Of course, Madrid and Barcelona are world-class cities at the cutting edge of gastronomy, art and nightlife. You could spend weeks in either and never get bored.
In the shamrock-green hills of Galicia and Asturias along the northern coast, you’re in seafood paradise. Delight in such ocean-fresh delicacies as cockles, periwinkles and boiled octopus.
Due south, time-travel to Moorish Spain in Andalusian cities like Sevilla and Granada, whose orange-tree-lined streets bask in an average of 125 cloudless days each year.
And let’s not forget the Canary Islands, an archipelago that might have the best climate in the world with year-round temperatures hovering around the mid-70s.
With so many enticing cities and towns, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when planning a trip to Spain. To that end, we’ve honed in on our 11 favorite Spanish vacation spots to help you weigh your options.
Spain’s capital is more than just a bureaucratic center.
But venture into up-and-coming neighborhoods like Conde Duque or Lavapiés, and you’re suddenly in Spain’s incubator for the latest fashion and design trends.
Madrid is an artistic center — home of Picasso’s Guernica, pictured.
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Insider tip: While Cava Baja may be Madrid’s most touristed tapas street, Calle Ponzano, in the Chamberí neighborhood, is where the locals go for late-night snacks.
Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, is famed for its sunshine, beaches, cuisine and architecture
You can start your morning with a coffee al aire libre in the Barri Gòtic, a neighborhood known for its unparalleled variety and concentration of Gothic buildings.
Then you can meander past the sprawling Plaça de Catalunya to Manzana de la Discòrdia, a city block featuring four of the city’s most stunning examples of Modernista architecture including Antoni Gaudí’s masterwork Casa Batlló, which you can enter for 23.50 euros (around $28).
Barcelona has beaches — as well as city attractions.
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When to go: It’s all about beating the crowds in Barcelona, a city that’s become overrun with tourists, particularly in summer. For the best of both worlds — warm water and short lines — go in the fall. The best place for leaf-peeping is the Carretera de les Aigües, a shaded 10-kilometer trail overlooking the city’s majestic skyline and the open Mediterranean.
Arguably the country’s best food scene is in this picturesque town.
Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, make it easy to sample local dishes, like bacalao al pil-pil (cod in an emulsified garlic sauce) and Gilda (brochettes stacked with anchovies, pickled peppers and olives), in affordable one-bite portions.
When to go: To make the most of the city’s pristine beaches and buzzy indoor-outdoor restaurants, visit San Sebastián in the summer.
The stunning Jerte Valley is known for its beautiful cherry trees.
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Hugging the Portuguese border in arid southwest Spain, the region of Extremadura may be the country’s most exciting frontier when it comes to tourism.
It’s worth spending an afternoon in the region’s capital, Mérida, touring the gargantuan, meticulously preserved Roman amphitheater.
But there’s more to do in Cáceres, whose UNESCO-protected Old Town is so convincingly medieval that it features in numerous King’s Landing scenes in “Game of Thrones.” (King’s Landing is the fictional capital of the Seven Kingdoms and where most of the show’s action takes place.)
When to go: The rolling hills of the Valle del Jerte, northeast of Plasencia, erupt in a riot of pink cherry blossoms every year from March 20 to April 10, making spring an ideal time to visit the region.
Santiago de Compostela
The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is at the end of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James.
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An ancient city in northwest Spain, Santiago de Compostela is best known for the eponymous pilgrimage that culminates there called El Camino de Santiago (aka St. James’s Way). While the thousand-year-old tradition began as a religious rite, many of today’s “pilgrims” embark on the walk to enjoy the beautiful nature and the camaraderie of fellow hikers.
In the center of town, the towering Romanesque-Gothic cathedral presides over one of the world’s largest thuribles called the Botafumeiro; visit on one of the holy days to see the fuming censer swing through the hall.
Insider tip: Snag a table in the pocket-size restaurant A Gamela (Rúa da Oliveira, 5, 15704 Santiago de Compostela; +34 981 58 70 25) for killer fried calamares and sautéed mushrooms in cream sauce.
When to go: Plagued by frequent showers during the cold-weather months, Santiago de Compostela comes to life in the summer as the city teems with pilgrims celebrating the end of their long journey.
Take time to explore Valencia’s design scene.
When to go: Revelers won’t want to miss Las Fallas, an unhinged week-long street party in mid-March that culminates in fireworks, parades, and enormous bonfires.
Insider tip: It’s worth waiting in line to tour the Alcázar, an intricately decorated Moorish palace with roots in the first century.
When to go: With scorching-hot summers and notoriously rainy autumns, spring is the best time to visit Seville. It’s warm enough to eat outdoors, but not so hot that you start sweating through your clothes.
Many know the seaside city of Cádiz for its charming Old Town and unsullied beaches; few, however, are aware that it’s the oldest continually inhabited settlement in Western Europe, founded in 1104 BC by the Phoenicians. Between sunbathing on La Caleta beach and indulging in hot paper cones of pescaíto frito (assorted fried seafood), you can get a taste of the city’s rich past at the Museo de Cádiz (Plaza de Mina, s/n, 11004 Cádiz; +34 856 10 50 23), a petite but worthwhile museum best known for its display of Phoenician sarcophagi.
Insider tip: Wine lovers should plan on spending a day among the famous Sherry Triangle bodegas just north of Cádiz in Jerez, Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
When to go: Occupying the southernmost tip of Spain, Cádiz stays relatively warm, even in winter and early spring — the best times to visit, since autumns are damp and summers are torrid.
Snug in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the ancient city of Granada was the last holdout of Islamic Spain during the Reconquista. As such, the city is awash with stunning mosaics, intricate fountains and grand horseshoe arches — all of which can be found in the Alhambra, a breathtaking fortress-palace complex that’s widely regarded as the pinnacle of Moorish architecture in Spain.
When to go: Granada is known for its colorful Moorish gardens, which come into full bloom in April and May.
The landscape that inspired Picasso: Pablo Picasso, one of the world’s most celebrated painters, spent most of his adult life in France. But it was the Catalonian landscape of his youth that was to shape the the artist’s work.
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A Spanish archipelago off the West African coast, the Canary Islands can sometimes feel like an extension of Latin America with their singsongy Spanish, tropical climate and sandy beaches. While Gran Canaria and Tenerife are the most popular (and populated) destinations for tourists, Lanzarote, with its moonlike landscapes, and Fuerteventura, with its paradisiacal white-sand beaches, are ideal for travelers looking for a bit more solitude.
Insider tip: On Gran Canaria, you can take a break from the beach and head inland for a light one-hour hike to the base of Roque Nublo, a 262-foot-tall volcanic rock.
When to go: Winters and summers bring hordes of holidaymakers to the Canary Islands, so it’s best to bask in the islands’ year-round warmth in the spring or fall.
Menorca is a great spot for sunbathing.
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Flung off the Valencian coast in the Mediterranean Sea, the Balearic Islands are known for their postcard-perfect seaside towns, hidden calas (inlets), and — in Ibiza’s case — bumping vida nocturna.
The most tranquil is Menorca, which has remained somewhat unspoiled by mass tourism compared to its neighbors.
Majorca offers a nice balance of city and sea with its capital, Palma, being a small yet thriving metropolis (population: 400,000).
Ibiza continues to be a mecca for clubgoers, though there’s plenty of natural beauty to be found as well, if you know where to look (Cala Llentrisca and Pedrera de Cala d’Hort are good places to start).
When to go: Opt for shoulder-season travel, since hotel rates skyrocket every summer with the number of tourists. If you’re not a devout beachgoer, consider visiting in January and February, when temperatures are mild and accommodations are a steal.