Yet while you can still find vestiges of la antigua España in Spain today, don’t be fooled by the age-old tropes: Spain is a modern, forward-thinking country with stunning hotels and agroturismos, cutting-edge galleries, bumping nightclubs, and a burgeoning restaurant scene that goes far beyond tapas and tabernas.
Madrid and Barcelona, rival cities with deep and sometimes conflicting histories, are non-negotiable stops on any tour of the Iberian Peninsula. The former boasts a bevy of world-class museums including the Prado—one of the best in the world with priceless Goyas, Velázquezes, and El Grecos amassed by royals through the ages—and the Reina Sofía, which houses Picasso’s Guernica and a stunning cocktail bar with UFO-shaped sofas and sheeny red ceilings. It’s also Spain’s cultural nerve center with a never-ending rotation of concerts, plays, sporting events, and art exhibitions, plus sundown-to-sunup nightlife to satisfy even the most debaucherous revelers.
Barcelona appeals to all the senses: There’s wine to be swirled and pristine seafood to be gobbled, passageways to be explored and paintings to be pondered. The ancient and avant-garde intermingle in the Catalan capital, where you can find Roman ruins, Moderniste apartments, and high-fashion boutiques in the span of a few blocks. Within arm’s reach are Girona, Figueres, and Cadaqués, charming beachside towns you can retreat to if Barcelona’s tourist hordes jangle your nerves.
Due southwest in Andalusia, Moorish citadels and gardens are a reminder of Spain’s rich Islamic past. Granada’s Alhambra fortress-palace complex, with its impossibly ornate arabesques, and Córdoba’s mosque-cathedral, with its millennium-old arches, are the region’s undisputed crown jewels, though it’s almost as famous for its sherry, flamenco, beaches, and palpable sense of alegría.
Every food lover should make at least one pilgrimage to the Basque Country, the autonomous region on the French border with more Michelin stars than it knows what to do with. But it’s not all tweezed-and-foamed fare here: The Basques are also famed for their pintxos, one-bite wonders similar to tapas but more elaborate, and down-home sagardotegiak (cider houses), which open their doors from January to May when the local cider is at its sour best.
West of the Basque Country lie Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia, the misty, Celtic-influenced regions that are arguably the newest frontier in Spanish travel. Go for the Camino de Santiago or for the ski slopes atop the Picos de Europa; stay for the exceptional albariño wines and soul-satisfying cuisine (we’re looking at you, cachopo, Cabrales, and Galician-style octopus).
But Spain doesn’t stop at the Portuguese and French borders, it continues out to sea with scattered exclaves and islands. The Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera) draw partiers and back-to-nature types alike with their vibrant beach scene and secret calas (inlets), while the Canary Islands, flung off the Saharan coast, are a real-life paradise with moonlike landscapes and year-round temperatures hovering in the low 80s.
The more you get to know Spain and its patchwork quilt of cultures, cuisines, and traditions, the more you realize you don’t know it at all—and that’s what makes it so thrilling to visit again and again.
Best of Spain: Barcelona Travel Guide