It’s hard to believe, but we’re coming up on three years living in Spain. In some ways, it feels like just yesterday that we landed in Valencia, excited and eager to give this expat thing a try, only to have our life flipped upside-down for the six months following. But in other ways, when we think back to all the experiences we’ve had in Valencia and across the Iberian Peninsula, we’re reminded of how well we’ve come to know this amazing country that we call home.
Many people visit Spain and hightail it straight to Barcelona or Madrid. While both are great destinations, Spain has so much more to offer than its two largest cities. Choose to visit smaller towns to experience everyday Spanish life, medium sized cities for incredible architecture and mind-blowing food, or if you’re really itching for a big city experience, do something different and visit Valencia instead. Here are our top 7 spots beyond boring Barcelona (yeah, we said it):
Okay, we’re biased. But with 3x more sun per year than Northern Europe, its seaside location, a 6-mile long park with trails, laid back attitudes and an incredibly charming historic center, Valencia is a great place to visit. Visit the largest produce market in Spain, learn how to make the real-deal Paella Valenciana at a chef-led cooking class, or swing by the Fallas Museum to learn about the city’s most important (and insane) festival when hundreds of 30-food high statues are built only to be burned to the ground. Save an evening to meet us out for tapas and a glass of Vermut (homemade spiced red vermouth) on one of the city’s hundreds of outdoor patios.
See our Designed Trip to the Spanish Mediterranean or come hang with us in Valencia with our Live Like an Expat trip!
The Alhambra. But seriously guys, the Alhambra. If experiencing this breathtaking palace and fortress complex is not on your travel list, add it immediately. Dating back to 889 AD, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, with intricate Moorish details, tile work and gardens that are straight out of Game of Thrones. Granada is a beautiful city, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, just an hour to the sea. The hilly Albaicin neighborhood has amazing views around every corner and is jam packed with incredible tapas bars to bounce from one to the next. Yes, that’s right - tapas originated in Granada and it’s the last city in Spain to serve them (whatever the chef is cooking) free with drinks.
In our Andalucia Southern Spanish Culture Designed Trip.
3. San Sebastián
With more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world, San Sebastián has the reputation of being a foodie’s paradise. But what people don’t tell you is that the elevated standard of food trickles down to tons of amazing restaurants at reasonable prices and (quite possibly the country’s best) Pintxo (small, bite-sized tapas) scene. Naturally, the surfing mecca is stunning, surrounded by green hills and set along three clam-shell shaped beaches. And, if you’re into wine like we are, you can easily take a day trip to La Rioja to sip some of Spain’s best.
4. Cala d’Or, Mallorca
If you follow our blog (or vlog), you know that we can’t get enough of little Cala d’Or on the island of Mallorca. It’s not exactly where you go for authentic Spanish cultural experiences, but if crystal clear turquoise water and rocky cliffs are your thing, then you’ll be happy you made the 45-minute jaunt from Valencia. The town itself is completely walkable, laid back and flat-out vacationey. Come in mid-September for warm sea water, better rates and less crowds.
5. Santiago de Compostela
Sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination. The Camino de Santiago, known as The Way of Saint James, was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages - right up there with Rome and Jerusalem. Today, hundreds of thousands of people from every background, religion, age and nationality strap on their hiking boots to walk the 500+ miles across Northern Spain, stopping at albergues (a fancy word for hostel) each night before (finally!) ending in the town of Santiago de Compostela about 4 weeks later. The Camino Portugués (starting in Lisbon) and the Camino del Norte (starting in Basque Country), are alternative routes with less “pilgrims” and more solitude. A unique type of trip that’s ideal for anyone doing some soul searching, wanting a challenge, and hoping to experience Spain slowly.
The heart of Andalucia and one of Spain’s most beautiful and vibrant cities, there’s no question that Sevilla should be tip-top on your Spain travel list. With the Guadalquivir river snaking past grand plazas, historic bullrings and incredible Moorish palaces, this city has plenty of sights. But what really makes it special is the spirit of Andalucia - hot summer nights filled with chilled gazpacho, the sounds of flamenco, and sips of sherry. Add in a visit to a traditional moorish bathhouse and spa, and tasting some of the world’s best olive oil at a nearby olive farm, and you’ll get a true taste for Southern Spanish culture.
In our Andalucia Southern Spanish Culture Designed Trip.
7. The Spanish Pyrenees
Ya know, the Alps get all the attention. Separating the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe, the Pyrenees mountain range stretches over 250 miles between Spain and France, and has peaks higher than 11,000 feet. Easily accessible from San Sebastian, Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, these mountains are where locals go for long weekends to ski, hike and bike. A lot like the Colorado Rockies, or California’s Sierra Nevadas, the Pyrenees are sprinkled with quaint little mountain resort towns, surrounded by nature, but with a Northern Spain/Southern France kinda feel.
Bottom line - a few days in Barcelona is a good start, but not nearly enough to really experience Spain. With regional differences in food, architecture and culture, it’s well worth your time to explore somewhere new.
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