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Balearic Islands

Floating in the blue waters of the Mediterranean off the eastern coast of Spain, the Balearic Islands are invaded every summer by a massive multinational force of tourists. Not surprising really, when you consider the fine beaches, relentless sunshine and wild nightlife. What is surprising is how the islands have managed to maintain their integrity, identity and strong links with the past. Beyond the clubs and beaches are Gothic cathedrals, Stone Age ruins, small fishing villages, and endless olive groves and orange orchards. There are four islands: the biggest is Mallorca, followed by Menorca, Ibiza and tiny Formentera. Formentera is the least developed; Ibiza attracts party animals, gays, hippies and fashion victims - it's one of the world's most bizarre melting pots.

 
Barcelona

If you only visit one city in Spain, it probably should be Barcelona. It's sophisticated, elegant and romantic, but has the energy and raffishness of a port city. The inspiring and unique architecture of Antoni Gaudí is evident in buildings such as the Sagrada Família church and Parc Güell, and its world-class museums include Museu Picasso and the Fundació Joan Miró. There is a fascinating old quarter, the Barri Gòtic, and a night scene that rivals any in the country.As a starting point, the area around La Rambla, Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol and Plaça Reial is a good place to pick up the vibe of the city. There's a buzz of activity and a constant stream of people promenading and enjoying the scene. There are hundreds of cafés, bars, shops and sights.In the north of the city, the fantasyland of Parc Güell showcases Gaudí's work. For more modernisme, try the Passeig de Gràcia and its surrounds. For one of the best modern art museums in Spain, head to the Fundació Joan Miró.Barcelona has an imposing Gothic cathedral, where each Sunday at noon crowds gather for the performance of the sardana, a traditional Catalan dance. Just east of the cathedral is the fascinating Museu d'Història de la Ciutat (City History Museum), which features a subterranean walk through excavated portions of Roman and Visigothic Barcelona.For retail therapy, the markets are great places to shop. The best are Els Encants Vells, a good second-hand market at Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes; the antiques market on Plaça Nova; and the crafts market at Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol. There are also enough chic boutiques to keep the fashion-conscious happy for weeks.When you're all shopped out, there's always food and drink to pass the time. Barcelona has a seemingly endless variety of bars that are much more than just watering holes. The greatest concentration of bars and restaurants is within walking distance of La Rambla. There are many places to stay in the old city on either side of La Rambla.

 
Bilbao

Post-industrial Bilbao, the largest city in the País Vasco (Basque Country) is transforming itself with ambitious urban-renewal projects, most notably the marvellous Museo Guggenheim de Arte Contemporáneo. This twist-up of glass and titanium, designed by US architect Frank Gehry and inspired by the anatomy of the fish and the hull of a boat, is the city's showpiece. The contents of this sardine can are no less stunning than its exterior: works by Serra, Braque, Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol and more line its walls and halls. The Museo de Bellas Artes, just 300m up the road, is also worth a look. When you tire of art riches, wander over to the restaurants and bars of the medieval casco viejo.

 
Granada

During the period of Muslim domination of Spain, Granada was the finest city on the peninsula. Today it is still home to the greatest Muslim legacy in Europe, and one of the most inspiring attractions on the Continent - the Alhambra.The Alhambra is one of the greatest accomplishments of Islamic art and architecture, and is simply breathtaking. Much has been written about the fortress, the palace, its patios and gardens, but somehow nothing can really prepare you for it. The Alcazaba is the Alhambra's Muslim fortress dating from the 11th century, with great views of the city from the tops of its towers. The Palacio Nazaries is the centrepiece of the Alhambra, and is noted for the intricacy of its stonework. Finally, there is the Generalife - the summer palace of the sultans, set in the soul-soothing Alhambra gardens.Granada's biggest attraction after the Alhambra is the city itself, which is set against the mountain backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. Simply wandering around the narrow streets of the Albayzín, the city's old Muslim quarter, across the river from the Alhambra, or the area around Plaza Bib-Rambla is a real pleasure. Stop by the Casa del Castril (Archaeological Museum) and Baños Árabes (Arab Baths), and the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) in which Fernando III and Isabel, the Christian conquerors of Granada, are buried. Next door to the chapel is Granada's cathedral, which dates from the early 16th century. The caves of Sacromonte, dug into a hillside in the north of the city, are another popular attraction.

 
Madrid

Madrid may not have the glamour or user-friendliness of Barcelona, but what it lacks in style it more than makes up for in substance, with a remarkable collection of museums and galleries, beautiful parks and gardens and wild nightlife.The most fitting place to start getting to know Madrid is at Puerta del Sol. Sol, as it is known to locals, is not much more than a huge traffic-junction-cum-bus-stop, but it's as central as you can get. Although Madrid is an enormous metropolis, the region which is of most interest to travellers is confined by Campo del Moro in the west and Parque del Buen Retiro in the east. The most exciting street is Gran Vía, but Plaza Mayor is the true heart of Madrid.Be sure not to miss one of the greatest art galleries in the world, the Museo del Prado, where the main emphasis is on Spanish, Flemish and Italian art from the 15th to 19th centuries. Goya is well represented and you'll find a wealth of paintings by Diego Velázquez. If you haven't run out of steam after the Prado, the Casón del Buen Retiro houses an excellent collection of 19th-century Spanish art. For one of the best art history lessons you'll ever get, check out the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a private assembly of paintings from Titian to Pollock. The Museo de la Escultura Abstracta, has an interesting collection of abstracts by some of Spain's better known modern sculptors, including Chillida and Miró. The beautiful Real Jardin Botánico, near the Prado, is a good spot to recover from an art overdose.For the little bit of interior decorator in everyone, visit the Palacio Real, if only as a lesson in what can happen when you give yourself free rein - you'll see some of the most elaborately decorated walls and ceilings imaginable. If you've ever got stuck renovating a house, take heart in the stark and cavernous Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena. It opened to the public in 1992 after only 110 years under construction.Madrid is the home of the world's largest bullring, Plaza de Toros Monumental de las Ventas, and is one of the best places to see a bullfight (corrida) - if you're so inclined. For something a little less cruel to animals, check out a football match when local favourites Real Madrid or Atlético de Madrid are playing at home. If you're in town on a Sunday morning, snaffle a bargain at El Rastro, one of the biggest flea markets you are ever likely to see. This is said to be the place to go if you want to buy your stereo back, so watch your pockets and bags.Finding a place to stay in Madrid is never really a problem. In summer the city is drained of people, thanks to the horrific heat, so if you are mad enough to be here then, you may well be able to make a hot deal on the price. At other times it is still worth trying to bargain if you intend to stay a while. The Santa Ana area is one of Madrid's most popular places to stay and it's close to good restaurants and nightclubs. The epicentre of Madrid's nightlife is Plaza del Dos de Mayo, in the area known as Malasaña.

 
San Sebastián

San Sebastián is stunning. Famed as a ritzy resort for wealthy Spaniards who want to get away from the hordes in the south, it has been a stronghold of Basque nationalist feeling since well before Franco banned the use of Euskera, the Basque language, in the 1930s. Donostia, as the city is known in Euskera, is a surprisingly relaxed town with a population approaching 180,000. Those who live here consider themselves the luckiest people in Spain and will not hesitate to tell you so. After spending a few days on the beaches and a few evenings sampling the city's sumptuous tapas and nonstop nightlife, you may well begin to appreciate their unbashful claim.The Playa de la Concha, and its continuation at Ondarreta, is one of the most beautiful city beaches in Spain. You can swim from Ondarreta to Isla de Santa Clara, in the middle of the bay, and in summer, a number of rafts are anchored at the halfway point to serve as rest stops.The Museo de San Telmo, in a 16th-century monastery, has a bit of everything - ancient tombstones, sculptures, agriculture and carpentry displays, a wonderful fine arts collection - and the squeakiest floors in Spain. Overlooking Bahía de la Concha is Monte Urgull, which is topped by a statue of Christ and has stunning views.

 
Seville

Seville is one of the most exciting cities in Spain, with wonderful parks and gardens, Muslim monuments, flamenco, bullfights and a large and lively student population. Expo 92 brought the city into the international spotlight. If you really want to experience Seville at its best, try to come for Semana Santa (the week before Easter) or for the Feria de Abril (in April) - a truly unforgettable experience.Seville's immense cathedral is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as having an area greater than any other in the world. This immense structure is primarily Gothic, though the work done after its central dome collapsed in 1511 was mostly in Renaissance style. The climb to the adjoining tower, known as the Giralda, is well worth the effort for the great views of the city. Check out the Alcázar, a magnificent palace dating from the Moorish times of Spain; and the Archivo de Indias, which houses over 80 million pages of documents dating from 1492 through to the decolonisation of the Americas.Other attractions are the Parque de María Luisa, which has a maze of paths, garden beds, pretty little patios, fountains and shaded lawns; the Museo Arqueológico, which has an interesting collection of broken statues and bronze tablets; and the rather kitsch Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares.

 
Toledo

Toledo is one of Spain's most magnificent historical monuments. It's an intact medieval city of narrow winding streets perched on a small hill above the Río Tajo. The city is crammed with fascinating museums, galleries, churches and castles. Unfortunately, it is also crammed with daytrippers, so travellers wanting to enjoy the city should stay overnight and explore in the evening and early morning to see it at its best. The dominant Alcázar has been the scene of military battles from the Middle Ages right through to the 20th century. The awesome cathedral, in the heart of the city, harbours glorious murals, stained-glass windows and works by El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. Other attractions include the city's two synagogues, the Iglesia de Santo Tomé (which contains El Greco's greatest masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) and the Museo de Santa Cruz. Archaeologists working on Toledo's Carranque recently uncovered a 4th-century Roman basilica, Spain's oldest.

 
Valencia

Spain's third-largest city, and capital of the province of Valencia, comes as a pleasant surprise to many. Home to paella and the Holy Grail, it is also blessed with great weather and the spring festival of Las Fallas, one of the wildest parties in the country.One of Valencia's most raved about attractions is the baroque Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas. The facade is extravagantly sculpted and the inside is just as outrageous. The Museo de Bellas Artes ranks among the best museums in the country and contains works by El Greco, Goya, Velázquez and a number of Valencian impressionists. The Instituto Valenciano Arte Moderno (Institute of Modern Art) houses an impressive collection of 20th-century Spanish art. Pulling four million visitors a year, Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias is a huge complex devoted to sciences and the arts that is easily the city's most popular attraction. Valencia's cathedral is also worth a visit. Climb to the top of its tower for a great view of the sprawling city.


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