Spain is the second most popular destination in the world in terms of tourist numbers, which means that the country’s sites, cities and resorts draw millions every year. While attractions like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and the Costa del Sol are perennial favourites with tourists, we take a look at some of the best alternatives, from the lunar landscapes of Spain’s south-east coast to one of the smallest Canary Islands.
Swap one of Antoni Gaudí’s most famous buildings for one of his least known. Casa Vicens was the architect’s very first commission and remained a private home until 2014. It opened to the public – after a major restoration – in 2017, and gives visitors an interesting insight into the beginning of Gaudí’s style. Look out for common themes like nature, techniques like mosaics and materials such as wrought iron, which he would go on to use in some of his more famous designs.
Most big cities have them, the big, shiny, global team and the more local team – think Manchester United to Manchester City or Liverpool to Everton. In Madrid, many visitors long to see footballing Goliaths Real Madrid and flock to the Santiago Bernabéu stadium to watch a match or take a tour. But consider checking out Madrid’s other team, Atletico Madrid, for a more local vibe and, often, a match that is just as exciting.
The Great Mosque-Cathedral is one of the most impressive examples of Islamic architecture in Spain and is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. If you want to go more low key, consider a visit to Spain’s newest Unesco World Heritage site, the Medina Azahara, on the outskirts of Córdoba. The vast Moorish palace-city, which was built in the 10th century, was the seat of the Caliphate of Córdoba and included mosques, houses, government buildings, gardens and baths.
Toledo is one of the most popular day trips from Madrid for its rich history of Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture. But its popularity also means that on any given weekend you are likely to be sharing the streets with busloads of tourists. Cuenca is a less-visited town, famed for its medieval old town, remains of its Arab fortress and its ‘hanging houses’, homes built into the rock over the gorge of the river Huécar.
Spain’s second city is so popular with tourists it has become one of the go-to examples of overtourism in Europe, with everything from antisocial behaviour to rent hikes blamed on the skyrocketing numbers of tourists who visit each year. If you want to avoid the crowds and do your bit to reverse mass tourism in the city, consider a trip to Valencia, just down the coast. Spain’s third city makes a great long weekend break for its history, gastronomy and beaches.
La Boqueria market on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas is often cited as the most famous market in the city, and it definitely is judging by the crowds of camera-touting tourists that pack its aisles every day. While it’s most certainly worth a visit, consider checking out some of the city’s other markets to get a more genuine, local flavour. Santa Caterina Market, with its multicoloured, wavy roof is a mixture of meat, fish and fruit and veg stalls, while the Sant Antoni Market has just reopened after a nine-year renovation.
Spain’s Costa del Sol is renowned for its package holidays, and sun, sea and sangria reputation, but its huge popularity mean its neighbouring costas sometimes get overlooked. The dramatic beaches, desert landscapes and wildlife of the Costa de Almería make one of Spain’s lesser-explored coastlines well worth a visit.
The festival of San Fermin attracts thousands of foreigners to Pamplona, northern Spain every year for its running of the bulls festival. While the festival is worth a visit, recent controversy over animal rights and sexual assaults might put you off. Why not try an alternative festival in the nearby region of La Rioja? La Batalla del Vino (The Battle of the Wine) takes place in Haro, La Rioja every year from June 27–30. On June 29, locals celebrate the feast day of St Peter by taking part in a massive wine battle, throwing wine over each other in a vino version of La Tomatina.
Madrid’s San Miguel market, a beautiful covered market full of food stalls, is on all the tourist itineraries. If you want a more local feel, make sure to check out some of the city’s other markets, from the fresh produce stalls of Mercado de la Cebada to the international food stalls in Mercado Antón Martín. Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to food markets in Madrid.
Madrid’s Plaza Mayor is a wonderful place to visit for its architecture and fascinating history – it has been the scene of everything from trials during the Spanish Inquisition to bullfights and football matches. The restaurants surrounding the square, however, are – on the whole – overpriced tourist traps. Instead, eat or drink on the leafy Plaza de la Paja, a five-minute stroll away, which is surrounded by a great range of more local options.
Southern Tenerife is dominated by the tourist-heavy resorts like Playa de las Americas. But if you want to get off the tourist trail, head further north into the lunar landscapes of Teide National Park, or head to a smaller Canary Island. La Gomera, west of Tenerife, is one of the least-populated and second-smallest islands, and is a fantastic location for hiking among its volcanic landscapes.