A vacation in Spain can easily be spent taking part in the country's quintessential activities: Eating paella, sipping espresso at a café along a treelined street, or drinking cider and eating tapas until late in the night. But beyond the cathedrals, shopping, and Flamenco, Spain is a modern country that also offers world-class art museums, some of the world's best gastronomic cuisine, and bustling nightlife.
Whether you like to stroll in the park or dance 'til dawn after an exciting, tapas- and wine-filled evening, there's something for everyone in Spain. Here are 11 top things to do.
Eat Free Tapas
"Going for tapas" is an essential part of life in Spain. It isn't so much what you eat but how: That is, a morsel food with every drink, and each each one in a different bar. Lots of bars, lots of drinks, lots of great food. They say you don't get anything for free in this life. In much of Spain this is indeed the case, but in Granada (and a few select other cities) your tapas come free with your drink.
See a Flamenco Show
Flamenco is virtually unique in present day music. It's a traditional form of folk music that is still as alive today as it has ever been. Flamenco can be heard backed by a full orchestra in the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville, played by a pair of drunken gypsies in a seedy tavern or blaring from the stereo of a youth's turbo-charged sports car. The best flamenco can be found at a gypsy wedding, a spontaneous bar sing-a-long or in one of Spain's prisons. These are hard to come by, so you'll need to go and see a show; the best ones are in Seville or Madrid.
See the Architecture of Antoní Gaudí
Antoní Gaudí's architecture is famous, daring and unique, but not everyone likes it. Of course, landmarks like La Sagrada Família and Parc Güell are still must-sees for many. Other Barcelona must-sees: Gaudí's Casa Milà, Casa Calvet, and Colegio Teresiano de Barcelona.
Watch a Bullfight
Animal rights activists in Spain will be up in arms about bullfighting's inclusion in this list, while many Spaniards will groan. Bullfighting is no longer anywhere near as popular as it once was; however, bullfighting is an inescapable part of Spain's history and remains an anachronistic curiosity. Ritualized animal cruelty in a progressive Western democracy or an endangered art form? You have to see it for yourself to decide. Choose carefully which city you go to see your bullfighting in, since just because a city has a bullring, doesn't mean the city has a tradition of bullfighting. Bullfighting is originally from Ronda, but Seville is its spiritual home while Madrid has the most supporters today. In Madrid, the bullring part of town, called Las Ventas, is not the most exciting part of town, but it is well connected to the center of the city.
TripSavvy trusts its readers to make their own decisions on the ethics of bullfighting as an attraction.
Eat Gourmet Cuisine in San Sebastián
San Sebastián, in Spain's Basque Country is fast emerging as the foodie destination in not only Spain but the whole of Europe. So, what can you expect of San Sebastián food? Pinxtos, for one, the local name for tapas, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants, and steak and cider. Basque cider is the lesser-known sister of Asturian cider. Experience it at a Basque cider house, along with some excellent steak.
Visit the Alhambra
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. You can image what to expect at the Alhambra with this simple equation: Take the most beautiful gardens in the world, add a beautiful fortress and multiple by ten. Most people get around the Alhambra in under four hours, but many have been known to stay longer. Avoid busy times of year as tickets are in short supply.
Visit Madrid's Three Essential Art Museums
Spain produced two of the most important artists of the past hundred years: Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Find work by both artists in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, one of Madrid's three essential museums. But many would say that these two artists are not the best that Spain has to offer, and even more would say that the Reina Sofia is not the best museum in Madrid. Instead, that accolade goes to the Museo del Prado, which houses excellent art from the 14th to the 19th centuries from the likes of Velázquez, Goya and El Greco. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza completes the triumvirate of essential Madrid museums.
Study Spanish in Spain
If you have a little extra time on your hands, why not learn Spanish? Spanish is one of the four most useful languages in the world (along with English, Chinese, and Arabic), spoken throughout Spain and South America and quite the in-vogue language to learn in Europe at the moment. It is also a surprisingly simple language to learn. With the varying accents and other regional languages spoken in Spain, it is important to pick your city wisely. Accents in the south, such as in Seville or Malaga, can be tough to decipher for a beginner (but could be a great test of your skills once you get past the basics) and the other languages you'll hear spoken in Barcelona and, to a lesser extent, Bilbao, distract a little from the advantages of learning in Spain.
Eat Paella in Valencia
It's another cliché, but when in Spain, you have to try the paella. Unfortunately, unscrupulous Spanish restaurants know this and often serve paella which is frankly unpalatable. For this reason, you have to choose your restaurant carefully. Remember that there are several paella varieties: Bypass the seafood version and go for paella Valenciana. Made from meat instead of seafood, this is the original paella and so is the most "authentic."
Visit the City of Seville
Seville is a treat, providing you can avoid the sweltering heat in August. Seville at its best is truly captivating, including its cathedral with its Giralda tower, the neighboring Alcazar castle and garden complex and the Plaza de España.
Take a Trip Along the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage to the tomb of St James in Santiago de Compostela. For most people this involves walking up to 800-kilometer across northern Spain, though 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, through Pamplona and the wine country of 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.