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
Madrid: 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 grey-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.
Barcelona: 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, 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.
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.
Plaza Mayor: 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 Sagrada Familia: If you have time for only one sightseeing outing, this should be it. La Sagrada Família inspires awe by its sheer verticality, and in the manner of the medieval cathedrals it emulates, it is still under construction after more than 130 years. When completed, the highest tower will be more than half as high again as those that stand today. Unfinished it may be, but it attracts around 2.8 million visitors a year and is the most visited monument in Spain.
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral: The grand heart of Santiago, the cathedral soars above the city centre in a splendid jumble of spires and sculpture. Built piecemeal over several centuries, its beauty is a mix of the original Romanesque structure and later Gothic and baroque flourishes. The tomb of Santiago beneath the main altar is a magnet for all who come to the cathedral. The artistic high point is the Pórtico de la Gloria inside the west entrance, featuring 200 masterly Romanesque sculptures. Over the centuries the cathedral has suffered some wear and tear, and a current restoration program means that you may well find much of the main (western) facade and the Pórtico de la Gloria covered in scaffolding.
Alhambra: 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.
Casa Batlló: One of the strangest residential buildings in Europe, this is Gaudí at his hallucinatory best. The facade, sprinkled with bits of blue, mauve and green tiles and studded with wave-shaped window frames and balconies, rises to an uneven blue-tiled roof with a solitary tower. It is one of the three houses on the block between Carrer del Consell de Cent and Carrer d’Aragó that gave it the playful name Manzana de la Discordia, meaning ‘Apple (Block) of Discord’.
Locals know Casa Batlló variously as the casa dels ossos (house of bones) or casa del drac (house of the dragon). It is easy enough to see why. The balconies look like the bony jaws of some strange beast and the roof represents Sant Jordi (St George) and the dragon.