Spain is comprised of numerous autonomous regions, offering great variation within one country. The hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline provide ample opportunity to get off the beaten track, and the country’s vibrant cities and colourful festivals will amaze and delight even the most seasoned traveller. Art lovers can get lost in the Spain of Gaudi, Dali, and Picasso, of Goya and Velazquez – proudly displayed in the country’s museums and galleries.
Spain is also a country rich in heritage and the historic cities of Toledo, Salamanca, Seville and Granada promise a wealth of early Christian and Moorish buildings and monuments, as well as the remains of some incredible medieval sites. Spain has six cities that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other country in the world.
The enchanting city of Barcelona is a visual delight, and has an atmosphere that combines elegance and sophistication with provincial charm. In exploring its streets you’ll discover medieval romance in its Gothic quarter and the awe-inspiring delights of the fantastic and sometimes outrageous Art Nouveau architecture of Gaudi and his contemporaries.
Alicante is situated on the east coast of Spain and is the centre of the popular Costa Blanca holiday region. Although Mediterranean in style, Alicante also has an African flavour with women clad in caftans and hawkers selling African carvings along the waterfront and esplanades. Alicante’s historical central district, though, is filled with Baroque buildings, bearing testimony to the city’s rich history and former status as a major seaport.
Situated 25 miles (40km) southwest of Malaga, the few miles of coast between Marbella and Puerto Banus is Spain’s answer to Monte Carlo. Spain’s elite, and Britain’s more successful, have flashy holiday homes in the surrounding hills, and swanky yachts in the marina. Marbella is the Costa del Sol’s best quality holiday resort – the restaurants and bars are more stylish and the town has been spared the worst excesses of concrete development that have blighted neighbours such as Torremolinos. The old town of Marbella is hidden away and retains some of its medieval charm, and has some good clothes shops and restaurants. The more exclusive Puerto Banus, six miles (10km) to the west, is where you will find the casino and the seriously large yachts. Those holiday visitors who drive just a few miles inland, to the villages in the hills around Ronda, will discover a Spain seemingly untouched by tourism, with village markets and authentic tapas bars to be explored.
Madrid may be lacking in architectural beauty compared with some other major Spanish cities, but it makes up for this with its boundless energy, blue skies, art, culture, and an exhilarating and exhausting nightlife which will delight party animals. The city is compact and easy to navigate on foot; most of the touristic sights of interest are found in the downtown area between the Royal Palace and Parque del Retiro.
The island of Mallorca (Majorca), off the east coast of Spain, is the largest in the Balearic Island group, which collectively forms one of the most popular beach holiday destinations in the Mediterranean, if not the world. Mallorca took off as a tourist paradise in the 1960s, when a development boom spawned the building of hundreds of high-rise hotels, apartment blocks and shopping centres which now line most of the island’s coast. The capital, Palma, still retains some of its historical flavour, sporting grand mansions and a magnificent Gothic cathedral in its bustling old centre. The northwest coast, too, still offers some secluded coves below the peaks of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, and several quaint old towns and villages still untouched by the commercial development common on the island.
Situated on the Mediterranean coast about four hours south of Barcelona, Valencia is spread out around its busy port and backed by hills which give way to the plains of Aragon.
Valencia oozes traditional character, particularly in its old town (El Carmen), and has retained its cultural heritage not only in the form of medieval architecture but also in its quirky, exuberant festivals (like the Battle of the Flowers, the fireworks of Fallas and even one dedicated to tomato-hurling). The Valencians even have their own language. Interspersed with the old and historic, however, there is much that is new in Valencia, including its major attraction, the seemingly futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, which draws around four million appreciative visitors each year.
The third largest but most developed of the seven islands in the Spanish-administered Canary Islands, Gran Canaria has been billed as a ‘miniature continent’ because of the variety of climates and landscapes that it offers, from the big city bustle of the capital, Las Palmas, to the serenity of its lush woodlands.
When to visit
Between November and February is considered the low season, its cold in central Spain, with rain in the north/northwest. The Mediterranean coast enjoys milder temperatures. Many hotels close in the beach areas but elsewhere prices plummet. Except in the ski resorts for which it is high season.
The shoulder seasons, March to May and September to October are a good time to travel to Spain. There is mild, clear weather and fewer crowds.
In the high season, between June and August, accommodation books out but you can expect warm, dry and sunny weather with a higher humidity in coastal towns and resorts.