The grandeur of a caliph's palace, sybaritic sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches, the staccato stamp of a flamenco dancer's heels, the awed hush of pilgrims entering the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela after weeks of walking El Camino. You can find the soul of Spain in tourist attractions such as these, which represent the country's tumultuous history, rich culture, and enchanting natural beauty. From the sunlight playing endlessly off the ‘scales’ of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum and the throbbing street life of La Rambla and Plaza Mayor to the forest of columns and Moorish arches disappearing into the silent expanse of Cordoba's Great Mosque, Spain exudes a vibrant energy and a captivating blend of past and present
The Spanish capital since 1561, Madrid celebrates itself and life in general around the clock. A vibrant crossroads, Madrid has an infectious appetite for art, music, and epicurean pleasure, and has turned into a cosmopolitan, modern urban center while fiercely preserving its traditions. The modern city spreads east into the 19th-century grid of the Barrio de Salamanca and sprawls north through the neighborhoods of Chamberí and Chamartín, but the Madrid you should explore thoroughly on foot is right in the center, in Madrid's oldest quarters, between the Palacio Real and the midtown forest, the Parque del Buen Retiro. Wandering around this conglomeration of residential buildings with ancient red-tile rooftops, punctuated by redbrick Mudejar churches and grand buildings with gray-slate roofs and spires left by the Habsburg monarchs, you are more likely to grasp what is probably the city's major highlight: the buzzing activity of people who are elated when they are outdoors.
Spain’s second city and the self-confident capital of Catalunya – Barcelona vibrates with life, and there is certainly not another city in the country to touch it for sheer style, looks or energy. It has long had the reputation of being the avant-garde capital of Spain, its art museums are world-class, its football team sublime, while its designer restaurants, bars, galleries and shops lead from the front. As a thriving port, prosperous commercial centre and buzzing cultural capital of three million people, the city is almost impossible to exhaust – even in a lengthy visit you will likely only scrape the surface.
The White Towns of Andalucía:
Poised like dabs of white frosting atop the steep crags of southern Andalucía, the White Towns are not just beautiful, they speak of this region's long and fascinating history. West of Gibraltar, mountains rise straight from the sea, and among them hide these White Towns, each on its hilltop. Most spectacular is Arcos de la Frontera, whose plaza beside the Gothic church ends vertiginously in a 137-meter cliff, affording views across a valley of olive, orange, and almond orchards. Its maze of winding cobbled streets lead past cafes and craft shops selling ceramics and pottery to a Moorish castle.
City of Arts and Sciences:
When Valencia diverted the course of the river that had repeatedly flooded the city, it was left with a broad, flat riverbed spanned by bridges. It was upon this clean palette that the brilliant Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava created a breathtaking ensemble of structures that have become a magnet for aficionados of contemporary architecture. Not only the buildings, but the museums, arts venues, and aquarium form a series of tourist attractions that rank among Spain's most popular. Europe's largest oceanographic aquarium, L'Oceanogràfic, was built in the shape of a water lily with buildings dedicated to different aquatic environments from the tropics to the poles.
The throbbing heartbeat of Spain's vibrant capital city, Plaza Mayor has played an important part in Madrid life since the 16th century, when Philip II entrusted the task of designing it to his favorite architect Juan de Herrera, builder of the Escorial. It has served as the stage for ceremonial events - the proclamation of a new king, the canonization of saints, the burning of heretics - and public entertainment such as chivalric tournaments and bullfights. The cafes reaching out onto its pedestrian-only stone pavement, and the restaurants shaded under its arcades are Madrid's living room, popular meeting places for Madrileños and tourists alike.
The highest peak in Spain, this ancient but still simmering volcano is one of Europe's top natural wonders. Mount Teide and the Caldera de las Cañadas, a gigantic volcanic crater, together form the Teide National Park, at the center of the island of Tenerife. In listing the park in 2007, UNESCO cited its natural beauty and ‘its importance in providing evidence of the geological processes that underpin the evolution of oceanic islands.’
Costa del Sol beaches:
With the record as Europe's sunniest place, and mile after mile of white sand lapped by gentle seas, it is no wonder that the Costa del Sol beaches are the goal of sun-starved northern Europeans looking for sun-and-sand getaways. The beaches are not Costa del Sol's only attraction for tourists. Revitalizing its hub city of Málaga has made this coast even more alluring to everyone. Yachtsmen love the smart marina of Puerto Banus, and avid golfers head west from Marbella's old-world charms to Nueva Andalucia, known as Golf Valley for its more than 50 courses. A few steps from the beach in Marbella is the old town of whitewashed houses and well-preserved remains of the Moorish Castillo.
The Alhambra is Granada and Europe’s love letter to Moorish culture, a place where fountains trickle, leaves rustle, and ancient spirits seem to mysteriously linger. Part palace, part fort, part World Heritage site, part lesson in medieval architecture, the Alhambra has long enchanted a never-ending line of expectant visitors. As a historic monument, it is unlikely it will ever be surpassed.
Built primarily in the 1300s during the so-called 'dark ages' in Europe, the castle's intricate architecture is anything but dark. Indeed, compared to our modern-day shopping malls, the Alcázar marks one of history's architectural high points. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, it was originally founded as a fort for the Cordoban governors of Seville in 913. Since then it has been expanded or reconstructed many times.
It is impossible to overemphasize the beauty of Córdoba’s great mosque, with its remarkably serene and spacious interior. One of the world's greatest works of Islamic architecture, the Mezquita hints, with all its lustrous decoration, at a refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side and enriched their city with a heady interaction of diverse, vibrant cultures.
Barcelona's Sagrada Familia and Gaudi Sites:
Antoni Gaudi took the architectural style known as Art Nouveau a step farther. The fanciful and outrageous buildings he created in Barcelona have become landmarks, the signature attractions of this Catalan city. Foremost is The Sagrada Família church, officially the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família or the Holy Family Church of the Atonement. One of Europe's most unconventional churches, it is also unfinished, so as you look down from its tower you can see the work in progress below.
The Prado and Paseo del Artes:
The Prado alone ranks with the world's top art museums for the riches of its collections. But add the Reina Sofia National Art Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and the Caixa Forum, all along Madrid's mile-long, tree-shaded boulevard, and you have what may be the world's highest concentration of priceless art treasures. It is no wonder this is known as El Paseo del Arte - Boulevard of the Arts.
Spain is the land of fiestas or festivals. The biggest festivals of international fame are the bull running of Pamplona, the fireworks of Las Fallas in Valencia, the mock battles of Moros y Cristianos in Alcoy and the massive Seville Fair in Seville.
One of Spain’s most famous dishes is Tortilla Espanola – a delicious ‘Spanish omelet’ that is made with egg, potatoes, and olive oil. Many Americans usually eat it with ketchup or hot sauce.