The grandeur of a caliph’s palace, sybaritic sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches, the staccato stamp of a flamenco dancer’s heels, the awed hush of pilgrims entering the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela after weeks of walking El Camino. You can find the soul of Spain in tourist attractions such as these, which represent the country’s tumultuous history, rich culture, and enchanting natural beauty.
From the sunlight playing endlessly off the “scales” of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and the throbbing street life of La Rambla and Plaza Mayor to the forest of columns and Moorish arches disappearing into the silent expanse of Cordoba’s Great Mosque, Spain exudes a vibrant energy and a captivating blend of past and present. Plan your sightseeing adventures and things to do with our list of the top attractions in Spain.
1. The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens, Granada
The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens, Granada
No matter how much you have read or how many pictures you have seen of Granada’s Alhambra palaces, this Moorish pleasure palace will still take your breath away. The Nasrid dynasty’s royal palace is the artistic highlight of Spain’s Islamic period, when Al-Andalus — as they called Andalucía — represented the epitome of culture and civilization in Europe’s Middle Ages.
The Alhambra complex includes several buildings, towers, walls, gardens, and a mosque, but it’s the indescribably intricate stone carvings, the delicate filigrees, the magnificent tile-lined ceilings, the graceful arches, and serene courtyards of the Nasrid palace that will haunt your dreams.
That said, the adjoining palace built for the Emperor Charles V, even in its unfinished state is the finest example of High Renaissance architecture in Spain. And Generalife’s terraced gardens offer a peaceful respite from the grandeur, and splendid views back at the rest of the Alhambra.
2. Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Gaudi Sites
Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Gaudi Sites | Leandro Neumann Ciuffo / photo modified
Antoni Gaudi took the architectural style known as Art Nouveau a step further, even, some have argued, into absurdity. The fanciful and outrageous buildings he created in Barcelona have become landmarks, the signature attractions of this Catalan city. Foremost is The Sagrada Família church, officially the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família or the Holy Family Church of the Atonement. One of Europe’s most unconventional churches, it is also unfinished, so as you look down from its tower, you can see the work in progress below.
You may search in vain for absolute straight lines in Gaudi’s Casa Milà, his last and most famous secular work; it resembles a piece of sculpture more than a functional building. Be sure to ascend to its roof — the chimneys are said to have inspired the image of Darth Vader from Star Wars.
Parc Güell overlooks the city from a hillside, the views and gardens framed by fantastical creatures — salamanders, fish, an octopus — and designs in bright ceramic-chard mosaics. A fanciful towered house near the entrance is largely covered in colored ceramics. Unlike most buildings, Gaudi’s appeal even to children and to adults who don’t care a thing about architecture, for one simple reason — they are just plain fun to look at.
3. The Great Mosque of Cordoba (Mezquita)
The Great Mosque of Cordoba (Mezquita)
Once the principal mosque of western Islam and still known as the Mezquita, Cordoba’s mosque is one of the largest in the world and the finest achievement of Moorish architecture in Spain. In spite of later alterations that carved out its center to build a Catholic cathedral at its heart, the Great Mosque ranks with the Alhambra in Granada as one of the two most splendid examples of Islamic art and architecture in western Europe.
Building materials from Roman and Visigothic buildings were used in the construction, which began in 785, and by 1000, it had grown to its present dimensions, its prayer hall with no fewer than nineteen aisles. No matter where you stand or which direction you look, its rows of columns and rounded Moorish arches line up in symmetrical patterns.
Narrow, winding streets; small squares; and low whitewashed houses with beautiful patios visible from the street fill the old Juderia around the mosque, a Moorish atmosphere inherited from its past.
4. The Prado and Paseo del Artes, Madrid
The Prado and Paseo del Artes, Madrid
The Prado alone ranks with the world’s top art museums for the riches of its collections. But add the Reina Sofia National Art Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and the CaixaForum, all along Madrid’s mile-long, tree-shaded boulevard, and you have what may be the world’s highest concentration of priceless art treasures. It’s no wonder this is known as El Paseo del Arte — Boulevard of the Arts.
After a 2007 expansion that doubled its exhibition space, the Prado added another 12 galleries in 2009 to house a collection of works by Goya and other late 19th-century artists. The Prado has the world’s largest collection of Spanish art, an impressive continuum from 12th-century medieval works through the avante-garde movement of the early 20th century, and is especially noted for its works from Spain’s golden age by El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya.
But its riches are not all Spanish; other highlights are the medieval murals and retablos, paintings by Flemish and Dutch artists (be sure to see the fantasy world of Hieronymous Bosch and works by Rubens and Brueghel), and Italian art (Botticelli, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, and Tintoretto).
Highlights of the Reina Sofia’s impressive 20,000 works are Picasso’s Guernica and works by Miró, Dalí, Dubuffet, Braque, Serra, Calder, and Magritte.
5. San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial, about 45 kilometers northwest of Madrid, was the summer home of Spain’s kings, and in 1563, work was begun here on a huge complex, which would include a monastery, church, royal palace, mausoleum, library, and museum, all conceived as a monument to Philip II and his reign. The result is a staggering collection of attractions, built around 16 courtyards, its rooms and structures connected by 16 kilometers of corridors. At its core is the church, the highlight of which is Herrera’s 30-meter-high retablo, made of jasper and red marble and approached by a flight of 17 steps.
Along with the vaulted and frescoed ceilings by Tibaldi in the rooms off the lower cloister, highlights of the monastery are the Panteón de los Reyes (the Baroque burial vault of the Spanish kings) and the library, a grand room also decorated by Tibaldi frescoes.
In the palace, be sure to see the Bourbon Suite, where the state apartments of Charles IV are decorated with rare furnishings and 338 tapestries. Beyond are the art-filled private apartments of Philip II. The Picture Gallery below has a large collection of fine paintings, including works by Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Velázquez, and El Greco.
6. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
You really have to see this building to believe it — no photograph has ever done justice to this symphony of shapes, so alive that they seem ready to take wing. American architect Frank Gehry used blocks of limestone and undulating sheets of titanium to turn the notion of modern architecture on its ear. So thoroughly did he succeed that two new terms were born from it: “The Bilbao Effect” — the ability of a city to turn its fortunes around by constructing a single world-class building — and “architourism,” a whole segment of the travel industry revolving around landmarks of contemporary architecture. Inside the museum are traveling exhibitions and rotating displays of its own collections of modern art.