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.