The country is a blend of many diverse regions: from the northern, independence-hungry Basque and Catalonian regions to dry, warm Andalucía with a Moorish past to cosmopolitan Madrid. The common factor throughout the country is a passion for life, plenty of cultural experiences, and beautiful nature.
Below you'll find, among other topics, short descriptions of major cities, the history of Spanish wine, and what wonders the Andalucían cuisine has in store. Read on!
In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the city of Granada stands tall and proud. The Alhambra, an ancient Moorish fortress and Spain’s most visited tourist attraction, looms above sweeping hills and meandering backstreets lined with cozy bars and cafes. Granada was the last stronghold of the Islamic empires on the Iberian Peninsula, and remnants of Moorish rule can be seen at every turn. When the last Nasrid ruler, Muhammad XII, fell, Granada was ruled by Ferdinand and Isabella, the Roman Catholic rulers. As a result, the city is also replete with cathedrals and chapels, with styles mixing from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical ages.
In case the architecture and layout of the city isn't enough, Granada boasts a thriving, authentic flamenco scene and is one of the last cities in Spain to offer free tapas with the purchase of a drink in some bars. Factor in warm, sunny weather and a spectacular view of the snow-capped Sierras in the distance, and you’ve got a wonderful holiday location.
Málaga is known as the gateway to the Costa del Sol. The largest city along the coast, it offers much more than just access to the rest of the region; with excellent museums, attractive beaches, and plenty of bodegas brimming with the city’s famous sweet wine, Málaga is worth exploring. Some of the most popular attractions include the Picasso Museum (the artist was born in Málaga), the Alcazaba and the Roman theater at its base, and the cathedral, known as “La Manquita,” or “the one-handed woman.” The second tower of the cathedral was never finished, hence the name. Once all the sightseeing is done, visit Antigua Casa de Guardia – the oldest wine bar in Málaga, it is beloved by both locals and tourists alike. Or top your day off with delicious seafood at one of the many, many delightful restaurants dotting the promenades along the beaches.
Barcelona is the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia and the second most populous municipality in Spain. It is recognized as a major global city and is an incredibly important cultural and economic center. Barcelona was initially founded as a Roman city, and some Roman ruins are still scattered about the city. These are mixed with world-renowned architecture, including masterpieces from Antoni Gaudí such as the Sagrada Família and Park Güell. Additionally, visitors can tour world-class museums, catch a football match (but only if you cheer for FC Barcelona), or walk through the Barceloneta – a district decked out in Mediterranean style and full of quaint restaurants – on your way to the beach. Hop on a scooter and explore this vibrant, cosmopolitan city.
Finally, Madrid: the capital of Spain and the most populous city. In fact, it is the second-largest city in the EU, surpassed only by Berlin. Madrid offers all the trappings of a major capital city, including impressive monuments, a thriving nightlife, topnotch museums, delicious restaurants, and classical entertainment such as theatre and opera. Slip into the Madrileño lifestyle by strolling down small side streets, sipping a vermouth before a late lunch, and taking a photo with the statue of El Oso y El Madrono (the Bear and the Strawberry Tree) – the official symbol of Madrid.
Spain belongs to old-world wine country. It is among the top three largest wine producers in the world (the others being France and Italy), and the wines are legendary. Part of their magnificence comes from the long and rich history – archaeologists have found evidence of grape cultivation all the way back to between 4000-3000 BC. Winemaking specifically can be traced back to 1100BC, and wine trading became a staple for Spain during the Phoenician and Romans periods of rule. Wine continued to be produced (albeit less publicly) during Moorish rule, and flourished under Catholicism. A vine disease known as phylloxera ravaged many of Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century, but by the time it reached Spain, a solution had been discovered. As a result, Spain’s vineyards were largely spared and its exports boomed.
More than 1 million hectares in Spain are dedicated to wine – red, white, and cava. The wines in Spain are known for being full-bodied and high in alcohol content, thanks to the large quantities of sunshine and warmer temperatures. Wine today is recognized through the Designations of Origin (DO) system, where wines produced in certain regions are awarded the designation if they meet certain criteria.
Málaga, for example, has three DOs. The wine is produced in five different areas, each of which has its own characteristics. In general, Málaga wines are a sweet variety that are classified as dessert wine. The colors can range from light yellow to nearly black, but D.O. Málaga is a specific, sweet, fortified white wine that is often used as a digestif. D.O. Sierra de Málaga can be either white, red, or rose, while D.O. Pasas de Málaga is made of raisins and is colored deep black. One notable are under the D.O. Sierra de Málaga region is known as Serrania de Ronda, from which Ronda wines are produced. Ronda wines are increasingly popular, and a visit to Málaga is an excellent opportunity to taste some truly world-class bottles.
Spain is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in Europe. The earliest civilizations were influenced by the Phoenicians, and eventually the Greeks, from the south, and the Celts from the north. One Phoenician colony developed into the Carthaginian civilization, which would would conquer southern Spain and subsequently fight the Punic Wars against the Romans.
The Romans were victorious, and the Spanish region hence came under Roman rule for the next 600 years. The Romans left a legacy in terms of religion, linguistics, and architecture. Despite their dominance, there were various tribal invasions (especially from northern Germanic tribes) – due to the large size of modern-day Spain, it is difficult to shortly recount all the empires that rose and fell.
The Visigothic kingdom was in place when the Muslims arrived. Generally referred to as the Moorish period, the term “Moor” is broad and does not define a specific ethnicity or race – rather, it was originally used to refer to indigenous Berbers, and then applied to Muslim inhabitants in Europe during the Middle Ages. The specific civilization that came to occupy much of the Iberian peninsula was known as Al-Andalus, and they reigned from 711 AD until 1492, when Granada fell to the Christian “Reconquista.” The new Catholic rulers of the region, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, ignited the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, which persecuted Jewish and Muslim minorities, and did not officially end until 1834.
Spain became a strong colonial power, sending out explorers and armies and conquering lands. In addition to claiming large swaths of the Americas, Spain became active in European battles. In the 17th century, culture was flourishing in Spain but the monarchy was losing power, weakened by people’s poor living standards and ensuing revolt. Internal conflicts raged for the next few centuries, culminating in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the Nationalist army against the Republican government, and ended with Nationalist victory and General Francisco Franco being installed as ruler.
Franco’s dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975. His successor was King Juan Carlos, who, to many people’s surprise, turned Spain’s government into a parliamentary monarchy. The country was officially divided into 17 “autonomous communities,” that each had their own regional government and various degrees of control over policy issues. One such region, Andalucía, is the focus of the following sections.
Andalucía is truly “southern Spain.” The region is enormous, and stretches across the full width of the Iberian peninsula. It is the only region in Spain – and, in fact, in all of Europe – that has coastlines along both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The region is further divided into 8 provinces: Granada, Málaga, Cádiz, Jaén, Almería, Córdoba, Huelva, and Seville.
The Andalucía region was the heartland of Moorish Spain. Andalucía prospered under both Roman and Muslim rule. The Romans built aqueducts, cathedrals, and amphitheaters, while the Muslims built beautiful mosques and palaces, cultivated gardens, and established marketplaces and public bathhouses. The remnants of these societies can still be seen today in Andalucían cities like Granada and Málaga.
The Nasrid Emirate of Granada was the last of the Muslim territory to fall to Catholic conquerors. Composed of modern-day Granada, Málaga, and Almería, it survived nearly 250 years after surrounding Muslim territory had been seized. The Nasrid dynasty was responsible for the construction of resplendent Alhambra castle in Granada.
Seville became the capital of the Christian era. Explorers used the city’s river port to launch expeditions, and it became one of the major hubs for world trade until the 1700s. However, much of the wealth accumulated was spent on European power battles, and Andalucía sank into economic decline with the rest of Spain.
The economic situation in Andalucía remained poor throughout the 19th and 20th century. Although it has improved as a result of Spain joining the EU in 1986, the region’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture and tourism. This has resulted in high unemployment rates – especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, from which Andalucía is still recovering.
As mentioned, Spain is divided into 17 autonomous communities. Each region has their own specialties and traditions, with some regions – such as Catalonia, Basque Country, and Andalucía – that feel more individual than others. Andalucía has a distinct culture, characterized by tapas, flamenco, and plenty of festivals. The region also has a history of bullfighting, as the modern version of it began in the small town of Ronda. Although some condemn the practice as cruel and unnecessary, others relish the grace of the toreros and the adrenaline rush. Either way, it is an important part of Andalucían culture and fights continue today.
Flamenco is one of the most defining elements of Andalucían culture. The genre originated in the region, and is composed of the guitar, the dance, and the singing all at once. The guitar is characterized by rhythmic strumming, while dancers perform staccato tap dances in elaborate costumes and sing passionately.
In general, Spain has a relaxed culture. Sometimes referred to as “mañana culture,” it can be viewed as a leisurely pace of life. The Spanish culture emphasizes enjoyment of life and its small pleasures – such as a cerveza on the beach or tapas with friends. Andalucía’s way of life is distinctly laid back. Siestas are frequently taken, meals are eaten late, and the nightlife lasts until sunrise. Additionally, the region hosts some of the most famous festivals in Spain. In short, visitors can expect to find a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere with no shortage of joie de vivre.
Spain as a whole is known as the land of tapas, but nowhere in the country is this truer than in the south. While the exact origin story of how tapas came to be is debated, one fact is clear: it happened in Andalucía. Tapas are small dishes that generally accompany a cold drink. One can make a full meal out of them if enough are ordered, and they commonly consist of ingredients like olives, potatoes, chorizo or other meat, bread, and seafood. Meals in Andalucía are eaten late – lunch may not be until 17:00, and dinner can be started as late as 23:00. Thus, tapas are often eaten between meals (for example, after work and before dinner) as a means of socializing.
Notable dishes include gazpacho, a cold soup composed of tomatoes, red bell peppers, and cucumbers, and pescaíto frito, a mix of fried fish that can include squid, dogfish, hake, octopus, or others. Andalucía is also the world’s largest producer of olive oil, so visitors should expect a great deal of olive oil and olives in their meals. Other standard Andalucían cuisine includes jamón serrano, paella, fresh seafood, oranges, chorizo, and excellent cheeses. And, of course, one shouldn’t forget the remarkable wine.
While the cities in Spain are brimming with culture and history, the natural landscapes are no less impressive. From pristine Mediterranean beaches to soaring granite peaks, Spain offers endless possibility for outdoor adventure.
For some, laying on the beach is an ideal vacation. The Costa del Sol region offers the perfect mix of beautiful beaches, excellent cuisine, and charming cities. The shores stretch along the Mediterranean on the southwest coast of Spain in the Andalucía region, and the region is comparable to California in terms of climate and scenery. With warm days and plenty of sun, visitors flock to the Costa del Sol during the gray European winters. The Costa de la Luz, which runs along the Atlantic coast on the other side of Andalucía, the Costa Blanca near Alicante, or the Costa Brava on the Mediterranean coast of Catalonia in the northeast are other popular destination choices.
For more adventurous travelers, there are plenty of mountain ranges and exciting geological formations to explore. For climbers, Spain boasts some of the best exposed outcroppings in Europe. More casual hikers will find wonderful trails in the Sierra Nevadas, the Pyrenees, or the Picos de Europa. The Sierra Nevadas are home to highest peak in continental Spain, the Mulhacén, at 3.478 meters above sea level. Their high peaks, and proximity to beautiful cities like Granada and Seville, make the Sierra Nevadas a popular skiing destination in the winter and an excellent place to go hiking in the summers.
One of the most famous pilgrimages in Europe is the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is not just one trail, but rather a network of trails that start many places, and usually (but not always) end in Santiago de Compostela. The route can begin in Portugal, southern Spain, or France. The most traditional route, Camino Francés, begins in France at Saint Jean Pied de Port, crosses the Pyrenees, and then passes through the Basque Country and several other regions before reaching Santiago de Compostela. For thru-hikers that prefer to stick to one mountain range – and a more challenging route – the GR11 runs for 840km through the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and offers beautiful vistas, tough trails, and vast stretches of wilderness.