Back in 2012, I did a one-month study abroad in Spain, staying with a host family in Valencia. To say it was an unforgettable experience would be putting it mildly, and I’m super grateful for having been able to do that. I was given the opportunity to travel all across the country, by bus, car, and bullet train. I experienced a lot of what Spain has to offer, and now I’d like to share it with you!
This is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, I’m sure I’m going to leave some very cool things out. These are just ones I personally can vouch for. Please feel free to add any of your own suggestions in the comments below.
In absolutely no particular order, here are a list of my personal favorites, broken down by city:
Located right in the heart of Spain, Madrid is the nation’s capital and most populous city. There is plenty to do for people interested in nightlife, culture, and cuisine.
Museo del Prado
The national art museum of Spain, which celebrates its 200th birthday this year. Widely held to house one of the greatest collections of European art, you can see a variety of beautiful paintings and sculptures in its halls.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Usually just called La Reina Sofia, this museum specializes in more modern art. You will see a lot of Salvador Dali’s work here, as well as the (surprisingly huge) Pablo Picasso masterpiece, Guernica.
A five-story dance club. Need I say more?
For a list of other points of interest in Madrid, click here.
Nestled on the central East Coast of Spain, looking out into Mediterranean Sea, this is where I lived with my host family. Like a lot of municipalities in Spain, Valencia actually has a traditional language apart from Spanish, and you will see both on signs throughout the city. As far as these secondary languages go, Valencian is very similar to Spanish, resembling a mix between Spanish and French.
City of Arts and Sciences
AKA Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (Spanish), AKA Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (Valencian). This museum complex features science museums and one of the largest aquariums in Europe. It is so popular, it is even listed as one of the 12 Treasures of Spain.
Sagunto is a pretty little city about 18 miles north of Valencia. It features wonderful medieval architecture, but its main attraction are the ancient Roman ruins perched atop the hills. Originally dating back to the 5th century BC and founded by the Iberian tribes, the town was retaken several times by the Romans and by the Carthagians. Along with the Roman amphitheater and walls, there is are also examples of Muslim and Jewish architecture.
Also on the East Coast, but situated much farther north, is Spain’s second most populous city, and possibly its most loved. While noticeably more expensive than other urban areas, it delivers on value. Barcelona’s traditional language is Catalan.
This park is one of the many works by famed architect Antoni Gaudi spread across Barcelona. This sort of adult playground is a wonder to walk through and relax in.
Gaudi (1852-1926) had a very unique style that employed organic curves and expressive colors and patterns. Seven of his works are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Parque Güell, as well as his masterpiece…
La Sagrada Familia
El Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia (The Expiatory Church of the Holy Family), is that famous church that’s been under construction for well over 100 years and is still nowhere near being done. While some may not care for Gaudi’s particular style, noting that its stonework makes it look like melting flesh, it is an incredible sight.
Begun in 1882, the church is forecast to be completed in 2026, with final decorations in place by 2032.
You can view a short video of Sagrada Familia’s final form here.
Cordoba is in the southern province of Andalucia, which is also occupied by Seville. Cordoba is probably the most historic city I’ve ever been to in my life. It has representations of many different types of architecture going back 2,000 years.
To get there from Valencia, I took the Ave (“Bird,” also an acronym for Alta VElocidad, “high speed”), Spain’s network of bullet trains. On one stretch, we were traveling at 300 km/h, which is about 180 mph, and you could hardly tell. The ride was smoother than our CapMetro Red Line back home.
This is one of those magic places that literally took my breath away. It is currently considered a Catholic church, dating back to the 13th century, however it was built as an annex to a Muslim mosque that dates back to the 8th century. It’s as interesting as it sounds, and wonderfully ancient.
There is one unfortunate fact that’s worth noting: because the entire complex is considered a Catholic church, Muslims are not allowed to pray there. The Spanish Muslim community has been lobbying the local diocese and the Vatican for nearly 20 years, and while they have not been allowed in yet, I wish them the best in their endeavor. It must be an honor of the highest echelon to be able to pray in such an ancient and awe-inspiring house of worship.
The Roman Bridge
La Puente Romana, also called The Old Bridge, straddles the Guadalquivir RIver. It was constructed in the 1st century BC, however most of the structure you see today was rebuilt by Moorish rulers in the 8th century. The bridge is perfectly safe to cross.
El Alcazar de los Reyes Catolicos
“The Castle of the Christian Monarchs,” the 14th century Alcazar takes its name from the Arabic Al-Qasr, meaning “The Palace.” A veritable fortress, it was one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragorn. It has a beautiful garden and can serve as a relaxing respite after taking in the rest of the city.
It is located right next to the Guadalquivir River, within walking distance of the Roman Bridge and the Mosque-Cathedral, and forms a part of the Historic Center of Cordoba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pamplona is of course most famous for the Festival of San Fermin or, as most Americans know it, “The Running of the Bulls.” Pamplona is also where you start getting into Basque Country.
The Basque people require an entire post just about their culture. Their language is not even remotely related to Spanish, or to any other known language. It is known as a “language isolate,” meaning it is basically its own independently evolved language. If you want to hear what this language sounds like and get a glimpse of some Basque folklore, check out the movie Errementari on Netflix.
Festival of San Fermin
I was lucky enough to participate in this incredible event, that I would recommend anyone capable of doing. Not nearly as dangerous as commonly portrayed, but still enough to get your blood pumping. Indeed, I would say there’s far more danger from the drunkards crowding the streets than from the bulls themselves.
Again, this is by no means a highlight of the entirety of Spain. However, it should give you an idea of some of the better attractions to see and events to take part in.
If you have any other suggestions for me and for other travelers, please feel free to say so in the comments section below!