How to Plan a Trip to Spain
A colorful country known for its relaxed lifestyle, vibrant nightlife, excellent food, and world-famous folklore and festivals, Spain boasts a huge number of World Heritage Sites and other spectacular places to visit. It also deserves its reputation as a beach vacation destination, with the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea home to some of the world's top spots for sun and sand. But a tour of Spain can yield much more than just beautiful shores: the landscapes here are as diverse as its people, ranging from lush meadows and snowy mountains to huge marshes and sprawling deserts. Spain's countryside is full of unspoiled villages of timeless beauty and old-world charm, as well as vast and varied nature preserves.
Places to Visit in Spain
Regions of SpainAndalucia
: Spain's large southern region boasts pristine beaches, mountainous valleys, and a fascinating array of historical towns and cities with Moorish heritage. Catalonia
: Distinct in language, history, and culture from Spain's Castilian regions, Catalonia is home to the Pyrenees Mountains, the sandy Costa Brava, and the thrilling metropolis of Barcelona.Canary Islands
: "The Canaries" span seven distinct Atlantic islands of volcanoes, national parks, glamorous resorts, and year-round beaches. Community of Madrid
: Most travelers put the vibrant capital city near the top of their Spain itinerary, but Community of Madrid has more to offer than urban attractions. Step outside the city to explore pristine natural habitats and a diverse landscape of mountains, dense oak forests, and low-lying plains.Valencian Country
: An agricultural region rich in rice and wine production, beautiful Valencian Country is the birthplace of world-famous "paella," a rice and seafood dish.Balearic Islands
: From isolated tranquility to all-night parties, the Balearic Islands offer the best of Mediterranean vacationing. Basque Country
: Referred to by locals as "Euskadi" (land of the Basque-speakers) Basque Country is wonderfully unique and modern, and is a must-visit for any foodie's gastronomic tour of Spain.Castile and Leon
: With three cities listed as World Heritage Sites, Castile and Leon is filled with historical treasures amid a colorful countryside.Galicia
: Boasting a Celtic heritage, Galicia is often described as the region most removed from the rest of Spain despite its abundance of World Heritage Sites and gastronomic delights. Aragon
: The wealth of diverse rural terrains and pristine natural parks makes Aragon a perfect destination for nature-lovers. Castile-La Mancha
: Land of medieval knights and Don Quixote, Castile-La Mancha attracts visitors to its legendary literary setting as well as picturesque farms and ranches. Asturias
: With rolling green hills, misty medieval cities, and enough beaches for a lifetime of relaxation, Asturias offers the best of northern Spain.Extremadura
: Almost entirely overlooked by tourists, Extremadura boasts numerous hidden gems, from some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Iberian Peninsula to the pristine Monfrague National Park. Cantabria
: This small region's large network of trails make it the perfect location for hiking or touring by car, with Altamira Caves topping most itineraries.
Add these top cities to your plan
- Barcelona: Topping nearly every Spain itinerary is Barcelona, city of magnificent Gaudi architecture, ancient streets and squares, and beachside tapas bars.
- Madrid: Spain's capital and largest city, Madrid boasts the nation's best in the form of its eclectic residents, a diverse culinary scene for every budget, and some of the finest museums and galleries in all of Europe.
- Seville: The center of southern Spain, Seville features a Moorish flair with stunning architecture and ambiance, and continues to celebrate the art of eating tapas and dancing to flamenco on a daily basis.
- Granada: Once home to the Iberian Moorish royalty, Granada is today one of Spain's liveliest cities, and one of the best for enjoying delicious tapas.
- Valencia: Spain's third-largest city is famous for being the birthplace of paella, and draws visitors to its impressive City of Arts and Sciences.
- Toledo: Blending Christian, Jewish, and Islamic cultural and architectural influences, Toledo was the capital of intellectual and political thought during the Middle Ages.
- San Sebastian - Donostia: Feast on "pintxos" while admiring the Bay of Biscay's blue waters and the Old Quarter's cultural history in Donostia-San Sebastian, the "Pearl of the Cantabrian Sea."
- Cordoba: Combining ancient Roman and medieval Moorish architecture and history, Cordoba is home to the great Mosque-Cathedral, one of the most important tourist attractions in Spain.
- Malaga: A modern yet historical metropolis in the center of Andalucia's Costa del Sol, Malaga serves as a great entry-point for a vacation in Spain's southern coastal area.
- Bilbao: Featuring a striking mix of Gothic and contemporary architecture, Bilbao is Basque Country's artistic center.
- Zaragoza: Make a stop between Barcelona and Madrid at Aragon's ancient Zaragoza, a lively city with influences from numerous bygone cultures.
Things to Do in Spain
Popular Spain Tourist AttractionsLa Sagrada Familia
: Barcelona's enduring symbol, the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia is the great unfinished masterpiece of renowned architect Antoni Gaudi.Park Güell
: A park combining colorful architecture with woody hiking paths, Guell Park offers sweeping vistas of the city from its vibrant main landing. Museo Nacional del Prado
: With one of the world's largest collections of fine art, Prado Museum tops the list of places to see in Spain, with works of masters like Goya, Velasquez, and El Greco. Casa Batlló
: One of Gaudi's most popular architectural achievements, Casa Batllo stands out among Barcelona's Modernist architecture with its curvy, colorful style. Alhambra
: Include the Alhambra in your Spain itinerary to admire the World Heritage Site's exquisitely complex architecture and panoramic views of Granada. Retiro Park (Parque del Retiro)
: Once a private space for kings and queens on the outskirts of Madrid, Retiro Park (Parque del Retiro) is only a few minutes' walk from the city center and offers an ideal place to break from sightseeing. El Barri Gòtic
: Tourism in Spain involves visiting many historical centers, but none are quite so elaborate, impressive, and unique as Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. Camp Nou
: With a capacity of over 100,000 spectators, Camp Nou is one of the biggest stadiums in the world, and home to the FC Barcelona soccer team. Royal Alcázar of Seville
: Featuring exquisite 13th-century Moorish architecture, Seville's Alcazar is the oldest royal palace still in operation in Europe. Royal Palace of Madrid
: Spain's answer to Versailles, the Royal Palace of Madrid is one of the largest palaces in Europe with more than 2,000 rooms and a large courtyard in the center of the city.
Planning a Spain Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Spain with Kids
There are a large number of Spain tourist attractions that are not only well-suited for kids, but actually designed with children in mind. In Barcelona
, kids will love the unusual Gaudi architecture as much as adults, and Park Güell
is certain to pique any kid's imagination. Afterward, consider a trip to the old amusement park at Tibidabo
, featuring classic rides and one of the city's best views. More adventurous thrill-seekers can make their way to the large PortAventura World
, or witness a colorful fountain show at the city's Magic Fountain (Font Magica)
Spain boasts some of Europe's best-preserved Roman ruins and plenty of opportunities for kids of all ages to learn more about the great empire's past in the Iberian Peninsula. Tarragona
's Anfiteatro de Tarragona
and Roman Aqueduct
are excellent, as is Merida
's Roman Amphitheatre
Things to Do in Spain with Kids
Your family's Spain holiday can include anything from museums, theme parks, and monuments to beaches, hikes, and other outdoor adventures. Among the country's most popular tourist attractions are Madrid
's Plaza Mayor
and Puerta del Sol
. Head to these bustling squares--situated only a couple minutes' walk apart--to check out the frequent live shows, living statues, and entertainers dressed as popular characters. Another great option in Madrid
is Zoo Aquarium de Madrid
, where kids can explore wildlife and marine creatures in the city's expansive Casa del Campo.
Those who prefer the sun, sand, and great outdoors should head to one of Spain's sunny coasts. Up north in Asturias
, you'll find some of the country's most beautiful peaks at Picos de Europa Mountains
, ideal for hiking, climbing, and kayaking. Down south by Granada
, Sierra Nevada National Park
graces Andalucia with some of its most stunning scenery. If you're looking to ski on your Spain vacation, you'll find one of the best places in the country here at Sierra Nevada Ski Station.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Spain
While the country is generally very safe for families, there are several things to know before embarking on a trip to Spain. The most oft-repeated advice is to beware of pickpockets, and for good reason: Spain's cities attract a very large number of tourists, and consequently a large number of pickpockets. Be prudent, ensuring that money and valuables are kept safely on the body and out of sight. In general, avoid people attempting to distract you in order to pick your pockets. Kids especially should be advised to refuse gifts from strangers, such as a sprig of rosemary or a flower from elderly women, as this is usually a ploy.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Spain
Cuisine of Spain
Spain boasts an incredibly varied cuisine highly dependent on regional produce, meat, and seafood, with each region claiming one or more distinctive dishes. While perhaps best known for tapas and paella, Spain is in fact home to thousands of dishes refined over centuries and through historical movements. Take advantage of your Spain holiday to sample some of these dishes, which speak as much of the country as its most famous sites.
Tapas are small dishes that generally accompany a drink, such as fried seafood or an assortment of cheese and meat. Spaniards typically eat a tapa at one bar, and then move on to another bar to continue their night. "Raciones" are larger portions of the same dish, for those in large groups. Traditional sit-down restaurants are usually separate from tapas bars, featuring a three- or four-course "menu del dia."
On your trip to Spain, be sure to take note of the country's rather unique eating schedule. Breakfast is generally very small, and lunch is the first "real" meal of the day, around 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. Most restaurants and cafes close after lunch and don't reopen until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. Be sure to plan accordingly, and try to embrace the Spanish dining tradition rather than try to work around it.
Shopping in Spain
Spain is a great place to shop for anything from specialty goods and foods to luxury fashion items. National department store El Corte Ingles sells nearly everything and has locations in numerous cities, including Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. Some of Spain's most popular clothing and footwear brands include Zara, Mango, Desigual, and Camper, which can be found in most major cities. Food items also make excellent gifts and souvenirs, but stick with bottled products like olive oil and wine--while delicious, many cheeses and meats cannot be taken across international borders.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Spain
History of Spain
Some of the world's oldest traces of civilization can be found at Spain's Altamira Caves, a series of drawings and paintings dating back more than 13,000 years. While Iberians and Celts are considered some of the earliest societies to inhabit the territory of modern-day Spain, it wasn't until the Roman Empire invaded the Iberian Peninsula around 210 BCE that some of the country's most lasting structures and monuments appeared, such as Segovia Aqueduct
and the historical foundation of Barcelona
. Christianity and the country's major languages originate from the Roman era and remain in place to this day.
During the Middle Ages, most of the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by Moorish Muslim armies, with cities in Andalucia
, and Granada
growing into religious and political capitals. A Christian "Reconquista" (Reconquest) followed for several centuries to reestablish Christianity as the land's dominant religion, which drove out Muslims and Jews by 1492. Various kingdoms across Spain united to form a monarchy known as Habsburg Spain, which entered into economic and colonial prosperity with the discovery of the New World in the same year.
Spain's "Golden Age" followed, establishing colonies across the world. By the late 17th century, however, Spain's power began to decline, and the 18th and 19th centuries were marked by war, revolution, and the loss of former colonies to independence.
In 1931, Spain entered into a bloody civil war, which ended with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. A large chapter of 20th-century Spanish history is marked by Franco's repressive government, which lasted until his death in 1975. With the establishment of democracy following soon after, the country experienced decades of rapid social development and economic growth. This, however, came to a halt during the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Customs of Spain
A Spain holiday will introduce you to all of the unique aspects of Spanish culture and customs. One of the most well-known customs in Spain is the midday siesta, in which most restaurants and stores close between 2:30 and 5:00 p.m. Consider embracing this aspect of life in Spain by timing a break around this part of the day yourself.
Understand that the Spanish are generally very proud of their national and regional heritage, so try not to engage anyone with debates about regional separation, especially in Catalonia
, Basque Country
, and Galicia
. Other controversial topics that are best to avoid include religion, the Franco dictatorship, bullfighting, and the recent economic crisis.
Holidays & Festivals in Spain
It's no secret that Spain is a country that likes to party, and there are plenty of holidays and festivals worth visiting during your Spain vacation. Most of the country's biggest holidays are centered around Catholic traditions, such as the Carnival festivals in Cadiz
, and the Semana Santa (Easter Week) celebrations in Malaga
. The latter feature elaborate religious processions through the cities, culminating on the night before Good Friday. Also in Seville is the Feria, a week-long festival in April celebrating all things Andalusian, including food, drinks, and flamenco.
If your trip to Spain falls in March, try to include Valencia
in your itinerary to witness the incredible Fallas celebration, in which papier-mache figures are paraded across the city and then burned in a massive bonfire. To experience a more adventurous festival, check out the early-July Running of the Bulls at the world-famous San Fermin festival in Pamplona
, or the messy town-wide tomato fight at Bunol
's Tomatina on the last Wednesday in August.
Spain Travel Tips
Climate of Spain
Most of Spain's mainland boasts a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild winters. If you're traveling in warm weather, prepare for your Spain holiday by packing plenty of sunblock, loose, comfortable clothing, and a hat to protect your face from the sun. Madrid and most of the southern cities are especially hot in the summer, with temperatures averaging around 32 C (90 F). Canary Islands
, located in the southern Atlantic Ocean, are typically warm year-round and are a popular beach destination in the winter.
Transportation in Spain
Spain is home to one of the world's most extensive train systems, run by Renfe. High-speed trains are accompanied by the term "AVE," and are very punctual. Note that you must buy high-speed train tickets in advance, so planning your Spain itinerary ahead of time is essential. Spend some time on the Renfe website to properly map out your rail travel.
Buses are a cheaper but slower travel option, and service most parts of the country. Alsa and Avanza are major carriers, but regional companies also exist. Check online to find out which company services your intended route.
Language of Spain
Spanish is, unsurprisingly, the official and universal language of Spain, but the diverse country is actually home to seven distinct languages. Spanish, known to locals as Castillian, is widely used and understood, but regional languages dominate in Catalonia
(Valencian), the Balearic Islands
(Catalan), and Basque Country
(Basque). While the populations of those regions usually speak Spanish fluently, learning a few words of the local language will surely endear you to whomever you are speaking with. English is understood and spoken quite adequately in most major cities and resorts, but is far from widely spoken, especially in rural areas, so consider bringing a phrasebook or dictionary if your Spain itinerary takes you off the beaten path.
Tipping in Spain
Service charges are included in bills at restaurants, so tipping is not a requirement. Small tips are sometimes left for good service: take a look at other tables to see how much is typical.