Home to cutting-edge architecture, world-class dining and pulsating nightlife, Barcelona has long been one of Europe’s most alluring destinations. Days are spent wandering the cobblestone lanes of the Gothic quarter, basking on Mediterranean beaches or marvelling at Gaudí masterpieces. By night, Barcelona is a whirl of vintage cocktail bars, gilded music halls, innovative eateries and dance-loving clubs, with the party extending well into the night. There are also colourful markets, hallowed arenas (such as Camp Nou where FC Barcelona plays), and a calendar packed with traditional Catalan festivals.
Madrid is not the only European city with nightlife, but few can match its intensity and street clamour. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night’. There are wall-to-wall bars, small clubs, live venues, cocktail bars and megaclubs beloved by A-list celebrities all across the city, with unimaginable variety to suit all tastes. It’s in the barrios (districts) of Huertas, Malasaña, Chueca and La Latina that you’ll really understand what we’re talking about.
The palace complex of Granada’s Alhambra is close to architectural perfection. It is perhaps the most refined example of Islamic art anywhere in the world, not to mention the most enduring symbol of 800 years of Moorish rule in what was known as Al-Andalus. From afar, the Alhambra’s red fortress towers dominate the Granada skyline, set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s snowcapped peaks. Up close, the Alhambra’s perfectly proportioned Generalife gardens complement the exquisite detail of the Palacio Nazaríes. Put simply, this is Spain’s most beautiful monument.
Pintxos in San Sebastián
Chefs here have turned bar snacks into an art form. Sometimes called ‘high cuisine in miniature’, pintxos (Basque tapas) are piles of flavour often mounted on a slice of baguette. As you step into any bar in central San Sebastián, the choice lined up along the counter will leave you gasping. In short, this is Spain’s most memorable eating experience. Although the atmosphere is always casual, the serious business of experimenting with taste combinations (a Basque trademark) ensures that it just keeps getting better.
A church that became a mosque before reverting back to a church, Córdoba’s stunning Mezquita charts the evolution of Western and Islamic architecture over a 1300-year trajectory. Its most innovative features include some early horseshoe arches, an intricate mihrab, and a veritable ‘forest’ of 856 columns, many of them recycled from Roman ruins. The sheer scale of the Mezquita reflects Córdoba’s erstwhile power as the most cultured city in 10th-century Europe. It was also inspiration for magnificent buildings to come, most notably in Seville and Granada.
La Sagrada Família
The Modernista brainchild of Antoni Gaudí, La Sagrada Família remains a work in progress more than 90 years after its creator’s death. Fanciful and profound, inspired by nature and barely restrained by a Gothic style, Barcelona’s quirky temple soars skyward with an almost playful majesty. The improbable angles and departures from architectural convention will have you shaking your head in disbelief, but the detail of the decorative flourishes on the Passion Facade, Nativity Facade and elsewhere are worth studying for hours.
Nowhere is as quintessentially Spanish as Seville, a city of capricious moods and soulful secrets, which has played a pivotal role in the evolution of flamenco, bullfighting, baroque art and Mudéjar architecture. Blessed with year-round sunshine and fuelled culturally by a never-ending schedule of ebullient festivals, everything seems more amorous here, a feeling not lost on legions of 19th-century aesthetes, who used the city as a setting in their romantic works of fiction. Head south to the home of Carmen and Don Juan and take up the story.
Bilbao: Spain’s Northern Gem
It only took one building, a shimmering titanium fish called the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, to turn Bilbao from a byword for industrial decay into a major European art centre. But while it’s this most iconic of modern buildings that draws the visitors, it’s the hard-working soul of this city that ends up captivating. And let’s face it, there’s plenty to be entranced by: riverside promenades, clanky funicular railways, superb pintxos bars, an iconic football team, a clutch of quality museums and, yeah OK, a shimmering titanium fish.
Return to Spain’s medieval Christian roots in the country’s dramatic Easter celebrations. Religious fraternities parade elaborate pasos (figures) of Christ and the Virgin Mary through the streets to the emotive acclaim of the populace; the most prestigious procession is the madrugada (early hours) of Good Friday. Seen for the first time, it’s an exotic and utterly compelling fusion of pageantry, solemnity and deep religious faith. The most extraordinary processions are in Castilla y León, Castilla La Mancha and Andalucía, but if you choose one, make it Seville.
One of the world’s most enjoyable ways to eat, tapas are as much a way of life as they are Spain’s most accessible culinary superstars. These bite-sized bar snacks are the accompaniment to countless Spanish nights of revelry and come in seemingly endless variations. In Andalucía, expect the best jamón (ham) or fine Spanish olives. In San Sebastián and elsewhere in the Basque Country – where they’re called ‘pintxos’ – tapas are an elaborate form of culinary art. Other great places for tapas include Madrid and Zaragoza.
Hiking in the Pyrenees
Spain is a walker’s destination of exceptional variety, but we reckon the Pyrenees in Navarra, Aragón and Catalonia offer the most special hiking country. Aragón’s Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido is one of the high points (pun intended) of the Pyrenees, while its glories are mirrored across the regional frontier in Catalonia’s Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. It’s tough but rewarding terrain, a world of great rock walls and glacial cirques, accompanied by elusive but soulful Pyrenean wildlife.
A La Playa
It’s easy to see why Spain’s beaches are Europe’s favourite summer playground, but the beach is also an obsession among Spaniards in summer, when the entire country seems to head for the coast. There’s so much more to Spain’s coastline than the overcrowded beaches of Benidorm: the rugged coves of the Costa Brava, or Cabo de Gata in Andalucía, come close to the Mediterranean ideal, while the Atlantic beaches from Tarifa to the Portuguese frontier and the dramatic coastline of Spain’s northwest are utterly spectacular.
Luminous when floodlit, the elegant central square of Salamanca, the Plaza Mayor, is possibly the most attractive in all of Spain. It is just one of many highlights in a city whose architectural splendour has few peers in the country. Salamanca is home to one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities, so student revelry also lights up the nights. It’s this combination of grandeur and energy that makes so many people call Salamanca their favourite city in Spain and who are we to argue?
Sierra Nevada & Las Alpujarras
Dominated by the Mulhacén (3479m), mainland Spain’s highest peak, the Sierra Nevada makes a stunning backdrop to the warm city of Granada. Skiing in winter and hiking in summer can be mixed with exploration of the fascinating villages of Las Alpujarras, arguably Andalucía’s most engaging collection of pueblos blancos (white towns). Suitably for one of the last outposts of Moorish settlement on Spanish soil, the hamlets of Las Alpujarras resemble North Africa, oasis-like and set amid woodlands and the deep ravines for which the region is renowned.
Picos de Europa
Jutting out in compact form just back from the rugged and ever-changing coastline of Cantabria and Asturias, the Picos de Europa comprise three dramatic limestone massifs, unique in Spain but geologically similar to the Alps and jammed with inspiring trails. These peaks and valleys form Spain’s second-largest national park, with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the country – no small claim considering the presence of the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada. The Picos de Europa deservedly belong in such elite company.