The 20 Best Things to Do in Spain

Lighthouse of Cap de Formentor, Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain around Sunset.

Allard Scheger / Getty Images

A proper Spanish vacation must touch upon at least a few of the quintessential activities: sipping espresso in a large plaza, sharing late-night tapas among friends, and digging a spoon into a steaming hot plate of paella. In between these must-do moments, cathedrals inspire and dancers dazzle in every corner of this modern country. Spain offers world-class art museums and high-end gastronomy, not to mention a long and varied coastline that delivers one beautiful beach after another.

Whether you find yourself sitting in a Michelin-star restaurant in the Basque Country, embarking on a late-night romp through the streets of Madrid, or sunbathing at an island resort, here are the best things to do in Spain that will guarantee a grand adventure.

01 of 20

Explore Beautiful Spanish Beaches

View of the Rock of Calpe in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain on the Costa Blanca Coast along with a stone staircase ascending a cliff.

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With over 3,000 miles (4,964 kilometers) of coastline, Spain is home to thousands of beaches of all kinds. From short rocky coves to long stretches of sand, and beautiful bays with striking rock formations, there are more beaches to explore than you'll have time to visit. Among the city-side beaches, San Sebastián's La Concha is considered one of the best in Europe, boasting a beautiful promenade. For more nature-rich vistas, you can explore the coast north and south of the Rock of Calpe, which is home to Mediterranean beaches like the secluded Platja de Granadella and the more open and bustling Playa Arenal-Bol.

Depending on which coastal city you visit, many beaches in Spain are easy to reach by train or car. If you want to ensure lighter crowds, consider going to one you can hike to such as the Playa de Torimbia, which also happens to be a popular nude beach.

02 of 20

See Great Works of Art in Madrid

Pablo Picasso's Guernica in Reina Sofia National Art Museum
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Address
Madrid, Spain

In the art world, Spain has a fantastic reputation for producing some of the best artists of the past century such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. However, these two are just the tip of the iceberg that makes up all the great body of work of Spanish artists. To understand the full breadth of Spanish art, a trip to Madrid is necessary to visit the capital city's great art museums.

At the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, you can see Picasso's larger-than-life "Guernica" in addition to many works by Dalí, however, the Museo del Prado is the most highly respected in Spain. This institution houses stunning works from the 14th to the 19th centuries from the likes of Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza completes the golden triangle of essential Madrid art museums, displaying many paintings by Europe's old masters.

03 of 20

See a Flamenco Show

A flamenco dancer in action
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Flamenco is a traditional form of Spanish folk music and dance that has persisted through the centuries, thanks to the flamboyant and commanding flare of its dancers. You can find many places in Spain to attend a flamenco performance, but the dance is generally associated with the southern Andalusia region of Spain.

Flamenco can be heard backed by a full orchestra in the gardens of Seville's Alcázar, playing live in the local tavern, or blaring from the stereo of a turbo-charged sports car. The style of flamenco is credited to the Roma culture in Spain and many will attest that some of the best flamenco can be found at a Romani wedding. These are hard to come by, so you'll need to go and see a show in Seville or Madrid if you don't make the invite list.

04 of 20

Travel Through Time in Toledo

View of Toledo, Spain

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Address
Toledo, Spain

The perfect distance for a day trip from Madrid, Toledo is a destination that is as picturesque as it is historic—and the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Known as the "City of Three Cultures," Toledo's architecture was influenced by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. In one place, you can see grand cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues while learning about the eras of the city's past rulers from the Romans to the Visigoths and the Moors.

Sitting on a bend in the Tagus River, the city is rich in beautiful vistas, particularly from the top of the Alcázar, the highest point in Toledo that also houses a museum dedicated to military history. However, the postcard-perfect view can be found at the Mirador del Valle on the other side of the river.

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05 of 20

Visit the Alhambra in Granada

Overview of the Alhambra

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

Address
C. Real de la Alhambra, s/n, 18009 Granada, Spain
Phone +34 958 02 79 71

In the hills of Granada is the Alhambra Moorish fortress, which protected the city's inhabitants from invasion by the Christians for hundreds of years. It certainly worked: Granada was the last city to fall during the Reconquista, the Spanish leg of the Crusades. Most people get around the Alhambra in under four hours, but many have been known to stay for longer to appreciate all the little details. The best way to make sure you don't miss anything is to take a guided tour with an expert who can explain the history behind this epic fortress.

06 of 20

Marvel at Gaudí Architecture in Barcelona

Exterior of Sagrada Familia

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Address
Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona is the home of Antoní Gaudí, one of Europe's most creatively daring architects. Taking inspiration from nature, Gaudí's buildings define the character of the Catalan capital from the colorful mosaics of Parc Güel to the massive ongoing project of the Sagrada Familia. While the lines are often out the door for Gaudí buildings like Casa Batlló Casa Milà on the Passeig de Gracia, you can find many less-crowded buildings designed by Gaudí throughout the city, such as the tucked-away Casa Vicens and the Güell Palace in the Raval neighborhood.

If you want to learn more about the famous architect, make sure to buy your ticket to visit the Gaudí House Museum in Parc Güell. Gaudi lived in this house for two decades and the museum delves into the architect's personal life and history.

07 of 20

Eat Tapas

Spain, Andalusia, Granada, Albaicin District listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Bodega Castaneda, tapas bar

MATTES Rena / Getty Images

The abundance of tapas bars is one of the best parts of visiting Spain. Going out for tapas is all about sharing. Instead of each person at the table ordering one dish for themselves, the group collectively orders a selection of small plates for the table to share. Tapas bars are ubiquitous throughout Spain and in some bars, you might even get a small bonus tapa, like olives, if you order a drink.

If you don't know what to order, the classic dishes you'll find in just about any tapas bar in Spain are batatas bravas, fried potatoes covered in a spicy sauce, jamón iberico, a dish of thinly sliced Spanish ham, and pimientos de padrón, flavorful fried green peppers.

08 of 20

Have an Adventure in the Canary Islands

Man admiring the view of volcano Teide at dusk. Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
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Address
Canary Islands, Spain

Located off the coast of Africa the Canary Islands may be hundreds of miles away from Europe but they are technically still part of Spain and the European Union. These tropical islands are a natural playground with beautiful beaches and tall volcanoes like the one that can be seen in Teide National Park on Tenerife, the largest of the islands. Mount Teide is the third-largest volcano in the world at more than 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) high.

The natural beauty of the islands is beyond compare, but there is also a lot to see and do. Gran Canaria has some of the best beaches, particularly along the south coast where the sand is gold in color and you can go exploring in the huge dunes at the end of Playa de Maspalomas. For culture, visit the island of Lanzarote to see the works of Cesar Manrique, a sculptor who left his mark on the island by transforming the natural landscape into artistic attractions, such as Jameos del Agua, a volcanic lava tube he transformed into a garden with a series of natural pools.

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09 of 20

Attend a Music Festival

The crowd enjoys the Primavera Sound festival on May 23, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.

Miguel Pereira / Getty Images

If two things are true about Spaniards, it's that they love music and they love a good party. Perhaps that's why Spain plays host to so many of the world's best music festivals.

The largest is Primavera Sound, which takes place every spring/summer in Barcelona and attracts a variety of genre headliners every year from Lizzo and Miley Cyrus to Arcade Fire. For a festival that is strictly rock and roll, Madrid's Mad Cool Festival usually features some big bands or you could find your way to Bilbao for BBK Live, which lines up a smorgasbord of rock, pop, indie, and everything in between. If you'd rather dance it out to electronic music, Barcelona's Sónar Festival is a summer festival with an international reputation and three-decade legacy.

10 of 20

Get Artsy at the Guggenheim in Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao
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Address
Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48009 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain
Phone +34 944 35 90 80

The architectural pride of Bilbao takes the form of Frank Gehry's masterpiece museum: the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Not only does the museum house a large collection of art, the exterior is also a prime example of contemporary architecture with its billowing folds that are designed to reflect light in new ways as the sun moves across the sky. The building's interior is centered around an atrium shaped like a flower, while the exterior is covered in shimmering titanium panels that are reminiscent of fish scales, especially as they reflect the shimmering water of the Bilbao Estuary.

11 of 20

Go Out for Churros

Churros and chocolate

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A favorite dessert all over Spain, churros can be eaten at breakfast, after lunch, or after midnight for a late-night pick-me-up. Made of deep-fried dough covered in cinnamon sugar, they are typically eaten with a cup of melted chocolate for dipping. In just about every Spanish city, you can find a xurreria, or churro shop, that serves these delectable snacks hot from the frier. Some of the most famous include Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid and Chök in Barcelona, but with a heavenly combination of fried dough, cinnamon, and chocolate, you can't go wrong with the local churro spot.

12 of 20

Eat Paella in Valencia

Paella

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Paella is the classic dish that you'll find on the menu at every restaurant in every highly-trafficked tourist area in Spain, but to ensure you are tasting authentic paella, you'll need to go to Valencia. Hailing from this Mediterranean-facing city, paella is a saffron-infused rice dish cooked slowly in a wide and shallow pan. You can cook paella with veggies, seafood, or a mix of different meats, but the original Valencian recipe calls for rabbit and snails. It's not difficult to find quality paella in Valencia, but some of the most highly-regarded restaurants are Restaurante Navarro and the Michelin-rated Casa Carmela.

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13 of 20

Study Spanish

Young woman in classroom writing Spanish words on whiteboard - stock photo

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Although English-speakers have little difficulty traveling through Spain, the desire to master the twists and trills of the Spanish language is likely to set in sooner or later. There are many ways to learn Spanish in Spain, from short courses you can take on a vacation, to long-term exchange programs, and multilingual language events which are often held in large cities.

On your travels, keep in mind that Spain is a country of many languages. While Castilian Spanish is spoken everywhere, most regions have a regional language or dialect, such as Catalan, Galician, Basque, and Valencian. Each language dates back to the time when Spain consisted of separate kingdoms. And if you have experience traveling in Latin America, you will also find that the Spanish spoken in Spain can sound very different from the Spanish you're used to

14 of 20

See the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona

running of the bulls in Pamplona

 

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Address
Pamplona, Navarre, Spain

Every July in the northern city of Pamplona, the city titters with nerves and excitement as the preparations are made for the main event of the Sanfermines festival. The Running of the Bulls is a longstanding tradition during which bulls are let loose to storm the streets and audacious participants try their best to outrun them.

If you prefer to watch safely from a distance, there are many places to do so on the almost 3,000-foot route from the starting point to the bullring, but you'll need to arrive very early in the morning to secure your spot behind the railing because by 6 a.m. the crowd will already be two people deep and the party will have already begun as spectators wait for the bulls to be unleashed. Balconies may also be available to rent, but these are typically only available at high mark-ups and must be reserved far in advance.

TripSavvy trusts its readers to make their own decisions on the ethics of bullfighting as an attraction.

15 of 20

Go Sunbathing in the Balearic Islands

Cala Macarella Beach, Menorca

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Address
Balearic Islands, Spain

The Balearic Islands are made up of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera, in addition to the smaller outlying islands that include Cabrera and Dragonera. With a warm Mediterranean climate and a cerulean-blue coastline, this Spanish archipelago is one of the most popular places for Europeans to go on vacation.

With plenty to explore, each island offers something for everybody. While Ibiza is a world-renowned party destination, Mallorca is known for having beautiful national parks. Menorca is more low-key but is home to the city of Ciutadella which has a remarkably well-preserved historic center. Formentera is the smallest of all of the inhabited islands and the beaches here tend to be less crowded and are filled with many hidden coves where you'll be more likely to find privacy amid the island's natural beauty.

16 of 20

Get Schooled in Salamanca

Beautiful view of famous University of Salamanca, the oldest university in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe

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Address
Salamanca, Spain

Home to the oldest university in Spain, Salamanca is widely hailed as one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. The university, founded in 1218, is often a popular choice for international students interested in studying the humanities or learning Spanish. A stop on the Camino de Santiago, Salamanca is also a good starting point for a day trip to Zamora, another city on the historic pilgrimage trail.

One of the best things to do in Salamanca is to simply wander around and enjoy the intricate architecture from the university's campus to Plaza Mayor, one of Spain's largest plazas. You can also explore more recent architectural history at the Museum of Art Noveau and Deco, which houses a collection of great from the 19th and 20th centuries, including beautiful examples of stained glass windows.

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17 of 20

Go Wine Tasting in Rioja

Vineyard leading up to a village in La Rioja, Spain

Julio Alvarez / Getty Images 

Address
04260 Rioja, Almería, Spain

Wine tasting is an important part of any trip in Spain and in a major city like Madrid, it's easy to find a wine bar where you can sample vintages from all over Spain from the Garnachas of La Mancha to the sherries of Jerez. However, if you want to dig deep into wine and go to see the vines for yourself, Rioja is the premier destination for wine lovers.

This luxury wine region is most easily reached from Bilbao and a hotel in the capital of Logroño will put you in a position to explore the many beautiful wineries of the countryside. For a more immersive experience, check out wine hotels like Finca de Los Arandinos where you can wake up with a vineyard view, or Hostería San Millán, which is located inside a historic monastery.

18 of 20

See the Moorish Influence in Seville

Courtyard of the Maidens, Alcazar of Seville

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Address
Seville, Spain

Seville is the largest city in Andalusia and it has some of the best-preserved Moorish architecture in all of Spain. After the Islamic conquest of the whole Iberian peninsula, many of Seville's iconic buildings such as the Seville Cathedral were originally constructed as mosques with Islamic minarets.

The Alcázar is the city's most shining example of the mesmerizing geometric patterns and beauty of the Islamic style. Alcázars, which are fortresses, were built in many cities, but in Seville, the Alcázar was transformed into a palace built in the ornamental Mudéjar style. Inside the palace, visitors should pay special attention to the intricate tile work and look up at the ceiling when passing through the Hall of Ambassadors.

19 of 20

Walk the Camino

A dirt path through grassy hills on the Camino de Santiago

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Address
C. de Zambrano, 41900 Camas, Sevilla, Spain

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. The full trail is a 497-mile (800-kilometer) route that crosses northern Spain, but you can start from anywhere you like. For those who embark on the most popular route, the Camino Frances, this involves a walk through the Pyrenees, Pamplona, and La Rioja, before a long stint walking across the Spanish meseta. After reaching Leon, a city renowned for its tapas, you cross into the wonderful green countryside of Galicia.

20 of 20

Eat Gourmet Cuisine in San Sebastián

Pinxtos in San Sebastian

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

Address
Donostia-San Sebastian, Gipuzkoa, Spain

San Sebastián, in Spain's Basque Country, is quickly emerging as the foodie destination in not only Spain but the whole of Europe. Instead of tapas, you'll go for Pintxos in the Basque country, where you can try local flavors. The city is chock-full of Michelin stars and high-end restaurants, but for the iconic Basque flavors, make sure your order steak and cider. The lesser-known sister of Asturian cider, Basque cider is best tasted in a cider bar like Sidrerría Behari.

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The 20 Best Things to Do in Spain