Discovering the Best of Spain

It’s easy to rhapsodize about many things in Spain, so vast is its history and culture and so delightful are its people, cuisine, and wines. You’ll literally trip over your own contenders for the best restaurants, hotels, architecture, and museums, no matter where you go. Surely you’ll return from a trip to Spain having compiled your own “best travel experiences.”
The following are places and experiences that rank among the best I’ve encountered in a couple of decades of travel in Spain. I consider many to be “must-sees” that I’d recommend to any friend going to Spain. In others, you might just as well treat them as suggestions and jumping-off points. The idea, though, isn’t for you to just check off my list of what I think is best, but to plunge into Spain and discover for yourself all that it has to offer.

The Best Travel Experiences

Spain

Strolling Barcelona’s La Rambla.

Much more than just a pretty mile-long pedestrian boulevard, La Rambla is a vibrant street parade and the epicenter of life in the Catalan capital. Lined with newspaper kiosks, fresh-flower stands, bird sellers, human statues in elaborate costumes and face paint, and historic buildings, it’s where locals come day after day to practice the art of the paseo (stroll). Stop for tapas, dip into the redolent Boquería food market, and continue your rambles in the Gothic Quarter — the city’s oldest section and a maze of palaces, squares, antiques shops, and surprises.

Racing with beasts at the Running of the Bulls.

If you’re nuts enough to run, you’ll be running from, not with, the bulls. Every July, Pamplona hosts the festival of San Fermín and the encierro, a mad, exhilarating rush in which throngs of locals and tourists hightail it through narrow cobbled streets with one-ton beasts nipping at their heels. To live it up, you don’t have to run; the 24/7 festival ranks as one of Europe’s great party scenes, with nonstop drinking and dancing (and sleeping) in the streets. Whether you run or just watch safely behind barriers, you’re unlikely to forget the mayhem.

Tripping along on a tavern and tapas crawl.

The most inescapable element of Spanish cooking is tapas, small snacks now popular the world over. A tapeo is the food equivalent of an Irish pub crawl — a bar-to-bar treasure hunt, searching for and wolfing down finger foods that range from the endearingly simple, such as a wedge of tortilla omelet, to the piled-high pintxos in the Basque Country. You’ll see Spaniards at their most festive and famished when they’re out grazing. Traipse along the streets of medieval Madrid, the Triana neighborhood across the river in Seville, San Sebastián’s Parte Vieja, the old town of Bilbao, or the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona — or any small town in Spain, for that matter. Pop into a tavern, knock back a drink and a couple of snacks, and hit the road, onto your next stop.

Getting lost in a tangle of time.

Spain overflows with fine museums, excellent repositories of Spanish art and history, but Spaniards live with their history on a daily basis. As a visitor, wandering the crooked streets in a lively old quarter makes for an exceptionally enjoyable history lesson. The streets of Toledo may be impossible to make sense of, but they teem with synagogues, mosques, and palaces — centuries of Jewish, Moorish, and Christian history. Cordoba’s Judería and Girona’s El Call, two of Spain’s best-preserved old Jewish quarters, are appealing mazes of white-washed streets, while Barcelona’s Barri G tic (Gothic Quarter) is a slightly spooky but vibrant warren of alleyways that once formed the core of a walled-in city. Salamanca’s old quarter around the stunning Plaza Mayor is the place to relive the academic life and extracurricular activities of university students. Other great places to wander, get lost, and absorb a dose of history are Granada’s Albaycín district, San Sebastián’s Parte Vieja, Bilbao’s Casco Viejo, and Seville’s enchanting Barrio de Santa Cruz.

Joining the faithful at Andalusia’s fiestas.

There’s nothing quite like the stately pageantry of springtime festivals in southern Spain. The biggies are Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Feria de Abril, the April Fair that erupts two weeks after Easter in Seville. The galas transform Seville into the most festive and colorful place in Spain. For Easter, the mood is deadly serious: Long processions parade throughout the city carrying religious floats, accompanied by penitents in long robes and pointy hoods, dirge music, and candles. The Feria de Abril is the purging after Easter, when the city erupts with a festival of flamenco and sevillana dancing, drinking, horse parades, and gorgeously bedecked Andalusian women in polka-dotted flamenco dresses. At the end of May, the El Rocío pilgrimage in Huelva is perhaps the rowdiest religious festival you’ll witness. Attending one of the big festivals can mean extra headaches in terms of hotel rooms, crowds, and expense, but that’s the cost of cultural immersion.

Appreciating art for art’s sake.

Name the greatest artists of all time, and you’ll count a significant, perhaps even disproportionate, number of Spaniards among them. You can view many of the masterpieces at some of the finest art museums in Europe. Madrid’s Prado, endowed by kings, has monumental works by Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya (as well as great Italian and Flemish works). Pablo Picasso’s impassioned Guernica is on view down the street at the Reina Sofía, as are the works of many other modern masters. Barcelona boasts an impressive collection of Picasso’s early works, single-artist museums dedicated to native sons Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies, and a splendid collection of Romanesque and Gothic religious art at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Salvador Dalí’s tortured genius holds surreal court at several museums in Spain, but the best place to get a taste of his unique gifts is his museum-theater in Figueres (Catalonia) and the home-museums he left behind in the Catalan countryside.

Meandering through Andalusia’s pueblos blancos.

Dotting the rolling hills and earthy olive groves of southern Spain is a collection of tiny, picturesque whitewashed villages, some dramatically perched atop 1,524m (5,000-ft.) limestone slopes. Onetime defensive strongholds under the Moors, the perfect white towns are tiny mazes of medieval alleyways. The two largest pueblos blancos are Ronda and Arcos de la Frontera; from a base at either, you can easily take a driving tour of the many villages that lie between.