Having spent so many years travelling around Spain it’s very common for me to be asked where my favourite place is. This is always a question I find impossible to answer. The first place I lived in Spain was on the island of Mallorca which I still try to visit as often as possible. However, since moving to the mainland in 1991 I’ve had the opportunity to visit just about every city in the country and spent time in some fabulous areas of natural beauty.
Rather than try to answer the impossible question of where’s my favourite place I’d like to stick my neck out and tell you my Top 12 Historical attractions in Spain. Then in a separate post I’ve listed my Top NATURAL things to see in Spain. Of course there is no definitive answer to such Top 10 lists so I hope you’ll add your own suggestions at the bottom of this article.
Alhambra Palace in Granada
The origins of the Alhambra Palace date back to 889 AD when it was little more than a small fortress under Moorish rule. The magnificent Nasrid Palaces which we see today are from the 13th century when Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar undertook their construction. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is Spain’s most visited tourist attractions with over two million annual visitors.
The city of Granada is also fabulous so time permitting don’t be in too much of a rush to leave the place. A pleasant surprise to many is that tapas are free with drinks in the city’s bars. No wonder a third of the city’s population is made up of students!
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
The Gaudi architecture of Barcelona is simply stunning and the Sagrada Familia, his unfinished Cathedral, is the number one attraction. If you buy a day pass for Barcelona’s hop-on, hop-off bus service from Plaza Catalunya you’ll see many Gaudi highlights including Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell.
Mezquita in Cordoba
After the Moors took control of Spain the Catholic Basilica of San Vicente was shared between Christians and Muslims. In 784 AD Abd al-Rahman I bought the Christian sector and began construction of the Mezquita (Great Mosque). Today the building retains much of its Moorish design whilst serving as the Cathedral of Córdoba.
Cordoba is the city I most fell for after moving to Madrid and it became the destination we most tried to to visit whenever we had a holiday. Nowadays it’s well on the tourist map of Spain but manages to maintain its old charm. The Mezquita is the centrepiece of the historical quarter and is truly one of the finest buildings in Europe.
Roman Aqueduct in Segovia
This magnificent aqueduct was constructed without mortar and dates back to 1AD, it is the best preserved monument in Roman Spain. Segovia is an easy day trip from Madrid though an overnight stay is preferable. Non-vegetarians will love the local restaurants which specialise in roast suckling pig and roast lamb dishes. Try to fit in a visit to El Escorial if heading out this way from Madrid.
Plaza de España in Seville
Seville is the foreigner’s stereotypical Spain with flamenco dancing, bullfighting and sherry drinking. The city oozes charm and deserves several days to soak up the atmosphere and see its many sights. The Plaza de España dates back to the 1929 Spanish Americas Fair and is located in the beautiful Parque de Maria Luisa.
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
In a country with such a rich history as Spain it is inevitable that some Cathedrals be considered amongst the top ten things to see. The one in Santiago de Compostela is one of my favourites, not only as a remarkable building but also due to the atmosphere generated by the thousands of pilgrims who arrive there after completing the Camino de Santiago.
Toledo is one huge museum where Christians, Jews and Muslims once lived in harmony. There are plenty day excursions from Madrid though again I’d suggest that an overnight stop is warranted. The Cathedral is the main attraction which took over 200 years to build. If you’re heading south from Toledo be sure to visit the Don Quijote windmills on a hillside in Consuegra.
Plaza Mayor in Salamanca
Salamanca is most famous for its university which dates back to 1218 and remains a popular place of study for Spanish language students from abroad. Most Spanish cities have a Plaza Mayor but none are more impressive than Salamanca’s, especially at night when it is illuminated. Be sure to also visit the walled city of Avila if you make it out this way.
Roman Ruins in Merida
Whereas Andalucia has taken off as a tourist destination, Extremadura to its north-west is much lesser known yet it has so much to offer. Merida has more Roman remains than anywhere in Spain whilst neighbouring Caceres and Trujillo owe their legacy to the discovery of the Americas when local men joined Francisco Pizarro on his epic voyage. Nearby Monfrague National Park is a nature lover’s paradise.
Monastery of Guadalupe
Another lesser known attraction, also in Extremadura, is the Monastery of Guadalupe which has long attracted pilgrims since an image of the Virgin was seen by a shepherd. Columbus named the Caribbean island after this place. It’s in quite a remote location in the beautiful Sierra de Guadalupe mountains. Take a few hours to look around between Toledo and the cities of Extremadura.
Seville Cathedral and Alcazár
Located in the historic centre of the city and housed on the site of a former mosque, Seville Cathedral with its Giralda bell tower is one of the world’s largest religious buildings and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adjacent to the cathedral, this Royal Palace is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site which displays some of the finest examples of mudéjar architecture in Moorish Spain.
Monastery of Montserrat
The most popular half day trip from Barcelona is to the monastery of Montserrat. This mountain-top destination is home to the sacred shrine of ‘La Moreneta’ and is much revered by the people of Catalonia.
Looking over this list again I see how difficult it is to put together such a Top 12 list. I notice I haven’t included any sights in Madrid yet Madrid is one of my favourite cities, maybe more for its general atmosphere and architecture than specific buildings. In Barcelona and Seville I’ve only mentioned one place in each yet you could spend a week in both places.
24 thoughts on “Historical Tourist Attractions in Spain”
Whenever I visit Barcelona I always pay a visit to the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat. One can visit the shrine of the Black Madonna and afterwards enjoy a peaceful stroll across the mountain ridge looking down on the landscape below. The abbey is accessible by cable car or rail and is about 1 hour from Barcelona by train with trains leaving every hour. Regardless of your faith take a day off and enjoy the experience.
Thanks Dermot … I agree this is the number one excursion from Barcelona.
No-one could disagree with your “10 Top” list, though I do want to congratulate you for including the Monasterio de Guadalupe, which has that wonderful collection of Zurbaran portraits of the monks.
I’d like to add “Montserrat”, the “Monasterio de Piedra”, as well as the “Picos de Europa”. All 3 are bound to please your Nature lovers! I recommend them all as places to stay, at least overnight.
Monserrat: Hotel at the Monastery
Monasterio de Piedra = one of my preferred Paradores, the monastery itself.
Fuente De, ***Parador which should merit one more star, built as such, excellent service, food, accommodations. Enjoy!
I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestions. I tried to focus on “man-made” attractions in this particular article. In next week’s follow up I’ll be recommending places of natural beauty which includes the Picos de Europa. I love staying in San Vivente de la Barquera then taking day trips into the Picos. Or staying further west in Ribadesella on the beautiful coast of Asturias. Monasterio de la Piedra is a great place to stay on trips betweem Madrid and Barcelona. the gardens and waterfalls are amazing. As for Montserrat a day trip from Barcelona is highly recommended (time permitting).
WOW I totally agree with you but Valencia is my favourite town because I first went there when nobody could understand WHY????? There wasn’t an airport, it was dirty and breaking in pieces but I liked the people , I liked the Cathedral, Plaza de la Reina, Plaza de l’Ayuntamiento, La Playa de la Malvarrosa. Today everyone knows a Valencia which is clean and very popular. I used to love my old Valencia and I still love it now.
Hi Giuliana … It’s amazing how Valencia has been redeveloped into such a modern city. Who would ever have thought it would host its own Grand Prix? Yet it maintains plenty of its original character. Highly recommended on a tour of Spain.
Jannetta and I spent some of our most fantastic time in Spain, in CUENCA- and our posada was the choir-boys hostel! Our balcony overlooked the cliff- and everything in Cuenca was fabulous. Enjoy it!
The caves at Nerja, Andalusia have some of the largest stalactites and stalagmites in the world. In the summer months they have concerts in a natural auditorium quite spectacular.
The highest village in mainland Spain is Trevelez in the Alpujarras offer a quietness much to be appreciated and at night for the stargazers the sky is beautiful and clear with little light pollution.
Both these places are relatively near each other and the two could be combined for a holiday with a difference.
Both excellent recommendations. And on the subject of caves I love ‘La Cueva de la Pileta’ at Benaoján 20km from Ronda. These caves haven’t been commercially developed in the way the Nerja ones have but are fascinating if you’re in the area. The guide will meet you and will show you into the cave where you can see prehistoric cave paintings from the light of his kerosene lamp. Best ask at the Ronda Tourist Information Office to find out when you can visit.
Having seen and admired a few from your list, the one I would add which I have visited, driven passed and flown over countless times and still leaves me breathless is the Cathedral in Palma de Mallorca. It is absolutely majestic overlooking the bay
I spent four years living near Palma & agree that it really is one of Spain’s fabulous sights both in its own right & thanks to its location overlooking the Bay of Palma. Guess I’ll have to write a list of my favourite Cathedrals!
Salamanca and the Plaza Mayor! First saw as a student in 1966, when cars still drove through it and the middle was a parking lot – and even then impressive. Returned several years ago and still blown away – and even more so since cars are banned and the whole interior is open to strolling, with plenty of eateries and shops lining the inside. A joy night or day….
La Coruna is a lovely place to visit
Now that would be a great list, I am not sure you could keep it down to 10 though
The whole city of Teruel is worth a mention as are the cathedrals of Burgos, Zaragoza and tiny Zamora … my favourite. Your top 10 is spot on.
I like your list and have visited most of them. For your next list I hope that you don’t miss El Torcal, one of the strangest places I have ever seen.
It is indeed weird and wonderful but considering all the amazing areas of natural beauty in Spain I’m afraid it still doesn’t make my personal top 10.
I would definitely include El Escorial as one of the top 5 places to visit! This place is immense and amazing! It’s an easy trip from Madrid and it is a beautiful palace – the architecture of this place is breath-taking! Whenever I return to Spain, I make sure that I go back to El Escorial for the day – just to relax and bask in the beauty of it!
One “must place to visit” is the absolutely amazing El Escorial which is 50 Kms North-West of Madrid which is a huge monastery with art treasures. Then 13kms to the north of the Escorial is La Valle de los Caidos or in English ‘The Valley of the Fallen’. Built by General Franco to commemorate the dead of the Civil War. The huge Basilica and the rock carvings are incredible. Not to be missed.
Thank you very much for this very interesting article I haven’t been to many places in Spain yet but love the ones I have visited and your list is particularly helpful I have a new Spanish friend who has invited me to stay in her house in the campo between Madrid and Toledo we are going together to visit these wonderful cities next year. I am just back a few days ago from Torrox and notice a huge improvement in the weather since I came back. Not to worry I am going back in three weeks time for another month! I love the Albaicin and from one of those wonderful restaurants you can watch the light changing on the Alhambra
You have so many wonderful places ahead of you … enjoy every minute of your travels around Spain. It’s a journey that never ends 🙂
GERRY, thank you. I have visited Spain on about 20 occasions. I find Madrid old town on a Friday night wonderful. The place/place near Madrid airport, begins with A, a gem and the mentioned Salamanca wonderful. My favourites are Llanes and Villavicosa, 2 of the finest places in the world (that I have visited). San Sebastian and Barcelona were (to me) massive disappointments. San Sebastian is like Amsterdam- on -sea (a dustbin). Whilst Barcelona is rip-off city, here’s a tourist lets grab him. I love your articles keep em coming. Cheers. Keith.
Hi Keith … Surprised at your comments on San Sebastian. I love the place. And Barcelona can indeed be a tourist rip-off if you go to the touristy establishments but the city itself is magnificent.
Greetings Gerry! Please check out a fascinating new ebook entitled ‘The Reign in Spain’ by author W. Kristjan Arnold. This educational and entertaining historical novel examines Spain’s turbulent 20th century. Anyone interested in Spain, history, the Royal family, or a great read, will enjoy this story. The book is available at the Amazon Kindle eBook Store (google: amazon the reign in spain). Hope you read and recommend! Tom Maentz – Editor
Comments are closed.