segovia

Traveling through the walled city of old-town Segovia, you will find yourself transported back in time to a perfectly preserved, fairytale-like town just a stone’s throw away from Spain’s metropolitan capital of Madrid.

Segovia Basics:

Stay: Day trip from Madrid or 1 night

Region: Community of Castile and Leon, or Castilla y León

Fast Fact: The Old Town of Segovia and its aqueduct are UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Nearby: Madrid, Toledo, Salamanca, Valladolid, Ávila

Located just a quick day trip from Madrid, Segovia is a popular spot for tourists and native Spaniards alike. With more than 2,000 years of history and culture to explore, there is something for everyone here.

Segovia Aqueduct Spain
The Segovia Aqueduct still stands today, nearly 2,000 years after it was built.

Very little is known about the original Celtic possession of the region of Segovia, other than that the population was generally made up of farmers and shepherds. Segovia was placed on the map, so to speak, with the arrival of the Roman Empire, which took possession of the territory between 200 and 100 BCE. In the first century CE, the Romans built the famous aqueducts that supplied the city with water until the mid-19th century. The area thrived during the empire’s presence, but the Romans eventually abandoned Segovia during the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

The area reemerged as a prominent location in Spanish history when Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile conquered the region of Toledo. This allowed for Christians from the north to resettle the area.

The bastion, or castle, became a favorite residence of many royals, as well as a place for them to take refuge amidst battles and claims to the throne. Most notably, during a dispute over who should inherit the crown after the death of King Henry IV, Isabella I was made queen in Segovia’s cathedral in the year 1474. (The cathedral at this time was near the castle, but was later destroyed in military clashes.) This coronation guaranteed Isabella I’s claim to the crown. As he was not present in Segovia at the time, Isabella’s husband, Ferdinand, ascended the throne soon after, and together they would become famous for their support of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas.

Ferdinand and Isabel wedding
Isabella I and Ferdinand's wedding portrait, ca. 1469.

Segovia later underwent economic rises and declines tied to the local textile industry, but now experiences economic stability with the aid of steady tourism.

Segovia today boasts three noteworthy attractions for its visitors. The Alcazar, rumored to be the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle in Disney theme parks, is valued for its historical importance and its architectural grandeur. The last Gothic cathedral built in Spain is located in the city center of Segovia. The stunning Roman aqueduct still stands tall and sturdy at the city’s edge thousands of years after its original construction.

Thirty-minute trains from Madrid to and from Segovia are frequent, so if you’d like to make it a day trip, you can find yourself back in Madrid in time for a quick nap, freshen up, and then be out the door again for some tapas and cocktails—all in the same day!

Getting There

If you’re not renting a car while in Spain, Segovia is still easy enough to get to by public transportation. The fastest way to get from Madrid to Segovia is to book a high-speed train (book a train ticket here) from Madrid to Segovia’s central train station.

The train ride averages 30 minutes long and costs between €12 and €25 each way. Prices vary based on whether you are traveling during peak commuting hours: early mornings and late afternoons. This applies on the weekends as well. There are some promotional discounts offered for paying for your departure and return in one purchase. Book these tickets in advance, especially during peak holiday seasons.

From the station, you can take a short taxi ride to the city center. On your way back to the station, you can find a taxi stand at the aqueducts.

Once you’re in the historical heart of Segovia, the town is easily navigable by foot.

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Top Things to Do

The Alcazar of Segovia

Segovia’s Alcazar is as rich in history as were the royals who once lived inside. Here, the Roman Empire laid the foundations for a fort. This later became the grounds for a Muslim fort during the 800 years of Islamic rule in Spain, and then a royal palace.

This last iteration can be traced to the year 1120, when we find the first historical reference to the Alcazar. At this point, the city was being repopulated by Christians as a consequence of the Reconquista, or “reconquering” of Spain by Catholics.

Since then, the Alcazar has been repurposed several times from a royal palace to a state prison, a Royal School of Artillery, a military college, and a meeting place for parliament. It is currently an active museum and military archive for the general of Segovia.

Its most recent reconstruction and restoration took place in the late 1880s after fire damage incurred more than a decade earlier.

To tour the palace, you can buy a complete entry, which includes a visit to both the palace and the museum, for €8. For one extra euro, you can join a group tour that starts every half-hour. This tour is given in Spanish only.

If your Spanish isn’t quite good enough to join this tour, there are other options. For €3, you can rent an audioguide available in 12 languages. But the most exciting option for history buffs is booking a private guided tour with the keepers of the castle, offered in Spanish, French, or English. You can do so for €40 for one group of up to 40 people, not including the price of entrance per person. To sign up, fill out this form before your trip. Those seeking an in-depth look at royal Spanish drama or interested in finding out whether this castle did indeed host a fairytale romance are sure to enjoy this tour.

As you pass through the rooms of the castle, take your time: the chambers and historical artifacts they house come to life as you learn more about the long history of the Alcazar. Be sure to look up at the elegant ceilings and stop to peer out the windows. Who walked these halls? What would they have seen? What would they think of you here now?

Certainly, most of the royals or elite guests who visited the Alcazar would not have had to climb the palace’s guard tower, the Tower of John II of Castile. But for €2.50 and 152 steps each way, you can climb your way to spectacular views of Segovia.

Hours: 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (April–October); 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (November to March)

Admission: €8 for a ticket that includes the Torre de Juan II; €5.50 for the palace and museum only

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The Segovia Cathedral

At the city’s center you will find Plaza Mayor. You might have realized by now that most Spanish towns and cities have a Plaza Mayor—and that makes sense, since it translates to “Main Square.”

In Segovia, the Plaza Mayor boasts an enormous cathedral, built entirely in a late-Gothic style with the exception of its dome, which was added later. After its completion in the 16th century, its original spire made it the tallest building in Spain at the time.

The cathedral—whose full name is La Santa Iglesia Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción y de San Frutos—is certainly worth the €3 visit inside, especially to enter the museums housing exquisite tapestries, liturgical garments, and ornamentation. You can see works of art by popular artists such as Pedro Berruguete, Sanchez Coello, and Van Orley.

The cathedral’s interior is vast and cavernous. Because of this, each stained-glass window and private chapel within the main cathedral stands out all the more.

Hours: 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

Admission: €3 

The Roman Aqueduct

Segovia Aqueduct Spain
The Segovia Aqueduct still stands today, nearly 2,000 years after it was built. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Segovia is best known for its 638-meter long aqueduct. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Segovia each year, and you can find them all taking pictures in front of these ancient arches at some point during their visit.

Dusk is especially lovely in Azoguejo Square as the tones of the sky at sunset meet the neutrals of the aqueduct’s bricks and the yellow-hued streetlights, all blending into a portrait of perfection.

Though we do not know the exact dates the aqueduct was completed, we can place its construction within the first century or early second century CE. The structure was built with granite blocks formed into bricks and, astoundingly, without mortar.

Comprised of 167 arches, the aqueduct was reconstructed and restored throughout its history and must be meticulously cared for today. Still, it managed to provide water to the city of Segovia from its construction through the 19th century—an impressive feat.

Segovia Aqueduct Spain
The Segovia Aqueduct still stands today, nearly 2,000 years after it was built. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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Exploring Segovia on Foot

Segovia Jewish Quarter Spain
Segovia's Jewish Quarter. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

If you find yourself with extra time in the day, you might enjoy walking through the old city at your leisure. You can explore the Jewish Quarter or the many churches, or even opt for a free visit to Segovia’s mint, where you can learn how it functioned 400 years ago.

Once you’re inside the old city’s walls, Segovia is small enough to walk through on your own. It’s best to make a plan of action that will allow you to go from one side to the other, such as starting at the palace, moving to the cathedral, having lunch, and then taking a stroll to find yourself at the aqueduct at the edge of the city.

Map Segovia Spain walking route

On Thursday mornings, there is an open market in the Plaza Mayor. You can find everything from leather goods and real fur coats to vests and accessories, and even some candies or canned goodies.

Visit Madrid

Learn what to see, where to eat, and where to stay in Spain's capital city with our definitive guide. 

Eat

With so much to take in, you’re bound to work up an appetite. And what better place to find yourself hungry than in the old city of Segovia? If you are an explorer, you can wind your way through the narrow streets and find a few little patios or squares that will offer a relaxing atmosphere for a long lunch, in true Spanish fashion. But if you’re looking for a great meal and authentic local fare, we can offer up a strong recommendation.

El Bernardino

El Bernadino restaurant in Segovia, Spain.
El Bernadino restaurant in Segovia, Spain, offers lovely views and delicious local fare. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Specialties: Suckling pig, lamb, duck confit

Address: Calle Cervantes, 2

Price Point: $$$$

Wherever you end up, you may find a gazpacho as a starter in the summer, or a hearty soup as a starter in winter. But one thing you will always see is roast suckling pig.

Cochinillo Segovia Spain roast pork
Cochinillo is a traditional dish of Segovia, Spain. | Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/blogestudio

For a prime example of this local specialty, called “cochinillo,” try El Bernardino, a restaurant established in 1939. El Bernardino offers a day menu, or menú del día, which includes cochinillo along with another course, a beverage, and dessert.

Admittedly, this dish might not be for picky eaters, but an adventurous palate will certainly enjoy this delicacy. At El Bernardino, you and your party will be able to see the whole roasted piglet before it is carved into generous portions.

If pork isn’t your thing, give Segovia’s lamb dishes a try. Afterwards, you can sit back with a coffee and dessert and take in the views from El Bernardino’s lovely viewpoint.

Limón y Menta

Limón y Menta Segovia pastries
Limón y Menta offers up delicious pastries, breakfast, and ice cream right off Segovia's Plaza Mayor, just steps from the cathedral. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Specialties: Pastries, pastel segoviano

Pastel segoviano Segovia Spain pastry
Pastel segoviano is an almond-flavored local pastry in Segovia, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Address: Calle Isabel la Católica, 2

Price Point: $$$$  

This little bakery is located right beside Segovia's Plaza Mayor, and offers everything from delicious hot breakfast fare to local specialties. You can even order some ice cream from a walk-up window on those extra-hot days that Spain is famous for.

The pastel segoviano (Segovian pastry) is a local almond-flavored specialty that Limón y Menta makes especially well. You can even get an individually-sized one to go. This is a must-try for any visit to Segovia—it is in fact ridiculously delicious.

La Almuzara

Specialties: Italian food, vegetarian options 

Address: Calle Marqués del Arco, 3

Price Point: $$$$

If you're looking for something completely different, La Almuzara is a cozy little restaurant with hand-painted wall decor and a personal touch. It's located right next to the Segovia Cathedral offering up a variety of Italian fare. Vegetarians will love the veggie lasagna, soups, and wealth of other meat-free options. You can even catch a view of the sun going down, casting golden light on the cathedral, through some of the shuttered windows.

Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Hotel Real Segovia 

Address: Juan Bravo, 30

Price point: $$$$

If you’d like to extend your stay beyond a day trip, the Hotel Real Segovia comes highly recommended. Located in the heart of the old town, this boutique hotel combines old-world charm with modern comfort and amenities, amounting to a unique and elegant destination you’ll be glad to call home for a few nights.

With chandeliers, marble staircases, and plush beds, every detail is attended to at Hotel Real Segovia. Each room is equipped with heat and air conditioning, and all guests can connect to free Wi-Fi. You can include a breakfast buffet in the price of your booking, and for an additional charge, you can also arrange for a pick-up from the airport in Madrid, or even for childcare.

The staff is always professional and is able to communicate in both Spanish and English. Enjoy the sun deck and terrace; take in the views of the countryside and the town alike; or enjoy some tapas and wine in the bar and restaurant downstairs. Book a stay at Hotel Real Segovia

Looking for more great spots? Check out these last-minute deals:

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299 Hours, 1 Guitar: This Video Shows How a Flamenco Guitar Is Made

The sound of the flamenco guitar has an incomparable way of communicating pathos, sorrow, and celebration. It is at the heart of most contemporary flamenco performances — but its unique sound is not so easy to come by. In fact, in the video above, you'll learn that it takes 299 hours to build just one flamenco guitar.

As we explain in our article on the story of flamenco, flamenco is an art form combining singing, dance, and guitar. It dates to at least the 18th century, and has origins in Romani (colloquially called "gypsy") culture.

A hand-made flamenco guitar is crafted with incredible care. Every piece of wood is hand-carved and -sanded. Every measurement must be precise. Heat is applied to delicately curve the sides of the guitar. The lacquer is hand-melted. This is the height of the guitar-making craft.

This video, which shows the process step-by-step, was produced by the Deep Green Sea filmmaking team. The filmmakers spent three full days in the studio of one of the best flamenco–guitar-makers (properly called "luthiers") in the world. Surprisingly enough, Vasillis Lazarides is Greek, and his lab is in Athens.

The video is punctuated by the stunning guitar-playing of Edsart Udo De Haes. It's well worth a watch, and a powerful introduction to the long tradition of flamenco.
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Flamenco is one of the most recognizable art forms that has ever come out of Spain. Performers such as Paco de Lucía have incorporated international musical elements to reinvigorate it and bring it to a larger public. During your visit to Spain, seeing a flamenco show is simply a must. 

It's important to learn to appreciate the Spanish guitar and the many sides of this complicated musical form before you go to a show. Flamenco is rooted in a history of struggle and tragedy: the Romani people have faced discrimination throughout Europe for centuries, and this continues to today. 

If you'd like to learn more about flamenco guitar, consider attending one of the many guitar festivals throughout Spain, especially in Andalusia.

The Story of Flamenco

The history of flamenco begins with its Romani roots. Learn how to identify and appreciate the many facets of Spain's most recognizable art form.

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The Story of Flamenco: Origins of an Andalusian-Romani Art Form

Carmen Madrid flamenco performance dancer

Night is falling in Sacromonte, and yellow lamps are lighting up along the slope, illuminating the painted white houses. Outside the Zambra María la Canastera, two flamenco guitarists play a few licks back and forth while a dancer—polka-dotted scarf around her neck, red flower in her hair—waits for the show to start. 

In a few minutes, they'll follow the gathering crowd—myself among them—inside, where a long, narrow cave carved out of the soft rock of the hillside is hung festively with bright brass pots and pans. This is a cueva, or cave, an underground home characteristic of Sacromonte, the traditionally Romani (commonly known as "gypsy") neighborhood of Granada, Spain. 

Earlier today, I've walked along these steep streets and footpaths, many too narrow for cars, and as the sun beat down, the houses were shut and hushed. Now, a few have opened their doors for evening performances. The Alhambra, lit up with spotlights, is just a stone's toss away.

Cuevas such as this one are common dwelling-places all over the Andalusian region. They offer respite from the unforgiving summer heat, but have generally been home to southern Spain's poorer and marginalized classes, Romani among them. The gypsy, or Romani, people are originally from India. They arrived in Spain in the 15th century, and have been among the country's most persecuted peoples ever since. Yet at the same time, one of Spain's most famous art forms—flamenco—originated among the Romani of Andalusia, influenced also by other occupants of the region. To tell the story of flamenco, then, you must tell the story of the Romani and of Andalusia.

Flamenco guitarists dancer Granada gypsy
Flamenco guitarists and a dancer wait for the show to start outside a traditional cave-house in Granada. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Art of Flamenco

The Zambra María la Canastera and other venues like it in Sacromonte are among the most authentic settings in Spain to see a flamenco performance. A tablao is a stage or performance space where you can see flamenco performed, but a zambra is a party or, these days, a performance in one of these traditional cuevas, especially in Sacromonte. It was in caves such as these that the Romani people developed and performed flamenco among themselves, before the flood of tourists, before the demand for performances in more formal settings. 

I feel like an intruder. This is a private space. It was once a home—perhaps it still is. The zambra was a safe space for the Roma people for centuries, where they could express themselves and develop this complex art form without the intrusion of the outside world—a world that racially profiled them, that barred them from economic opportunities and segregated them, that spread disparaging stereotypes about them throughout Europe. A world that still commits all of these crimes. 

The performance begins with music, two guitarists accompanied by the claps, stomps, and calls of the dancers: "¡Olé! ¡Hala!" They are calls of encouragement, but they are also a fundamental part of the music. Flamenco is first and foremost an art form rooted in the human body: the voice, the feet, the torso and arms. It can exist without the accompaniment of the guitar. The guitar, however, cannot traditionally deliver the heart and soul of flamenco on its own—it needs the singer, the dancer.  

The singer, a woman with long, dark hair blotted with flowers, opens her mouth and begins. Her voice wavers in a husky alto. It does not try to deliver clear or operatic tones. Instead it wavers on a real life lived, a life of struggle, twinged at times with pain. 

Flamenco dancer singer Sacromonte Spain
A flamenco singer joins two dancers in a performance in a traditional Romani cave, or cueva, in the neighborhood of Sacromonte in Granada, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

"In flamenco, we value age and experience, the traces—the sediment—that life leaves in your voice over time," explains flamenco singer Rosalía. Born in 1993, she is relatively young for the art form. She says one of the greatest complements she has received has been from guitarist Pepe Habichuela, who told her: "You sing like an old woman." 

Finally, the first dancer comes forward. Her feet tap and stomp to the rhythm at lightning speeds as she drifts forward along the length of the cueva. Her arms raise above her head, a model of control, as her hands twist at the wrist, fingers poised as though they were the petals of two more flowers, turning to find the sun. 

The next dancer embodies the duende that must be present in every great flamenco artist's performance. "Duende" is a difficult word to translate. The Real Academia Española (RAE), the definitive resource on the Spanish language, defines it as a "mysterious and ineffable charm." But the word also connotes an expression of suffering, that inevitable pain that accompanies living. That she is channeling her own experience into her dance is evident in her face. The audience is enrapt. I feel like I'm holding my breath for her entire performance. 

Gypsy cave flamenco dancer Spain
A flamenco dancer performs in a traditional Romani cueva, or cave, in the Sacromonte neighborhood of Granada, Spain. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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The Romani in Europe and Spain

The Romani people are an ethnic group colloquially known as gypsies or Roma. Spanish Roma are often referred to as calé. The Romani originally came from modern-day Pakistan and northern India, but arrived in Europe around a thousand years ago and have lived throughout the continent ever since. Today, large populations also live in the Americas, primarily in the United States and Brazil. 

Many Romani are traditionally nomadic traders, traveling in wagons or groups of wagons. Their societal traditions are often related to Hindu purity laws, which dictate which parts of the body are considered clean and unclean and define both birth and burial practices. Many have adopted the religion of the country where they live. 

From the moment the Romani arrived in Europe, they have faced persecution. They have been repeatedly expelled from different regions. In the 1500s, any Romani in Switzerland were put to death by official orders, and similar rules existed in England and Denmark. Portugal would deport Romani to its colonies. 

In the late 1600s, they were integrated as forced labor into the French and Dutch armies. By the 1700s, they were being attacked and killed with impunity all over Holland in an attempt to eradicate them as a part of heidenjachten, which translates as "heathen hunt." 

The Romani are believed to have arrived in Spain around the 15th century. In 1695, a royal edict restricted them to living in particular towns. Another ruling 20 years later placed even tighter restrictions, and was designed to ensure they weren't concentrated in any single place. In 1749, many were arrested and imprisoned during the Great Gypsy Round-Up. 

Discrimination against the Romani has continued into the 20th century. They faced genocide at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. In Czechoslovakia, the state forcibly sterilized Romani women in an attempt to reduce their population. And today, in 2018, one definition of the word "gitano" (gypsy) in the dictionary of the RAE is "trapacero"—crook. The dictionary notes that this is an offensive usage. 

Many Romani consider the English word "gypsy" a racial slur. The verb "to gyp" is based on racist stereotypes of the Romani people. 

Carmen Madrid flamenco performance dancer
A flamenco-style rendition of the opera "Carmen" is performed on a Madrid stage. "Carmen" tells the story of a gypsy in Seville around the 1820s. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Your Guide to Granada

There's no better place to see flamenco than in Granada. Here's everything you need to know for your visit.

The Origins of Flamenco Music and Dance

The earliest mention of flamenco in a historical source dates to 1774. While this musical and dance style was influenced by the Romani, it is unique to the region of Andalusia in southern Spain. For this reason, it also draws upon influences from all the ethnic groups that have historically occupied the area, especially from Muslims and Jews. 

Moriscos—Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity after the Reconquista—are said to have had a particular influence on flamenco, whose singing style indeed evokes the Muslim call to prayer. Seeds of flamenco, then, probably existed in Andalusia long before 1774. 

With the rise of a sense of Spanish pride after the War of Spanish Independence (1808–1812) against the French, the Romani emerged as models of this individualism and national pride. European Romantics likewise grew fascinated with Andalusian culture and style. Los cafés cantantes, singing cafés, emerged in the mid-1800s as places where flamenco was performed.  

Flamenco performers historical Seville Spain
A café cantante, or singing café, of flamenco performers is photographed ca. 1888 in Seville, Spain. | Photo by Emilio Beauchy

The popularization of flamenco in public and the professionalization of its performers changed the musical form considerably from what it had been. It nonetheless retains some of the popular character that makes it a music of the people, rather than a high-brow genre, inaccessible to most. 

Flamenco in Modern-Day Spain

Even as flamenco emerged as a uniquely Spanish style, it continued to face resistance. Many artists of the Generación del 98 (Generation of 1898) looked down upon it, among them the writer Eugenio Noel, who considered flamenco and bullfighting to be the sources of everything bad about Spain. 

Still other artists embraced the art form, including the renowned poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Born in the Granada region of Andalusia, Lorca celebrated traditional art forms such as flamenco and the Romancero, a traditional ballad form that had been passed down orally for centuries. 

Granada Sacromonte Romani neighborhood
The Sacromonte neighborhood in Granada, Spain, is a traditionally Romani area. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

After the Spanish Civil War and the installation of a brutal dictatorship under Francisco Franco, flamenco was at first looked upon with suspicion. Franco advocated a purely Spanish "race" based on a tradition of Catholicism and the Castilian Spanish language.

The regime would eventually allow flamenco to flourish, adopting it as a model Spanish art form. However, starting in the mid-1960s until the death of Franco in 1975, many flamencos (flamenco artists), especially cantaores (singers), emerged who would oppose the regime through their lyrics. Flamenco became, in many corners, a space for political activism.

During Spain's transition to democracy in the 1970s, flamenco underwent a transition, too. It became internationally known and celebrated. It also, in some cases, underwent a fusion with other art forms, for example with the emergence of Andalusian rock group Smash. Famous guitarist Paco de Lucía incorporated such influences as jazz and Arabic and Brazilian music, and introduced the Peruvian cajón, or box drum. 

Other notable flamenco stars in the last fifty years have been Camarón de la Isla, Lola Flores, Juan Peña El Lebrijano, Enrique Morente, Tomatito, and Rocío Jurado. 

In 2010, UNESCO declared flamenco an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the World.

Flamenco dance museum Seville Spain
A dance is performed in the Flamenco Museum in Seville, Spain. | Photo by Schnobby, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Schnobby
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Types of Flamenco

palo is a type of traditional flamenco singing. Palos are categorized based on their tempo, their geographic origin, or their style—be it festive or serious. A number of other factors can also determine the type of flamenco you're hearing. 

There are dozens of styles of flamenco and it could take a lifetime to learn the history and characteristics of each one. Here are just a few of the most popular types you might encounter. 

Alegrías: A festive style in octosyllabic verses, used to incite dancing; origins in Cádiz

Bulerías: Festive and fast-paced, often accompanied by palmas (stylized clapping) 

Fandangos: A fundamental palo dating from the 19th century

Malagueñas: With origins in fandangos malagueños, this is a traditional style from Malaga with its own dance and a particular style of dress

Tangos: Among the most basic flamenco styles 

Flamenco dancer footwork Sacromonte Granada
Male flamenco dancers focus more predominantly on footwork. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Your Visit to Andalusia

During any visit to Spain, and especially to Andalusia, a flamenco show is certain to be a highlight of the trip. Flamenco is stunning, guttural, moving, unforgettable.

Flamenco Lorca Granada Alhambra SpainKeep in mind the history of this art form and its many manifestations as you decide what type of show to see. A zambra will have a fundamentally different character than a show on a big stage in Madrid or Granada. Both types of performance are well worth seeing. 

If you're in Granada, try to see both a zambra and a tablao in the Jardines del Generalife, in full view of the Alhambra as it's lit up at night. Recent flamenco shows have been inspired by the poetry and plays of Lorca, and locals who have likely seen their fair share of flamenco have told me that these are simply spectacular. 

After the show, I walk out into the hiss of crickets and yellow lights that engulf Sacromonte at nighttime. The Alhambra, aglow on a nearby hillside, is also a part of the show I've just seen: the Muslim caliphs who built it contributed their own long musical and artistic traditions to the region. All of these are still omnipresent in Andalusian culture. 

Sacromonte was once considered a slum, a place where the poorest Granadans lived. Now, though it is still a residential neighborhood, it has also become a tourist destination. Flamenco—its irresistible draw, its profound capacity for expressing human suffering, and its spirit of celebration and empowerment—has transformed Sacromonte on a fundamental level.

As responsible visitors, our role must be to know the history that has effected this transition. It helps us tap into all that flamenco means and communicates and feels and emotes. As I walk along the lowest wall on the Sacromonte hilltop, descending back into the most bustling tourist quarter, I wonder if I have been able to connect with these performers a little better for having known this history, even though I can never know their experience. Acknowledging it and listening, I hope, can be enough. 

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12 Fabulous Tapas Bars in Barcelona

Travel food guide extraordinaire and Instagram phenom Lauren Cunningham shares her favorite spots in Barcelona.
For travelers in Spain, the food tends to revolve around tapas: small plates and bites served to diners alongside drinks like vermouth, wine, and gin. But navigating this brave new world of delicious new foods can be tricky.

So, for starters, what is a tapa? Tapas are small, bite-sized foods, usually served on bread, that can be eaten as a snack or as a whole meal. Spaniards tend to eat lighter dinners than lunches, so if during your visit to Barcelona, you move from tapa bar to tapa bar, trying each one’s specialty alongside una caña (a small beer) or Catalonia-grown cava (sparkling wine), you’ll find plenty of locals doing the same thing.

There are a variety of tapas bars in Barcelona, from those that are upscale, to those that focus on pintxos (a Basque version of the tapa), and even those that make their own champagne. How can you choose which ones to visit? We’ve got you covered. Here’s a list of my favorites for every occasion.

Cervecería Catalana

For those days when tipping back a cold one sounds great.

La Pepita

For when you’re tired after a day of Gaudi sightseeing. Visit.

Jai-Ca

For when you’re craving classic tapas—or three orders of Patatas Bravas. Visit.

Tickets

For when you’re in the mood to treat yourself (at one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants). Visit.

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Ciudad Condal

For when you’re out late. Visit.

Quimet y Quimet

For when you’re looking for something unique. Visit.

El Xampanyet

For when a wine bar will hit the spot (especially if they’re serving housemade champagne).

Lamber

For when you need a bite after the Picasso Museum. Visit.

Maitea Taberna

For when you’re exploring Basque culinary traditions, like pintxos—an even more elaborate version of the tapa. Visit.

La Cova Fumada

For when you want to feel like a local. Visit.

Bar Canete

For when you want quality Catalonian food after your day meandering around La Rambla. Visit.

Casa Lolea

For when your thirst for sangria leads you to a modern take on tapas. Visit.   

And, to round out our list to a baker's dozen ... 

Sensi

For when something a little on the Italian side sounds good. Visit.

Planning your next trip to Barcelona? Check out the latest flight prices:

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Semana Grande: Your Ultimate Guide to San Sebastian’s Biggest Festival

Semana Grande is San Sebastian’s biggest annual festival, and not to be missed for any traveler who finds themselves in Spain in August. From giant marionettes to flaming bulls, world-class bands to stone-lifting competitions, fair rides to paella dishes for 300, Semana Grande offers up a unique window into Basque culture.

Semana Grande takes place every year on the week of Aug. 15, from Saturday to Saturday. That means that, in 2018, it takes place Aug. 11–18. During this time there are fireworks every night (it is, in fact, an international fireworks competition) and special events all day, every day. View a complete program of 2018 events here.

Still, if you’re looking at the events calendar, some events might seem like head-scratchers. Here’s your guide to some of the festival’s most exciting events. Put down your pintxo and check them out.

El Cañonazo: Kickoff to Semana Grande

Gigantes San Sebastian Spain Basque Country
Gigantes (giants) march down one of San Sebastian's main streets after the firing of the cañonazo, or cannon shot, to kick off festivities. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

A cañonazo, or cannon shot, kicks off Semana Grande festivities before a milling crowd of local families and tourists alike. Gigantes ("giants") and cabezudos ("big heads")—more on these characters later—march through the streets to help launch the festivities. 

Viewing the cañonazo is a great way to get into the Semana Grande spirit. Join in the fun in the Jardines de Alderdi Eder at 7 p.m. the first Saturday of Semana Grande. 

International Fireworks Competition

There are fireworks every night of Semana Grande as part of an international fireworks competition involving professionals from all over the world. Try to view them from a different vantage point every time—from the Plaza de la Constitución, then the Playa de la Concha, then Miramar. You can even board a boat and view them from the harbor. Warning: dance parties tend to break out.

Gigantes and Cabezudos

Some of the most iconic figures of Semana Grande are also perhaps the most difficult to explain. That's why it might be easy to watch our video about gigantes and cabezudos first:

Gigantes (which translates as "giants") and cabezudos ("big heads") are, roughly speaking, marionettes or mascots that march through the streets throughout the week. Look for them on the schedule, but they can be difficult to miss for two reasons: one, the gigantes are nearly 15 feet tall; and two, the cabezudos go around hitting people with dried animal bladders. 

Told you it was hard to explain. 

Gigantes are found in many parts of Spain and date to at least the 1600s. The eight gigantes of San Sebastian were premiered in 1982. They are divided into four pairs, each of which represents a different region of Basque Country: Álava, Navarra, Guipúzcoa, and Vizaya. They can be seen dancing to traditional music and marching alongside local bands. 

The 14 cabezudos are the more mischievous bunch. They represent the different festivals of the city, and generally manifest as trades or types: a cook, a barmaid, a drummer, and so on. They are known for swinging around dried animal bladders (usually a sheep's or pig's) and occasionally slapping passersby with said bladders. (And if you're wondering—yes, it hurts.) Children, among their most common victims, have a love-hate relationship and can be seen running along behind them down the street. In short, if you dare pose for a picture with a cabezudo, do so at your own risk. 

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Toros de Fuego

Toro de fuego (fire bull) Semana Grande
Toros de fuego (fire bulls) during Semana Grande in San Sebastian. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

No, they don't set actual bulls on fire. These model bulls are outfitted with fireworks, strapped on someone's back, and run down the street as onlookers flee and children chase them. It's not as dangerous as a running of real bulls, but it's not the safest-looking thing either. A can't-miss, hilarious good time. 

Talos

Keep an eye on the Plaza de San Juan in the Parte Vieja (old town) of San Sebastian for a pop-up stand making talos, a traditional Basque corn patty. It's similar to a Mexican tortilla, served up with either txistorra, a seasoned local sausage (delicious, BTW), or chocolate. You can even see them being made by hand. 

Talos txistorra Semana Grande Basque
Talos with txistorra (a local sausage) are the most delicious treat of Semana Grande. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Herri-Kirolak (Traditional Basque Sports)

Rural sports from stone-lifting to trunk-cutting are on display at these events. Stones range between 220 and more than 700 pounds. It's overall an impressive display, and an incredible opportunity to gain a little more insight into a culture that is dramatically different—with a very different history—from what you can find anywhere else in Spain, or the world for that matter.  

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Traditional Music and Dance

Traditional Basque music dance San Sebastian
Traditional music and dance being performed in the Plaza de la Constitución of San Sebastian. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Plaza de la Constitución, at the heart of the Parte Vieja, hosts performances that include traditional music and dance. These are complete with costumes, as well. It's a fabulous chance to learn just how diverse Basque culture really is, as there are different dances and styles of music for each region and even subregion of this community.

You can also catch local bands marching through the streets of the Parte Vieja or the Antiguo neighborhood, showing off traditional musical styles. Particularly wonderful are the drum bands. 

More contemporary iterations—including carts with amps hooked up to electric guitars—will be wandering the streets, too. While many musical groups will show up on the official schedule, a great many won't. The lesson is, just be outside in the street a lot during Semana Grande—and when you hear music, follow it until you find it.

San Sebastian Semana Grande comparsas
A group walks through the streets of San Sebastian's Parte Vieja, playing music from amplifiers strapped to a cart. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Free Live Music

Oreja de Van Gogh Semana Grande
La Oreja de Van Gogh, one of Spain's most popular bands, plays an open-air stage near Zurriola Beach during San Sebastian's Semana Grande. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Semana Grande not only draws a host of artists and artisans from all over Spain—it also attracts some of Europe's most popular bands. So keep a close eye on the schedule, as you might catch an act like La Oreja de Van Gogh (Van Gogh's Ear), one of Spain's most beloved pop bands, which played an open-air stage near Zurriola Beach in 2017. A free show, I might add. 

All Ashore! Homemade Boat Race

Self-styled "pirates" build their own homemade boats. ("Rafts" might be a better term.) Then they attempt to row these rafts from the harbor to La Concha Beach. For such a short distance, it takes longer than you might think. This may be the week's most hilarious event. 

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The 10 Best Pintxo Spots in San Sebastian

Imagine a world where plates upon plates of gastronomic beauty line the bars of every local joint you walk into, where bread and toothpicks are tools of artistry, and rare international delicacies are available in the most casual of settings. Now, welcome to a place where this is not only a reality, but the norm: San Sebastian, Spain, the global capital of pintxos.

Known as the city with the most Michelin stars per capita in Europe, this culinary wonderland is the perfect destination for foodies. It’s home to the pintxo—a small plate of food usually served hors d'oeuvre-style on a toothpick.

The way that locals eat pintxos—and the method that we’d highly recommend—is to visit each bar only to eat its specialty. Have just one or two pintxos at any one establishment before moving on. It’s a great way to see the town—pintxo by pintxo, cider by cider—while sampling only the best.

Take a look at just 10 of our favorite pintxo bars.

Atari Gastroteka

Atari San Sebastian Pintxos
Pintxos line the counter at Atari Gastroteka in San Sebastian. | Photo by Anna Spivak
Specialities: Carrillera (beef cheek), pintxos

Address: Calle Mayor, 18, 20013 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain

Price Point: $$

Atari is located on the Parte Vieja’s bustling Calle Mayor. This wrap-around corner joint takes elevated bar food to a whole new level. The carrillera, or beef cheek, is a specialty at Atari. It is tender, flavorful, and served with creamy mashed potatoes. Did I mention this was bar food?

A Fuego Negro

Specialities: Sliders, fried chicken

Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 31

Price Point: $$$$

Around the corner from Atari, A Fuego Negro is another pintxo bar serving up some seriously swoon-worthy cuisine. The fried chicken comes in a KFC-style bucket and is every bit as crispy and satisfying as fried chicken can be. The buey (ox) slider is a juicy, flavor-packed bite, as well.

Sirimiri Gastroleku

Specialities: Txipirones (baby squid), croquetas, lamb

Address: Calle Mayor, 18

Price Point: $$$$

I promise to move away from Calle Mayor after Sirimiri … although you can probably see how difficult it is not to fall in love with every bar or restaurant in the Parte Vieja.

Sirimiri’s intoxicating atmosphere is the perfect pair to its mouthwatering food and drink. The baby-squid croquetas, a specialty I didn’t know I needed in my life, are filled with squid cooked in its own ink. Now, stick with me here: the inside is black, but I promise it’s worth it. Just don’t skimp on the napkins.

Make sure you also try the croquetas de seta e idiazabal (croquettes with mushrooms and idiazabal cheese, a local speciality), the cordero (lamb—absolutely stunning), and pulpo con mojo verde y frambuesa (octopus with garlic sauce and, yes, raspberry).

Ganbara

Mushrooms at Ganbara San Sebastian
Fresh, seasonal mushrooms at Ganbara. | Photo by Anna Spivak

Specialities: Seasonal mushrooms with egg yolk, white asparagus

Address: San Jeronimo Kalea, 19

Price Point: $$$$

The bliss that is an afternoon lunch at Ganbara is hardly comparable to any other casual-dining experience. With a broad entrance featuring a view out onto the street, you can people-watch as you enjoy your perfectly sautéed, savory selection of mushrooms (traditionally served with an egg yolk that you mix in yourself) and a huge piece of white asparagus, baked to perfection.

La Cuchara de San Telmo

Specialties: Foie gras, mushroom risotto

Address: Santa Korda Kalea, 4

Price Point: $$$$

Tucked away in a little alley called Santa Korda, la Cuchara de San Telmo is thronged with locals and tourists from open to close. Their extensive pintxo and entree menu is impressive to say the least. Their foie gras and mushroom risotto, however, are the breakout stars. If you’re lucky enough to snag a seat towards the back of the bar, you can even peek into their open kitchen.

Beti Jai Berria

Specialties: Croquetas, but everything is great

Address: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 22

Price Point: $$$$

Beti Jai’s massive, cube-shaped croquetas may be, quite simply, the planet’s best. Try the classic jamón (containing a mixture of ham and bechamel) but don’t be afraid to sample some of their other fillings, which vary daily.

The place is immaculate, and every pintxo you see will be tantalizing, so it may be hard to choose. We recommend taking the opportunity to try morcilla, a Spanish blood sausage. You’ll probably find the Burgos-style morcilla here, which contains rice, perhaps topped with a roasted red pepper or a quail’s egg.

Drinka

Specialties: Calamari, patatas bravas

Address: Matia Kalea, 50

Price Point: $$$$

While the Parte Vieja has the highest concentration of pintxo bars in close proximity, there are tons of incredible bars and restaurants scattered all over San Sebastian. On the other side of Playa de la Concha, just past Miramar Palace, is a street called Matia Kalea. This residential area, called Antiguo, is swimming with incredible cuisine and local charm. The city even closes Matia Kalea to cars on most weekends so pedestrians have free range.

Drinka is a relatively new eatery serving up classically Basque pintxos and dishes with a modern twist. Their calamari is crispy, tender, and delicious, and their patatas bravas (with different dipping sauces) are not to be missed.

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Garai Taberna

Specialties: Burgers, lentils

Address: Juan de Garai Kalea, 2

Price Point: $$$$

Just off of Matia Kalea is a little gem called Garai Taberna. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but this little basement dive bar serves up incredible home cooking for a very reasonable price.

Their lunch special (which usually changes daily) consists of two choices for a starter, entree, and dessert. Their burger was seasoned to perfection and the heaping bowl of lentils we had was enough to feed an entire household—which is probably the extremely friendly staff’s goal, as they treat their customers like family.

Bordaberri

Specialties: Cheese risotto

Address: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12

Price Point: $$$

One of the specialties this quiet corner is famous for is its risotto. In this dish, idiazabal, a cheese typical of the Basque and Navarra regions, is the star of the show. It’s the ultimate comfort food. And FYI, if you ever run into an idiazabal croqueta, eat it immediately.

Bordaberri idiazabal risotto San Sebastian
Bordaberri's famous idiazabal risotto. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Casa Gandarias

Specialties: Solomillo, goat cheese and jam pintxos

Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23

Price Point: $$$$

The specialty here is the solomillo, or sirloin, pintxo. This may sound simple enough—a small, perfectly cooked cut of steak with a sprinkling of sea salt and a roasted green pepper perched on top. But you will find yourself coming here again, and again, and again. This is not a pintxo you’ll find on the bar, so it comes straight from the kitchen, hot and freshly made. It may prove one of the best cuts of steak you’ve ever eaten. I know, I know, we’ve already used a lot of superlatives—but when it comes to gastronomy, San Sebastian is simply a superlative place.

 

Erin L. McCoy contributed to this article.

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Covadonga: A Natural Sanctuary

Lago la Ercina
The village and parish of Covadonga in Asturias, a region on the north coast of Spain, offers up one of the most gorgeous hikes in the country. What's more, it's an essential destination for anyone interested in the history of the Reconquista and for those faithful Christians who have heard the legends about King Pelayo, the first warrior of the Reconquista (more on him later).

Stop in the sanctuary first for a 20-minute visit before ascending by bus to a lake hike that will knock your socks off without wearing you out. The hike is an easy loop with mild slopes and several big payoffs. It is absolutely not to be missed.

Here's everything you can see in and around Covadonga, which is an easy day trip from coastal towns such as Llanes.

The Sanctuary of Covadonga

The Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga
The Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.
One of the most beautiful hikes in Asturias begins, first, with a visit to one of the region's most sacred sites. Covadonga is nestled in the mountain range known as the Picos de Europa, and some believe that, on the site of these lakes, a miracle occurred 1,300 years ago.

King Pelayo (or Pelagius, as he's known by English-speakers) founded the Kingdom of Asturias in 718 CE and ruled it until he died. In 722, the Battle of Covadonga marked the first victory by Christian forces fighting back against the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. This battle carries important symbolism in that it is considered the first victory of the Reconquista, or the "reconquering" of Spain from Islamic forces. It would take nearly 800 more years to expel the last of the Islamic caliphates from the peninsula.

Take a bus or drive to the Santa Cueva in Covadonga to start your journey. Here, you'll find the grave of King Pelayo and the patron saint of Asturias, the Virgin of Covadonga, who rose out of one of the lakes to guide Pelayo in his journey. You'll also get stunning views of the Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga.
The Santa Cueva (sacred cave) in Cavadonga.
The Santa Cueva (sacred cave) in Cavadonga.

No one lives in this town but monks, so there's little else to see after a brief, gorgeous visit to the Santa Cueva. When you're ready to ascend to the lakes, grab a coffee and make your way to the bus stop.

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Getting to the Lake Hike

You can only ascend to the lakes by buying a ticket on an Alsa bus for 9€ per seat. It's easy to see why they don't let just any car ascend: the fog can be thick, and cows and goats scatter intermittently across the road. If you're lucky, you'll also see local bison (a smaller version than those in North American) or quebrantahuesos, a type of vulture which translates literally as "bone-breakers" because of their affinity for dropping bones from high up to split them open and eat the marrow.

Abandoned Iron Mines

Start your hike by exploring the remains of a once-thriving iron mine, surrounded by the empty houses that once lodged a few thousand miners, their families, a local doctor, and even a school. The last mines here shut down in 1972.

Asturias is a region defined by mining. During miners' strikes shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the regional economy shut down completely, since essentially 100 percent of the Asturian population worked in mines.

You'll get to walk through an actual mine shaft and come out the other side.

Llanes Asturias Spain Mine
Walk through a mine shaft on your hike toward the three alpine lakes at Covadonga. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Lago la Ercina

If the fog is still heavy, you might not notice at first that, across a broad, green expanse, you're approaching the first lake, Lago la Ercina. It's an idyllic scene, with belled cows wandered around a broad expanse of green. If the fog is too heavy to see the peaks, often still snow-covered in summer, grab a coffee and bocadillo (sandwich) at the bar a little way up the slope and wait. When the sun comes out, there may be no more beautiful place on Earth.

Next, ascend a hill to get an even better view of la Ercina from the Mirador Entrelagos. You'll see fog shifting across the peaks.

There is a third lake in this area but it's usually empty unless it's time for the spring snow melt. In any case, you'll be more than happy with la Ercina, and the next big payoff.
Lago la Ercina
Lago la Ercina is at 1,100 meters of altitude. Eat at the affordable, hearty bar overlooking the lake while you wait for the fog to clear.
Mist moves quickly through these mountains, which are speckled with cows.

Lago el Enol

It's only a short walk from la Ercina to Lago el Enol, where fast-moving mists shift across the bright blue water. Listen for cowbells ringing in the distance and the bleat of goats. This is a gorgeous spot for a picnic.

From here, it's also just a short walk back to where the Alsa bus will pick you back up again. If you're staying on the coast, head back through the Sunday market in Cangas de Onís before 2 p.m. to buy some delicious local fare.
Lago (Lake) el Enol Covadonga
Lago (Lake) el Enol
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Barcelona’s Sant Antoni Market Reopens to Fanfare after a Major Facelift

Mercat de St. Antoni
The Mercado de Sant Antoni is in many ways the beating heart of one of Barcelona's most vibrant neighborhoods. Now, locals are celebrating its new lease on life, as the market reopens after a nine-year renovation.

A Quintessential Barcelona Market

The market has been hosted in a temporary structure while €80 million was being invested in turning the area into a "super block." There is now a pedestrian-friendly area with more greenery and play sets for children surrounding the market.

The Guardian explains how this massive market is structured:

Sant Antoni actually consists of three markets. As well as a food area with 52 stalls, there are 95 stalls in the Encants (enchantments), the lightly ironic Catalan term for a flea market. In this case it mainly sells cheap clothes. On Sundays, Sant Antoni also hosts one of Europe’s largest open-air book markets, with 78 stalls selling new and secondhand books, comics, stamps and other collectables.


Opening for the first time in 1882, the market was designed by Ildefons Cerdà, famed for designing Barcelona's Eixample neighborhood. By 2009, though, the steel-framed building had some steep maintenance costs and was in desperate need of updates.

Hub of the Sant Antoni Community

Locals celebrated the reopening in May 2018 with poetry readings, dances, and music. The renovation had suffered delays, in part as a result of the discovery of part of a Roman road and an old city wall. As a hub of this working-class—but quickly gentrifying community—residents were more than eager to see its return:

“The market generates business, it’s a point of attraction but it’s also a social nexus,” explains Agustí Colom, head of commerce on the city council and the man charged with implementing Barcelona’s costly citywide market renovation plan. “People don’t just shop, they talk and they feel part of a community. We run programs in markets for elderly people who feel isolated. Because they’re regular customers, there are people there who know them and to whom they can talk about their problems.”


Still, locals aren't keen on having the market turn into another tourist hub like the Boquería market off La Rambla. In order to ensure that this doesn't happen, they've reduced the number of bars and are discouraging stalls that are designed for tourists.

Visitors should be respectful, and instead of snapping Instagram stories, should put away their phones, talk to the vendors, and make some purchases. It's a surefire way to glimpse what daily life in Barcelona is really like.
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The Castell Tradition: Why Catalans Build Human Towers, & Where to See One

Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
May is festival season all over Spain, and there's truly no better time to travel there. You can not only plan your travel to hop from festival to festival, but you can come upon surprise celebrations. This is what happened to me in Catalonia one May when I came upon the Festa Catalana in Barcelona's Plaça Nova, in front of the city's iconic Gothic cathedral.

Suddenly, people dressed in a variety of team colors were gathering in huge groups, climbing on each other's shoulders, and reaching heights that seemed to rival even the cathedral's towers. If you've been lucky enough to witness one of these incredible displays of camaraderie and teamwork—or if you're hoping to see it while you're in Catalonia—it's essential to understand the history behind the rich tradition of building castells (castles).

Catalonia's Tradition of Castells

The tradition of building castells began in the city of Valls, El País reports, probably during the eighteenth century. Valls is today a city of about 24,500 people and is located about 57 miles (92 kilometers) from Barcelona.

However, a similar, even older tradition can be traced to the region of Valencia. The muixeranga is an ancient form of human pyramid-building and street dancing. This tradition has a religious background, whereas the tradition of castells does not. Muixeranga pyramids or towers traditionally seek to create a symbolic scene.

You can still see examples of this in La Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival (the feast of Our Lady of Health) in the village of Algemesí on September 7–8 of every year. The town is just 19 miles (30 kilometers) outside of Valencia. Records of the tradition survive from the eighteenth century, but muixeranga may date from as far back as the thirteenth century.

By the 1700s the tradition of castells was beginning to spread to other cities in Catalonia, including Tarragona and Vilafranca del Penedès. However, the tradition only spread throughout Catalonia in the last 50 years, according to El País. Women became involved for the first time in the 1980s, and have been credited with making the castells both lighter and stronger. Catalunya Radio reports that this ushered in the "golden age" of castells, when heights of nine or 10 levels were first achieved.

Parts of a Castell

Human towers Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival in Algemesí, Valencia
Human towers are built in celebration of la Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival in Algemesí, Valencia. | Photo courtesy Llapissera
Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
Building human towers, called castells, is a Catalan tradition.
One of the most stunning aspects of a castell is just how many people are involved in making one. You may see a dozen or so people comprising the tower itself, but step in closer and you'll find that many spokes of at least half a dozen people each are working to support the castell. This base is called the pinya. It's an incredibly moving display of companionship and mutual support.

All the members of a team are called castellers. They work together to determine if the base is powerful enough to proceed, then the music—the Toc de Castells—begins. Those tasked with building the tronc, or the body of the castell, move quickly so as to minimize the work for the pinya and the others below them. 
The anxeta, or the tower's pinnacle, is usually a small child safely wearing a helmet, and may only stay at the top for a few seconds before beginning her descent. Disassembling the castell can often be the most dangerous part of the whole process.

Castellers generally wear a recognizable outfit comprised of a mocador (bandana), white pants, and a faixa (black sash). The latter, which is wrapped around the stomach, is particularly important, as it not only supports the lower back but also serves as a tool for climbers, who can place their hands or feet on this sash to aid in ascent or descent.

Towers can vary greatly in terms of structure and width, varying from just one person per level to five and reaching as many as 10 people high.
Castells Catalan Tradition Catalonia
The anxeta, or topmost person, in a castell climbs toward the top, using the faixa (black sash) of a team member as a foothold. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

UNESCO Recognition for Catalonia

In 2010, the castells tradition was awarded the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation by UNESCO.

Miquel Botella is president of the Coordinadora de Colles Castelleres, an organization of teams of castelleres. In speaking with El País, he attributed the recognition to the sport's "spectacularity," but also to its emphasis on self-improvement.

"To feel like a winner, you can't lose anybody," Botella explained. With the tradition of castells, there are no hierarchies and the good of the team takes precedent over individual concerns. At the time, there were 70,000 castellers comprising more than 60 teams.

Where You Can See a Castell

Among the best places to witness human towers are during festivals in Catalonia. Here are a few that feature castells

  • Festa Catalana
    • When: Every Saturday between May and September
    • Where: Avinguida de la Catedral at the Barcelona Cathedral
  • Festes de Gràcia
    • When: Eight days in August
    • Where: In the Gràcia neighborhood of Barcelona
  • La Mare de Déu de la Salut Festival
    • When: September 7–8
    • Where: Algemesí, Valencia
  • La Mercè Festival
    • When: 5 days in late September
    • Where: Barcelona 

To see teams compete, check out:

  • Concurs de Castells, Torredembarra
    • When: Late September
    • Where: La Plaça del Castell, Torredembarra, Catalonia
  • Concurs de Castells, Tarragona
    • When: Early October
    • Where: La Tarraco Arena Plaça, Tarragona, Catalonia
    • Buy tickets

The city of Valls is building a human tower museum, called the Museu Casteller de Catalunya (watch this site for updates).

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Barcelona

Barcelona is the architecture enthusiast’s paradise, but it’s also a spectacular city for everything from music festivals and cultural celebrations to history lessons. Here's your comprehensive guide to the best sights, neighborhoods, eateries, and hotels in this dynamic city.

Barcelona Basics: 

Stay: 4–5 days 

Region: Catalonia 

Fast Fact: Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city  

Nearby Destinations: Baleares Islands, Costa Brava beaches, GironaFigueres, Sitges, Tarragona

Barcelona is also, in many ways, Spain's most cosmopolitan city. As one of the world's top travel destinations, it attracts an estimated 32 million tourists per year—20 times its actual population of 1.6 million.

It's not far from the French border, and a number of languages can be overheard on any given street in this bustling city. Catalán, one of the region's official languages, will sound like a mixture of French and Spanish to the trained ear, but it is no dialect.

In fact, the Catalonia region has passed a number of laws to ensure the preservation and propagation of this language, which like Spain's other minority languages was suppressed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975. Catalán, for instance, is the primary language of instruction in public schools in the region. Today, some 9 million people (17 percent of the country's population) speak Catalán.

The earliest dwellings in the Barcelona area date to before 5000 BCE. At least according to legend, the city was either founded by the Roman demigod Hercules or by Hamilcar Barca, the father of Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal. It is because of the latter that the city was reportedly named Barcino in the third century BCE.
Roman Walls Gothic Quarter Barcelona Spain
Roman walls in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The historical record on Barcelona begins around 15 BCE, when the Romans built a military encampment here. Some remnants of the Roman period remain in the city: the Barri Gótic (Gothic Quarter) is partly enclosed by ancient Roman walls, and the same area retains some of the layout of that older city. The Museu d’Historia de Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum) beneath the Plaça del Rei offers a look at a 4,000-square-meter subterranean archaeological site. A visit here is highly recommended for anyone looking to dive deeper into the history of this city.

In the first millennium of the common area Barcelona was conquered again and again by warring groups. Shifting alliances among the rulers of different regions of the Iberian Peninsula had left Barcelona and Catalonia at a disadvantage by the 1400s.

The Catalán separatist movement dates to at least as early at the 1600s, and continues to this day as a series of votes regarding Catalonia’s independence have rocked the country and spurred violence. Calls for independence were renewed after the brutal suppression of the Catalán language and culture under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975.

In more recent history, Barcelona boasts one of the proudest and most successful professional football (soccer) teams on the planet. It hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics and has since become an essential city to visit for any traveler, known for its architecture, city planning, gorgeous beaches, and vivid cultural life.

When traveling in Barcelona, you should remain distinctly aware that you are in the region of Catalonia. For any traveler in Spain, perhaps the most essential thing to learn is that there is no single “Spanish culture.” Regions such as Catalonia have markedly distinct languages and cultural practices from what a first-time traveler might expect when they visit Spain. 

Getting Around

On any given day in Barcelona, millions of locals and tourists alike are trying to get around, and it can feel pretty hectic. Walking around the Gothic Quarter, the Born neighborhood, La Rambla, and the downtown waterfront is highly recommended—one of the joys of Barcelona is just how much you can discover around the next narrow twist of street. But if you’re staying in the Ciutat Vella (Old City) and headed to the fortress of Montjuïc, to the Sagrada Familia, to the Park Güell, or to neighborhoods that are a little further out such as Gràcia and Eixample, walking for most travelers is just not going to cut it. Here are a few ways to get around while you’re in this stunning city.

Barcelona Metro

Metro Map of Barcelona, Spain
Metro Map of Barcelona, Spain
The Metro is a quick and convenient way to get around. There are pay stations that take credit and debit cards, and if you’re staying inside the city, all you’ll need to buy is a Zone 1 ticket. A single ticket, good for one trip, is 2.20€. However, if you’re staying more than two days or traveling with other people, I’d highly recommend a T10 card, which includes 10 trips. You can pass it over the turnstile to your companion once you’ve used it, so it’s easy to share. Even for people who love to walk, it’s easy to rack up 10 trips on the Barcelona Metro.

The Metro is also great for getting into the city from the airport. The trip is just 4.50€ either way.

Barcelona Bus Turístic

If you’re looking for a way to get to all the must-see destinations in Barcelona with minimum hassle, the Barcelona Bus Turístic is a great choice. It’s the city’s only official tourist bus operator. One ticket gains you access to three separate routes, and you can hop on or hop off as much as you want.

The open-top buses stop every 5 minutes at peak times and reach 45 different stops, including Montjuïc, which is on top of a small mountain that in the Spanish heat you probably don’t want to climb. Included in the price, you get free wifi, a mobile app, a city map, audioguides in 16 languages, and a bunch of discount for museums, restaurants, and other attractions around the city. All the while, you stand to save money on Metro fares. Buses are outfitted for people with mobility and hearing difficulties.

Tickets are 30€ for an adult for one day and 40€ for two days. However, you get a 10 percent discount on your ticket when you buy online. I’d recommend the bus for your first day to get the lay of the land and gain a little foundational knowledge with the help of the audioguide.

Barcelona Card

The Barcelona Card is an all-in-one ticket to everything you need to see and do in Barcelona. The Card offers free admission and discounts to more than 70 attractions, as well as free rides on the Metro and city buses. You’ll also get a guide in six different languages, a Metro map, and a shopping card with discounts at more than 80 shops. You can even skip the line at a lot of different sites.

Free admission and skip the line at such sites as:
  • Picasso Museum (book first)
  • Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (National Art Museum of Catalonia)
  • Fundació Joan Miró
  • Museu de la Xocolata (Chocolate Museum)
  • Museu del Modernisme Català (Catalan Modernism Museum)
Discounted admission at such sites as:
  • Casa Batlló (Gaudí-designed house)
  • La Pedrera (Gaudí-designed multiresidency building)
  • Museu d’Història de Catalunya (Catalonia History Museum)
  • Palau Güell
  • Full List

A 72-hour Card is 45€ for adults and 21€ for children; passes that work for longer periods are available. Buy the card online for a 5 percent discount.

Top Things to Do

Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter)

The Gothic Quarter is at the heart of the Ciutat Vella (Old City) of Barcelona. You could spend hours or even days wandering these narrow, streets—which are generally pedestrian-only—and still discover some new turn, strange little shop, or odd corner. The funny thing about the Gothic Quarter is that it feels like a maze that circles back in on itself. You end up taking the same routes over and over and thinking it's actually much smaller than it is. So take your time. 

Among the most essential sites is the Barcelona Cathedral (located near the tourist office), and behind it, the Plaça del Rey, where Christopher Columbus was reportedly received upon his return from the Americas. Below the Plaça is the Barcelona History Museum, where you can explore 4,000 square meters of archaeological ruins dating from the Roman era.

You'll find it hard to miss the Joan Rubió-constructed bridge, built in Flamboyant style, that crosses over Carrer (Street) Bisbe. It's just one of the many architectural marvels that this part of the city has to offer, including segments of ancient Roman wall and temple. The Church of Santa Maria del Pi is a gorgeous little spot next to a delicious gelatería. 

Every tourist is probably obligated to visit La Rambla, the broad street with a promenade down the middle that cuts through the Gothic Quarter and the heart of Barcelona. It’s bustling and tumultuous, packed with street vendors and (so we hear) pickpockets. It’s absolutely worth it to visit La Boquería Market, which is almost hidden directly off La Rambla. Just don’t stay on the street too long—there are lower prices and better food elsewhere.

It’s highly recommended to keep walking north along La Rambla until it turns into the Passeig de Gràcia. Along this stretch you’ll find some of the best that Barcelona architecture has to offer, including Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, both designed by Antoni Gaudí. You’ll eventually arrive at the charming Gràcia neighborhood, which is an experience all its own.

For some culture while you're in the neighborhood, check out the celebrated Museu Picasso (Picasso Museum), which boasts one of the most extensive collections of Picasso's work anywhere at more than 4,000 pieces. You can also catch a show at the Opera Liceu in a gorgeous, ornate hall outfitted in red velvet and gilded balconies. 

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El Born

The Gothic Quarter can feel at times overwhelmingly swamped with tourists and difficult to escape. But if you can find your way to a different part of the Old City, to the area called El Born (perhaps with a little help from a map), you’ll be glad you did. 

Born is packed with trendy shops and scrumptious eateries, all tucked in along narrow, windy streets. If you want to stay in a central location, I’d highly recommend staying here over anywhere in the Gothic Quarter or near La Rambla. 

And take your time—you’re guaranteed to discover something new. The church of Santa María del Mar is worth a visit, and if you’re looking for a place to relax with some wifi, stop at the Bar del Convent, located in—you guessed it—an old convent.

La Sagrada Familia

The Sagrada Familia | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
The Sagrada Familia in Spring | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is a Roman Catholic church the architectural triumph of famed modernist architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, who lived much of his life in Barcelona. Construction began in 1882, and Gaudí took over as chief architect the next year. Gaudí died in 1926 with the church far from complete, and in fact it is still under construction today. The structure of the church is projected for completion in 2026, with decorative elements complete around 2030.

Whether you’re religious or not, visiting the Sagrada Familia is a transcendent experience. In my opinion (and I think I share this with many others), it may be the single most marvelous and moving building on Earth. Like so much of Gaudí’s work, it finds inspiration in the natural world, so that the columns are modeled after tree trunks and rise into a web of boughs 150 feet (45 meters) above your head. These gilded boughs collide to form star-shaped bursts reminiscent of the Cubist and Art Nouveau schools.

Outside, three façades feature elaborate sculpture work in dramatically distinct styles. The ascent of Christ winds up the Passion Façade, designed by Josep María Subirachs. This is where you enter. The sculpturework is spare and modern, the bone-like columns at a precarious tilt. The highly ornate Nativity Façade is overflowing with small details, from the tortoises at the feet of the columns to the lizards climbing down the walls. The Glory Façade was only begun in 2002.

If you could only visit one place in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia should be resolutely it. However, I strongly recommend purchasing skip-the-line tickets ahead of time, or else you may be waiting in the hot sun for an hour or more. Remember, you have to book a visit to the towers separately. Try a visit with a professional guide. Or if you’re interested in visiting another Gaudí architectural site (which I highly recommend), consider the Gaudí Pass, which also offers fast-track admission plus audioguide to La Pedrera and includes a one-day Barcelona Bus Turístic ticket and a wine tasting on top of the Columbus Monument.

Arrive early in the morning, too, to avoid some of the crowds. I’d also recommend paying a little extra for an audioguide, as the level of detail throughout can be downright overwhelming, and it’s nice to be able to look at what you’re learning about rather than stopping to read every informational sign.

Hours: 9 a.m.–6 p.m. (November to February); 9 a.m.–7 p.m. (March and October); 9 a.m.–8 p.m. (April to September); 9 a.m.–2 p.m. (December 25, 26, January 1 and 6). Ticket sales stop 30 minutes before closing time.

Admission: €15 or €22 with an audioguide. Pay €29 for a ticket that includes a visit, audioguide, and a trip to the towers. You can’t buy tower tickets inside. Discounts for students, seniors, and children.

Casa Batlló

The rooftop of Casa Batlló
The rooftop of Casa Batlló

Textile industrialist Josep Batlló y Casanovas gave architect Antoni Gaudí free reign when he tasked him with completely remodeling this building between 1904 and 1906.

Gaudí drew inspiration from nature to completely remodel the façade, roof, and interior without a single corner or right angle in sight. The balconies resemble pelvises while in the interior, everything from the exquisitely sculpted ceilings to the windows and doors evoke sea and plant life. The roof offers incredible views of the city amid undulating, tiled roofs.

This is like no building you’ve ever stepped inside of, and well worth a visit. The house is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Definitely buy tickets online to skip the long lines and save money off the box office price. Buy online from the Barcelona Tourism office to save €5.

Hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 365 days a year

Admission: €29.50 online, €33.50 at the ticket office. Pay €24.50 (a €5 savings), skip the line, and get an audioguide by buying from the Barcelona Tourism website.

Parc Güell

Park Güell
Park Güell was designed by renowned architect Antoni Gaudí and offers stunning views of the city.

Parc Güell may be a failed social experiment, but today it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a marvelous way to spend your morning.

In 1900, the goal was to design an entirely new type of community, a place closely allied to and designed around the natural world that engulfed it. Two model homes with undulating, tiled turrets still stand inside what is now a park (since not enough people expressed interest in buying lots to make the dream of a housing development come to life).

The park offers marvelous views of the Sagrada Familia—not to mention the entire cityscape—all the way to the ocean, and that means it’s also a climb. Luckily, there are escalators, but be prepared for a little bit of uphill work anyway if you’re arriving by Metro.

Don’t miss the Gaudí House Museum, a charming structure (not, in fact, designed by Gaudí) where the architect lived for many years. From this vantage point, he was able to look down on the progress of construction at the Sagrada Familia. It’s a wonderful place to learn more about this brilliant architect’s life, inspiration, and work.

Arrive in the morning to ensure you can get in; often, tickets will sell out by the afternoon, as only a limited number of people are allowed inside at once.

Hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 365 days a year

Admission: €7.50 online. Purchase a private tour.

Gràcia

Gràcia is a quirky neighborhood of narrow streets and bright artwork north of the Old City. Once an independent city, it was annexed into Barcelona in 1897. Today, more than 120,000 people—a mix of young artists and professionals with older people—live here, most of them local. It’s Barcelona’s smallest and second-most-densely populated neighborhood.

Narrow streets and Mediterranean architecture open into sudden, brightly lit squares with vintage clothing shops and cafés. Look for live music on the weekends.

You can find a variety of international cuisines here, without the international chains and gift shops that abound in the center of the city. Stop by the Antoni Gaudí–designed Casa Vicens, or take a graffiti tour. The neighborhood has some of the most stunning and impressive graffiti in the city.

If you’re here in August, check out the Festes de Gràcia, a neighborhood celebration for which whole streets are decked out. You might even witness a castell—a human tower that is a Catalan tradition dating from the eighteenth century.

Gràcia is a great neighborhood to stay in for those seeking to avoid the chaos of La Rambla while staying within a reasonable walking distance of Born and the Gothic Quarter. It’s also just a few Metro stops from the Sagrada Familia. While you’re here, make sure to pick up a jam-filled donut or other tasty delight from Boldú.

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Eixample

The Eixample district of Barcelona
The Eixample district of Barcelona, seen from the air. | Photo courtesy Alhzeiia, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ilak/3187655762

Pioneering urban planner Ildefons Cerdà laid out Barcelona’s Eixample district in octagonal blocks to facilitate the flow of traffic and transport. The result are broad, airy boulevards and massive, modern structures.

Constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the blocks featured chamfered (beveled) corners and wide sidewalks.

The Eixample is divided into five smaller neighborhoods, one of which hosts the Sagrada Familia. You’ll also spot the iconic Torre Glòries, a rounded and highly contemporary skyscraper designed by Jean Nouvel and opened in 2005.

As you head back toward the old city from this area, take the scenic route past the Arc de Triomf and the broad promenade leading to the Parc de la Ciutadella and the city zoo.

Parc de Monjuïc

The Funicular de Montjuïc
The Funicular de Montjuïc | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
The Parc de Monjuïc offers magnificent views of the city and the water. On a hill at the heart of a lush park, find the Fundació Miró, the the Museu Etnològic, the Museu d'Arqueologia, and the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The Castle of Montjuïc, a fortress overgrown with ivy, housed political prisoners during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. However, it also served as a symbol of resistance.

The best part of the park may be how you get there. Ride up or down (or both) on the Funicular de Montjuïc, which directly transfers to and from the Paral·lel Metro station and uses the same fares. The glass gondolas offer a stunning view of the city as you descend, and well worth the €2.15 fare.

Beaches

Barcelona's beaches are broad and gorgeous and the water is just fine, so take your pick. The Platja del Bogatell is near the Old City and close to the Vila Olímpica, the coastal area that was revitalized for the 1992 Olympics and now features some chic hotels and sculptures. Be prepared for crowds and some powerful sun at the height of summer; luckily, vendors pass around regularly with cold water and €5 mojitos. 

El Raval and Sant Antoni

Mercat de St. Antoni | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

These two neighborhoods west of La Rambla are still partially in the Old City but are much less explored by tourists.

El Raval in particular features tightly winding streets and a high density of quirky shops minus the gift-shop tchotchkes that overrun parts of the Gothic Quarter. Check out the Rambla del Raval for restaurants featuring international cuisine and to view a massive sculpture of a plump cat by Fernando Botero.

In Sant Antoni, do some practical shopping where the locals go in the massive Mercat de Sant Antoni

Eat

La Boquería Market

Specialties: A broad variety of fresh foods and gastronomic specialties

Address: La Rambla, 91

Price Point: $$$$ 

La Boquería market right off La Rambla is just about the most delicious and most affordable place to sample food in the heart of Barcelona. Dating from 1836, the market features more than 200 vendors selling everything from fresh produce to the best gastronomic concoctions. You could easily pop in and out all day: fresh fruit smoothie for breakfast, croquetas and tapas for lunch, and plenty of treats in between. If you're staying in Barcelona a bit longer and doing some of your own cooking, stop by to pick up fresh seafood and specialty meats.

If nothing else, visiting la Boquería is a truly educational experience for those who aren't aware just how many types of fish and seafood are actually edible—and delicious at that. The joy of cuisine in Spain is a profound knowledge of the variety of foods that the natural world has to offer, and a respect for freshness and seasonality. La Boquería is a must-see.

Hours: 8 a.m.–8 p.m. (Monday to Saturday)

El Nacional

Specialties: A broad sampling of Catalan and Spanish cuisine

Address: Passeig de Gràcia, 24 Bis

Price Point: $$$$ 

This devastatingly stylish emporium on the Passeig de Gràcia is housed in a former factory and garage constructed 1889. This 2,600-square-meter establishment offers several dining and tasting options inside, and can house up to 700 guests.

It’s the ideal place to go to sample a broad variety of Catalan and Spanish cuisine, including an impressive spread of pintxos, an oyster bar, a cured meats bar, a cocktail bar, and some incredible pastries and desserts at La Parada. It’s also the perfect escape from the heat, and ideal for a three-hour-long midday graze.

Bar del Convent

Specialties: Café fare, pastries, and wifi 

Address: Plaça Academia 0, Barcelona, Spain

Price Point: $$$$

Hours: 10 a.m.–10 p.m.

For those who are working on the go, this is the perfect place to access quality wifi in a quiet environment. It’s also a real pleasure to work here: it’s located in the Gothic cloister of the Convent de Sant Agustí, which hosts cultural events year-round, and is also home to the Museum of Chocolate (to which you can get a free ticket when you buy a Barcelona Card). You can sit outside on a shady, vaulted veranda or indoors to cool off from the hot Spain summer.

Convent de Sant Agusti
The entrance to the Convent de Sant Agusti, where the Bar del Convent and the Museum of Chocolate are located.

Boldú

Specialties: Fresh, homemade donuts and other pastries and treats 

Address: Carrer Gran de Gràcia, 132 

For a list of other locations in Barcelona click here.

Price Point: $$$$

Boldú is a family-owned bakery founded in 1939 whose specialty is people-shaped donuts. It’s not just a gimmick—these donuts are incredible, even for people (like me) who don’t generally like donuts.

Try anything raspberry-jam-filled, or pick up some of their savory items, as well. It’s an essential stop while you’re in Gràcia.

Stay

Featured Place to Stay: Generator Hostel

Generator Hostel, Barcelona
Generator Hostel, Barcelona | Photo courtesy Booking.com

Address: Carrer de Córsega, 377, Gràcia

Price Point: $$$$

Generator Hostel lives at the intersection of stylish, clean, and affordable. It's located in the Gràcia neighborhood, which offers a ton of eateries and shops without the same tourist crowds as the Old City. It's also near the Eixample neighborhood and just a 16-minute walk from the Sagrada Familia and a 17-minute walk from Casa Batlló.

In short, for those who are up for a little exercise, it's a great hub for seeing just about everything in Barcelona, and for those who have worn through their sandals, it's a quick Metro stop or two from just about everything, too.

It's also hands-down the cleanest hostel I've ever stayed in, with locked drawers and lockers to keep your stuff safe. There's a fun bar right downstairs and plenty of comfortable, brightly lit public spaces. Book a room now.

Looking for more great spots? Check out these last-minute deals:

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Ronda Hosts International Guitar Festival Every June

flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía

The city of Ronda is known as the "Eagle's Nest" for its precarious-looking perch above the El Tajo canyon in the mountains of Andalusia. Now, it's becoming known for an annual festival celebrating all things guitar. 

The International Guitar Festival

In 2015, Andalusian musician Paco Seco founded the International Guitar Festival alongside his wife, Lucy Stewart. The festival aims to be "a world ambassador of Spanish music," according to its home page

It features concerts every evening across a broad variety of musical styles, from flamenco and classical to jazz and contemporary. The day is punctuated by speakers and guitarists, along with an exhibition from master guitar makers. 

All events take place at the Santo Domingo Cultural Center in the heart of Ronda's old-town area. An all-festival pass is €60 while a day pass runs €15. Children get discounted tickets. Buy tickets to the International Guitar Festival here.

“The festival strives to highlight the versatility of styles that the guitar embraces: classical, romantic, flamenco, jazz and contemporary. Appealing to the musical tastes of a wide audience," Stewart told The Olive Press in 2018.

In 2018, the festival begins June 5 and lasts for five days. It is expected to attract guitarists from all over the world, including Italy, Holland, and Bulgaria. Guitars made by 10 master luthiers from as far as Canada and the United Kingdom will also be on display.

A Visit to Ronda

A visit to the International Guitar Festival offers the perfect opportunity to get to know one of Andalusia's most charming and historic small towns. Before you go, check out our definitive list of essential Spanish words and phrases. It will empower you to engage in a more meaningful way with locals—who will, by the way, be just plain delighted at your passion for Spanish guitar.

Once you get to Ronda, it's time to explore. You can start right out the door of the Santo Domingo Conference Center, where the Mirador de Aldehuela promises a stunning view of the Tajo canyon and the surrounding mountains. 

Ponte Nuevo extends over the Tajo gorge in Ronda, Spain.
The Ponte Nuevo extends over the Tajo gorge in Ronda, Spain. | Courtesy Christopher Down

While you're in Ronda, you can't miss the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge). The 34-year-long construction of this landmark began in 1759. A prison suspended over the central arch was used as a torture chamber during the Spanish Civil War, during which prisoners were tossed from the windows into the Tajo gorge extending 390 feet (120 meters) down. Such a scene was described in Ernest Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Also check out the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge) and Puente Viejo (Old Bridge), both of which span the canyon as well.

Some baños árabes (Arab baths) from the Al-Andalus period remain, and don't miss the chance to see the oldest bullfighting ring in all of Spain. If you're interested in Renaissance art, check out the Palacio of the Marqués de Salvatierra, but be warned that its hours can be irregular. 

You can get to Ronda by train from Córdoba or Algeciras. 

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You Can Now Travel from Ireland to Spain by Ferry

There’s now one more way to travel to Spain. On May 5, 2018, the first ferry traveling from Cork, Ireland, successfully arrived in the city of Santander on Spain’s north coast. As The Evening Echo reports, the new ferry route will leave Cork on Wednesdays and Fridays and leave Santander on Thursdays and Sundays, for a total of two sailings each week.

Cork to Santander by Boat

For those on a trip including other sites in Europe, this promises not only a more relaxing way to move around, but also a more unusual way to travel. The route promises a probably drizzly, but dramatic voyage across the Celtic Sea and the Bay of Biscay, once swelling with whales and still one of the best places to spot cetaceans in European waters. Seabirds such as gannets are also common in the area. The trip takes 26 hours but, especially for those traveling by car, will make for a journey that’s 746 miles (1,200 kilometers) shorter than the journey through the United Kingdom and France, which has been the only option until now, The Irish Times reports. The 300–400 car passengers on the crossing have access to sleeping cabins. The vessel can carry up to 100 cars. The service is operated by Brittany Ferries; purchase tickets here. It seems the ferry is already a success, according to The Evening Echo:
“We’re delighted to see the customer demand for our new service, with our first sailing fully booked,” Hugh Bruton, General Manager, Brittany Ferries Ireland, said. “We are looking forward to welcoming passengers on board as we bring them to a very different kind of Spanish destination: a relaxing ferry journey from Ireland.”
The inaugural voyage looked like a lovely trip, based on one observer’s Twitter post:

Visiting Santander, Spain

Santander is part of the Spanish region of Cantabria. The area has been inhabited for more than a thousand years and is the site of some great architectural sites, including the Palacio de la Magdalena and the Cathedral of Santander, which dates to around 1200 CE. It was reportedly built on the site of older Roman structures. If you’re up for a beach day, check out El Sardinero beach, which has gorgeous temperatures during the summer of 75 °F (24 °C) on average. The beach’s golden sands stretch 260 feet (80 meters) inland and a long promenade along its entire length features restaurants, hotels, and the Grand Casino del Sardinero, which dates from 1916.
El Sardinero beach, Spain
El Sardinero beach in Santander, Spain, is named after the practice of fishing for sardines on the northern coast of Spain. Sardines are a specialty of the region. | Photo by Pedro Lopez
For unique places to stay, check out the Gran Hotel Sardinero. This gorgeous beachfront property opens up right onto the promenade, and you’ll be on the beach in less than one minute. White-painted terraces and elegant suites feature ocean views, and the hotel is right next door to the casino. In all, a stay here would make for one of the most elegant beach holidays Spain has to offer.
Gran Hotel Santander, Spain
The Gran Hotel Santander offers stunning views of El Sardinero beach and is steps away from the Sardinero Gran Casino. | Courtesy Booking.com
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What This Andalusian Art Form Tells Us About Spain Today

The image of two flamenco dancers locked in desperate embrace, the trill of a guitar behind them, has become most travelers' go-to image of Spain.

But how much do you really know about the Romani origins of this haunting and beautiful art form? And what does your association of this Andalusian art form with Spain as a whole have to do with Francisco Franco, Spain's most notorious dictator? A recent BBC documentary tells all.

To learn more about the history of the Romani people in Andalusia, and all the cultural influences that made flamenco possible, read our article on the story of flamenco.
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