Saturday, 1 December 2012

Our top 10 places to visit in Spain

After putting together our list of top ten places to visit in Portugal I moved on to writing one for Spain and came up against a big problem.  We could easily come up with our ten favourite places but putting them in some kind of order?  Utterly impossible!  There were so many cities we visited that we fell in love with and we just can’t pick a favourite, so instead I’m putting this list in alphabetic order!  Once again we did mainly visit only coastal towns so there may be some amazing cities inland we missed out on. So without further ado, here are our top 10 favourite Spanish cities.

1. Barcelona

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, lit up for La Merce festival
Despite the less than pleasant way our last visit to Barcelona ended, it remains one of our very favourite cities.  We've been fortunate to have visited twice now, both times during La Merce festival held every September.   The festival is phenomenal and features firework displays, human towers, concerts, a show at the magic fountain and the insane Correfoc which has to be seen to be believed (all free by the way!).  In addition, lots of the attractions and museums offer free entry or special exhibitions over the 4 day festival. 

Barcelona has so much to offer that you’ll need at least a week and a lot of energy to just cover the main sights!  For us the legacy of Gaudi’s architecture is one of Barcelona’s biggest draws, especially Casa Battlo, Park Guell and of course the famous Sagrada Familia.  When visiting the cathedral, be sure to take a tour of the towers.  It costs extra but you can go high up into the spires, look over the edge of precariously placed balconies and get a much better appreciation of the masterpiece, as well as superb views over Barcelona’s rooftops!  Barcelona’s zoo and aquarium are both excellent attractions, the MNAC art museum situated in the pretty National Palace is also well worth a visit.  A trip to Barcelona wouldn't be complete without the craziness of the renowned shopping street Las Ramblas full of street performers, artists, market sellers and busy cafes.  If that’s not your thing then just a short walk away, you will find yourself in the stunning Gothic quarter with its bohemian feel amidst glorious architecture.  

I could go on for days about all that there is to do in Barcelona, that’s before I even mention the world renowned nightlife!  There’s so much to see and do you’ll be spoilt for choice!  Plus the combination of a lively city with a relaxing beach makes for a great all round holiday.  For me though, I have to say my favourite thing about Barcelona is its atmosphere and the way the city makes me feel.  Barcelona always seems so alive, so vibrant and just buzzing with excitement.  I've never been anywhere quite like it!

2. Bilbao

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain
Bilbao is one of the classiest cities I've ever visited.  The city is pristinely presented and the locals are immaculately turned out too.  Whether you’re strolling along the river or relaxing in one of the many parks, every square inch of Bilbao is neat and tidy. Take a short walk anywhere in the city and you’ll be sure to bump into a unique yet beautiful sculpture.  Even the benches and street lights here are quirky.  It really feels like a lot of thought and imagination has gone into the design of Bilbao and it has definitely paid off.

The main highlight here is Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim museum on the banks of the river.  The building is an extraordinary array of curves in metal and glass that flow beautifully.  Outside you find several exhibitions including a giant metal spider and a puppy made out of flowers!

Bilbao also hosts numerous excellent museums, a stunning old quarter and sumptuous parks, including one high above the city with impressive views.  The train station is another lovely building with a jaw dropping stained glass display.  I’d also heartily recommend whiling away a few hours strolling along the banks of the river, soaking up the views.  Bilbao is equally beautiful by night too, particularly with the exceptional Zubizuri bridge all lit up.   

All in all Bilbao is a perfect little city which is incredibly well taken care of.  There is a strong community feel and clear family values here.  We've visited twice now and I’m still surprised by quite how perfect it all seems! It could all too easily seem a little too like Stepford, but thankfully the architectural flair and imagination of the city really helps it break the mould. 

3. Cadiz

Sunset and fishing boats off the peninsula of Cadiz, SpainWell it will come as no surprise to any readers of the blog that Cadiz made it onto this list.  We only managed to spend two days here thanks to an absence of decent parking but we fell head over heels for the place.  As a small peninsula, Cadiz is an easy city to find your way around which makes you feel at home very quickly.  Another big bonus is that it means you’re never too far from the sea, which around here is sapphire blue and gloriously warm. 

The main square is home to an impressive cathedral with a grand gold dome on top.  This square is very much the central, bustling hub of town both day and night.  There are some Roman ruins to visit and the stunning interior of the casino should not be missed.  Cadiz also has lots of parks, including my favourite which is full of dinosaur sculptures, a big waterfall, vividly coloured flowers and a lot of Alice in Wonderland style topiary.  It was such a great place, all on the cliffside overlooking the sea.

Cadiz is a fantastic place to watch the sun set over the sea, with lots of cute fishing boats bobbing on the water.  The locals were out in force to watch it too and at the end they all clapped.  This was probably one of my favourite moments in all of our travel, truly heartwarming. 

We felt instantly at home in Cadiz, there’s a very welcomingly and friendly atmosphere.  There’s a large gay community and a lot of tattooed and pierced people which makes it feel a lot more accepting than other parts of Spain.  We really did love Cadiz and had it not been for the poor parking I’m sure it would have been difficult to tear us away.

4. Cordoba

The red and white arches of La Mesquita mosque in Cordoba, Spain
Whilst we mostly toured the coast of Spain, we felt that Cordoba would be worth the long drive inland and we were right!  We parked up on the opposite side of the river to the main centre which afforded us magnificent views of the historic city.  The Roman bridge takes you over to the Moorish centre with its many architectural delights.  The famous Mesquita (mosque) is the main draw and well worth the sizable entry fee.  When we went it was a little too busy for my liking but it didn't particularly detract from what is an amazing experience.  No picture can do justice to quite how astonishing the seemingly everlasting rows of archways are!  In the centre you find a cathedral which is very beautiful but also very at odds with the Moorish style of the rest of the building.   I have to say I prefer the Mosque with its intricate carvings and bright colours, it totally blows you away. 

There are many other architectural gems in the old part of town as well as some wonderfully fragrant orange trees.  In the more modern centre we came across some attractive statues, fountains and parks as well as a number of other great looking buildings.  You’ll also find a archaeology museum and a fine arts museum, both free of charge with an EU passport (or an English accent if you forget your passport!).  There are also some well-preserved Roman ruins. 

Cordoba is also well worth a night-time visit when all the buildings and the Roman bridge are all lit up in a sympathetic way.  If only for the Mesquita alone, Cordoba should be on your list of cities to visit but it really does have so much more to offer.   The panorama of all the Moorish buildings from the riverbanks really does take some beating and shows that Cordoba is much more than just the home to one of the most famous buildings in Europe.

5. Gibraltar 

The rock of GibraltarI know our new-found Gibraltarian friends would not appreciate their home being in the list of ‘Spanish’ places to visit but we felt no visit to Espana should be without a trip to the British territory.  We had an amazing time here and certainly owe our wonderful tour-guide Mark thanks for that.  We took us up to the top of the rock where we explored caves, military tunnels and met some monkeys.  They are very cheeky indeed and totally chilled out around people. 

The views from the top of the rock are phenomenal and on a clear day you can see over the straights to Africa.  For us Gibraltar offered  a home from home and a chance to fill up on all the foods we’d missed being away from Blighty.  It certainly was bizarre to go and fill up on traditional pub grub in a very English pub and then stroll out into 40 degree sunshine!  There’s a lot to see and do in Gibraltar and the mix of influences due to its proximity to Spain and also Africa make for a great melting pot of cultures.  Aside from our trip up the rock, we particularly enjoyed the botanic gardens and a stroll around the marina.  Gibraltar is also home to some great beaches. 

I have to say, walking into Gibraltar across the airports runway is pretty terrifying but it definitely sets the place apart!  We found Gibraltar incredibly welcoming and great fun.  It offers much of what we love about the UK with Southern Spain’s glorious weather and coastline.  Gibraltar feels very safe indeed and has a very tight-knit community.  I must admit spotting monkeys on your walk into town would never get old for me!  It’s an unusual and beautiful place that I’m sure we’ll return too.

6. Girona

Rooftop view over historic Girona in Northern Spain
Girona was the last spot we visited in Spain and I’m so glad we did.  In a word, Girona is CHARMING.  It feels like a city straight out of a fairytale.  You can certainly feel the influence of nearby France in many of the buildings.  Our favourites were the Romanesque Sant Pere de Galligants and the Gothic Colleciate Chruch of Sant Feliu.  There are lots of other gems to see though and everywhere you turn the view is photo worthy, I was scared I’d fill up the camera!    The centre of town is full of cute shops; little patisseries, cafes and bakeries, all housed in stunning buildings.  I can’t reiterate enough quite how adorable this place is!

The best way to see Girona though is from atop the ancient walls surrounding the city.  High above the cobbled streets you can really appreciate the beauty of the city set against the rolling green hills behind.  There are lots of towers to climb and every view is picture postcard perfect. 

Back on the ground, a walk along the river is a must to appreciate the colourful houses and old bridges.  We didn’t get to spend a great deal of time in Girona but we were certainly blown away by how picturesque the city was.  Hopefully we’ll get to come back someday.

7. Granada

View of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain from the gardens of Generalife
Granada is nothing short of stunning.  We were completely bowled over by the Moorish influenced architecture dotted about town.  The large cathedral is particularly impressive, as too are many of the university faculty buildings.  Even the café and shop buildings here are astonishing.  The Moorish influence extends to the shopping quarter too and there’s a real bohemian vibe to the place as it’s such a varied mix of different cultures.  The centre of town is dotted with sculptures and huge fountains as well as plenty of attractive green spaces.  Wandering through town took us so long as we were continually stopping to admire our surroundings and take a few pictures.

The highlight of Granada is of course the Alhambra Palace.  Whilst getting into the place is a logistical nightmare (arrive early OR ELSE), it is certainly an attraction not to be missed.  Tickets aren’t cheap but you do get a lot for your money.  Your ticket also gives you a specific time to visit the Nasrid Palace, the most well-known part of the palace, and thankfully ensures it is not too busy when you get there.  I spent the entire time amazed at the beautiful intricately carved archways and stunningly detailed tile work.  It really does have to be seen to be believed.  The gardens are also magnificent and so sprawling that it’s easy to find a quiet spot to relax and enjoy the surroundings.  There are waterfalls and fountains galore, all amidst pretty, brightly coloured flowers.  Without a doubt, this was one of the best places we visited on our travels.

Regulars of the blog will also know what a great time we had at Granada’s Science Museum, which definitely deserves a mention here.  Entry was a reasonable 6.50 euros and there is so much to see and do for your money.  It’s full of interesting, interactive experiments on all sorts of aspects of Science.  It really is a place where they encourage you to get involved and try things for yourself which makes for a great fun day out.  I particularly enjoyed the butterfly house and the temporary Dinosaur Exhibition.   

I’m certainly glad we made the trip inland to visit Granada.  We spent about a week here in total and had a great time.

8. Pontevedra

14th century church remains in Pontevedra, Northern Spain
I must admit I’d never heard of Pontevedra before we left the UK.  Its description in the guide book sounded nice so we opted to give it a try and I’m so happy we did.  When you’re on the road, a great parking spot can help make a city and our spot in Pontevedra was fantastic.  We pulled up alongside the river by an extraordinary looking bridge, a short ten minute walk from town and across from a gorgeous park.  Part way down the river we found a man-made beach that was very busy with the local teenagers and looked like a great spot to hang out.

The city itself is full to the brim with interesting and very varied architecture.  There is a real sense of design flair to be found here and even the most ordinary of apartment blocks will be adorned with stunning bright white, iron-worked balconies.  Café culture is alive and well and everywhere you turn well-healed ladies catch up over coffee whilst couples share some tapas.  There’s definitely a lot of money here and as a result the city and its architecture are very well looked after.

The ruins of the 14th century church are certainly worth checking out as too are some of the working churches which are also very impressive.  There are many nice plazas and a huge park to relax in.  Pontevedra’s student population give the city a youthful atmosphere but there is also a strong community feeling and again families here seem to be very close.  Whilst there aren’t as many attractions as some of the other cities on the list, Pontevedra is an architecturally stunning city on the banks of a lovely river.  It’s quirky, a little different and well worth the visit.    

9. Seville

Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain
It’s hard to know where to start with a city of so of amazing things to see!  My favourite place in Seville has to be the Plaza de Espana.  I instantly fell in love with this spectacular square and we went back to visit so many times during our stay.  The combination of the stunning tile-work, adorable bridges, colourful flowers and huge fountain make for a phenomenal place to visit.  The adjoining park is amazing too. It’s utterly huge, plays home to several museums and is full of fountains, lakes, topiary and sculptures.

Another must-see attraction is the ginormous cathedral with the stunning Giralda tower alongside it.  It’s an astonishing piece of work from every angle.  The old tobacco factory and the Torre de Oro are must-sees too.  We really enjoyed the art museum and the archaeology museum which are both free with an EU passport.  The art museum is particularly remarkable and we spent a good few hours strolling around. 
The most enjoyable thing for us in Seville was just to ditch the maps and just stroll around the streets.  The Moorish architecture here is probably the most astounding of all the places we’ve visited and even along the back streets you can find some jaw dropping buildings.  The Moorish tile-work which adorns so many buildings here makes Seville a wonderfully colourful city and nothing short of beautiful.

One spot that sadly doesn’t seem to get mentioned too much in the guidebooks is Setas de le Encarnacion, a space-age looking structure with undulating curves of metal on top which look like the tracks of a bizarre rollercoaster.  The building looks like it fell right out of a sci-fi movie.  You can get the lift up to the top and wander around.  It’s an incredibly odd experience which offers 360 degree views of this awesome city, definitely recommended!

No section on Seville would be complete without mentioning the heat.  It was a humid 44 degrees when we visited and stayed that hot until late into the night.  If you’re not a fan of sweltering heat, you may want to avoid the high summer!  Despite the heat we both fell utterly head over heels for this fantastic city.

10. Valencia

Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, Valencia. City of arts and sciences in Valencia's riverbed park, Spain.
Last but certainly not least we have Valencia, another city full to the brim with things to see and do.  We arrived into the town to be greeted by the quirky-looking and very colourful train station.  From there you soon come across the main town square, filled with astounding buildings including the fanciest post office I’ve ever seen!  Valencia is incredibly grand with extravagant Baroque facades adorning so many of the buildings here.  Special highlights include the gorgeous Marques de dos Aguas, the large cathedral and the more modern but no less impressive ‘House of Dragons’.  The Marques de Aguas is also striking on the inside, with some of the most wonderfully extravagant and palatial rooms I’ve ever seen.  Both the old and new market buildings are also lovely, the former is designed by a friend of Gaudi’s and very much reflects his signature style. 

We also really enjoyed a visit to the Gothic silk exchange building which offers free entry to enjoy its UNESCO protected interior of magnificent gargoyles and stunning stained glass.  Also free and well worth a visit is the extensive fine art museum. 

Our favourite thing in Valencia however has to be the Science Park and Oceanarium both found in the vast park built in the old riverbed that surrounds the city.  Whilst very expensive, the oceanarium gives you a chance to get up close to a beluga whale, dolphins, sharks, penguins, seals and many others, all amidst breath-taking space age architecture.  The other buildings that make up the Science Park defy belief and seemingly physics!  How most of these buildings stay up is mind boggling.  It’s an absolute joy to walk amongst these works of art and sheer genius.  By night the area is all lit up and is even more spell-binding.  I cannot enthuse enough about this magical place.

Together the futuristic science park and the grand old buildings in the centre of town make for a city that is truly unforgettable.

So that's our list of our top ten places to visit in Spain and what to do when you're there, let us know what you think!

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