Things to Do in Spain
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.
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.
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.
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.
Given that Cadiz is almost entirely surrounded by water, the desire to hit thebeach is bound to strike you at some point. When this happens, your go-to destination will be La Caleta, the only proper beach in old town. It’s an isolated shoreline that cozies up along the western side of the city, nestled inside a natural harbor once used by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans.
Though it’s Cadiz’s shortest sandy shore, it ticks all the beach boxes, offering soft golden sands and calm waters, as well as amenities including lifeguards and showers. Perhaps best of all is that the beach is western facing, which means it’s the perfect spot in town to catch a dreamy Spanish sunset. While there, spy some of La Caleta’s notable sights, including the impossible-to-miss crescent-shaped Balneario de Nuestra Señora de la Palma y del Real, a 1920s spa whose gazebo-tipped arms reach out across the shore.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Spain
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.
The Museo del Prado - Prado Museum - is considered to house one of the finest art collections in the world. It displays thousands of European paintings, sculptures, and other works of art throughout its halls - and this is only a fraction of their collection!
What doesn't fit in the display space is stored or sent on loan to other fine galleries throughout the world. The Prado specializes in European art from the 12th-19th century (Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum is home to the post-19th century art), that was built from the Spanish Royal Collection.
The most famous piece in the collection that is on display at the Prado is Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. He dedicated many of his own pieces to the museum and had a hand in obtaining several works from great Italian painters as well. In tribute to Velazquez, his statue is one of the few marking the entrances to the museum.
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.
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.
With its jumble of stone-brick houses clinging to the edge of a soaring basalt cliff and a backdrop of forested mountains, the tiny town of Castellfollit de la Roca offers some striking photo opportunities. From afar, this is one of Catalonia’s most unmistakable postcard images, but looking out from the 50-meter-high clifftop provides an equally mesmerizing view, spanning the lush valleys of the Fluvia and Toronell rivers.
Despite its magnificent location, Castellfollit de la Roca has little more than 1,000 inhabitants, making it one of Catalonia’s smallest towns and the smallest in Girona. Visitors, however, are plentiful and the narrow streets, medieval squares and 13th-century church of St. Salvador offer a fascinating glimpse into a time long gone.
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.
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.
Lying between El Muelle harbor and the River Urumea, San Sebastian’s Old Town has its origins in medieval times although it was largely rebuilt following the large-scale destruction of the city by fire in 1813.
By day the Old Town is a maze of charismatic alleys and clusters of townhouses hosting the city’s chaotic daily Pescadería (fish market). The Municipal Museum San Telmo, the fine Gothic church of St Vincente and the Baroque basilica of Santa María del Coro are also found here, and much of the incessant action centers around the dynamic Plaza de la Constitución. This arcaded and balconied square was once a bullring and by night it buzzes with laughter and chatter from the numerous crowded bars and restaurants; this is the best place to sample pintxos, the famous Basque-country tapas of bite-size snacks on bread with typical toppings including peppers, tortilla, garlic prawns or cod.
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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