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Things to Do in Spain

Sandwiched between Portugal to the west and France to the northeast, Spain entices visitors with its rich culture, history, and fabulous cuisine. The sun shines almost all year round; locals pass down traditional tapas recipes through the generations; and people greet each other with warmth and affection. Whether you visit for the food, the weather, the coast, or the history, Spain brims with adventures, all of which can be easily accessed by a host of private and small-group tours. In vibrant Barcelona and Madrid, walking and cycling tours lead you to top attractions such as the Prado National Museum and Gaudí’s iconic La Sagrada Familia, and offer skip-the-line access as well as a guide to bring Spain’s history to life. Food and wine-tasting tours and cooking classes teach you how tapas delicacies such as Iberian ham, salted cod, and rich chickpea stew complement Spanish reds and whites like Rioja, Montenovo Godello, and Serrana Macabeo. History buffs can explore medieval streets around Besalú, Tavertet, and Rupit on a group tour to see where castle ruins hide among rugged cliffs and dense forests; while culture vultures will want to take in the passion of flamenco, a traditional Spanish dance. Multi-day tours take travelers to far-flung destinations like Cordoba, Granada, Ronda, Seville, Toledo, and the beautiful coast east of Malaga, where ancient olive groves thrive in the Spanish sunshine.
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Alhambra (Alhambra de Granada)
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The Alhambra is not only Spain’s greatest architectural treasure, but one of the world’s wonders. It might not wow you right up front like a Taj Mahal or a Great Pyramid, but soon enough that austere exterior reveals a wonderland of musical fountains, cunningly devised gardens and finely carved palaces. Its construction was begun in the 11th century on the red hill known as Assabika, which overlooks Granada. The Alcazaba fortress was the first structure to be built, followed by the royal palace and residence of members of the court.
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Royal Alcázar of Seville (Real Alcázar de Sevilla)
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The Reales Alcazáres, often just called the Alcázar or Royal Alcázar Palace, started off life as a fort, but various generations of rulers transformed it, building palaces, halls, courtyards and the adjoining gardens. Although it's far smaller than the Alhambra, it has the same kind of impact. It too is World Heritage listed. Actually, it's hardly surprising that the Alcázar recalls the Alhambra; some of the Alhambra's most prominent architects worked on it. Their masterpiece is probably the Patio de las Doncellas with its delicate arches, garden and reflecting pool. The Alcázar is associated with many colorful figures, most notably Pedro I (often called Pedro the Cruel), who ordered much of the Alcázar's construction. The rainwater tanks underneath the building are named for one of his victims, a beauty whom he pursued so ruthlessly that she disfigured herself with burning oil and became a nun. Not least of the Alcázar's pleasures are its gardens with their palms, pools and pavilio
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Guggenheim Museum
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Inaugurated in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.

The conception of this iconic museum was born out of a grand mission to revitalize Spain’s fourth-largest city, considered one of the nation’s most critical ports. Traditionally an industrial metropolis, the creation of Bilbao’s cutting-edge museum generated -- in its first three years -- over four million tourist visits and enough economic activity and taxes to more than pay for its cost.

During a trip to the riverside museum, you can wander its over 100 exhibitions, all interconnected and arranged around the central light-filled atrium.

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Mezquita (Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba)
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Originally the site of the Christian Visigoth Church San Vicente, Córdoba’s Mezquita -- or Grand Mosque -- stands as the city's most proud monument and one of the most exquisite Islamic structures in the western world.

Its initial origins date back to the year 600 and, following the Islamic conquest in the 8th century, the site of the Visigoth church was actually split between Christians and Muslims for a time. Ultimately, it was bought out by the governor of al-Andalus, with the construction of the Islamic mosque beginning in 785 by Muslim emir Abdurrahman I.

Since then, the structure has evolved right along with Spanish history. A minaret was added, and the building was enlarged, reaching its final size in 987. Then, when Kind Ferdinand conquered Córdoba during the Reconquista in 1236, the structure was consecrated as a Christian Cathedral.

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Sagrada Família
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La Sagrada Familia is no doubt the most iconic structure in Barcelona. The church, located in L'Eixample, has been a fixture in Barcelona since construction commenced in 1882 and as building continues on today the structure's fame only grows.

Though still a work in progress, the church already is an amazingly intricate structure. Antoni Gaudí spent 43 years on this project and, since his death in 1926, the duty to finish it has been passed on to several architects. Though the responsibility continues to change hands over the years, the architects have all respected Gaudí's vision and have made additions with his design in mind. Inside the church has an impressive stained glass windows line the main room and a lift takes visitors up one of the towers to enjoy the view. Smaller rooms hold exhibits detailing the history and future of the structure. La Sagrada Familia is projected to be completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí.

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Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (Catedral de Santiago de Compostela)
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The Catedral del Apostol is one of the most important shrines in Christiandom, as it is the said to be the final resting place of Saint James the Greater, one of the twelve Apostles. Its history is as storied and intricate as its architecture, having been razed and rebuilt numerous times during the Church's conflict with Spain's Muslim invaders.

The cathedral is a stunning masterpiece of baroque architecture, and each of its four directional facades depict different monuments to St. James and Jesus Christ. Guided tours explain the detail in each facade, and in Holy Years, when St. James' Day falls on a Sunday, you can travel through the Holy Door in the Eastern Facade. Inside the cathedral, you'll be treated to more stunning sculpture; as you walk through the crucifix-shaped interior, the edifices become more intricate and awe-inspiring, as the sculpture vividly illustrates scenes from the Bible.

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Constitution Square (Plaza de la Constitución)
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Constitution Square sits in the heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter. Since its construction in the early 1800s, it has served as the city’s main square, but perhaps most interestingly as a bullring. You can still see remnants of this today: look above each of the balcony windows, where you’ll spy numbers denoting the former bullring boxes once rented by spectators.

Though the bullfights long ago moved to the city’s proper Plaza de Toros, Constitution Square (or Plaza de la Constitución in Spanish) still hosts some of San Sebastián’s biggest events. The most famous of these is no doubt the start and finish – marked by the flag raising and lowering -- of the parade- and drum-filled Tamborrada, which takes place yearly on January 20th. Events aside, the main square, which is dominated by the municipal library, resides in a part of town blanketed by a web of narrow medieval streets, each dotted by Basque Country’s answer to the tapas bar: the pintxos bar.

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Timanfaya National Park (Parque Nacional de Timanfaya)
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With its still-steaming mounds of volcanic tuff and eerily barren lava fields, the volcanic terrain of Timanfaya National Park is a world away from the lively beach towns that Lanzarote is best known for. The focal point of the protected area is the dramatic red and black-rock mountain range, aptly named the Fire Mountains (Montañas de Fuego) after a series of eruptions in the 18th century that covered the entire island with volcanic ash and lava, completely reshaping the its topography.

Today, the volcanoes lie dormant, but the area remains a potent source of geothermal energy thanks to a residual magma chamber – a fact enthusiastically demonstrated by tour guides who toss bundles of branches into the steaming pits, where the wood rapidly burst into flames. Access to Timanfaya National Park is restricted to guided tours, and most visitors to the park opt to take the guided coach tours included in the admission price.

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Genovés Park (Parque Genovés)
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While in Cadiz, a trip toward the sea can offer more than just pretty views. Indeed, if you go to the northwestern border of the island-like southern city, you’ll happen upon one of its favorite treasures, Park Genoves. Created in the 19th century, the seaside green getaway wasn’t always so green, though: it once went by the name of Parsley Promenade given its sparse vegetation. But these days the garden serves as a botanical wonderland filled with over 100 species of trees and shrubs.

Strolling down its paths lined by fancily manicured greenery, you can escape the city and catch glimpses of the sea. Children will appreciate the man-made lake, which features dinosaur statues poking out of its waters, and a waterfall, which can be climbed atop, or even explored below by walking through its grotto. Whether you wish to sip on a coffee at the garden’s café, or prefer to find a quiet bench to relax on in the shade, the park is an enjoyable Cadiz stop that is worth a wander.

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More Things to Do in Spain

La Concha Beach (Playa de la Concha)

La Concha Beach (Playa de la Concha)

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San Sebastian’s main crescent-shaped beach is of softest sand and punctuated at both ends by craggy hills: Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igueldo to the west. Translating into English as ‘the shell’, La Concha was fundamental in the incarnation of San Sebastian as an elegant seaside resort favored by Spanish royalty back in the 19th century.

The beach fills to bursting in the summer, when the bumpy waters of the Bay of Biscay are calm and pleasantly warm to swim in. Lifeguards are always on duty and there are showers and other facilities on the beach, making it safe and easy for families to enjoy a day on the sand. Two floating pontoons out in the bay are just the spot for sunbathing; beyond them the small, rocky islet of Santa Clara has a tiny beach that is a prime picnic spot and can be reached by motorboat or hired canoe. Now backed by formal gardens, a brightly painted carousel, and a row of charming hotels, seafood restaurants and bars.

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Valencia City of the Arts & Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias)

Valencia City of the Arts & Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias)

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Kids and adults alike are intrigued by the City of Arts & Sciences, a museum complex devoted to discovery. The site is divided into four sections: the Hemisferic, Principe Felipe, Oceanographic and L'Umbracle.

The Hemisferic houses a planetarium, IMAX cinema and laser show, while the Principe Felipe building has a multitude of science exhibits and is shaped to look like the skeleton of a whale. The Oceanographic aquarium includes polar exhibits, coral reefs from the Red Sea, Mediterranean seascapes and underwater tunnels, and botanical species and sculptures are highlighted in the L’Umbracle walkway. Musical performances and operas are hosted in El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia.

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Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid)

Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid)

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The Palacio Real (or Royal Palace, also referred to as the Palacio de Oriente) is the lavish site of royal events, but is not home to the royal family (they have lived in the smaller Palacio de la Zarzuela for some time).

The Palacio Real is still a fascinating place to walk through though, with its maze of 50 themed rooms decorated in the finest metals and richest fabrics - though this is only a small sampling of the total 2,800 rooms of the palace. On the guided tour, you will also learn much about the interesting history behind the Bourbon dynasty, during whose reign the palace was most in use.

Highlights of the tour include the throne room, the immense staircase, the collection of suits of armor and the peculiar royal pharmacy, filled with all sorts of strange concoctions.

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Teide National Park (Parque Nacional del Teide)

Teide National Park (Parque Nacional del Teide)

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The largest and oldest National Park in the Canary Islands and home to Spain’s highest peak, Mount Teide, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Teide National Park is one of the top attractions on the island of Tenerife. At 3,718m, the landmark peak of Teide - the world’s third highest volcano from its base - is omnipresent and taking the cable car to the top is one of the most popular pastimes for visitors, with views spanning the surrounding islands.

Even from ground level, the park’s rugged landscape is magnificent, a geological wonder featuring an expanse of rugged lava fields, ancient calderas and volcanic peaks. Spread over 18,900 hectares, additional highlights of the park include the 3,135m Pico Viejo volcano, the distinctive Roques de García rock formations, and a unique array of native flora and fauna, including rare insects like the Tenerife lizard and an impressive collection of birds, including Egyptian vultures, sparrowhawks and red kite.

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The Rock of Gibraltar

The Rock of Gibraltar

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Zocodover Square (Plaza de Zocodover)

Zocodover Square (Plaza de Zocodover)

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Your first proper stop in Toledo may very well be the city’s main plaza, Plaza de Zocodover, as it receives visitors not far from the northern entrance to the city. The plaza has served as Toledo’s main square for pretty much all of the city’s history, and has been the site of bullfights, executions, and an important market for which the plaza was named.

Indeed, the word Zocodover has Arabic origins, meaning mercado de las bestias de carga, or, loosely, livestock market. That’s because, during those times, the plaza was home to a regular market that sold animals such as horses and donkeys. These days, apart from being one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, the plaza also hosts concerts and events, thus continuing to be the center of local life.

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Masca Valley

Masca Valley

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With its steep rocky cliffs, forested trails and trickling waterfalls, the wild landscape of the Masca Valley is among Tenerife’s most beautiful, and the remote gorge offers a thrilling backdrop for a hiking expedition.

At the top of the valley, the aptly nicknamed ‘lost village’ of Masca is perched precariously on the 600-meter-high edge of the gorge, reachable by a hair-raisingly steep serpentine road and offering spectacular views over the valley. From the village, it’s possible to hike all the way to the coast, a dramatic 4.5km trail that scrambles over the valley floor, past hidden caves, lagoons and black sand beaches.

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Generalife Gardens

Generalife Gardens

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The Generalife was built as a summer palace for the Muslim emirs, a place of retreat where they could kick back with their harems and take some time away from the world. Its charming gardens – undoubtedly the highlight of the Generalife - are still a prime place to do just that. Generalife Gardens are designed for tranquility, with everywhere the trickle of running water cooling the senses. Tall cypresses frame pathways, fountains play in arches over long pools, streams flow down staircases, flowers and flowering trees cast their scent, and hedges enclose serene little lawns. The sultana’s garden, with its ancient cypress trunk, was where one sultan’s wife trysted with her lover (and was caught, precipitating bloodshed – hard to believe as you stand in this artful paradise).
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Palma Cathedral (La Seu)

Palma Cathedral (La Seu)

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"In 1229, the great hero of Spain's Reconquista from the Moors, King James I, sailed to the Balearics amidst a horrible storm. If he made it to the Muslim-held isles, he pledged, he would build a great cathedral in honor of the Christian god, La Seu Cathedral. James safely arrived on Mallorca's beautiful shores, and after successfully occupying all four islands, transformed La Palma's magnificent mosque into one of the finest Gothic churches in all Europe. It may seem enough to appreciate La Seu's fantastic facades, 43 meters (141 feet) of ornate stonework, redesigned over the years by gifted architects including Gaudi and reflected in the calm Mediterranean. But it is well worth entering to see the richly adorned and magnificently vaulted interior. There are many archaeological attractions to the quite large Cathedral. Three naves hold numerous gold and silver-lined shrines, two 18th century Baroque candelabras weighing in at over 250kg each.
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Lobos Island

Lobos Island

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Fuerteventura might seem like enough of an island paradise, but it isn’t the only one that you’ll want to be conquering in this part of the Canaries: just 2 kilometers off shore sits a tiny islet that is a worthy destination unto itself. Called Lobos Island, the volcanic land mass spans 1.8 square miles and gets its name from the large population of monk seals (also called sea wolves) that used to live here.

Although the island’s formation dates back to thousands of years ago, 1405 marks the first recorded presence of man, when Jean de Béthencourt used it as a resupply station during his conquest of Fuerteventura. Since those times, it has remained virtually uninhabited, with a lighthouse keeper having lived there until 1968, after which the illuminated beacon became automated. Today, and since 1982, Lobos Island has been classified as a nature reserve, noted for its abundance of vegetation species (over 130 different kinds), and its bird population.

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Santa Barbara Castle (Castillo de Santa Bárbara)

Santa Barbara Castle (Castillo de Santa Bárbara)

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Travelers seeking a touchstone to history will find ancient artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as items from the Iberian and Roman empires at the Castle of Santa Barbara. This towering structure is tucked atop a rocky overlook and dates back to the 9th century. Like much of the region, it was once ruled by Muslims before being captured by Castillians in the mid-1200s. The castle grounds, which stand high above Alicante, are worth exploring, and visitors say the epic views contribute to a greater understanding of the city’s layout. A tiny souvenir shop and quaint coffee shop serving up strong brews offer the perfect place to relax after wandering through the historic site, which does not disappoint.

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Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

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Plaza Mayor is a large square in central Madrid. It serves today as a meeting place for tourists and locals alike, and has played host to a variety of festivities throughout history, including bull fights, soccer matches, and executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

The plaza was built in the early 17th century during King Felipe III's reign - the central statue is a nod to him overseeing the project's completion. Forming the outer walls are a series of three-story residential buildings with balconies overlooking the center, providing excellent views of the action below.

The most prominent of the buildings in the plaza is the Casa de la Panaderia - House of the Baker's Guild, which today serves municipal and cultural functions. There are also several shops and eateries that occupy the ground level of the buildings and provide refreshments for hungry and thirsty travelers admiring the square.

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