Experience Spain - Fodor's Spain (2015)

Fodor's Spain (2015)

Experience Spain

Main Table of Contents

Spain Planner

What’s Where

Spain Today

What’s New in Spain

Making the Most of Your Euros

Top Attractions

Spain’s Top Experiences

Spain’s Top Museums

FAQs About Visiting Spain

Quintessential Spain

Great Itineraries

History You Can See

Languages of Spain

Spain Planner

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Summer in Spain is hot, and temperatures can hit 100°F (38°C). Although air-conditioning is the norm in hotels and museums, walking and exploring can be uncomfortable, particularly in Andalusia. In August, major cities empty out, with Spaniards migrating to the beach—expect huge traffic jams August 1 and 31. Many small shops and some restaurants shut down; most museums remain open.

Winters are mild and rainy along the coasts and bitterly cold elsewhere. Snow is rare except in the mountains, where you can ski December through March in the Pyrenees and at resorts near Granada, Madrid, and Burgos.

May and October are optimal for visiting Spain, as it’s generally warm and dry. May has more hours of daylight; October is the harvest season, which is especially colorful in the wine regions.

Spring has spectacular fiestas, particularly Valencia’s Las Fallas in March and Seville’s Semana Santa (Holy Week), a week from mid-March to mid-April, followed by the Feria de Abril (April Fair), showcasing horses, bulls, and flamenco. April in southern Spain is warm but still cool enough to make sightseeing comfortable.


Most flights into Spain go to Madrid or Barcelona, though Málaga in Andalusia is popular with carriers traveling from the United Kingdom and other European countries; Girona is a busy hub for the no-frills carriers bringing holiday travelers to nearby Barcelona or the beaches of the Costa Brava. You can also travel by ferry from the United Kingdom to northern Spain, by ferry or catamaran from Morocco to southern Spain, or on a cruise: Barcelona is Spain’s main port of call, but others include Málaga, Cádiz, Gibraltar, Valencia, A Coruña, and destinations in the Balearic Islands. From France or Portugal you can drive or take a bus.


Once in Spain, you can travel by bus, car, or train. Buses are often faster than local trains, and bus fares tend to be lower. Service is extensive, though less frequent on weekends.

For rail travel, the local-route RENFE trains are economical and run on convenient schedules; the AVE, Spain’s high-speed train, is wonderfully fast—it can go from Madrid to Seville or to Barcelona in under three hours. TIP Rail passes like the Eurailpass must be purchased before you leave for Europe.

Large, chain car-rental companies all have branches in Spain, though the online outfit Pepe Car (www.pepecar.com) may have better deals. Its modus operandi: the earlier you book, the less you pay. In Spain, most vehicles have manual transmissions; if you order a compact, make sure it has air-conditioning. TIP If you don’t want a stick shift, reserve well in advance and specify automatic transmission.

A few rules of the road: children under 12 may not ride in the front seat, and seat belts are mandatory for all passengers. TIP Follow speed limits. Rental cars are frequently targeted by police monitoring speeding vehicles, and speed cameras are common.


Most restaurants in Spain don’t serve breakfast (desayuno); for coffee and carbs, head to a bar or cafetería. Outside major hotels, where room rates often include morning buffets, breakfast in Spain is usually limited to coffee and toast or a roll. Lunch (comida or almuerzo) traditionally consists of an appetizer, a main course, and dessert, followed by coffee and perhaps a liqueur. Between lunch and dinner the best way to snack is to sample a variety of tapas (appetizers) at a bar. Dinner (cena) is somewhat lighter than lunch, with perhaps only one course. In addition to an à la carte menu, most restaurants offer a daily fixed-price menu (menú del día), including two courses, wine, and dessert at an attractive price. It’s traditionally a lunch thing but is increasingly offered at dinner in popular tourist destinations.


There are many types of lodgings in Spain, from youth hostels (different from an hostal, which is a budget hotel) to boutique hotels and modern high-rises and various options in between. Among the most popular lodgings in Spain are the paradores—government-run, upscale hotels, many of them in historic buildings or visit-worthy locations. Rates are reasonable, considering that most paradores have four- or five-star amenities, including a restaurant serving regional specialties.


Many of the misunderstandings for visitors to Spain concern mealtimes. The Spanish eat no earlier than 1:30 pm for lunch, preferably after 2 pm, and not before 9 pm for dinner. Dining out on the weekend can begin at 10 pm or even later. In areas with heavy tourist traffic, some restaurants open a bit earlier.


Dining is not the only part of Spanish life with a bizarre timetable. Outside major cities most shops shut in the afternoons from 2 to 5 pm, when shopkeepers go home to eat the main meal of the day and perhaps snooze for a while. It’s best to work this into your plans on an “if you can’t beat them, join them” basis, taking a quick siesta after lunch in preparation for a long night out on the town.


As of January 1, 2010, smoking is entirely forbidden in bars, cafés, and restaurants. The considerable smoking population has resigned itself to the ban but, weather permitting, outdoor tables fill up first—and fast.

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What’s Where

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Essential Spain

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Madrid. Its boundless energy makes sights and sounds larger than life. The Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums make one of the greatest repositories of Western art in the world. The cafés in the Plaza Mayor and the wine bars in the nearby Cava Baja buzz, and nightlife stretches into the wee hours around Plaza Santa Ana. Sunday’s crowded flea market in El Rastro is thick with overpriced oddities.

Toledo and Trips from Madrid. From Madrid there are several important excursions, notably Toledo, as well as Segovia and Salamanca. Other cities in Castile-La Mancha and Castile-León worth checking out if you’re traveling include León, Burgos, Soria, Sigüenza, and Cuenca. Extremadura, Spain’s remote borderland with Portugal, is often overlooked, but has some intriguing places to discover. Highlights include prosperous Cáceres, packed with medieval and Renaissance churches and palaces; Trujillo, lined with mansions of Spain’s imperial age; ancient Mérida, Spain’s richest trove of Roman remains; and the Jerte Valley, which turns white in late March with the blossoming of its million cherry trees.

Galicia and Asturias. On the way to Santiago de Compostela to pay homage to St. James, Christian pilgrims once crossed Europe to a corner of Spain so remote it was called finis terrae (“World’s End”). Santiago still resonates with mystic importance. In the more mountainous Asturias, picturesque towns nestle in green highlands, and sandy beaches stretch out along the Atlantic. Farther east, in Cantabria, is the Belle Époque beach resort of Santander.

Bilbao and the Basque Country. Greener and cloudier than the rest of Spain, and stubbornly independent in spirit, the Basque region is a country within a country, proud of its own language and culture as well as its coastline along the Bay of Biscay—one of the peninsula’s wildest and most dramatic.

The Pyrenees. Cut by some 23 steep north-south valleys on the Spanish side alone, with four independent geographical entities—the valleys of Camprodón, Cerdanya, Aran, and Baztán—the Pyrenees has a wealth of areas to explore, with different cultures and languages to match.

Barcelona. The Rambla in the heart of the Old City is packed day and night with strollers, artists, street entertainers, vendors, and vamps, all preparing you for Barcelona’s startling architectural landmarks. Antoni Gaudí’s sinuous Casa Milà and unique Sagrada Família church are masterpieces of the Moderniste oeuvre.

Catalonia, Valencia, and the Costa Blanca. A cultural connection with France and Europe defines Catalonia. The citrus-scented, mountain-backed plain of the Levante is dotted with Christian and Moorish landmarks and extensive Roman ruins. Valencia’s signature dish, paella, fortifies visitors touring the city’s medieval masterpieces and exuberant modern architecture. The Costa Blanca has party-’til-dawn resort towns like Benidorm as well as small villages where time seems suspended in centuries past. The rice paddies and fragrant orange groves of the Costa Blanca lead to the palm-fringed port city of Alicante.

Ibiza and the Balearic Islands. Ibiza still generates buzz as a summer playground for clubbers from all over, but even this isle has its quiet coves. Alternatively, much of Ibiza’s rave-all-night crowd chooses neighboring Formentera as their chill-out daytime destination. Mallorca has some built-up and heavily touristed pockets, along with long vistas of pristine, rugged mountain beauty. On comparatively serene Menorca, the two cities of Ciutadella and Mahón have remarkably different histories, cultures, and points of view.

Andalusia. Eight provinces, five of which are coastal (Huelva, Cádiz, Málaga, Granada, and Almería) and three of which are landlocked (Seville, Córdoba, and Jaén), compose this southern autonomous community known for its Moorish influences. Highlights are the haunting Mezquita of Córdoba, Granada’s romantic Alhambra, and seductive Seville.

Costa del Sol and Costa de Almería. With more than 320 days of sunshine a year, the Costa is especially seductive to Northern Europeans eager for a break from the cold. As a result, vast holiday resorts sprawl along much of the coast, though there are respites: Marbella, a longtime glitterati favorite, has a pristine Andalusian old quarter, and villages such as Casares seem immune to the goings-on along the water.

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Spain Today

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Since the advent of democracy in 1976, Spanish politics has been dominated by the two largest parties: the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) socialist party and right-wing Partido Popular (PP) party. In the 2011 national, regional, and local elections, the PSOE—in power since 2004—was handed widespread defeats, giving the opposition right PP outright majorities in 8 of the 13 regions that were up for grabs, and, nationally, installing PP party leader Mariano Rajoy as prime minister.

The electorate soured on the austerity measures the PSOE had adopted to cope with the country’s considerable economic problems—not the least of them the highest unemployment rate in the euro zone—but the PP government has taken many measures even further: It raised income taxes, introduced labor reforms that make it easier for employers to fire workers, weakened the system of collective bargaining (thus lowering wages), and reduced both the numbers and salaries of public-sector, public-health, and education employees. The months following the election turned the spotlight on the indignados—the “indignant ones”—who gathered in Occupy Wall Street-style protests against the cutbacks in major cities nationwide; demonstrations have continued sporadically since then.

An important element of PP policy is its opposition to any further devolution of powers to Spain’s autonomous regions, which are responsible for their own education, welfare, and health care budgets—and where chronic borrowing and overspending have contributed significantly to the nation’s economic crises. Rajoy’s determined centralism has only added fuel to separatist sentiments, especially in Catalonia, where parties advocating outright independence won the regional elections in late 2012. In 2013, the regional parliament set the date for an independence referendum in 2015, although this is unlikely to go ahead because it’s unconstitutional.


The introduction of the euro in January 2002 brought about a major change in Spain’s economy, as shopkeepers, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and real estate agents all rounded prices up in an attempt to make the most of the changeover from the old currency, and the country became markedly more expensive. This did little to harm Spain’s immense tourism machine, at least until the recession began to take its toll in 2009. A weaker euro and an improvement in global economic conditions brought the hospitality industry bouncing back in 2012 and 2013; this reflected, in some measure, a return on the government’s €1.5 billion loan to “de-seasonalize” the industry (reducing its dependence on the summer beach-bound holiday market) and expand both the eco-friendly and the upscale cultural components of the Spanish travel experience. With the economy staging a slow recovery (the economy shrank by some 1.2% in 2013), tourism remains a bright spot: Spain’s 60-million-plus visitors contribute around 12% annually to the country’s GDP.


The state-funded Catholic Church, closely tied to the right-wing PP and with the national Cadena Cope radio station as its voice, continues to hold considerable social and political influence in Spain, with members of secretive groups such as Opus Dei and the Legionarios de Cristo holding key government and industry positions.

Despite the church’s influence, at street level Spain has become a secular country, as demonstrated by the fact that 70% of Spaniards supported the decidedly un-Catholic 2005 law allowing gay marriage. And although more than 75% of the population claims to be Catholic—attendance at Mass has been bolstered over the last decade by strongly Catholic South American and Eastern European immigrants—less than 20% go to church on a regular basis.

More than 1 million Muslims reside in Spain, making Islam the country’s second-largest religion.


Spain’s devotion to the arts is clearly shown by the attention, both national and international, paid to its annual Principe de Asturias prize, where Prince Felipe hands out accolades to international high achievers such as Philip Roth and Annie Leibovitz, and to homegrown talent such as the golfer José María Olazábal and writer Antonio Muñoz Molina, who has taught at the City University of New York.

Film is at the forefront of the Spanish arts scene. Acclaimed director Pedro Almodóvar notched another triumph in 2013 with his comic take on air travel in I’m So Excited!, starring Spanish leads Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz (who also teamed up with her husband, Javier Bardem, under the direction of Ridley Scott for The Counselor).

In contrast, Spanish music continues to be a rather local affair, though the summer festival scene, including the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim and WOMAD (World of Music and Dance), serves up top names to revelers who come from all over Europe to soak up music in the sun.

While authors such as Miguel Delibes, Rosa Montero, and Maruja Torres flourish in Spain, few break onto the international scene, with the exception of Arturo Pérez Reverte, whose books include Captain Alatriste and The Fencing Master, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of the acclaimed Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and Prisoner of Heaven. Spain’s contribution to the fine arts is still dominated by three names: the Mallorca-born artist Miquel Barceló; the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, who died in 2002; and the Catalan abstract painter Antoni Tàpies, who died in 2012.


With Real Madrid and FC Barcelona firmly established as international brands, and La Liga recognized as one of the world’s most exciting leagues, soccer remains the nation’s favorite sport. The national soccer team, known as La Roja (“The Red One”), is the only team in the world to have won the European Cup twice and the World Cup in succession. La Roja was a serious contender for its second successive World Cup in summer 2014, but was eliminated early in the group stages. After fútbol, what rivets the Spanish fan’s attention are cycling, tennis, basketball, and motorcycle racing. Alberto Contador, who won the 2012 Vuelta de España; Rafael Nadal, the first tennis player to hold Grand Slam titles on clay, grass, and hard court; brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, who play for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies respectively; and Marc Márquez who in 2013 was the youngest winner ever of MotoGP, are national heroes.

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What’s New in Spain

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Since 2009, when FC Barcelona brought home every trophy a Spanish soccer club could acquire—the domestic Triple Crown (La Liga, King’s Cup, and Supercopa), the UEFA European Champions League cup, and the FIFA Club World Championship—Barça has remained the acknowledged best fútbol team in the world. Archrival Real Madrid denied them the King’s Cup in 2011 and La Liga in 2012, a situation that reversed itself in 2013. In 2014, the capital’s other soccer club, Atlético de Madrid, won the title for the first time in 18 years. Both Madrid teams contested the final for the UEFA Champions League.


There were a variety of ups for the arts in 2013: the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid received record numbers of visitors for its Salvador Dalí exhibition; the Patios in Córdoba were awarded UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status; and Granada celebrated the thousandth anniversary of the kingdom of Al-Andalus. On the downside, the government raised the I.V.A. tax from 8% to 21% on all cultural events, resulting in an all-time low for attendance figures at cinemas and theaters, and museum visits dropped because of fewer national tourists.


There are plenty of regional air connections in Spain these days, but the national railway’s high-speed AVE trains are stiff competition: prices are about the same, but with trips like Madrid-Barcelona clocking in at 2 hours and 30 minutes, the AVE is the fastest, most comfortable way to go. Spain now has more high-speed track in service or under construction than any other country in Europe, although construction on several AVE routes (for example, Madrid-Galicia and Granada-Seville) has slowed down considerably after cutbacks in funding.


In 2010 the Catalan Parliament narrowly approved a bill to ban bullfighting in the region (a similar ban has been in force on the Canary Islands since 1991); the more conservative regions of Madrid, Valencia, and Murcia reacted with proposals to give the “sport” the legal status of a protected cultural heritage. The national parliament presented and passed this proposal in 2013. Like anything that even remotely touches on the question of Spanish identity, this is a politically hot issue; animal-rights activists have an uphill battle ahead.


A work in progress since 1882, Gaudí’s Sagrada Família church in Barcelona was formally consecrated in November 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. Still a long way from a fully functioning house of worship—construction is expected to take at least until 2026—the church remains a major tourist attraction.

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Making the Most of Your Euros

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Way back when, people traveled to Europe because it was cheap. That’s not so today, but don’t let that stop you from going—you just need to think creatively about how to spend your money.


Online research and trip planning. The more research you do, the better prepared you’ll be to save. Sometimes you can save money by purchasing a package deal or a tour.

Money matters. Know the exchange rate, and your credit card and ATM card fees. When you call your bank and credit card company for this information, be sure to let them know when and where you’re traveling so they don’t flag your card. Change any PINs to four digits.


Rent an apartment or house. One of the most costly parts of a vacation is lodging. Not only can renting an apartment be cheaper than a hotel, but access to a kitchen lowers food costs. Many rental sites let you book for less than a week; typically, these flats can sleep five on some combination of beds and fold-out sofas, and often have Wi-Fi connectivity.

Stay off the beaten path. If your vacation is for more than a couple of days, consider staying outside the pricey, heavily touristed areas. If public transportation is easy and cost-effective, as it is in Madrid and Barcelona, then you’ll get to know an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood with its less expensive local eateries, and still be able to see the sights.


Pass or no pass? Buying a multisite or museum pass can make sense if your plans include heavy sightseeing rather than just hitting top spots; some can also save time, since many passes also allow you to skip long lines.

Book tickets online. Go online for advance-purchase tickets for sites and performances. You might get discounts, or beat the lines with time-specific entry for sites like the Prado in Madrid, Barcelona’s Sagrada Família, or Granada’s Alhambra.

Research schedules. Find out which sites have discounted hours; most museums offer lower-priced or free tickets one afternoon or evening a week.


Take public transit instead of taxis. Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Bilbao all have excellent, inexpensive, and easy-to-navigate metro and bus systems; local bus service elsewhere around the country is usually easy to use as well. Don’t automatically buy bulk tickets or a pass, though, without first doing the math.

Avoid expensive airport transport. Research alternatives before you go, to prevent hailing a pricey taxi on arrival. Public transit isn’t always your best option since some metros may be well connected but hard to navigate with heavy luggage. Check destinations for cost-effective, privately operated shuttle services to and from the airport.

Compare airlines and train travel. Low-cost Europe-based airlines such as Ryanair, easyJet, and Vueling can get you around Europe cheaply, but the fast trains in Spain can also be quick and inexpensive.

Book ahead. RENFE offers considerable discounts if you book ahead; tickets are available up to six months in advance of travel. If there are four of you, consider booking a “table ticket” (mesa, denoted by an M), which offers big discounts on regular prices.

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Top Attractions

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Nothing can prepare you for the Moorish grandeur of Andalusia’s greatest monument. The palace unfolds in a series of sumptuous courtyards and gardens, with softly playing fountains, delicate stone tracery, and exquisite motifs in ceramic tile.


El Greco’s city (the fourth centenary of his death was 2014), an hour southwest of Madrid, is often described as Spain’s spiritual capital, and past inhabitants—including Jews, Romans, and Muslims—have all felt its pull. Perched on a ridge above the Río Tajo, Toledo is a tapestry of medieval buildings, churches, mosques, and synagogues threaded by narrow, cobbled streets and squares.


The symbol of Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí’s extraordinary unfinished cathedral should be on everyone’s must-see list. The iconic pointed spires, with organic shapes that resemble honeycombed stalagmites, are visible from almost any point in the city, and it’s well worth taking a tour round them if you’re fit and don’t mind heights.


All swooping curves and rippling forms, the architecturally innovative museum—one of Frank Gehry’s most breathtaking projects—was built on the site of the city’s former shipyards and inspired by the shape of a ship’s hull. The Guggenheim’s cachet is its huge spaces: there’s room to stand back and admire works such as Richard Serra’s monumental steel forms; sculpture by Miquel Barceló and Eduardo Chillida; and paintings by Anselm Kiefer, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.


One of the world’s greatest museums, the Prado holds masterpieces by Italian and Flemish painters, but its jewels are the works of Spaniards: Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco.


In the center of a somewhat drab modern town is the largest Roman city on the Iberian Peninsula. Ogle the fabulously preserved Roman amphitheater with its columns, statues, and tiered seating, or the humbler, yet equally beguiling, 2nd-century house with mosaics and frescoes.


Cuenca is all honey-color buildings, handsome mansions, ancient churches, and earthy local bars. Seek out the famous Casas Colgadas, or “Hanging Houses,” with their facades dipping precipitously over a ravine. Dating from the 15th century, the balconies appear as an extension of the rock face.


This giant palace-monastery (with no fewer than 2,673 windows), built by the megalomaniac Felipe II, makes visitors stop in their tracks. The exterior is austere, but inside the Bourbon apartments and library are lush with rich, colorful tapestries, ornate frescoes, and paintings by such masters as El Greco, Titian, and José de Ribera.


An extraordinary mosque, the Mezquita is famed for its thicket of red-and-white-stripe columns resembling a palm grove oasis interspersed with arches and traditional Moorish embellishments. It’s a fabulous, massive monument that comprises a whole block in the center of Córdoba’s tangle of ancient streets and squares.

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Spain’s Top Experiences

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Plan your visit, if you can, to coincide with one of Spain’s virtually countless fairs and festivals. With the possible exception of the Italians, nobody does annual celebrations like the Spanish: fireworks, solemn processions, historical reenactments, pageants in costume, and street carnivals of every description fill the calendar. The most famous fair of all is Seville’s Feria de Abril (April Fair), when sultry señoritas dance in traditional flamenco garb, and the cream of society parades through the streets in horse-drawn carriages. Second only to Rio in terms of revelry and costumes, Spain’s pre-Lenten Carnaval inspires serious partying: Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, is legendary for its annual extravaganza of drinking, dancing, and dressing up—the more outrageous the better—but Cadíz, on the Atlantic coast, and Sitges, south of Barcelona, have blowouts nearly as good; celebrations typically carry on for 10 days. For Barcelona’s Festa de Sant Jordi, honoring St. George, the city’s patron saint, tradition dictates that men buy their true love a rose, and women reciprocate by buying their beau a book; on that day (April 23) the city streets are filled with impromptu book and flower stalls. In the Semana Santa (Holy Week: mid-March to mid-April), the events of the Passion are recalled in elaborate processions of hooded and gowned religious brotherhoods carrying elaborate floats through the streets from local churches to cathedrals in cities all over Spain; the most impressive take place in Seville, Málaga, and Cartagena in Murcia. And did we mention fireworks? The fiesta of Las Fallas de San José, in Valencia (around March 19), is a week of rockets, firecrackers, pinwheels, and processions in traditional costume, culminating on the Nit del Foc (Night of the Fire), when hundreds of huge papier-mâché figures are dispatched in a spectacular pyrotechnic finale.


A large part of experiencing Spain doesn’t begin until the sun sets or end until it rises again. The Spaniards know how to party and the nightlife is, well, an essential part of life. If you really want to experience the ultimate party, head to the island of Ibiza, in the Balearic Islands, in the summer, but otherwise any of the big cities can pretty much guarantee late-night fun.


Mercados (markets) are the key to delicious local cuisine and represent an essential part of Spanish life, largely unaffected by competition from supermarkets and hypermarkets. You’ll find fabulous produce sold according to whatever is in season: counters neatly piled with shiny purple eggplants, blood-red peppers, brilliant orange cantaloupes, fresh figs, and cornucopias of mushrooms and olives. While cities and most large towns have daily fruit and vegetable markets from Monday through Saturday, Barcelona might be the best city for market browsers, with its famed Boqueria as well as smaller mercados in lovingly restored Moderniste buildings, with wrought-iron girders and stained-glass windows, all over the city. Take the opportunity to get a culinary education—but be warned: the vendors are in the business of selling food, and can get cranky with rubberneckers.


Crisscrossed with mountain ranges, Spain has regions that are ideal for walking, mountain biking, and backpacking, and mountain streams throughout the country offer trout- and salmon-fishing opportunities. Perhaps the best thing about exploring Spain’s great outdoors is that it often brings you nearer to some of the finest architecture and cuisine in Iberia. The 57,000-acre Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, in the Pyrenees, is Spain’s version of the Grand Canyon, with waterfalls, caves, forests, meadows, and more. The Sierra de Gredos, west of Madrid, in Castile and León, bordering Extremadura, is a popular destination for climbing and trekking. Hiking is excellent in the interior of Spain, in the Alpujarras Mountains southeast of Granada and in the Picos de Europa in the north. The pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, known as El Camino de Santiago, has been drawing devotees and adventurers for more than 1,000 years; it traverses the north of Spain from either Roncesvalles in Navarra or the Aragonese Pyrenees to Galicia. The Doñana National Park, in Andalusia, is one of Europe’s last tracts of true wilderness, with wetlands, beaches, sand dunes, marshes, 150 species of rare birds, and countless kinds of wildlife, including the endangered imperial eagle and lynx.


Spain is one of the world’s biggest wine-producing countries, with local specialties found in just about every region. For the most famous, sample still and sparkling wines in the Penedès in Catalonia; sip oak-aged reds in La Rioja; taste the Ribera del Duero reds in Castile-León (and decide for yourself if they’re better than those in La Rioja); or try the different types of sherry in Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia. Slightly off the beaten wine track are Galician wines led by white albariño, Córdoba’s sherries, and Murcia’s little-known reds and whites. Book a tour in a bodega (wine cellar) and prepare to raise your glass. ¡Salud!


A quintessential experience for visitors to Spain is spending a night, or several, in one of the government-run hotels called paradores. The settings are unique—roughly half of the 94 paradores are important cultural properties from the 12th to the 18th century: restored castles, Moorish citadels, monasteries, ducal palaces, and the like—and most are furnished in the style of the region. Every parador has a restaurant that serves local specialties.


Virtually surrounded by bays, oceans, gulfs, straits, and seas, Spain is a beach-lover’s dream as well as an increasingly popular destination for water-sports enthusiasts. Oceanfront—8,000 km (5,000 miles) of it, not counting the islands—is Spain’s most important hospitality asset, and sun worshippers can choose from long sweeps of beach on sheltered bays to tiny crescents of sand in rocky inlets that only boats can reach. There are 12 costas (designated coastal areas) along the Mediterranean, and seven more along the Atlantic from Portugal around to France. One of the great things about Spanish sands is that some of the best are literally extensions of the cities you otherwise come to Spain for—so you can spend a morning in the surf and sun, then steep yourself in history or art for an afternoon, and finish the day with a great meal and an evening of music. Among the best city beaches are La Concha (San Sebastián), Playa de la Victoria (Cadiz), Barcelona’s string of beaches, Playa de los Peligros (Santander), and El Cabanyal (Valencia).

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Spain’s Top Museums

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In the Golden Age of Empire (1580-1680), Spanish monarchs used Madrid’s wealth not only to finance wars and civil projects but also to underscore their own grandeur by collecting and commissioning great works of art. That national patrimony makes Spain a museum-lover’s paradise—all the more so for the masterworks of modern painting and sculpture that have been added since, and for the museum buildings themselves, many of them architecturally stunning.


Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. The modern collection focuses on Spain’s three great modern masters: Picasso, Dalí, and Miró. The centerpiece is Picasso’s monumental Guernica.

Museo del Prado, Madrid. In a magnificent neoclassical building on one of Madrid’s most elegant boulevards, the Prado, with its collection of Spanish and European masterpieces, is frequently compared to the Louvre.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. This mass of artwork was purchased by the Spanish government in 1993 from the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza. Among the some 1,600 paintings in the collection are works by Dürer, Rembrandt, Titian, and Caravaggio—and important pieces from the impressionist and early modern periods.


Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Five elegant medieval and early-Renaissance palaces in the Gothic Quarter house this collection of some 3,600 works by Picasso, who spent the early years of his career (1895-1904) in Barcelona.

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. MNAC has the finest collection of Romanesque frescoes and devotional sculpture in the world, most rescued from abandoned chapels in the Pyrenees. Taking the fragile frescoes off crumbling walls, building supports for them in the same intricate shapes as the spaces they came from (vaults, arches, windows), and rehanging them was an astonishing feat of restoration.

Fundació Miró, Barcelona. Designed by Miró’s friend and collaborator, architect Lluís Sert, this museum was the artist’s gift to the city that shaped his career. It houses some 11,000 of Miró’s works: oils, sculpture, textiles, drawings, and prints.

Museo de Bellas Artes, Valencia. At the edge of the city’s Royal Gardens, the MBA is one of the finest smaller collections in Spain. It houses masterworks by Ribalta, Velázquez, Ribera, and Goya, and a gallery devoted to 19th-century Valencian painter Joaquin Sorolla.


Museo Guggenheim, Bilbao. Frank Gehry’s museum is a work of art in its own right, the first great building of the 21st century. Even its detractors now hail it for the transformative impact it has had on what was once a grimy industrial city. Inside, the galleries showcase international and Spanish art by modern and contemporary painters and sculptors. It’s easy to combine a visit of several days to Bilbao with a trip to Barcelona.


Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville. Rivaled only by the Prado in terms of Spanish art, the MBA collection includes works by Murillo, Zurbarán, and El Greco, and Gothic art, baroque religious sculpture, and Sevillian art from the 19th and 20th centuries.

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FAQs About Visiting Spain

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What are my lodging options in Spain? For a slice of Spanish culture, stay in a parador; to indulge your pastoral fantasies, try a casa rural (country house), Spain’s version of a bed-and-breakfast. On the other end of the spectrum are luxurious high-rise hotels along the coastline and chain hotels in the major cities. Traveling with your family? Consider renting an apartment or go for a family room deal in a hotel.

Do I need to book hotels beforehand, or can I just improvise once I’m in Spain? In big cities or popular tourist areas it’s best to reserve well ahead. In smaller towns and rural areas, you can usually find something on the spot, except when local fiestas are on—for those dates you may have to book months in advance.

How can I avoid looking like a tourist in Spain? Ditch the white tennis shoes and shorts for a start, and try to avoid baseball caps. A fanny pack will betray you instantly; a mochila—an all-purpose cloth or leather bag with a long shoulder strap, bought locally—will serve you better.

Do shops really close for siesta? In general, shops close from 2 to 5 pm, particularly in small towns and villages. The exceptions are supermarkets and large department stores, which tend to be open from 9 am to 9 pm in the center of Madrid and Barcelona, and at major resorts stores often stay open all day.

How much should I tip at a restaurant? You won’t find a service charge on the bill, but the tip is included. For stellar service, leave a small sum in addition to the bill, between 5% and 10%. If you’re indulging in tapas, just round the bill to the nearest euro.

If I only have time for one city, should I choose Barcelona or Madrid? It depends on what you’re looking for. Madrid will give you world-class art and much more of a sense of a workaday Spanish city, while cosmopolitan Barcelona has Gaudí, Catalan cuisine, and its special Mediterranean atmosphere.

Can I get dinner at 7 pm, or do I really have to wait until the Spanish eat at 9 pm? If you really can’t wait, head for the most touristy part of town; there you should be able to find bars and cafés that will serve meals at any time of day. But it won’t be nearly as good as the food the Spaniards are eating a couple of hours later. You might be better off just dining on tapas.

How easy is it to cross the border from Spain into neighboring countries? Spain, Portugal, and France are members of the EU, so borders are open. Good trains connect Madrid and Lisbon (from about €40), and Madrid and Paris (from about €160). American citizens need only a valid passport to enter Morocco; ferries run regularly to Tangier from Tarifa (€35 one way, €129 with a car) and Algeciras (€22 one way, €115 with a car).

Can I bring home the famous Ibérico ham, Spanish olives, almonds, or baby eels? Products you can legally bring into the United States include olive oil, cheese, olives, almonds, wood-smoked paprika, and saffron. These products must be declared at customs. Ibérico ham, even vacuum-sealed, is not legal, so you may not get past customs agents and their canine associates. If caught, you risk confiscation and fines. And don’t even think about trying to bring back angulas (eels).

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Quintessential Spain

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If you want to get a sense of Spanish culture and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of Spanish life. These are a few things you can take part in with relative ease.


The unabashed Spanish pursuit of pleasure and the unswerving devotion to establishing a healthy balance between work and play is nowhere more apparent than in the midday shutdown. In the two-salary, 21st-century Spanish family, few people still observe the custom of going home for lunch, and fewer still take the classic midday snooze—described by novelist Camilo José Cela as “de padrenuestro y pijama” (with a prayer and pajamas). The fact remains, however, that most stores and businesses close from about 2 to 5 pm.


The Spanish National Fútbol League and the tortilla de patata (potato omelet) have been described as the only widely shared phenomena that bind the nation together. Often referred to as tortilla española to distinguish it from the French omelet (a thin envelope of egg, often filled with cheese) or the flat, all-dough Mexican tortilla filled with meat, the Spanish potato omelet is a thick, cake-shape mold of potatoes (and sometimes onions) bound with egg and ideal for breakfast, snacks, or full meals. In the right chef’s hands, the tortilla can be elevated to a gourmet delicacy, but even in a hole-in-the-wall tapas bar, you can’t go too far wrong.

In the case of the soccer league, the tie that binds often resembles tribal warfare, as bitter rivalries centuries old are played out on the field. Some of these, such as the Real Sociedad (San Sebastián)-Athletic Bilbao feud, are fraternal in nature, brother Basques battling for boasting rights, but others, such as the Madrid-Barcelona face-offs, are as basic to Spanish history as Moros y Cristianos (a reenactment of the battle between the Moors and the Christians). The beauty of the game is best appreciated in the stadiums, but local sports bars, many of them official fan clubs of local teams, are where you see fútbol passions at their wildest.


One of the most delightful Spanish customs is el paseo (the stroll), which traditionally takes place during the early evening and is common throughout the country but particularly in pueblos and towns. Given the modern hamster-wheel pace of life, there is something appealingly old-fashioned about families and friends walking around at a leisurely pace with no real destination or purpose. Dress is usually formal or fashionable: elderly señoras with their boxy tweed suits, men with jackets slung, capelike, round the shoulders, teenagers in their latest Zara gear, and younger children in their Sunday best. El paseo provides everyone with an opportunity to participate in a lively slice of street theater.


The Spanish love to eat out, especially on Sunday, the traditional day when families make an excursion of a long leisurely lunch—often, depending on the time of year, at an informal seaside restaurant (chiringuito) or a rural venta (meal for sale). The latter came into being in bygone days when much of the seasonal work, particularly in southern Spain, was done by itinerant labor. Cheap, hearty meals were much in demand, and some enterprising country housewife saw the opportunity to provide ventas; the idea soon spread. Ventas are still a wonderfully good value today, not just for the food but also for the atmosphere: long, scrubbed wooden tables; large, noisy Spanish families; and a convivial informality. Sunday can be slow. So relax, and remember that all good things are worth waiting for.

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Great Itineraries

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Madrid and the South: Capital City to the Alhambra, 10 days | Barcelona and the North: Gaudí, the North Coast, and Galicia, 16 days | Madrid and Barcelona: Spain’s Top Cities, 6 days | Andalusia: Spain’s Glorious South, 7 days



Start the day with a visit to either the Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, or the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Then head to the elegant Plaza Mayor—a perfect jumping-off point for a tour of the Spanish capital. To the west, see the Plaza de la Villa, Palacio Real (the Royal Palace), Teatro Real (Royal Theater), and the royal convents; to the south, wander around the maze of streets of La Latina and El Rastro and try some local tapas.

On Day 2, visit the sprawling Barrio de las Letras, centered on the Plaza de Santa Ana. This was the favorite neighborhood of writers during the Spanish golden literary age in the 17th century, and it’s still crammed with theaters, cafés, and good tapas bars. It borders the Paseo del Prado on the east, allowing you to comfortably walk to any of the art museums in the area. If the weather is pleasant, take an afternoon stroll in the Parque del Buen Retiro.

For your third day in the capital, wander in Chueca and Malasaña, the two neighborhoods most favored by young madrileños. Fuencarral, a landmark street that serves as the border between the two, is one of the city’s trendiest shopping enclaves. From there you can walk to the Parque del Oeste and the Templo de Debod—the best spot from which to see the city’s sunset. Among the lesser-known museums, consider visiting the captivating Museo Sorolla, Goya’s frescoes and tomb at the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, or the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando for classic painting. People-watch at any of the terrace bars in either Plaza de Chueca or Plaza 2 de Mayo in Malasaña.

Logistics: If you’re traveling light, the subway (Metro Line No. 8) or the bus (No. 200) will take you from the airport to the city for €5. A taxi will cost around €30. Once in the center consider walking or taking the subway rather than cabbing it in gridlock traffic.


There are several excellent options for half- or full-day side trips from Madrid to occupy Days 4 and 5. Toledo and Segovia are two of the oldest Castilian cities—both have delightful old quarters dating back to the Romans. There’s also El Escorial, which houses the massive monastery built by Felipe II. Two other nearby towns also worth visiting are Aranjuez and Alcalá de Henares.

Logistics: Toledo and Segovia are stops on the high-speed train line (AVE), so you can get to either of them in a half hour from Madrid. To reach the old quarters of both cities take a bus or cab from the train station or take the bus from Madrid; busing is also the best way to get to El Escorial. Reach Aranjuez and Alcalá de Henares via the intercity train system.


Córdoba, the capital of both Roman and Moorish Spain, was the center of Western art and culture between the 8th and 11th century. The city’s breathtaking Mezquita (mosque), which is now a cathedral, and the medieval Jewish Quarter bear witness to the city’s brilliant past. From Madrid you could also rent a car and visit the lesser-known cities north of Extremadura, such as Guadalupe and Trujillo, and overnighting in Cáceres, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage city, and returning to Madrid the next day.

Logistics: The AVE train will take you to Córdoba from Madrid in under two hours. An alternative is to stay in Toledo, also on the route heading south, and then head to Córdoba the next day, although you need to return to Madrid by train first. Once in Córdoba, take a taxi for a visit out to the summer palace at Medina Azahara.


Seville’s Cathedral, with its tower La Giralda, Plaza de Toros Real Maestranza, and Barrio de Santa Cruz are visual feasts. Forty minutes south you can sip the world-famous sherries of Jerez de la Frontera, then munch jumbo shrimp on the beach at Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Logistics: From Seville’s AVE station, take a taxi to your hotel. After that, walking and hailing the occasional taxi are the best ways to explore the city. A rental car is the best option to reach towns beyond Seville.


The hilltop Alhambra palace, Spain’s most visited attraction, was conceived by the Moorish caliphs as heaven on earth. Try any of the city’s famous tapas bars and tea shops, and make sure to roam the magical, steep streets of the Albayzín, the ancient Moorish quarter.

Logistics: The Seville-Granada leg of this trip is best accomplished by renting a car—Antequera makes a good quick stop on the way. However, the Seville-to-Granada trains (four daily, just over 3 hours, €30) are an alternative. Another idea is to head first from Madrid to Granada, and then from Granada via Córdoba to Seville.



To get a feel for Barcelona, begin with La Rambla and Boquería market. Then set off for the Gothic Quarter to see the Catedral de la Seu, Plaça del Rei, and the Catalan and Barcelona government palaces in Plaça Sant Jaume. Next, cross Via Laietana to the Born-Ribera (waterfront neighborhood) for the Gothic Santa Maria del Mar and nearby Museu Picasso.

Make Day 2 a Gaudí day: visit the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, then Park Güell. In the afternoon see the Casa Milà and Casa Batlló, part of the Manzana de la Discòrdia on Passeig de Gràcia. Palau Güell, off the lower Rambla, is probably too much Gaudí for one day, but don’t miss it.

On Day 3, climb Montjuïc for the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in the hulking Palau Nacional. Investigate the Fundació Miró, Estadi Olímpic, the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, and CaixaForum exhibition center. At lunchtime, take the cable car across the port for seafood in Barceloneta and then stroll along the beach.

Logistics: In Barcelona, walking or taking the subway is better than cabbing it.


San Sebastián is one of Spain’s most beautiful—and delicious—cities. Belle Époque buildings nearly encircle the tiny bay, and tapas bars flourish in the old quarter. Not far from San Sebastián is historic Pasajes de San Juan.

Logistics: Take the train from Barcelona to San Sebastián (5 hours) first thing in the morning. You don’t need a car in San Sebastián proper, but visits to cider houses in Astigarraga, Chillida Leku on the outskirts of town, and many of the finest restaurants around San Sebastián are possible only with your own transportation or a taxi (the latter with the advantage that you won’t get lost). The freeway west to Bilbao is beautiful and fast, but the coastal road is recommended at least as far as Zumaia.


The Basque coast between San Sebastián and Bilbao has a succession of fine beaches, rocky cliffs, and picture-perfect fishing ports. The wide beach at Zarautz, the fishermen’s village of Getaria, the Zuloaga Museum in Zumaia, and Bermeo’s port and fishing museum should all be near the top of your list.


Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum is worth a trip for the building itself, and the Museum of Fine Arts has an impressive collection of Basque and Spanish paintings. Restaurants and tapas bars are famously good in Bilbao.

Logistics: In Bilbao, use the subway or the Euskotram, which runs up and down the Nervión estuary.


The elegant beach town of Santander has an excellent summer music festival every August. Nearby, Santillana del Mar is one of Spain’s best Renaissance towns, and the museum of the Altamira Caves displays reproductions of the famous underground Neolithic rock paintings discovered here. Exploring the Picos de Europa will take you through some of the peninsula’s wildest reaches, and the port towns along the coast provide some of Spain’s most pristine beaches.


The coast road through Ribadesella and the cider capital Villaviciosa to Oviedo is scenic and punctuated with tempting beaches. Oviedo, its Cathedral, and the simplicity of its pre-Romanesque churches are worlds away from the richness of Córdoba’s Mezquita and Granada’s Alhambra.

Logistics: The A8 coastal freeway gets you quickly and comfortably to Oviedo and just beyond. From there, go west into Galicia via the coastal N634—a slow but scenic route to Santiago.


Spain’s northwest corner, with Santiago de Compostela at its spiritual and geographic center, is a green land of bagpipes and apple orchards. The albariño wine country, along the Río Miño border with Portugal, and the rías (estuaries), full of delicious seafood, will keep you steeped in enxebre—Gallego for “local specialties and atmosphere.”

Logistics: The four-lane freeways AP9 and A6 whisk you from Lugo and Castro to Santiago de Compostela and to the Rías Baixas. By car is the only way to tour Galicia. The AC862 route around the upper northwest corner and the Rías Altas turns into the AP9 coming back into Santiago.



Combining Spain’s two largest and greatest cities on a six-day itinerary gives you the chance to take in the contrasts of Imperial Madrid and Moderniste Barcelona. Both cities are vibrant, energetic cultural centers showcasing some of Europe’s greatest art and architecture as well as Spanish gastronomy at its best. You can also get a taste for Spain’s late-night fun, sample its colorful markets, and stay at some of the country’s best lodgings. However, Madrid and Barcelona feel very different, and you’ll find huge contrasts in their landscapes, culture, and ambience. By visiting them both you’ll get a good idea of the many facets that make up Spain.

For what to do on your days in Madrid, see the Madrid and the South itinerary above. For Barcelona, see the Barcelona and the North itinerary above.

Logistics: Take the high-speed train (AVE) from Madrid to Barcelona (journey time is 2 hours and 30 minutes). For the return journey, fly from Barcelona to Madrid Barajas Airport in time to catch your flight home.



Córdoba’s breathtaking Mezquita (mosque), now a cathedral, is an Andalusian highlight, and the medieval Jewish Quarter is lovely to explore. If you’re here during May, visit the Festival de los Patios (Patio Festival).


The city that launched Christopher Columbus to the New World, Seville is a treasure trove of sights. Start with the Cathedral and climb the Giralda Tower for great views of the city. Move on to the richly decorated Alcázar, still an official royal residence, with its many beautiful patios. The Jewish Quarter in Santa Cruz is a charming labyrinth of alleyways and squares. In the afternoon, cross to Triana over the Guadalquivir River and lose yourself in the quiet streets, which are the birthplace of many a flamenco artist.

Logistics: Take the high-speed train (AVE) to Seville from Córdoba (45 minutes). Seville is a compact city and easy to navigate so it’s best to explore on foot.


Jerez de la Frontera is the world’s sherry headquarters and home to some of the greatest bodegas. Visit Domecq, Harvey, or Sandeman, and, if you have time, watch the world’s finest dancing horses at the prestigious Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. The lovely clifftop village of Arcos de la Frontera, one of Andalusia’s prettiest pueblos blancos (white villages), makes a great stop on the way to Ronda. One of the oldest towns in Spain, Ronda is famed for its spectacular position and views; get the best photo from the Juan Peña El Lebrijano Bridge.

Logistics: Rent a car in Seville and take the highway to Jerez de la Frontera before making your way to Ronda via Arcos de la Frontera. If you have time, stop off in the lovely village of Grazalema.


Start your exploration of the capital of the Costa del Sol, Málaga, with the Roman theater, Moorish Alcazaba, and Gothic Cathedral. Stroll down to the Muelle Uno on the port for views of the city skyline and Gibralfaro castle before returning to the center to visit the Museo Picasso and browse the shops in Larios and surrounding streets.

Logistics: Leave Ronda early and enjoy the scenic drive to Málaga via the A354. In Málaga, explore on foot, leaving your car in a central lot or at your hotel.


Allow a good half day to visit the hilltop Alhambra palace and Generalife gardens. From there, walk down to the city center to the Cathedral and Capilla Real, the shrine of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón. Finish your day with some tapas at one of the many famous tapas bars. On Day 7, walk up to the Albayzín, the ancient Moorish quarter, for a leisurely wander around the narrow streets. Take your time in the Plaza de San Nicolás and admire the magnificent views of the Alhambra and Sierra Nevada before you leave.

Logistics: The drive to Granada from Málaga takes about one hour and 15 minutes. Granada is best explored on foot so leave your car at the hotel.

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History You Can See

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The story of Spain, a romance-tinged tale of counts, caliphs, crusaders, and kings, begins long before written history. The Basques were among the first here, fiercely defending the green mountain valleys of the Pyrenees. Then came the Iberians, apparently crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa around 3000 BC. The Celts arrived from the north about a thousand years later. The seafaring Phoenicians founded Gadir (now Cádiz) and several coastal cities in the south three millennia ago. The parade continued with the Greeks, who settled parts of the east coast, and then the Carthaginians, who founded Cartagena around 225 BC and dubbed the then-wild, forested, and game-rich country Ispania, after their word for rabbit: span.


1100 BC
Earliest Phoenician colonies are formed, including Cádiz, Villaricos, Almuñecar, and Málaga. Natives include Basques in the Pyrenees, Iberians in the south, and Celts in the northwest.

237 BC
Carthaginians land in Spain.

206 BC
Romans expel Carthaginians from Spain and gradually conquer peninsula.

AD 74
Roman citizenship extended to all Spaniards.

Visigothic kingdom established in central and northern Spain, with capital at Toledo.

Visigothic kingdom overthrown by invading Muslims (Moors), who create an emirate, with the capital at Córdoba.

Discovery of remains of St. James; the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is built and becomes a major pilgrimage site.

Main years of the Reconquest.

Spanish Inquisition begins.

What to See: Near Barcelona, on the Costa Brava, rocket yourself back almost 3,000 years at Ullastret, a settlement occupied by an Iberian people known as the Indiketas. On a tour, actors guide groups through the homes and fortifications of some of the peninsula’s earliest inhabitants, the defensive walls attesting to the constant threat of attack and the bits of pottery evidence of the settlement’s early ceramic industry. Not far away in Empúries are ruins of the Greek colony established in the 6th century BC. At the Museo de Cádiz in Andalusia, you can view sarcophagi dating back to the 1100 BC founding of the city.


Modern civilization in Iberia began with the Romans, who expelled the Carthaginians and turned the peninsula into three imperial provinces. It took the Romans 200 years to subdue the fiercely resisting Iberians, but their influence is seen today in the fortifications, amphitheaters, aqueducts, and other ruins in cities across Spain, as well as in the country’s legal system and in the Latin base of Spain’s Romance languages and dialects.

What to See: Segovia’s nearly 3,000-foot-long Acueducto Romano is a marvel of Roman engineering. Mérida’s Roman ruins are some of Spain’s finest, including its bridge, theater, and outdoor amphitheater. Tarragona was Rome’s most important city in Catalonia, as the walls, circus, and amphitheater bear witness, while Zaragoza boasts a Roman amphitheater and a Roman fluvial port that dispatched flat-bottomed riverboats loaded with wine and olive oil down the Ebro.


Isabella and Ferdinand rule jointly.

Granada, the last Moorish outpost, falls. Christopher Columbus, under Isabella’s sponsorship, discovers the islands of the Caribbean, setting off a wave of Spanish exploration. Ferdinand and Isabella expel Jews and Muslims from Spain.

Ferdinand dies. His grandson Carlos I inaugurates the Habsburg dynasty.

First circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan’s ships.

ca. 1520-1700
Spain’s Golden Age.

Miguel de Cervantes publishes the first part of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Thirty Years’ War: a dynastic struggle between Habsburgs and Bourbons.

War of the Spanish Succession. Claimants to the throne are Louis XIV of France, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, and electoral prince Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria.


In the early 5th century, invading tribes crossed the Pyrenees to attack the weakening Roman Empire. The Visigoths became the dominant force in central and northern Spain by AD 419, establishing their kingdom at Toledo and eventually adopting Christianity. But the Visigoths, too, were to fall before a wave of invaders. The Moors, an Arab-led Berber force, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in AD 711 and swept through Spain in an astonishingly short time, launching almost eight centuries of Muslim rule. The Moors brought with them citrus fruits, rice, cotton, sugar, palm trees, glassmaking, and the complex irrigation system still used around Valencia. The influence of Arabic in modern Spanish includes words beginning with “al,” such as albóndiga (meatball), alcalde (mayor), almohada (pillow), and alcázar (fortress), as well as prominent phonetic characteristics ranging from the fricative j to, in all probability, the lisping c (before e and i) and z. The Moorish architecture and Mudejar Moorish-inspired Gothic decorative details found throughout most of Spain tell much about the splendor of the Islamic culture that flourished here.

What to See: Moorish culture is most spectacularly evident in Andalusia, derived from the Arabic name for the Moorish reign on the Iberian Peninsula, al-Andalus, which meant “western lands.” The fairy-tale Alhambra palace overlooking Granada captures the refinement of the Moorish aesthetic, while the earlier 9th-century Mezquita at Córdoba bears witness to the power of Islam in al-Andalus.


By 1085, Alfonso VI of Castile had captured Toledo, giving the Christians a firm grip on the north. In the 13th century, Valencia, Seville, and finally Córdoba—the capital of the Muslim caliphate in Spain—fell to Christian forces, leaving only Granada in Moorish hands. Nearly 200 years later, the so-called Catholic Monarchs—Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castile—were joined in a marriage that would change the world. Finally, on January 2, 1492, 244 years after the fall of Córdoba, Granada surrendered and the Moorish reign was over.


Seven Years’ War: Spain and France versus Great Britain.

Napoléon takes Madrid.

The Spanish War of Independence: Napoleonic armies thrown out of Spain.

First Carlist War: Don Carlos contests the crown; an era of upheaval begins.

First Spanish Republic declared. Three-year Second Carlist War begins.

Spanish-American War: Spain loses Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

Spanish Civil War; more than 600,000 die. General Francisco Franco wins and rules Spain for the next 36 years.

First democratic election in 40 years; new constitution restores civil liberties and freedom of the press.

Olympic Games held in Barcelona.

Juan Carlos celebrates 25 years as Spain’s king.

Spain bids farewell to the peseta, adopts the euro (EU common currency).

The year 1492 was the beginning of the nation’s political golden age: Christian forces conquered Granada and unified all of current-day Spain as a single kingdom; in what was, at the time, viewed as a measure promoting national unity, Jews and Muslims who did not convert to Christianity were expelled from the country. The departure of educated Muslims and Jews was a blow to the nation’s agriculture, science, and economy from which it would take nearly 500 years to recover. The Catholic Monarchs and their centralizing successors maintained Spain’s unity, but they sacrificed the spirit of international free trade that was bringing prosperity to other parts of Europe. Carlos V weakened Spain with his penchant for waging war, and his son, Felipe II (Phillip II), followed in the same expensive path, defeating the Turks in 1571 but losing the “Invincible Spanish Armada” in the English Channel in 1588.

What to See: Celebrate Columbus’s voyage to America with festivities in Seville, Huelva, Granada, Cádiz, and Barcelona, all of which display venues where “The Discoverer” was commissioned, was confirmed, set out from, returned to, or was buried. Wander through the somber El Escorial, a monastery northwest of Madrid commissioned by Felipe II in 1557, finished in 1584, and the last resting place of most of the Habsburg and Bourbon kings of Spain since then.


Terrorist bombs on Madrid trains claim almost 200 lives; the conservative Partido Popular loses the general election and the socialist PSOE under Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero comes to power.

Parliament legalizes gay marriage, grants adoption and inheritance rights to same-sex couples.

Parliament passes a bill formally denouncing Franco’s rule, and ordering Franco-era statues and plaques removed from streets and buildings.

Spain enters recession for the first time since 1993; unemployment hits 19.4%, with nearly 5 million people jobless.

Spain wins the FIFA soccer World Cup.

PP wins in a landslide parliamentary election; Mariano Rajoy becomes prime minister.

Spain continues in recession with unemployment at an all-time high of 26%. Economic recovery isn’t forecast until 2015 at the earliest.


The 1700-14 War of the Spanish Succession ended with the fall of Barcelona, which sided with the Habsburg Archduke Carlos against the Bourbon Prince Felipe V. El Born market, completed in 1876, covered the buried remains of the Ribera neighborhood where the decisive battle took place. Ribera citizens were required to tear down a thousand houses to clear space for the Ciutadella fortress, from which fields of fire were directed, quite naturally, toward the city the Spanish and French forces had taken a year to subdue. The leveled neighborhood, then about a third of Barcelona, was plowed under and forgotten by the victors, though never by barcelonins.

What to See: In Barcelona, the Fossar de les Moreres cemetery, next to the Santa María del Mar basilica, remains a powerful symbol for Catalan nationalists who gather there every September 11, Catalonia’s National Day, to commemorate the fall of the city in 1714.


Spain’s early-19th-century War of Independence required five years of bitter guerrilla fighting to rid the peninsula of Napoleonic troops. Later, the Carlist wars set the stage for the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which claimed more than half a million lives. Intellectuals and leftists sympathized with the elected government; the International Brigades, with many American, British, and Canadian volunteers, took part in some of the worst fighting, including the storied defense of Madrid. But General Francisco Franco, backed by the Catholic Church, got far more help from Nazi Germany, whose Condor legions destroyed the Basque town of Gernika (in a horror made infamous by Picasso’s monumental painting Guernica), and from Fascist Italy. For three years, European governments stood by as Franco’s armies ground their way to victory. After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939, the Republican cause became hopeless, and Franco’s Nationalist forces entered Madrid on March 27, 1939.

What to See: Snap a shot of Madrid’s Plaza Dos de Mayo, in the Malasaña neighborhood, where officers Daoiz and Velarde held their ground against the superior French forces at the start of the popular uprising against Napoléon. The archway in the square is all that remains of the armory Daoiz and Velarde defended to the death. Trace the shrapnel marks on the wall of the Sant Felip Neri church in Barcelona, evidence of the 1938 bombing of the city by Italian warplanes under Franco’s orders. East of Zaragoza, Belchite was the scene of bloody fighting during the decisive Battle of the Ebro. The town has been left exactly as it appeared on September 7, 1937, the day the battle ended.

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Languages of Spain

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One of the questions you might be asking yourself as you plan your trip to a non-English-speaking country is how useful your high school Spanish will be. Well, you don’t need to be fluent to make yourself understood pretty much anywhere in Spain. With immigrants in substantial numbers, many from Latin America, people in Spain are generally quite tolerant of variations on the “standard” language known as castellano, or Castilian Spanish—the official language of the country, by royal decree, since 1714. The Spanish you learned in school is a Romance language descended from Latin, with considerable Arabic influence—the result of the nearly eight centuries of Moorish presence on the Iberian Peninsula. The first recorded use of Spanish dates to the 13th century; in the 15th century, Antonio de Nebrija’s famous grammar helped spread Spanish throughout the empire’s sprawling global possessions. Pick up a Spanish phrase book, dust off that Spanish accent your high school language instructor taught you, and most Spaniards will understand your earnest request for directions to the subway—and so will some 400 million other Spanish speakers around the world.


What Spaniards speak among themselves is another matter. The country has a number of other significant language populations, most of which predate Castilian Spanish. These include the Romance languages Catalan and Gallego (or Galician-Portuguese) and the non-Indo-European Basque language, Euskera. A third tier of local dialects includes Asturiano (or Bable); Aranese; the variations of Fabla Aragonesa (the languages of the north-central community of Aragón); and, in Extremadura, the provincial dialect, Extremaduran.

Catalan is spoken in Barcelona, in Spain’s northeastern autonomous community of Catalonia, in southern France’s Roussillon region, in the city of L’Alguer on the Italian island of Sardinia, and in Andorra (where it is the national language). It is derived from Provençal French and is closer to Langue d’Oc and Occitan than to Spanish. Both Valenciano and Mallorquín, spoken respectively in the Valencia region and in the Balearic Islands, in the Mediterranean east of Barcelona, are considered dialects of Catalan.

Gallego is spoken in Galicia in Spain’s northwestern corner and more closely resembles Portuguese than Spanish.

Euskera, the Basque language, is Spain’s greatest linguistic mystery. Links to Japanese, Sanskrit, Finnish, Gaelic, and the language of the lost city of Atlantis have proven to be false leads or pure mythology. The most accepted theory on Euskera suggests that it evolved from a language spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula and survived in isolation in the remote hills of the Basque country. Euskera is presently spoken by about a million inhabitants of the Spanish and French Basque provinces.

Asturiano (or Bable) is a Romance language (sometimes called a dialect) spoken in Asturias and in parts of León, Zamora, Salamanca, Cantabria, and Extremadura by some 700,000 people.

Aranés (or Occitan), derived from Gascon French, is spoken in Catalonia’s westernmost valley, the Vall d’Arán.

Fabla aragonesa is the collective term for all of Aragón’s mountain dialects—some 15 of them in active use and all more closely related to Gascon French and Occitan than to Spanish.

Extremaduran, a Spanish dialect, is spoken in Extremadura.