The Best Architectural Landmarks

Barcelona’s moderniste madness.

The Catalan Art Nouveau movement, known locally as modernisme, was spearheaded by the austere aesthete Antoni Gaudí, the stunningly imaginative architect behind the futuristic (but still unfinished) cathedral La Sagrada Familia and the wondrously wavy La Pedrera (Casa Milà). But Gaudí was just one of several moderniste masters who left their imprints on Barcelona. Follow the city’s Ruta del Modernisme and visit some of the other standouts, such as the apartment houses on Paseo de Gracia’s Manzana de la Discordia (Block of Discord).

Museo Guggenheim Bilbao

Frank Gehry’s rapturous titanium sculpture on the banks of the River Nervión not only single-handedly revitalized industrial Bilbao, it revolutionized the way the public sees art museums, setting off a competition among cities across the globe to get their own Gehry (or something nearly as distinct and attention-grabbing). Critics have called it the greatest building of the modern era. Even if the structure were devoid of art inside, droves would come to experience its sensual curves and soaring presence.

Segovia’s Roman Aqueduct.

Going on 2,000 years, the graceful Roman Aqueduct is one of the greatest examples of Roman engineering — in Spain or anywhere. Constructed of massive blocks of granite, in A.D. 90, without the aid of mortar or clamps, the 1km-long (2⁄3 of a mile) aqueduct is 29m (95 ft.) high and has 166 perfectly designed arches. Whether appreciated as a feat of engineering or for the incredible beauty with which it stretches across the city, it’s one of Spain’s most memorable sights, especially when illuminated at night.

Avila’s city walls

The imposing city walls (murallas) that enclose the small but surprisingly plain city of Avila are perhaps the finest in Europe. Built in 1090, Spain’s very own great wall is 2.4km (11⁄2 miles) long, 11m (36 ft.) high, and 3m (9 ft.) thick. If you’re an architecture buff, get up close for a view of how remarkably unscathed the walls remain, and then retreat to see them framed against the horizon, from Cuatro Postes (Four Pillars), an old shrine just beyond the river.

Salamanca’s stunning Old Quarter.

A university town and a living museum of early Spanish Renaissance architecture, Salamanca is a stately assembly of unique architecture built around Spain’s loveliest Plaza Mayor. Salamanca’s architecture is renowned for ornate Plateresque details — masterful Baroque carving — on stately facades.

Cordoba’s Mezquita.

After the Alhambra, the great mosque stands as the pre-eminent architectural achievement of the Moorish dynasty that ruled Spain for 700 years. Unlike any mosque you’ve ever seen, the eighth-century structure dazzles visitors with a magical forest of candy cane–striped arches, consisting of more than 850 columns constructed of granite, jasper, and marble.

Granada’s Alhambra.

The supreme achievement of the Moors, and one of the greatest pieces of architecture anywhere in Europe, is the spectacular fortress and palace complex La Alhambra, a place of magic, mystery, and legend. Built by the Nasrid dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries, it’s a stunning, sprawling, and serene compound of palaces, residences, mosques, gardens, reflecting pools, patios, and a royal summer estate. It truly is as the Moors’ intended — an earthly paradise.