A guide to the secret spots Spaniards would rather keep to themselves.
Crisp mountain air, rustic home cooking, gasp-worthy architecture, old-world hospitality—the draws of rural Spain are innumerable. Sure, Barcelona lures tourists by the millions with its Mediterranean beaches and eye-popping architecture, and Madrid has long been a magnet for art lovers, foodies, and party animals, but if you don’t venture beyond the country’s main metropolises, you’re only getting half the story when it comes to Spanish travel. In the villages and far-flung towns, you’ll discover traditions you never knew existed, taste regional delicacies you won’t find anywhere else, explore fairy-tale castles and awe-inspiring churches, and—perhaps most importantly—truly, deeply unwind. Next time you’re ready to swap long lines and honking cars for sleepy plazas and pristine nature, make a beeline for one of these under-the-radar towns.
San Cristóbal de La Laguna
WHERE: Tenerife, Canary Islands
Squint and you could be in Latin America—the UNESCO-protected center of San Cristóbal de La Laguna (simply “La Laguna” to locals) takes on a tropical feel with wide plazas, baroque churches, and pastel-painted houses with carved-wood balconies. In fact, the city’s open grid plan—a novelty in the 16th century, when it was built—would be reproduced almost identically across the so-called New World in cities like Havana and Cartagena. What La Laguna may lack in beaches (it’s 15 minutes from the coast) it makes up for with a student-driven nightlife scene, fascinating history (don’t miss the Museo de Historia de Tenerife), and immaculately preserved colonial architecture.
Cudillero’s remote location on the Costa Verde of Asturias—a rural region most travelers mistakenly overlook—has kept its brightly colored buildings and postcard-perfect harbor one of Spain’s best-kept secrets. Call it the Positano of Iberia: Gravity-defying cliff-top houses? Check. Sleepy port surrounded by cafés and seafood restaurants? Check. Centuries-old churches and palaces? Claro que sí. But unlike on the Amalfi Coast, you won’t have to wade through the fanny-packed masses here.
INSIDER TIPDon’t leave without gobbling down whatever unidentifiable sea creatures are on offer at El Remo, a no-frills cider house that’s a favorite among Pixuetos (Cudillero natives).
WHERE: Huesca, Aragón
Game of Thrones location scouts would no doubt salivate over Alquézar for its impregnable hilltop castle, jagged rocky outcrops, and medieval houses emblazoned with coats of arms. One of the best-preserved villages of the region of Aragón, sandwiched between Catalonia and Navarra, Alquézar spirals out like a nautilus from its central castillo. Start there, and wind your way down to the base of the village through one-car-wide streets and arcaded plazas, pausing at the designated viewpoints to snap pics of the foothills of the Pyrenees.
WHERE: Pontevedra, Galicia
Combarro is a quintessentially Galician village with its old town of granite buildings, churches with stone crosses peeking above the skyline, and rows and rows of hórreos, medieval granaries built on stone stilts. The town is influenced by both land and sea, bordered to the south by rolling farmland and to the north by the temperamental Atlantic. Walk down to the ría (estuary) at sunset, and follow your nose to any of the no-nonsense seafood restaurants lining the Praza Peirao da Chousa for heaped plates of octopus and steamed mussels.
WHERE: Ciudad Real, La Mancha
Drama geeks and literature buffs fawn over Almagro, whose Corral de Comedias is the only preserved medieval theater in Europe, founded in 1628. But the quaint Manchegan town is even better known for its berenjenas de Almagro, a local specialty of pickled baby eggplant enlivened with garlic, cumin, and smoked paprika. Sample it at any of the uproarious tapas bars that line the green-and-white Plaza Mayor, a relic of the 1500s; near the plaza are granite mansions bearing the heraldic shields of their former owners and a splendid parador housed in a 17th-century convent.
INSIDER TIPForego the tourist-oriented performances at the Corral de Comedias unless you’re a linguistic genius or diehard theatergoer—the archaic Spanish lingo falls deaf on most Anglophone ears.
WHERE: Segovia, Castilla y León
When it comes to day trips from Madrid, Segovia and Toledo are most travelers’ go-tos. But if you’re after a more leisurely (and less tourist-packed) excursion, consider Pedraza, a fairy-tale town 40 minutes northeast of Segovia whose architecture will transport you to the Middle Ages. After wandering the dim halls of the town’s 15th-century castle, make your way down to the Plaza Mayor, a porticoed square built in the 16th century whose stone columns and bowed wooden beams are preserved as if in amber. Then feast on old-school Castilian specialties like judiones (stewed white beans) and roast suckling pig at La Olma or El Jardín, stalwart restaurants.
WHERE: Málaga, Andalusia
It’s no coincidence that Casares, one of the most quintessentially Andalusian villages—think whitewashed houses, terracotta roofs, and electric-pink geraniums hanging from balconies—produced one of the region’s greatest thinkers and patriots, Blas Infante, the informal founder of the Andalusian nationalist movement and subsequent victim of Franco’s totalitarian regime. Visit his childhood home-turned-museum for a dose of local history; then huff it up the labyrinthine streets to the village’s highest point, where you’ll find the ruins of a Moorish castle and panoramic views of the Sierra Crestellina and—on a clear day—the Strait of Gibraltar.
WHERE: Girona, Catalonia
Dalí, Lorca, Duchamp, Buñuel, Picasso—Cadaqués’s roster of one-time residents reads like the syllabus of a Spanish Culture 101 course. The visionaries flocked to this whitewashed town on the Costa Brava for much the same reasons travelers continue to visit today: its laid-back, bohemian attitude; blindingly white houses; tiny harborside restaurants; and stupefyingly gorgeous sunsets best viewed from the Cala Nans lighthouse. A lazy weekend here will put you on the same wavelength as the melting clocks in Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, whose otherworldly setting is said to be inspired by Cadaqués’s landscape.
WHERE: Menorca, Balearic Islands
Menorca, with its turquoise waters, abundant wildlife, and seldom-trodden trails, is a far cry from its larger sibling, Mallorca, but let’s be honest: it’s no longer immune from the cruise-ship crowds. For a guaranteed quiet escape, make a beeline to the northern fishing village of Fornells, whose whitewashed houses wrap around a picturesque marina. In its calm waters, you can windsurf, kayak, and dive by day; after the sun goes down make your way to any of its seafood restaurants to taste the daily catch.
WHERE: Gipuzkoa, Basque Country
Hondarribia is one of the Basque Country’s most charming towns, thanks to its white, green, and red fishermen’s homes and tree-shaded promenades. In-the-know foodies (you know, the ones who don’t rely on Michelin ratings) flock to its locally renowned restaurant, Alameda, for the Txapartegi brothers’ delightful locavore cuisine. Hondarribia is the last town before France; wind your way down to the harbor on foot, and you can ferry over to the town of Hendaye for an éclair or three and some primo beaches for surfing. Then treat yourself to a night at the Parador, the town’s best hotel, housed in a medieval bastion that was the one-time residence of Carlos V.