It's no secret that I love Spain - I was brought up in the country, after all, and in an underrated city, too.
And I'm not alone in my love of this country but, many visitors only get to touch its surface, drawn to Barcelona, Madrid, Santiago for the Camino or Ibiza for the parties.
So I've asked some great travel bloggers to share their love of Spain, especially when it comes to its less-visited cities.
I asked them to focus on their favorite attractions and this is the result. Even after an entire youth spent in this country, there were cities I didn't know, and attractions I had yet to discover. And yes, not all these cities are relative unknowns - some have garnered the limelight in recent years but all get far fewer visitors than they deserve.
Alicante is best known for being the gateway to beaches and resorts. But it's one of the nicest cities cities in Spain and is becoming increasingly popular for its history and the beauty of its Old Town, largely ignored by visitors until relatively recently.
At the heart of the Old Town is Santa Barbara Castle, built in the 9th century during Muslim Spain. The castle sits on an outcrop overlooking the city and the Mediterranean coastline.
At its feet is the Barrio de Santa Cruz, where the old Muslim Quarter once was and with streets too narrow for cars. The houses here are built on such steep inclines that only steps make them accessible. The houses are decorated with ceramic tiles with that blue and white Mediterranean feel common all the way to Greece. (Prefer the sea? Here's a guide to Alicante's top 15 beaches.)
One of the most distinctive and best coastal towns in Spain is Almeria, yet the Alcazaba's reputation is usually overshadowed by Granada's Alhambra.
Yet the Alcazaba is a stunning fortified structure that once served as a defensive citadel, and is said to be the largest fortress of its kind in Europe. It was mostly a military residence but also contained hamams, a mosque and a palace.
It has been partly restored and entrance is free, an ideal venue for a leisurely stroll among its shady courtyards and gardens. Explore the ancient bathing areas and the palace itself, and climb the walls for amazing views. Off season is especially perfect. Mingle with the locals on a lovely Sunday afternoon before heading to the bars for some tapas.
Avila is a UNESCO World Heritage site perhaps best known for its walls. Started in 1090 and completed some 300 years later, they circumnavigate the city and dominate the town, especially at night when they are lit up. With a perimeter of 2,516 meters, 9 gates, and 88 semi-circular towers, the 12-meter high walls can be seen for miles.
Certain sections of the wall have yet to be restored but there's plenty to walk around. From the ramparts you’ll get a stunning view of the surrounding Castillian landscape and of the rooftops of of medieval Avila.
The walls are the largest fully illuminated monument in the world, making Avila, as Castilian writer José Martínez Ruiz claims, “perhaps the most 16th-century town in Spain”. It is also said to have the most Romanesque and Gothic churches per capita in Spain.
Burgos is a grand old city in the north of the province of Castile and Leon, with one compelling reason to visit: it has one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Spain, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The twin spires and lantern tower of the cathedral dominate the city skyline, and it's as impressive inside as outside. It is best known as the resting place of the 11th century warrior lord and national hero El Cid, who led the fight against Moorish occupiers for much of his life.
Nine Spanish kings and queens are also buried in the Monasterio de las Huelgas, on the outskirts of the city.
One of Burgos' newer attractions is the excellent Museum of Human Evolution, across the river Arlanzon from the Cathedral. It has an amazing exhibition on the discovery of the oldest human fossils in the world in nearby Atapuerca. Contributed by Delve Into Europe.
Cáceres is a cobbled medieval city of the autonomous region of Extremadura and sits on the interior of Western Spain. Perhaps it's most known for its old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also a filming site of popular "Game of Thrones" series.
Its rich mishmash of architecture comes from the contributing rival forces throughout history since the time of the ancient Romans. Later, the city's rulers have changed hands to the Moors to the Jewish and Christian as they built up and added to the city's design and construction.
Cáceres has two interesting parts: a newer, urban side, along with the old-town upper city of Cáceres, which includes the historic Ciudad Monumental. It's also the most magical part of town, surrounded by walls of both Gothic, Roman, Italian Renaissance and Moorish architecture.
Amazingly, the original architecture still maintains its integrity, well-preserved walls, palaces, and towers. Look around, and you'll even spot a few nesting storks occupying some of its 30 towers.
Located on the Costa de la Luz, in the southwest of Spain, Cadiz is surrounded by the sea. It is generally considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe, founded as Gadir by the Phoenicians in about 1100 BC.
Cadiz is well known for many things but the local flamenco alegrías have a different rhythmic beat to other flamenco songs.
The tempo is much faster and the lyrics often refer to the Virgen del Pilar, the Ebro River and Navarra. It is common for impromptu flamenco alegrías to be performed whenever and wherever the mood strikes, making it ideal for visitors, and attracting many people to Cadiz. Look for the dancers in the traje de flamenco, the long ruffled dresses, and the highly decorated mantillas. Listen for the music which can be heard all over the charming city of Cadiz.
A thousand years ago, Cordoba was the Islamic capital of Europe, surpassed only by Baghdad and Constantinople. It was a modern city, a center of learning, and one of the rare places where people of all three Abrahamic religions lived and worked together.
Today, Cordoba - one of the major historical places in Spain - is a sleepier town but its Mezquita-Cathedral is a powerful reminder of its Islamic past. The Mezquita was originally a mosque, built on the site of a Visigoth church which was itself constructed on top of a Roman temple. After the Moors left Cordoba, the Christians turned the former mosque into a cathedral, adding to the building and turning the minaret into a bell tower. This makes the Mezquita-Cathedral one of the most original places of worship in the world, with two religions represented in a single building. Contributed by Kids and Compass.
Cuenca is probably most famous for its hanging houses clinging impossibly to the top of a ridge.
The town centers around a deep and narrow ravine. On one side is a normal, modern urban sprawl but on the other side and climbing up a rocky outcrop is the medieval heart of Cuenca.
What makes the hanging houses spectacular is the way they were built, their foundations seemingly extensions of the cliff side of the ravine. Some have rooms that have been extended precariously out over the very high chasm below. While spectacular, only a few of the original hanging houses remain but don't let that deter you. Tiny streets duck and dive through archways and along cobbled paths, frequently leading you to an edge and to yet more glorious views of the city.
The Andalusian city of Granada, one of the major historicial cities in Spain, is known world-wide for the Alhambra, which houses some of Europe's most important Islamic architecture. But there's a lot more to this city.
The Moorish quarter which contains the Alhambra, El Albaicín, spreads up the hillside with its steep, narrow streets and hotels in converted courtyard houses. Hamams, or bathhouses, were an essential part of daily life in Moorish Al Andalus until they were banned in the mid-16th century by the Christian kings.
A feature of this part of town are the carmens, or villas scattered throughout the neighborhood. Some of those that remain are striking, but their real attractions are the superb gardens they sometimes hide. To see Granada is to see Spain's Islamic heritage at its most stunning. Contributed by XYU and Beyond.
Like Cadiz, Huelva is tucked down in southwestern Spain, surrounded by the Costa de la Luz, the “Coast of Light”. Long stretches of desert-like sand make up the many beaches around Huelva, though this Spanish port city has a more industrial feel, with an active harbor the main view on the drive in. Christopher Columbus planned his trip to America at La Rabida Monastery, which you can visit, along with the Muelle de las Carabelas (Wharf of the Caravels) where you can see replicas of the ships sailed to America moored in the sand.
But what Huelva is really known for is its food: it was named the gastronomic capital of Spain in 2017. The best-known food from the area is Iberian Ham, the microclimate allowing the ham to cure over a long period of time, producing a high-quality meat with a delicate earthy flavour. Fresh seafood from the bountiful coastline features heavily in the regional specialities. Sweet and tender clams and white prawns are the stars, served drenched in garlicky olive oil, alongside regional dishes such as guisos marineros de rape (monkfish stews), fideos con caballa (noodles and mackerel) or raya en pimentón (skate in paprika).
Leon is a captivating city, but of particular note is its Parador, part of the government-owned chain of luxury hotels usually located in historical buildings. The Parador de Leon was originally built in the 12th century, destroyed during war and rebuilt in the 16th.
At different times throughout history it has been a church, hospital, housed a Military Order, a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War and a place where friars cared for pilgrims. This building, and those that have lived within it, demonstrate a history of compassion, caring and battles.
A stay at the Parador de Leon is like staying in a museum with original artwork and paintings throughout, antique furniture, plaques identifying twenty-four important historic figures, cloister and much more. The Parador is located on the River Bernesga near the bridge where the pilgrims cross on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Contributed by Cathy Travelling.
Leon is an important stop along the Camino de Santiago, a welcome one given the variety of tapas to be found throughout the city. Often, they come automatically with a drink - cheese, sausage or olives and as is usual throughout Spain, the evening crowd spends its time going from tapas bar to tapas bar. The Cathedral, of course, is where pilgrims get their passports stamped... Contributed by Safe and Healthy Travel.
The outstanding sight in Lleida, a beautiful and ancient city in Catalonia, is the Castle of Suda, the city's most distinctive landmark.
Its name means Castle of the King and it crowns what is known as Sovereign Rock, most likely because of the many historical events it has witnessed. For example, this is where Catalan and Aragonese nobility swore their oaths to Prince James (who became King James I the Conqueror). Contributed by Nisha and Vasu.
Logroño is located in the middle of the Rioja wine region of Spain, and one of the main things it is famous for is the pinchos crawl that takes place twice a day (at lunch and dinner) along a small conglomeration of alleyways surrounding Calle Laurel, in the center of town. A pinchos crawl is essentially a bar crawl where you hop from place to place, eating a pincho with a beer or wine at each place. What makes the pinchos crawl so unique is that each bar specializes in just one or two dishes, and there are still far more locals on the pinchos crawl than tourists.
The pinchos crawl is a foodie's dream and a great way to immerse yourself in the city's culture. You can try multiple specialties in one meal, and since each place has been perfecting their one dish for ages, you know you're only eating the very best. Favorites include the perfectly crispy and dressed patatas bravas at Bar Jubera and the delectable foie gras pinchos at Bar Torrecilla, but no matter how many times you go back, there's always something new to try.
Malaga is located in the heart of the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun). What was once the entry hub for the coast's resorts is now a world-class cultural hub thanks to the vision of its Mayor, Francisco de la Torre.
The city does much to honor its role as Pablo Picasso, who was born here in 1881. The artist moved to Barcelona at 10 and eventually lived in France but it is said that he never forgot his birthplace.
Picasso’s family granted Picasso his wish of having his works displayed in his birthplace and the Pablo Museum was opened in 2003 in the Palacio de Buenavista. The collection consists of over 233 pieces of art from the period 1892 to 1972.
Away from the tourist hub of the Costa del Sol and with a refreshingly authentic feel is the city of Murcia in southern Spain. This city boasts over 500 years of Islamic history, which has influenced everything from the city's architecture to its food.
But no trip to Murcia would be complete without a visit to its stunning cathedral, which took over 300 years to complete and was built over the remains of a mosque more than 100 years after the end of Islamic rule. The design and architecture of this cathedral is as magnificent as it is dazzling. Contributed by Half This World Away.
The ancient city of Oviedo is the capital of the Principality of Asturias and is one of the major cities in northern Spain. The city has all the trimmings common to a traditional Spanish city ⎯ the monasteries, medieval cobblestone streets and massive churches. But it also has something even many Spaniards are not aware of: an amazingly festive spirit!
Modern Oviedo boasts three sections of the city known for entertainment. The first is Cider Street, where this traditional beverage is served from bottles held up to four feet away from the glass in order to aerate it properly. Cider Street has many bars and regional cuisine restaurants. Next up is Tapas Street with its many counter service bars serving the mouth-watering seafood tapas unique to the area. And then there is North Street offering fine Spanish cuisine in an elegant setting at reasonable prices.
The most fun part of this foodie experience is the roaming musicians that perform in these restaurants and urge customers to sing and dance along. Sometimes the customers get so involved in the performance that they follow the musicians out into the streets. All this revelry is accompanied by some of the best wine in Europe. Contributed by Travels With Talek.
One of Palma's heritage sites and main attractions that make the city stand out is its beautiful Santa Maria Cathedral, also knows as La Seu. Built on the site of a former Arab mosque, it was restored over the centuries and also received contributions from Antoni Gaudi, who helped make this impressive Roman-Gothic Basilica an iconic structure that showcases all kinds of architectural styles.
The inside is striking and the rose windows, the Bell Tower and the Mirada Portal are just a few of the highlights. The Cathedral should be visited both inside and outside, from the lake of the Parc de la Mar, where you can walk under palm trees along the promenade and capture the majestic light reflections of the Santa Maria Cathedral at night. Contributed by Rocky Travel. (Photo jeanneemmel/123RF Stock Photo)
The Fiesta de San Fermín, popularized worldwide for the Running of the Bulls draws a million tourists to Pamplona's streets each year. Every town in Spain has its own special festivity celebrating its unique history and heritage. The week-long festival of San Fermín honors the co-patron saint of Navarre and kicks off on July 6 with the chupinazo (small rocket) fired from the balcony of the City Hall. The festival began in the Middle Ages and showcases non-stop events including live music, parades, gigantes (dancing papier-mâché giants), a religious procession, a fair, and of course the daily encierro (bull run).
But there is much more to Pamplona than running the bulls. It has a lively culinary scene, and there is much to see when you're not being pushed off the streets by toros. Major sights include the Old Town or Casco Viejo, and the citadel walls that once surrounded it (only a part of the ramparts remain). The Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real, part of the Cathedral Museum, is a jewel and allows visitors to wander around sections not usually seen like the kitchen, refectory and bedrooms. Contributed by Lost and Abroad.
While Salamanca is one of the coolest cities in Spain, filled with scholars and students, one of the biggest reasons people visit Salamanca is to see its famous cathedral. It's actually two cathedrals, known as the Old Cathedral and the New Cathedral, because when they decided to build the new one, they simply added it onto the old one instead of building on top of it. The Old Cathedral is from the 12th to 14th centuries, while the New Cathedral is from the 16th to 18th centuries, which contributes to a variety of architectural styles. Here's an interesting detail: in 1992, a craftsman carved an astronaut into the facade as his signature. It's only a few inches tall, so you'll have to search for it.
Visit the top for a sweeping view of the city and a fabulous glimpse of the cathedral itself. The cathedral has several different sections you can climb and follow around the outside of the building. Just try to avoid school groups when you visit because the big groups of kids can really slow you down. Contributed by Ali's Adventures.
A dream destination for any food lover, San Sebastian is the home of pintxos, small bites of delicious food. San Sebastian seems to have it all, but there is more to the city than just San Sebastian food. The city itself is stunning, with a fabulous mix of neo-classical and Belle Époque architecture. It’s the most French-looking city in Spain, and offers a unique geographical position, surrounded by water on about 5 sides.
But pintxos are one of the main reasons people visit. Whereas Spain is most known for tapas, pinchos, or pintxos in the local Basque Country language, are distinct within Spain. For the most part, pintxos are small portions, normally served on a stick or skewer. The original pintxo is the Gilda, a stick that includes an olive, an anchovy, and a spicy pepper, meant to be eaten in one bite!
Order one pintxo per person. A typical night might include stops at 3 or 4 pintxos bars, ordering one or two maximum at each stop. The best way to enjoy San Sebastian is to stay near the old town and wander through the city streets, tasting and drinking along the way.
What makes Santa Cruz de Tenerife is its contrasts - on an island that has some of the biggest tourist resorts and most popular beaches in Europe, this capital feels cosmopolitan and tempting.
Stroll to the old town of the city, and you'll get a sense of the authentic old world feel. The tram snakes by at a lazy pace, and locals are perched in every café. The shopping ranges from chic and elegant along the Plaza de Candelaria to quirky local shops in the old town. Santa Cruz is special because it is the Tenerife most tourists won't see.
This is a great place to try the Canary Islands' traditional food. Go home with a few jars of mojo, a delicious local sauce - red is spicy and green just flavoursome. It's best over the local dish, papas arrugadas, or crinkled potatoes or with fresh fish. Santa Cruz has one of the world's busiest harbours and pulls in an incredible catch.
Segovia is home to the
impressive Aqueduct of Segovia, one of the finest Roman structures in
Built by the Romans in the late 1st century, this incredible feat of engineering is the focal point of the town. Amazingly, it stills carries water for the town. Roman engineers used 25,000 granite blocks held together without mortar, building the aqueduct to a height of 29 metres. With 170 arches and spanning 818 metres, the Segovia Aqueduct is among the most famous Roman aqueducts.
Segovia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. Hop on the AVE train (it takes half an hour) and come for lunch to try the city's specialty, roast suckling pig (cochinillo asado). While in Segovia, make sure you walk up the winding narrow cobblestoned streets to view the Gothic Segovia Cathedral and the Alcazar of Segovia. Contributed by TravelKiwis.
Seville is the capital of Andalusia,
a region in southern Spain, and is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. With over 300 days of sunshine per year and plenty of incredible food
options, you would think you don’t need more for a perfect holiday. But Seville
has got a lot more to offer.
In the heart of the city stands the Alcázar of Seville. This impressive royal palace, which is still used by the Spanish royal family as their official residence in Andalusia, reminds us of times very different from today.
From the 8th
until the 13th century, large parts of the Iberian Peninsula were
occupied by Moors (or Muslims). Even after the liberation of Seville, the
architecture in southern Spain maintained a strong Moorish influence. The
Alcázar of Seville is one of the prime examples of this so-called Mudéjar
style. Though the palace was constructed by the Christian kings, the inside
of the palace features many Arabic ornaments and designs.
Soria is not only a great day trip from Madrid, but it’s also a perfect destination for outdoor sport lovers and culturally interested travellers. Located in north-central Spain, its setting is spectacular: on a hill, next to the Duero river and surrounded by lush forests.
Soria is famous for its castle, located on top of the highest hill, and the scenic, ruined San Juan de Duero monastery. It's the perfect place to wander around, exploring the historic city center and tasting all the tapas bars had to offer.
Soria’s gastronomy is heavily based on pork products and roast lamb. It also conserves other traditionally pastoral dishes, such as fried breadcrumbs (using bread, garlic and pork) and meat stew. Contributed by Paulina on the Road.
Tarifa, on Spain's southernmost tip, is a city of many stories, but most of all it is a city of winds.
Here, the Atlantic gusts hit the coast with full force almost 300 days per year, creating ideal conditions for windsurfers and kitesurfers. The Strait of Gibraltar's funnel effect is unique to Tarifa, the main catalyst for the two phenomena called Levante (Easterly wind from Africa) and Poniente (Atlantic winds). Even if you are not a surfer, do visit the long sandy beaches on the west coast of the city and watch the colourful kites dance in the wind like notes on a score.
In the evenings, mingle with the surfer crowd in the narrow lanes of the old town. In Tarifa's tiny bars, surfers, backpackers and hippies from all over Europe will share their stories, sip cheap cocktails and fantasise about the perfect wave, the perfect wind.
Tarragona has some of the best-preserved UNESCO-listed Roman ruins in the world. The city was one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire and much of it can still be visited.
Major sights include the Roman amphitheatre by the sea, with its seating areas and summer performances, and the city's walls dating back to the 2nd century, which circle the city, a reminder of what it must have looked like.
Walking through Tarragona is like being in a life-size museum with vestiges scattered across the city. The Pont del Diable, Devil's Bridge (see photo above) is an incredibly well-preserved aqueduct, something the Romans were known for and which proves their level of sophistication and engineering power. (Segovia is another major example of this work.)
For those who love to see more "modern" sights, the 12th-century Tarragona Cathedral is almost perfectly preserved. Tarragona is a popular summer destination and a great day trip from Barcelona on the train as it is just an hour away.
Teruel, a small charming city, in the province of Aragon in Spain, is known for its period architecture, especially its Mudejar architecture and its Art Nouveau buildings.
Mudejar is a blend of Spanish Gothic and Islamic architecture which was created after the unification of Spain under Catholicism. Moorish craftsmen who stayed in Spain adapted their works to fit with the new regime. One of the city gates, the Torre del Salvador, is a beautiful example of Mudejar architecture as is the city’s cathedral.
The importance of Mudejar architecture has been recognised through its UNESCO world heritage listing status. Teruel is an easy-to-walk town with a main plaza acting as the hub for getting around town. In summer evenings, the plaza is full of Spanish families eating, drinking and people-watching. The atmosphere is warm, friendly and sociable - small town Spain at its very best. Contributed by NYLon Living.
Toledo is a medieval city, also known as the Imperial City, in central Spain. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Toledo is also known as the ‘City of Three Cultures’, influenced by the Jewish, Christian and Arab residents of the city.
Toledo is known for its metal industry, particularly its swordmaking. It began by creating swords for warring Roman Emperors and the tradition continued over the years. Today, swords and metallic weapons for many films and TV shows including Gladiator, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have been made by the skilled craftsmen from the city of Toledo.
Throw away your guidebook and begin walking throughout the city to discover its history and beauty.
Scented with orange blossoms and salt water, Spain’s third-largest city
is also one of its prettiest. Aside from the futuristic civic
architecture ⎯ notably the waffle-roofed City of Arts and Sciences ⎯ Valencia is
best known for its gastronomic heritage and contemporary dining scene.
Two iconic delicacies, paella and orxata (horchata), were both dreamed-up in Valencian kitchens. Paella is so synonymous with Valencia that in Spain, it’s considered a regional specialty rather than a national dish.
Paella symbolises a happy coming-together of Moorish and Roman traditions, a perfect emblem for Valencia. Both the dish and the eponymous wide, shallow pan it’s prepared in appeared along with the first rice cultivation in Spain by Arabs in the 10th century. Originally prepared with local seafood, recipes later evolved to include chicken, duck and chorizo. Paella Valenciana is prepared with rabbit and beans and typically eaten for lunch, not dinner.
There are countless family run restaurants in Valencia that specialise in paella, many of them scattered along the beachfront. The burners have been firing at La Pepica ⎯ famously one of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts ⎯ for well over 100 hundred years. Consider signing up for a class at Escuela de arroces y Paella Valenciana to learn how to make the dish yourself. Contributed by Wander-Lush.
Once you've eaten all that paella, you can lose the calories by biking through the city, which is compact and perfect for this type of transportation. A cycling tour will take you through the Jardin del Turia and its river - making it difficult to imagine all this greenery is actually in the heart of the city.
Valencia has the same qualities as big brother (or sister) Barcelona: cultural highlights, beautiful buildings and a beach, but its small-town feel combined with world-class attractions make it incredibly welcoming. (And speaking of paella, try the Arroceria Duna by the beach!) Contributed by Worldwide Wendy.
Zaragoza located right between Madrid and Barcelona and a perfect stop-over if you plan to visit these both cities.
Zaragoza is full of beautiful sights, the most famous of which is probably the Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, a Roman Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The church is located on the Plaza del Pilar, where you'll also find the town hall, the old stock market (La Lonja) and the old cathedral La Seo.
If you visit Zaragoza in the middle of October, you can even celebrate the Fiestas del Pilar there, which is a huge festival with music, bullfights (not a great idea) and a lot of wonderful food. Talking about food – make sure to try the pollo (chicken) al chillindrón, a typical dish of Aragón.