It’s true: Spain is a country every type of traveler can enjoy. This may surprise those who mostly associate the country with its golden beaches and flamenco (as I did before my nine-month stint in La Rioja), but the Iberian Peninsula kingdom comprises 17 autonomous communities—like Madrid and Andalucia—and they encompass a wide spectrum of cultures. Throughout Spain you can come across people like the Basques and the Catalonians, who speak their own language, and landscapes that span centuries-old palaces, mountain peaks, and even valleys full of cherry blossoms in the spring.
So yes, absolutely dig into that platter of paella in Valencia to experience Spanish culture. But think about visiting these 10 other places, too. Because while many of the best places to visit in Spain are well-loved, some offer a side to the country that may surprise you.
Off Spain’s eastern coast is the island of Mallorca, a prime example of Spain’s mixed history. Here, travelers can find traces of its former Roman, Moorish, and Christian occupants, like the 800-year-old La Seu, a Gothic sandstone cathedral, or the Arab baths in Palma de Mallorca’s historic center. But to limit your stay to the island’s capital is to miss some of Mallorca’s most beautiful landscapes. Beyond its clear-water beaches, the 1,405-square-mile island has dozens of designated cycling routes and underground cave systems that have hosted pirates and Moorish soldiers. Take in the beauty of the island on a hike up the UNESCO-recognized Puig Major, Mallorca’s tallest mountain at 4,711 feet.
The stairs out of Madrid’s Sol metro station put travelers in the midst of the bustle of Spain’s capital. Appropriately located in the heart of the country, Madrid is home to some of the best museums, restaurants, and nightlife. The 16th-century Plaza Mayor—which has been the setting of everything from fiestas to executions—is evidence that it still keeps its ties to tradition and history. Grab a bocadillo de calamares (calamari sandwich) in one of the plaza’s nearby storefronts or slip out of the city’s nonstop energy in the 350-acre Retiro Park, which is within walking distance from the Museo Nacional del Prado and Puerta de Alcalá. Just don’t siesta too much and miss out on any tapas bar crawls you have planned for the evening.
This coastal city takes an unabashed approach when it comes to differentiating itself from the rest of Spain, from the Catalan language to the warped, bright-colored facades of Antoni Gaudí’s buildings. Whatever gives Barcelona that je ne sais quois, it’s certainly resonating. Barcelona is a magnet for people from all over the world (more than 30 percent of Barcelona’s inhabitants were born outside of Spain), drawing travelers to stay for its beaches, year-round calendar of festivals, and markets. For the first-time visitor, a walk down the three-quarter-mile Las Ramblas is a must: The tree-lined pathway leads pedestrians through kiosks, neighborhoods, and historic buildings before stopping at the Mediterranean.
Warm people, sunny days spent sipping sangria, and trees full of oranges—that relaxed, siesta-loving attitude of Spain is available in Seville. The capital of Spain’s Andalusia autonomous community still bears plenty of marks from its past under the Moors. One of the most beautiful places to explore its history is the Royal Alcázar of Seville, an 11th-century palace sporting walled gardens and geometric, patterned arches that have been featured in Game of Thrones and Lawrence of Arabia. Stop and smell the jasmine at Plaza de España, and walk along the curving wall featuring 52 colorful mosaics that depict all of Spain’s provinces.
5. Picos de Europa National Park
Asturias, Cantabria, Castile and León
While lounge-worthy stretches of beach characterize Spain’s south, Picos de Europa National Park is a prime example of the green, dramatic landscapes that dominate the north. The 250-square-mile national park was the first established by the Spanish government in 1918 and includes alpine peaks, meadows, and lakes that feel similar to landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Explore the jagged edges of the Cantabrian Mountains along the 7.5-mile long Ruta del Cares, or look for local wildlife like the roe deer and Egyptian vultures.
6. Valle del Jerte
Looking for a cherry blossom alternative to the crowds of enthusiasts in Japan and Washington, D.C.? Head to Extremadura, the Spanish region that borders Portugal between March and April (timing the cherry blossoming is a bit of a guessing game), when Valle del Jerte bursts in a sea of white as 2 million cherry trees bloom. Flower enthusiasts can tour the 144-square-mile area by taking a road trip down Spain’s N-110 road, which winds through the Cáceres province and crosses through the region’s 11 small villages known as pueblos. Come at the right time and you may be able to catch the flower festival as the villages celebrate the season with markets and exhibitions.
7. San Sebastian
The origins of the Basque people are up for debate, but the ethnic group—spread throughout southern France and Spain’s eponymous autonomous community—has developed a culture unlike the rest of the country. San Sebastián is one of the cities found in Basque Country, where Euskara is spoken on the streets—forgo the hola and greet people with kaixo—and the steep cliff sides resemble those in Ireland or Scotland. Indulge in small plates known as pintxos of prepared cod and local bounty, but make some reservations too, because the food scene here is top notch: 10 Michelin-starred restaurants are spread throughout this city of 190,000.
Many of Spain’s big cities attract tourists from around the world, so much so that its beautiful small villages can be overlooked. Cudillero is one of the nearly 20,000 pueblos found throughout Spain, and a lovely one at that: Located by the Bay of Biscay, this fishing village of around 5,000 people is a masterclass of slow living by the sea. Colorful, orange-roofed houses dot the hillsides, which also serve as vantage points for panoramas of both town and ocean.
9. Rioja wine region
La Rioja, Basque Country, and Navarre
Spread across three different autonomous communities, the Rioja wine region is known for its tempranillo grapes, which produce the tannic, full-bodied red varietals of the same name. The region’s ideal grape-growing conditions are thanks to the Ebro River, which snakes throughout the area’s rolling hills. Admire the scenery with a glass in hand and learn about winemaking at a winery, known locally as a bodega. Some of the most attractive, like Lopez de Heredia, are in pueblos like Laguardia and Haro; the latter hosts an annual wine festival in the summer.
10. Santiago de Compostela
During the Middle Ages, people walked from the south of France to the northeastern tip of Spain as a way to show faith, establishing a 500-mile route known as the Camino de Santiago. Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia, is the endpoint of this pilgrimage and punctuates the end of the trip with its Romanesque-style cathedral. Even if you’re not a pilgrim, this city is a worthwhile place for exploring religious history and some of the dishes Galicia has to offer, from regional cheeses to seaside delicacies like percebes (aka barnacles).
Despite being more than 2,000 years old, Valencia is still innovating toward a sustainable future as the European Green Capital 2024 (in addition to being one of the places featured in AFAR’s Where to Go in 2024 list). If you stop by the city, skip the usual systems of transport and pick up your bike and walking shoes. There are more than 125 miles of bike lanes throughout the city, and dedicated green spaces like Turia Garden make it easy to walk off that paella. For a piece of tradition, stop by during March, when larger-than-life floats descend on the city for the Las Fallas celebration.