Spain’s cities are rich with history and culture. Heidi Fuller-Love takes a look at some of the best
From Córdoba’s Great Mosque, to the massive fortified walls of medieval Ávila and Santiago’s 12th century cathedral, Spain’s 14 Unesco World Heritage Sites and countless charming towns are packed with thrilling sights and activities for culture lovers. Spain takes the stewardship of its historic and cultural heritage seriously – in 1993, it established the Spanish Group of World Heritage Cities, a project working to maintain the unique character and richness of the country’s historic urban centres.
Whether you want to stay in a luxurious parador and spend a weekend visiting top notch art galleries and world class museums, or prefer to check into a chic boutique hotel and enjoy a leisurely week wandering among glorious architecture as you shop for unique souvenirs, there’s plenty to keep you occupied.
Barcelona’s lively La Rambla walkway, ornate Sagrada Familia cathedral and superb Picasso museum might be magnets for culture lovers, but it’s well worth heading out of town to discover neighbouring Sitges. Apart from stunning Art Nouveau buildings and the scenic Passeig Marítim seafront walkway, cultural highlights of this hip and happening town include the Cau Ferrat Museum, dedicated to Catalan modernist architect Santiago Rusiñol, and the Stämpfli Foundation, a contemporary arts centre housed in the city’s old fish market.
Fans of modernist architecture should also plan a pilgrimage to the Vermouth-producing city of Reus, where the Gaudí Centre showcases the work of Spain’s world-renowned architect who was born here in 1852. After visiting this fascinating interactive museum, follow the lovely leafy route through town, stopping to admire ornate facades en route.
From Barcelona it’s an easy hop to Pamplona, capital of the region of Navarre and home to some of the country’s best pelota players.
A major stopover on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, Pamplona is also renowned for its dazzling – and sometimes dangerous – running of the bulls, which takes place each July as part of the Fiesta de San Fermín. Pay a visit to the Picassos and Kandinskys in the city’s Museo Universidad de Navarra, shop in chic boutiques along Avenida Carlos III or attend the Pamplona Reclassics festival in July, however, and you’ll agree that there’s much more to this city, which was immortalised by Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises.
It’s an easy two-hour drive from Pamplona to Bilbao. Culture vultures and fans of fine architecture will love this port city overlooking the brilliant blue Bay of Biscay, but the smaller, more peaceful seaside town of Santander next door has plenty of thrilling attractions, too.
Learn all about the city’s marine heritage in the mesmerising Museo Marítimo del Cantábrico and marvel at world class contemporary art on show in the spaceship-like Centro Botin, and then take the tourist train out to visit Santander’s Palacio de la Magdalena. Set on a lush and lovely peninsula overlooking some of the city’s best beaches, this ornate palace was built in 1908 as a summer home for the Spanish royal family.
A few hours inland from Santander you’ll find a string of lesser known towns, including León clustered around its magnificent Gothic cathedral; Villafranca del Bierzo with its medieval palaces and the Galician city of Lugo, famed for its beautifully conserved Roman walls. Staying in one of Spain’s historic paradors is a great way to soak up the local culture, so make sure to visit Sigüenza, where you can spend the night in a lofty canopied bed in this pretty city’s massive mediaeval castle.
Birthplace of heart-stirring flamenco and home to some of the country’s finest Mudéjar architecture, sultry Seville also abounds with cultural delights. Learn all about Andalusia’s most iconic art form in the artefact-packed Museo del Baile Flamenco museum and then climb the Giralda tower, which was built in the 12th century as a minaret for the Great Mosque of Seville.
If you’re seeking more of those dizzy views make a beeline for the – far more modern – Metropol Parasol completed in 2011, which claims to be the world’s largest wooden structure. From the lofty mirador of Seville’s mushroom-like landmark you’ll have breathtaking views over the domes and ornate spires of this sun-soaked southern city.
Make sure to explore the countryside surrounding Seville to discover lesser-known towns such as Carmona, a light-dazzled, ochre-tiled conurbation where convents and palaces rub shoulders with Roman remains and Mudéjar architecture.
A few hours east of Seville in the Andalusia region lies Granada, famed for its mediaeval architecture dating back to the Moorish occupation. The Alhambra, a sprawling palace and fortress complex, is one of the most visited monuments in Europe. And visitors arriving for the history can’t resist the food. In Granada, drinks come with free food, and the city’s tapas is renowned. Typical dishes include Habas con Jamon (fava beans with serrano ham), Andalusian gazpacho and the tortilla of sacromonte.
Of course, no guide to Spain’s cultural cities would be complete without mention of Madrid, which sits at the heart of the country. The largest of Spain’s metropolitan areas, Madrid requires some time to explore. There’s the Reina Sofia museum, Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art – just one of the city’s many art museums; Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple given to Spain in the ’60s that affords unparalleled views of the city; and the Palacio Real, the official residence of the Spanish royal family.
Much of the joy of a city break comes from simply wandering the streets and taking in the atmosphere. Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s most famous square, is perfect for people-watching – and refuelling. For an authentic taste of the city, sample bocadillo de calamares as you explore, a fresh bread roll filled with flour-coated and deep-fried squid rings.
Whichever of your senses you use to soak up the culture and history of Spain, you’re sure to agree that the country’s culture-packed conurbations are well worth discovering.