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Top Experiences in Spain

Get Festive

Plan your visit, if you can, to coincide with one of Spain's virtually countless fairs and festivals. With the possible exception of the Italians, nobody does annual celebrations like the Spanish: fireworks, solemn processions, historical reenactments, pageants in costume, and street carnivals of every description fill the calendar. The most famous fair of all is Seville's Feria de Abril (April Fair), when sultry señoritas dance in traditional flamenco garb, and the cream of society parade through the streets in horse-drawn carriages. Second only to Rio in terms of revelry and costumes, Spain's pre-Lenten Carnaval inspires serious partying: Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, is legendary for its annual extravaganza of drinking, dancing, and dressing up—the more outrageous the better—but Cadíz, on the Atlantic coast, and Sitges, south of Barcelona, have blowouts nearly as good; celebrations typically carry on for 10 days. For Barcelona's Festa de Sant Jordi, honoring St. George, the city's patron saint, tradition dictates that men buy their true love a rose, and women reciprocate by buying their beau a book; on that day (April 23) the city streets are filled with impromptu book and flower stalls. In the Semana Santa (Holy Week: end of March to mid-April), the events of the Passion are recalled in elaborate processions of hooded and gowned religious brotherhoods carrying elaborate floats through the streets from local churches to cathedrals in cities all over Spain; the most impressive take place in Seville, Málaga, and Cartagena in Murcia. And did we mention fireworks? The fiesta of Las Fallas de San José, in Valencia (around March 19), is a week of rockets, firecrackers, pinwheels, and processions in traditional costume, culminating on the Nit del Foc (Night of the Fire), when hundreds of huge papier-mâché figures are dispatched in a spectacular pyrotechnic finale.

Dance ’til Dawn

A large part of experiencing Spain doesn't begin until the sun sets or end until it rises again. The Spaniards know how to party and the nightlife is, well, an essential part of life. If you really want to experience the ultimate party, head to the island of Ibiza, in the Balearic Islands, in the summer, but otherwise, any of the big cities can pretty much guarantee late-night fun.

Visit a Market

Markets (mercados) are the key to delicious local cuisine and represent an essential part of Spanish life, largely unaffected by competition from supermarkets and hypermarkets. You'll find fabulous produce sold according to whatever is in season: counters neatly piled with shiny purple eggplants, blood-red peppers, brilliant orange cantaloupes, fresh figs, and cornucopias of mushrooms and olives. While cities and most large towns have daily fruit and vegetable markets from Monday through Saturday, Barcelona might be the best city for market browsers, with its famed Boqueria as well as smaller mercados in lovingly restored Moderniste buildings, with wrought-iron girders and stained-glass windows, all over the city. Take the opportunity to get a culinary education—but be warned: the vendors are in the business of selling food, and can get cranky with rubberneckers.

Get Outdoors

Crisscrossed with mountain ranges, Spain has regions that are ideal for walking, mountain biking, and backpacking, and mountain streams throughout the country offer trout- and salmon-fishing opportunities. Perhaps the best thing about exploring Spain's great outdoors is that it often brings you nearer to some of the finest architecture and cuisine in Iberia. The 57,000-acre Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, in the Pyrenees, is Spain's version of the Grand Canyon, with waterfalls, caves, forests, meadows, and more. The Sierra de Gredos, west of Madrid, in Castile and León, bordering Extremadura, is a popular destination for climbing and trekking. Hiking is excellent in the interior of Spain, in the Alpujarras Mountains southeast of Granada and in the Picos de Europa. The pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, known as El Camino de Santiago, has been drawing devotees and adventurers for more than one thousand years; it traverses the north of Spain from either Roncesvalles in Navarra or the Aragonese Pyrenees to Galicia. The Doñana National Park, in Andalusia, is one of Europe's last tracts of true wilderness, with wetlands, beaches, sand dunes, marshes, 150 species of rare birds, and countless kinds of wildlife, including the endangered imperial eagle and lynx.

Try Some Wine

Spain is one of the world’s biggest wine-producing countries, with local specialties found in just about every region. For the most famous, sample still and sparkling wines in the Penedès in Catalonia; sip oak-aged reds in La Rioja; taste the Ribera del Duero reds in Castile-León (and decide for yourself if they’re better than those in La Rioja); or try the different types of sherry in Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia. Slightly off the beaten wine track are Galician wines led by white albariño, Córdoba’s sherries, and Murcia’s little-known reds and whites. Book a tour in a bodega and prepare to raise your glass. ¡Salud!

Lordly Lodgings

A quintessential experience for visitors to Spain is spending a night, or several, in one of the government-run hotels called paradores. The settings are unique—roughly half of the 97 paradores are important cultural properties from the 12th to the 18th century: restored castles, Moorish citadels, monasteries, ducal palaces, and the like—and most are furnished in the style of the region. Every parador has a restaurant that serves local specialties. The paradores attract Spanish and international travelers alike and receive almost consistently rave reviews.

Hit the Beach

Virtually surrounded by bays, oceans, gulfs, straits, and seas, Spain is a beach lover's dream as well as an increasingly popular destination for water-sports enthusiasts. Oceanfront—8,000 km (5,000 miles) of it, not counting the islands—is Spain's most important hospitality asset, and sun worshippers can choose from long sweeps of beach on sheltered bays to tiny crescents of sand in rocky inlets that only boats can reach. There are 12 costas (designated coastal areas) along the Mediterranean, and seven more along the Atlantic from Portugal around to France. One of the great things about Spanish sands is that some of the best are literally extensions of the cities you otherwise come to Spain for—so you can spend a morning in the surf and sun, then steep yourself in history or art for an afternoon, and finish the day with a great meal and an evening of music. Among the best city beaches are La Concha (San Sebastián), Playa de la Victoria (Cadiz), Barcelona's string of beaches, Playa de los Peligros (Santander), and El Cabanyal (Valencia).

Updated: 03-2014

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