Think of Spain and an image of sun, sea and sangria may well come to mind, but there is so much more to the country than its admittedly fantastic beaches. Take the time to explore a little further inland and you won’t regret it. Here’s our pick of the best of Spain, beyond the beach.
La Rioja Wine Country
Spain has the greatest area of vineyards of any country in the world and is Europe’s third-biggest wine producer, after France and Italy. Nowhere in Spain is more famous for wine producing than the region of La Rioja. Tour vineyards, visit the tapas bars of Logroño and sample some of the world’s best – and best value – wine.
Sometimes overlooked by its more glamorous counterpart, Barcelona, Madrid is a culture lover’s dream, from its world-class art galleries to its tantalising tapas culture. Home to the biggest royal palace in Europe, the city holds numerous historical gems, and its compact centre is easy to walk around.
Europe’s only desert is an otherworldly moonscape of bare rocks and barren mountains. It resembled the Wild West so much that legendary film director Sergio Leone chose it as the location for his famous spaghetti Westerns, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which catapulted a little-known actor called Clint Eastwood into the big time.
From the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa in the north to the Sierra Nevada in the south and the huge Mount Teide volcano in the Canary Islands, Spain is home to some stunning mountainous landscapes. Whether you enjoy hiking in the summer or skiing and snowboarding in the winter, they are great places to explore.
The whitewashed villages of Andalusia are postcard-pretty and one of Spain’s most enduring emblems. You can follow the Ruta de los Pueblos Blanchos (‘route of the white hill towns’), which takes in several of the towns, including the beautiful Arcos de la Frontera. If you want to see a truly unique town, don’t miss the Smurf village of Juzcar.
Camino de Santiago
This famed pilgrimage route, ‘the way of Saint James’ in English, leads to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the end point of a journey of hundreds of miles for walkers or cyclists. There are several routes, but the most popular is the French Route, which begins in southern France and winds its way across northern Spain.
Seville is one of Spain’s most fun-loving, vibrant and flamenco-mad cities and it is well worth a visit. From its beautiful architecture and mouthwatering cuisine to its flamenco shows and stunning Alcázar (Moorish palace), this is one place that will stick in your mind long after you’ve left.
Don Quixote Country
The windmill-pocked region of Castilla-La Mancha was the setting of what is arguably the most famous Spanish novel ever written, Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote of La Mancha. Follow in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s footsteps by doing the Don Quixote Route; it goes through 148 Spanish towns, so you can pick and choose which ones you’d like to stop off in.
Castilla y León
This region holds 60% of Spain’s heritage sites and is a treasure trove of history, culture and gastronomy. It is home to cities such as Segovia, with its Roman aqueduct; Salamanca, a buzzing university city full of historical gems; and Burgos, with its majestic cathedral.
Spain is home to some of Europe’s most fascinating wildlife and many endangered species, from the Iberian lynx to the Cantabrian brown bear. You can visit breeding centres and sanctuaries, and even opt to go on a wildlife spotting tour led by trained guides to discover the country’s wonderful wildlife for yourself.
Once an industrial hub, today Bilbao is a centre of art and culture thanks largely to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, which has been hailed as a masterpiece of modern architecture. The modern-art museum is well worth a visit, too, as are the city’s pintxo (Basque tapas) bars.
No list of Spanish gems would be complete without the Alhambra, a Moorish fortress perched high on a hill overlooking Granada that is Spain’s most-visited tourist sight. The building, with its ornate examples of Islamic architecture and its beautiful landscaped gardens, are a must-visit, but make sure to book well in advance.
Which do you think are the most beautiful towns in Spain?