Today’s post was written by Carson, a part-time travel blogger and full-time travel lover who was living abroad in Spain and currently works in public relations in the Big Apple. She loves sharing tales of her trips on her travel blog. When she’s not planning her next trip, Carson loves cooking (and eating) and is always down for a workout. She’s also a very helpful volunteer for the NYC chapter of The Nomadic Network!
While spending two and a half years studying, working, and living in Madrid, Spain, I was fortunate to have the time to travel around this beautiful country. I was able to spend time lapping up the delicious food, taking in the unreal geography, and marveling in museums.
Spain has become somewhat of a hot-spot destination over the last few years, and with good reason. This friendly country is full of everything for nature-lovers and city-dwellers alike. Cheap living and accessible in-country travel make it the perfect place to spend a few weeks (or a few years).
Here are some top destinations to see in the land of tapas and toros:
Upon entering Ronda, it looks like most pueblos (small towns) throughout Spain. Driving past white, squat houses, you may not realize that you are approaching a historical and architectural marvel. But this unbelievable town in the autonomous community of Andalucía is a magical sight.
The main attraction is a 300-foot tall bridge, called El Puente Nuevo, which connects the old town with a more modern section. Park your car, and walk into the town center. Wander through the old town, following the directions toward El Puente Nuevo. I hope you don’t have a fear of heights! The view below reveals a gorgeous gorge.
- Check out views of the city looking up from the gorge by hiking down the trail that starts on the far side of the bridge. You’ll likely see other visitors heading down the path. The views are especially glowing at the golden hour.
- Pro tip: Find the overlook near the old Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring) to watch the sunset over the rolling green hills — you won’t be disappointed.
It took me two years of living in Spain until I made my way up to Cantabria on the northern coast. A Spanish friend invited me on a weekend-long road trip, and I jumped at the chance. A 4.5-hour drive from Madrid, this coastal region is perfect for anyone looking for some pure nature.
Stay at a casa rural (a type of bed-and-breakfast) outside the capital of Santander. From there, you’ll have access to all sorts of beautiful beaches (surfers welcome), insane hikes, and rolling country hills.
Visit El Faro de Caballo (roughly translated as “Horse Lighthouse”) 45 minutes away from the city for spectacular views and a good workout: the lighthouse is on a rock 700 steep steps down from the trail. After slowly climbing down, you’re met with panoramic views of the blue sea and rocky cliffs. Just make sure you have enough energy to get back up those steps!
- Check out Pensión Rumor (sometimes called Casa Rumor) if you’re looking for a low-cost, super friendly bed-and-breakfast in the Cantabrian countryside. It’s no-frills, but the staff is incredible and breakfast is yummy (though some level of Spanish may be helpful if you decide to stay here).
- Pro tip: While Cantabria is definitely known for its nature, Santander is home to good food and nightlife, and it’s worth spending an evening walking the streets.
It’s hard not to love San Sebastián, another city along Spain’s northern coast. I love it for the beach, and more than anything, the pintxos (or pinchos), Basque snacks, similar to tapas, that are eaten in bars all over the city. Don’t try finding the “perfect” pintxos place — trust me, I tried, and it was overwhelming. Instead, let your stomach guide you, and look for the following: a busy place full of Spaniards and no English menus in sight.
If you’re up for it, San Sebastián is also a great place to try surfing. I say “try,” because I wasn’t on my feet for more than 10 seconds. There are two major beaches, Zurriola and La Concha, right in the heart of town. If you’re up for a challenge, try catching some major waves.
If you’d prefer to keep your feet on the ground, Museo San Telmo is a lovely, quiet museum with traditional and modern art.
- Check out Pukas Surf Eskola for your surfing needs. The staff is helpful and bilingual.
- Pro tip: Take a free walking tour of the city and for great recommendations, ask your local guide about their favorite pintxos bars.
Sitting atop a hill with the Tagus River guarding one side, this medieval city is a must-do day trip. Well known for its mix of three religions — Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — Toledo has architecture spanning centuries and will transport you back in time as you make your way through the winding, narrow streets.
Toledo became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. Today, though a popular tourist destination, the city remains charming and historic. Make sure you visit the Toledo Cathedral; you can walk in for free, but doing the guided tour is really worth it. On your way out of town, pick up a sword (or a letter opener, if you’re packing light) — Toledo is known for its metalwork.
- Check out Museo del Greco to see works by the famous painter El Greco himself in the city where he spent many years.
- Pro tip: While Toledo, Spain, and Toledo, Ohio, are in fact “sister cities,” they are not pronounced the same: (toe-LAY-dough in Spain and tuh-LEE-dough in Ohio).
Doesn’t Segovia just sound like the name of a town in a fairytale? Well, it looks like one too! Segovia is a great place to spend a day exploring a little slice of history. You’ll be snapping photos nonstop, and you’ll feel like royalty by the end of the day.
This small but lovely city in the region of Castilla y León is home to a mortar-less aqueduct, a former royal palace, and a beautiful gothic cathedral, just to name a few attractions. While you may need a car to easily get to this charming city, once you’re there, it is easily (and best) explored on foot.
All that walking will probably work up an appetite, but you’re in luck! Segovia is home to one of the most famous dishes in Spain: cochinillo, or suckling pig. Spain loves its pork products, and cochinillo is no exception. A full pig is roasted and then presented to diners with such fanfare that you’ll wonder why every meal isn’t started this way — think old Spanish poetry, plate breaking, and emphatic speaking. The pork itself is incredibly tender, with crispy skin. Be sure to come hungry (and with a few friends, because it is a dish you definitely want to share).
- Check out Mesón de Cándido in Segovia for an authentic cochinillo experience.
- Pro tip: If you visit by car and have some extra time, head about 50 minutes southwest to the town of Ávila, which is still surrounded by medieval walls.
I was swept away by Granada during a trip there while studying abroad. The narrow, winding streets and dust-colored buildings are enchanting. But nothing in Granada takes your breath away like La Alhambra. (The name comes from an Arabic word meaning “red castle.”) I recommend almost a full day here — you’ll want plenty of time to examine every detail.
Built on a hill overlooking Granada, the Alhambra dates back to the 1200s. It has a complex history and has seen rulers from many lands, wars, destruction, and reconstruction. With some of the most ornate decorations you’ll ever see, the Alhambra is a feast for the eyes. In fact, it’s a feast for all of the senses: the grounds are covered in flowering gardens and fruit trees, and fountains abound with the sounds of splashing water.
Around the city of Granada, you’ll notice Islamic architecture and street markets similar to those in places like Morocco. Much like Toledo, Granada is home to a blend of cultures. Get lost in the winding streets, get cozy at a tapas bar, and see the Alhambra awash in light at night.
- Check out La Capilla Real de Granada (The Royal Chapel of Granada) for another dose of history. This chapel is the burial place of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand.
- Pro tip: Book your tickets to the Alhambra way in advance. You’ll also want to purchase a guided tour to fully understand the place. Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty of time to wander and appreciate the details. Wondering what “details” I mean? Visit the website for a taste.
Andalucía, the southern region of Spain, is what people typically imagine when talking about España. It’s the warm and breezy home to flamenco (but not paella).
Córdoba is full of winding streets where white-walled buildings are touched with accents of blue, red, yellow, and orange. Mudejar architecture can be seen in many of the buildings, and orange trees abound.
A trip to Córdoba is not complete without a stop at the Mezquita de Córdoba. This mosque-turned-cathedral is an architectural, historical, and cultural wonder all rolled into one. After its original construction as a mosque, part of the middle was torn out, and a large cathedral was built inside. As you enter, hundreds of horseshoe arches fill your view. But walk around the corner, and you’re suddenly in the middle of a cathedral. Book a tour to truly appreciate its history.
- Check out the baños árabes at Hammam al Ándalus for a relaxing spa treatment and the experience of an ancient bathhouse (with some modern upgrades).
- Pro tip: Córdoba, Granada, and Sevilla are about 2 to 2.5 hours away from each other by car. If you have time to spare, make a road trip, and visit all of these breathtaking cities.
I visited this colorful, beachy city during one of the craziest times of year to be in Valencia: Las Fallas. The festival takes place every year in March and is on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
Huge crowds ascend on this unique celebration famous for the giant fallas, large, cartoonish sculptures made of wood, paper-mâché, and other flammable materials. Each neighborhood in Valencia makes its own falla, commenting on social and political issues. On the final day, all of the amazing structures are burned (though I didn’t see that part), which symbolizes the coming of spring.
There are also fireworks. So. Many. Fireworks.
If Las Fallas doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, Valencia is still worth visiting for the beach and the City of Arts and Sciences monuments and museums.
- Check out Dulce de Leche for a scrumptious snack in the city. Glass cases filled with the most beautiful cheesecakes, brownies, tarts, and sandwiches will have you drooling. Try the little dulce de leche cookie called an alfajor.
- Pro tip: Tons of street food is available during Las Fallas, which makes it a prime time to try paella! Skip the fancy paella restaurants and grab a heaping helping from the street vendors — delicious and much less expensive!
I may be biased, but Madrid is special (OK, I’m definitely biased). Barcelona is lovely (and most certainly worth a visit), but Madrid is the heart of Spain. In fact, it’s a great launchpad to reach all of the other destinations on this list.
It’s an electric city with renowned cultural institutions (like museums such as the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza), delicious food, lovely parks and gardens (El Parque Retiro, El Capricho, and Real Jardín Botánico), and great public transportation.
Wander through the lively, hipsterish neighborhood of Malasaña, have a picnic next to an ancient Egyptian temple (Templo de Debod), and grab a tinto de verano (wine-based drink) at any bar for just a few euros (but don’t expect many places to give out tapas with drinks; it’s not a common practice in Madrid).
- Check out Rent and Roll to rent a pair of rollerblades and scoot around Retiro Park in style.
- Pro tip: Madrid is the perfect city to navigate. It’s incredibly walkable and has great public transportation options. Between buses, the metro, and your own two feet, you’ll have no problem reaching any corner of the city.
I could go on and on about Madrid (and I have). In fact…here are some BONUS tips because Madrid is so great:
- You should see Madrid from the sky at least once on your trip. I recommend SkyBar360 at the RIU hotel or the famous Círculo de Bellas Artes (which also has great exhibits on the lower floors).
- If you can’t get enough of art museums while in Madrid (and there are so many good ones), check out Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando or Museo Sorolla, which are lesser-known among tourists but contain fantastic collections.
- Definitely sample tortilla española and croquetas with a caña while in Madrid. Get all of them at once at Pez Tortilla. If you’re looking for a tortilla the size of your head and stuffed with caramelized onions and goat cheese, try the one at El Buo…I’m drooling just thinking about it!
- Want amazing hospitality in a funky bar and lots of free tapas? Visit mi amigo at Casa Parrondo. It’s an Asturian joint, so be sure to order the sidra (cider) and ask them to show you the proper way to pour it.
- Madrid is a city that hardly sleeps (except for siesta, of course). In Madrid, most businesses do stay open during typical siesta time, though smaller towns in Spain definitely shut down between roughly 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
- Madrid also stays up late! If you’re looking for nightlife, Madrid has it. Teatro Kapital, better known as Kapital, is a six-floor club. Check it out for a full night — and I mean very full, until at least 6 a.m. — of dancing. Then get churros at Chocolatería San Ginés.
- As you enter a store or café in the afternoon or evening, it’s typical to say “Buenas” to greet the staff. It’s a shortened form of “Buenas tardes/noches” and you’ll hear it often.
- Fútbol fans would be remiss if they didn’t visit Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, home to Real Madrid. If you’re not lucky enough to see a game, you can tour the stadium and even take pictures right from the field.
- Spending some extended time in Madrid and want to improve your Spanish? Sign up for classes at Spaneasy. This wonderful school right in the heart of the city has great professors and classes for every level. I made lifelong friends and achieved my goal of passing the C1 level exam!
No matter where your travels in Spain take you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this beautiful country. Get ready for the trip of a lifetime. ¡Vámonos!
What places in Spain have you visited? Where would you like to go after reading this?
Carson is a part-time travel blogger and full-time travel lover who was living abroad in Spain and currently works in public relations in the Big Apple. She loves sharing tales of her trips on her travel blog. When she’s not planning her next trip, Carson loves cooking (and eating) and is always down for a workout. She’s also a very helpful volunteer for the NYC chapter of The Nomadic Network!
To read other posts written by Carson, check these out:
- How Carson Studied, Worked, and Lived Abroad in Spain
- See the World Without Leaving Home: Travel During Quarantine
- How Traveling Helped Prepare Me For Navigating This Pandemic
Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members, if you’d like to be interviewed or write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at info @ thenomadicnetwork . com with the subject line “TNN Blog.”