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Festivals

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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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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Madrid Hosts Europe’s Biggest Pride Festival

Chueca, Madrid, Pride Festival
Madrid is host to some of the biggest festivals in Spain, and the Orgullo Gay de Madrid is no exception. It's Europe's largest pride festival, and one of the largest such events in the world. If you're in town in early July, you simply can't miss it. Here's what you need to know.

A History of Pride in Spain

"Orgullo" means "pride" in Spanish (as you may well have guessed), and Spain has a lot to be proud of when it comes to supporting its LGBTQ community. Certainly, such communities still face a great number of challenges around the world, including in Spain—but there's also much to celebrate here.

In 2005, Spain became one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. According to the law, “Marriage will have the same requirements and results when the two people entering into the contract are of the same sex or of different sexes.”

The story begins much earlier, of course. The first open demonstration in support of gay rights in Spain took place in Barcelona in 1977, two years after the conservative dictator Francisco Franco died. Four thousand people turned out in support.

The next year, a demonstration was authorized to take place in Madrid. It has taken place there every year ever since (excluding 1980).

Much of the LGBTQ-rights movement in Spain was born in the Chueca neighborhood in Madrid. The Colectivo de Lesbianas, Gays, Transexuales y Bisexuales de Madrid (COGAM) was formed here. Chueca is still known as Madrid's gay neighborhood.

In 2007, Madrid was the European capital of Pride, and every year on Pride Week, about two million people spill into the streets or travel to Madrid to celebrate.

European Pride parade (Europride) of 2007
The European Pride parade (Europride) of 2007 in Madrid. | Courtesy Oscar San Jose

When & Where

Orgullo Gay de Madrid (MADO) is hosted in the Chueca neighborhood, but signs of Pride are visible everywhere. Hotels light up in rainbow colors. Rainbow flags, balloons, posters, and more are displayed in just about every storefront. And several of the city's plazas, including the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza de España, host stages with live music and entertainment.

The main events, including a parade, take place on the weekend after June 28, which is the International Day of LGBT Pride.

Roughly 300,000 people travel from international destinations to be in Madrid for the big event, and you can hear just about every language as you walk down many of the closed-off streets. People wear flags, flowers, or other rainbow insignia to show their support. The streets overflow with people decked out especially for the occasion. It's a warm and welcoming atmosphere, if a little chaotic.

The annual parade starts around 5:30 p.m. and travels from Atocha station to the Plaza de Colón.
Pride Parade map Madrid
The annual Pride parade in Madrid marches from Atocha station to the Plaza de Colón.

Can't-Miss Events

Here are some of the most essential events in Madrid's annual Pride celebration.

Mr. Gay Pride Competition

This event, generally hosted in the Puerta del Sol, offers contestants the chance to win the title of Mr. Gay Pride España. The year 2018 saw the 11th annual competition, and featured a performance from Eleni Foureira.

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LGBTQ Film Screenings

Hosted in 2018 by Muestra•T, an annual film fest features LGBTQ-themed films. It's an opportunity to engage with some incredibly compelling pieces. What's more, you can see them in equally fascinating venues, including the Matadero (a slaughterhouse-turned-cultural-center) and the Museo Reina Sofia.

The Parade

This event marks the finale of the Pride celebration in Madrid. It kicks off around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and travels from Atocha station to the Plaza de Colón. Grab a picnic lunch in the Parque de El Retiro during the day, take a spin in the small boats on the lake, and then take a leisurely walk to the parade path to secure a good view.

WE Pride Festival

Over the course of about five days, WE Pride heads up several parties throughout Madrid. If you want to truly celebrate and experience Madrid Pride, you simply have to attend one (that is, at least one) of these events.
Gay Pride Plaza Mayor Madrid
Flags and other signs of support for Pride are displayed throughout Madrid, including outside the tourism office in the Playa Mayor. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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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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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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