Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Spain
Inaugurated in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
The conception of this iconic museum was born out of a grand mission to revitalize Spain’s fourth-largest city, considered one of the nation’s most critical ports. Traditionally an industrial metropolis, the creation of Bilbao’s cutting-edge museum generated -- in its first three years -- over four million tourist visits and enough economic activity and taxes to more than pay for its cost.
During a trip to the riverside museum, you can wander its over 100 exhibitions, all interconnected and arranged around the central light-filled atrium.
The Catedral del Apostol is one of the most important shrines in Christiandom, as it is the said to be the final resting place of Saint James the Greater, one of the twelve Apostles. Its history is as storied and intricate as its architecture, having been razed and rebuilt numerous times during the Church's conflict with Spain's Muslim invaders.
The cathedral is a stunning masterpiece of baroque architecture, and each of its four directional facades depict different monuments to St. James and Jesus Christ. Guided tours explain the detail in each facade, and in Holy Years, when St. James' Day falls on a Sunday, you can travel through the Holy Door in the Eastern Facade. Inside the cathedral, you'll be treated to more stunning sculpture; as you walk through the crucifix-shaped interior, the edifices become more intricate and awe-inspiring, as the sculpture vividly illustrates scenes from the Bible.
Originally the site of the Christian Visigoth Church San Vicente, Córdoba’s Mezquita -- or Grand Mosque -- stands as the city's most proud monument and one of the most exquisite Islamic structures in the western world.
Its initial origins date back to the year 600 and, following the Islamic conquest in the 8th century, the site of the Visigoth church was actually split between Christians and Muslims for a time. Ultimately, it was bought out by the governor of al-Andalus, with the construction of the Islamic mosque beginning in 785 by Muslim emir Abdurrahman I.
Since then, the structure has evolved right along with Spanish history. A minaret was added, and the building was enlarged, reaching its final size in 987. Then, when Kind Ferdinand conquered Córdoba during the Reconquista in 1236, the structure was consecrated as a Christian Cathedral.
La Sagrada Familia is no doubt the most iconic structure in Barcelona. The church, located in L'Eixample, has been a fixture in Barcelona since construction commenced in 1882 and as building continues on today the structure's fame only grows.
Though still a work in progress, the church already is an amazingly intricate structure. Antoni Gaudí spent 43 years on this project and, since his death in 1926, the duty to finish it has been passed on to several architects. Though the responsibility continues to change hands over the years, the architects have all respected Gaudí's vision and have made additions with his design in mind. Inside the church has an impressive stained glass windows line the main room and a lift takes visitors up one of the towers to enjoy the view. Smaller rooms hold exhibits detailing the history and future of the structure. La Sagrada Familia is projected to be completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí.
The twin-towered stone gates of the Torres de Serranos are all that remains of Valencia’s original city walls. The imposing 14th century gates were the city’s main exit to Barcelona and northern Spain.
Today the gates are a popular photo stop, and you can climb to the top for great views of Valencia.
Free guided tours take you through the battlements and walkways every day except Mondays.
Given that Cadiz is almost entirely surrounded by water, the desire to hit thebeach is bound to strike you at some point. When this happens, your go-to destination will be La Caleta, the only proper beach in old town. It’s an isolated shoreline that cozies up along the western side of the city, nestled inside a natural harbor once used by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans.
Though it’s Cadiz’s shortest sandy shore, it ticks all the beach boxes, offering soft golden sands and calm waters, as well as amenities including lifeguards and showers. Perhaps best of all is that the beach is western facing, which means it’s the perfect spot in town to catch a dreamy Spanish sunset. While there, spy some of La Caleta’s notable sights, including the impossible-to-miss crescent-shaped Balneario de Nuestra Señora de la Palma y del Real, a 1920s spa whose gazebo-tipped arms reach out across the shore.
With its still-steaming mounds of volcanic tuff and eerily barren lava fields, the volcanic terrain of Timanfaya National Park is a world away from the lively beach towns that Lanzarote is best known for. The focal point of the protected area is the dramatic red and black-rock mountain range, aptly named the Fire Mountains (Montañas de Fuego) after a series of eruptions in the 18th century that covered the entire island with volcanic ash and lava, completely reshaping the its topography.
Today, the volcanoes lie dormant, but the area remains a potent source of geothermal energy thanks to a residual magma chamber – a fact enthusiastically demonstrated by tour guides who toss bundles of branches into the steaming pits, where the wood rapidly burst into flames. Access to Timanfaya National Park is restricted to guided tours, and most visitors to the park opt to take the guided coach tours included in the admission price.
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Kids and adults alike are intrigued by the City of Arts & Sciences, a museum complex devoted to discovery. The site is divided into four sections: the Hemisferic, Principe Felipe, Oceanographic and L'Umbracle.
The Hemisferic houses a planetarium, IMAX cinema and laser show, while the Principe Felipe building has a multitude of science exhibits and is shaped to look like the skeleton of a whale. The Oceanographic aquarium includes polar exhibits, coral reefs from the Red Sea, Mediterranean seascapes and underwater tunnels, and botanical species and sculptures are highlighted in the L’Umbracle walkway. Musical performances and operas are hosted in El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia.
The Museo del Prado - Prado Museum - is considered to house one of the finest art collections in the world. It displays thousands of European paintings, sculptures, and other works of art throughout its halls - and this is only a fraction of their collection!
What doesn't fit in the display space is stored or sent on loan to other fine galleries throughout the world. The Prado specializes in European art from the 12th-19th century (Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum is home to the post-19th century art), that was built from the Spanish Royal Collection.
The most famous piece in the collection that is on display at the Prado is Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. He dedicated many of his own pieces to the museum and had a hand in obtaining several works from great Italian painters as well. In tribute to Velazquez, his statue is one of the few marking the entrances to the museum.
Lying between El Muelle harbor and the River Urumea, San Sebastian’s Old Town has its origins in medieval times although it was largely rebuilt following the large-scale destruction of the city by fire in 1813.
By day the Old Town is a maze of charismatic alleys and clusters of townhouses hosting the city’s chaotic daily Pescadería (fish market). The Municipal Museum San Telmo, the fine Gothic church of St Vincente and the Baroque basilica of Santa María del Coro are also found here, and much of the incessant action centers around the dynamic Plaza de la Constitución. This arcaded and balconied square was once a bullring and by night it buzzes with laughter and chatter from the numerous crowded bars and restaurants; this is the best place to sample pintxos, the famous Basque-country tapas of bite-size snacks on bread with typical toppings including peppers, tortilla, garlic prawns or cod.
The largest and oldest National Park in the Canary Islands and home to Spain’s highest peak, Mount Teide, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Teide National Park is one of the top attractions on the island of Tenerife. At 3,718m, the landmark peak of Teide - the world’s third highest volcano from its base - is omnipresent and taking the cable car to the top is one of the most popular pastimes for visitors, with views spanning the surrounding islands.
Even from ground level, the park’s rugged landscape is magnificent, a geological wonder featuring an expanse of rugged lava fields, ancient calderas and volcanic peaks. Spread over 18,900 hectares, additional highlights of the park include the 3,135m Pico Viejo volcano, the distinctive Roques de García rock formations, and a unique array of native flora and fauna, including rare insects like the Tenerife lizard and an impressive collection of birds, including Egyptian vultures, sparrowhawks and red kite.
With its steep rocky cliffs, forested trails and trickling waterfalls, the wild landscape of the Masca Valley is among Tenerife’s most beautiful, and the remote gorge offers a thrilling backdrop for a hiking expedition.
At the top of the valley, the aptly nicknamed ‘lost village’ of Masca is perched precariously on the 600-meter-high edge of the gorge, reachable by a hair-raisingly steep serpentine road and offering spectacular views over the valley. From the village, it’s possible to hike all the way to the coast, a dramatic 4.5km trail that scrambles over the valley floor, past hidden caves, lagoons and black sand beaches.
There are many reasons to fall in love with Girona, but if there’s one thing — one sight — that will make your jaw actually drop, it will probably be the city’s main cathedral. That’s because its Baroque façade stands gloriously atop a massive staircase of some 90 steps. What you’ll find beyond its grand entrance is an impressive Romanesque-meets-Gothic church that claims the widest Gothic nave in the world.
Constructed between the 11th and 18th centuries, the cathedral sits upon the foundations of a former Roman temple. During your visit there, you can scope out its tranquil courtyard cloister, as well as the cathedral’s museum of religious artifacts, which includes noteworthy tapestries. Considering you’ve made it up this far, after the cathedral visit take advantage of your high altitude to go on a stroll along Girona’s ancient walls, which offer unparalleled views of the city.
The Palacio Real (or Royal Palace, also referred to as the Palacio de Oriente) is the lavish site of royal events, but is not home to the royal family (they have lived in the smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela for some time).
The Palacio Real is still a fascinating place to walk through though, with its maze of 50 themed rooms decorated in the finest metals and richest fabrics - though this is only a small sampling of the total 2,800 rooms of the palace. On the guided tour, you will also learn much about the interesting history behind the Bourbon dynasty, during whose reign the palace was most in use.
Highlights of the tour include the throne room, the immense staircase, the collection of suits of armor and the peculiar royal pharmacy, filled with all sorts of strange concoctions.
Fuerteventura might seem like enough of an island paradise, but it isn’t the only one that you’ll want to be conquering in this part of the Canaries: just 2 kilometers off shore sits a tiny islet that is a worthy destination unto itself. Called Lobos Island, the volcanic land mass spans 1.8 square miles and gets its name from the large population of monk seals (also called sea wolves) that used to live here.
Although the island’s formation dates back to thousands of years ago, 1405 marks the first recorded presence of man, when Jean de Béthencourt used it as a resupply station during his conquest of Fuerteventura. Since those times, it has remained virtually uninhabited, with a lighthouse keeper having lived there until 1968, after which the illuminated beacon became automated. Today, and since 1982, Lobos Island has been classified as a nature reserve, noted for its abundance of vegetation species (over 130 different kinds), and its bird population.
Travelers seeking a touchstone to history will find ancient artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as items from the Iberian and Roman empires at the Castle of Santa Barbara. This towering structure is tucked atop a rocky overlook and dates back to the 9th century. Like much of the region, it was once ruled by Muslims before being captured by Castillians in the mid-1200s. The castle grounds, which stand high above Alicante, are worth exploring, and visitors say the epic views contribute to a greater understanding of the city’s layout. A tiny souvenir shop and quaint coffee shop serving up strong brews offer the perfect place to relax after wandering through the historic site, which does not disappoint.
Constitution Square sits in the heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter. Since its construction in the early 1800s, it has served as the city’s main square, but perhaps most interestingly as a bullring. You can still see remnants of this today: look above each of the balcony windows, where you’ll spy numbers denoting the former bullring boxes once rented by spectators.
Though the bullfights long ago moved to the city’s proper Plaza de Toros, Constitution Square (or Plaza de la Constitución in Spanish) still hosts some of San Sebastián’s biggest events. The most famous of these is no doubt the start and finish – marked by the flag raising and lowering -- of the parade- and drum-filled Tamborrada, which takes place yearly on January 20th. Events aside, the main square, which is dominated by the municipal library, resides in a part of town blanketed by a web of narrow medieval streets, each dotted by Basque Country’s answer to the tapas bar: the pintxos bar.
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