La Alhambra, Granada
Nothing can prepare you for the Moorish grandeur of Andalusia's greatest monument. The palace is set around sumptuous courtyards and gardens complete with bubbling fountains and magnificent statues.
Toledo—El Greco's city—an hour southwest of Madrid, is often described as Spain's spiritual capital, and past inhabitants—including Jews, Romans, and Muslims—have all felt its spiritual pull. This open-air museum of a city on a ridge high above the Río Tajo is an architectural tapestry of medieval buildings, churches, mosques, and synagogues threaded by narrow, cobbled streets and squares.
La Sagrada Família, Barcelona
The symbol of Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí's extraordinary unfinished cathedral should be on everyone's must-see list. The pointed spires, with organic shapes that resemble honeycombed stalagmites, give the whole city a fairy-tale quality.
All swooping curves and rippling forms, the architecturally innovative museum—one of Frank Gehry's most breathtaking projects—was built on the site of the city's former shipyards and inspired by the shape of a ship's hull. The Guggenheim's cachet is its huge spaces: there's room to stand back and admire works in the permanent collection, such as Richard Serra's monumental steel forms; sculpture by Miquel Barceló and Eduardo Chillida; and paintings by Anselm Kiefer, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jim Dine.
Museo del Prado, Madrid
One of the world's greatest museums, the Prado holds masterpieces by Italian and Flemish painters but its jewels are the works of Spaniards: Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco.
Mérida's Roman Ruins
You may be tempted to rub your eyes in disbelief: in the center of a somewhat drab modern town is the largest Roman city on the Iberian Peninsula. Ogle the fabulously preserved Roman amphitheater with its columns, statues, and tiered seating, or the humbler, yet equally beguiling, 2nd-century house with mosaics and frescoes.
Cuenca's Hanging Houses
The old town of Cuenca is all honey-color buildings, handsome mansions, ancient churches, and earthy local bars. Seek out the famous Casas Colgadas, or "Hanging Houses," with their facades dipping precipitously over a steep ravine. Dating from the 15th century, the balconies appear as an extension of the rock face.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Seriously over the top, this giant palace-monastery (with no less than 2,673 windows), built by the megalomaniac Felipe II, makes visitors stop in their tracks. The exterior is austere, but inside, the Bourbon apartments and library are lush with rich, colorful tapestries, ornate frescoes, and paintings by such masters as El Greco, Titian, and José de Ribera.
An extraordinary mosque, the Mezquita is famed for its thicket of red-and-white-striped columns resembling a palm grove oasis interspersed with arches and traditional Moorish embellishments. It's a fabulous, massive monument that comprises a whole block in the center of Córdoba's tangle of ancient streets and squares.
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