Spain is a land of many pleasures — lingering over a plate of tapas, dancing to the rhythm of a flamenco guitar, wandering the narrow streets of a centuries-old village, enjoying an afternoon siesta on a white-sand beach. No matter how many times you visit, there’s never a lack of places or landscapes to explore, from the Moorish citadels of the south to the mountains of the Basque region in the north.
Take your time exploring Spain with our slideshow of unique and memorable experiences, like learning to dance the flamenco in Madrid, biking along the sun-drenched coast of Menorca and witnessing the creation of traditional “human towers” in Catalonia. And don’t miss our need-to-know advice on where to stay and Spain transportation.
Escape the Crowds on Menorca
Menorca boasts many of the qualities that lure visitors to the Balearic Islands — stunning beaches, whitewashed coastal villages, crystalline waters — without so many, well, visitors. Less developed than party-central Ibiza or glamorous Mallorca, Menorca offers a quieter getaway for those looking to sprawl on isolated stretches of sand, hike through a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve or explore the ruins of prehistoric villages such as Talati de Dalt and Son Catlar.
One fun way to tour the island is by bicycle. Pedal a leisurely course along sleepy country lanes, or take a longer trip around the entire island on the 115-mile Cami de Cavalls, a historic bridle path that’s now a popular route for bikers, hikers and horseback riders. The Cami de Cavalls runs along the coast, granting access to a number of lighthouses, coves and beaches. Local bike rental companies include Bike Menorca and Anthony’s Bikes.
Sleep in a Parador
Imagine bedding down for the night in a 14th-century Arab fortress or a monastery-turned-luxury hotel. If that sounds appealing, consider booking a stay at one of nearly 100 paradors across Spain — historic properties transformed by the Spanish government into fine hotels, often in spectacular locations. For example, the Parador de Ronda, near Malaga, enjoys a precarious perch in a converted town hall building overlooking a deep gorge.
At other paradors, the building itself is the attraction. Outside of Seville is the Parador de Carmona, where the tilework and architecture still show the influence of the Moors who first built the fortress centuries ago.
Parador stays can be pricey, but discounts are often available. Visit www.Paradores.es/en.
Get a Taste of Basque Country
If you crave memorable culinary experiences on your travels, do your stomach a favor and head north into Basque Country for some of Spain’s yummiest cooking. Sharing a meal with loved ones is enormously important to the Basque people and is evident in the popularity of gastronomy clubs and pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) bars. Fresh fish, roast meats and seasonal vegetables (like mushrooms in the fall) are staples of the cuisine.
Take a taste of what the region has to offer by joining Basque Tours on a 2.5-hour pintxos tour in San Sebastian. For a more in-depth experience, take a full-day cooking tour, including a market visit to buy ingredients, a hands-on cooking class and, of course, the full-course meal with wine. Both Basque Tours and Totally Spain offer full-day experiences in San Sebastian.
Build a Human Tower
It’s one of Catalonia’s most fascinating traditions: the building of human towers, or castells. Groups of castellers gather in the town square, usually during local festivals or at special competitions, and clamber onto each other’s shoulders, forming a precarious tower that can reach as high as 10 levels (usually topped by children wearing crash helmets). The practice, which has been passed down from generation to generation of Catalonians for about two centuries, is a striking feat of bravery, balance and strength, and has been recognized by UNESCO as an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Cava Emotions offers half- and full-day human tower experiences in Vilafranca de Penedes that give visitors the chance to watch castellers rehearse — or even join in. (Note that in order to participate in a workshop, you must choose the full-day option and have at least seven other people in your group.) For the most impressive displays, check out the Concurs de Castells, a competition held every two years in Tarragona.
Learn About Bullfighting
Few activities in Spain are more iconic than bullfighting, but none are more controversial. Whether it is a culturally important tradition, dating back to the Mesopotamian times, or merely blood sport is a debate that still rages on. Spanish bullfighting is most prevalent in four southern provinces (Seville, Malaga, Granada and Almeria), as well as Madrid and Guadalajara in the center of the country.
A good first stop for anyone interested in the history of bullfighting is Plaza de Toros in Rondo (Malaga), which dates back to the 16th century. This bullring is open to the public year-round, and there’s a well-regarded Bullfighting Museum inside. Viator’s full-day Ronda tour from Seville includes Plaza de Toros in its itinerary. If you’re anti-bullfighting or at all squeamish, don’t visit on a fight day.
For those who want a more in-depth perspective, Saranjan Tours offers a two-day private tour out of Seville. The tour visits a bull ranch where many of the bulls that end up in the ring are bred, and also stops at the School of the Bullfight to see young matadors in training.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
21 Days of Spain by Betsy Lubis
“Ronda’s bullring [is] the oldest official one in the country. Before rings, they just used town plazas. The overpriced audio guide describes how killing an animal has been turned into a pompous show complete with the bullfighter’s assistants first coming out to inflict injury in order to level the playing field. At this point, I began to admire the Catalans … for having outlawed the ‘art’ by now. (Barcelona’s former bullring is a shopping mall.)” Read more!
Help Someone Learn English
There’s no better way to get to know a country than by meeting the people who live there — and there’s no better way to get to know people than by talking to them. That’s exactly what you do at a Pueblo Ingles placement. Talk, then talk some more. The weeklong program brings native English-speaking people together with Spaniards trying to learn English in one of six bucolic settings. Participants spend most of the day chatting, but the midday siesta break is the perfect time to explore your surroundings, like Cazorla National Park in the Jaen region of Andalucia (not far from Granada) or the medieval village of La Alberca, about an hour’s drive from Salamanca.
Pueblo Ingles is run by Diverbo, which pays for all accommodations and food for the English-speaking volunteers, as well as roundtrip transportation between Madrid and the placement location.
Explore Spain’s Jewish Past
Spain is more multicultural than many realize, with regions like the Basque Country and Catalonia retaining their own culture and language. Less visible is the historical influence Jewish people have had on the country, having lived in Spain since the first century A.D. From intellectuals like Maimonides to artists like Diego Velasquez (though he lived as a Catholic to avoid expulsion), Jews have been an important piece of the country’s history. You’ll find a Jewish quarter in most major cities, including Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba and Girona.
To find out more about the rich — and sometimes tragic — story of Jews in Spain, join an organized tour such as Gourmand Breaks’ Jewish Heritage tour of Toledo. The tour includes a stop at the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca, one of Europe’s oldest synagogue buildings still standing, which now serves as the Sephardic Museum. Lunch at a restaurant recommended by the local Jewish community is included. Girona Trips offers a couple of other options, including a half-day walk around Girona’s Jewish heritage sites and a full-day combination trip that includes Girona and the Jewish quarter of Besalu, a medieval town not far from Girona.
Learn Flamenco in Madrid
The strumming of the guitar, the cry of the singer, the tapping and stomping of the dancer’s feet — no other sounds quite evoke Spain the way flamenco does. Dating back to the 18th century, this sensual music/dance genre was born of the union between the music and dance styles of the Andalusian and Romani peoples. In 2010, UNESCO declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Numerous opportunities exist to see flamenco performed throughout Spain, but for a more in-depth understanding of the art form, why not take a flamenco class? Discover Hispania’s 1.5-hour class in Madrid educates participants about the origins of the genre, while also teaching some of the basic dance steps. The Spain Event’s 1.5-hour private class teaches the hand and arm movements, basic body posture, claque hand clapping, footwork and tapping, all while moving at a pace you set. Want a more immersive experience? Head south to the village of Capileira in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the Centro Flamenco La Fuente’s one-week course.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Madrid and the Costa del Sol by Bob W.
“Sunday evening we attended a discussion on ‘Andalucian Culture & the Flamenco,’ including demonstrations of the graceful footwork and hand movements of flamenco. During one evening that followed, together with a group of friends, we purchased a combined package of door-to-door bus transportation, supper, wine and a very impressive flamenco show at the Hotel Torrequebrada casino outside of Torremolinos.” Read more!
Attend a Bizarre Festival
From throwing tomatoes at other people to carrying your own coffin, Spain’s year-round schedule of festivals offers its share of oddities. Take the Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, often called the Festival of Near Death Experiences, held in Las Nieves, Galicia. Every July 29, those who have come close to death in the previous year are paraded through the town in coffins on the shoulders of their friends and family as a way of giving thanks for their survival. (Those without loved ones to help often carry their own coffins.)
The Tomatina Festival in Bunol (near Valencia) calls itself “the world’s biggest food fight” and involves some 20,000 participants flinging ripe, squashed tomatoes at each other. (The origin of the festival is unknown: a practical joke? An argument among friends? Angry townspeople bombarding politicians?) And then there’s the baby jumping. During Corpus Christi celebrations in Castrillo de Murcia, a man dressed as the devil leaps over mattresses full of 1-year-olds in a centuries-old tradition meant to free them from evil.
For information on these and many other Spanish festivals, see Spanish-Fiestas.com.
Heighten Your Senses in Pitch Darkness
Adventurous foodies won’t want to miss the truly unique experience of eating in complete darkness. At Dans le Noir in Barcelona, diners are led into an unlit room where blind waiters serve several unidentified courses of food and wine, inviting you to rely solely on your senses of taste and smell to figure out what’s crossing your palate. When the menu is revealed after the meal, you may be in for some surprises; the restaurant claims that 90 percent of guests can’t differentiate between white, red and rose wines.
Many diners end up casting aside their forks and knives and eating with their fingers instead, adding another layer to this curious sensory experience. Wear clothing that’s easily washable in case of spills, and be sure to let the restaurant know ahead of time if you have any allergies or foods you absolutely can’t stand.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
21 Days of Spain by Betsy Lubis
“We follow the steps of a Barri Gothic walk we’ve plucked from our guidebook, throwing in a couple of detours here and there. One is to La Boqueria Market, where we buy expensive chocolates … and walk through the meat, vegetable, and fish stalls. I’d read that Barcelonans have been buying their animal parts at this location since 1200. All the produce looks fantastically fresh. The skinned rabbits, I don’t particularly care for.” Read more!
Best Time to Go to Spain
Avoid the stifling summer heat in places like Madrid and Seville (highs regularly top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so even the locals clear out) by traveling during the spring or fall; as a bonus, airfares will be lower then too. More temperate northern Spain is a better bet if you have to go in the summer. Spain is surprisingly appealing in the wintertime as well; its mountainous areas are good for skiing, while southern areas like Andalusia are mild enough to walk around outside without a coat.
Spain on a Budget
As Western European countries go, Spain is fairly affordable — but we wouldn’t call it cheap. To help reduce your vacation price tag, seek out hostels and homestays, and cook for yourself when you can. Pensiones, or small guesthouses, are another good bet for basic and affordable accommodations. Buses, trains and subways offer affordable alternatives to rental cars and taxis. When eating out, look for fixed-price meals; many restaurants offer them and they’re often a great deal. Tapas, or small plates, make a delicious and affordable snack.
–written by Sarah Schlichter and Dori Saltzman