Richly diverse Spain offers a heady combination of towering mountains, breathtaking art, beautiful beaches and glorious islands. See Old Masters in Madrid, marvel at Modernista buildings in Barcelona, explore a volcano on Tenerife and laze on long sandy shores on Mallorca.
Fabulous art and architecture along with a superb location by the Mediterranean are the wow factors of this flamboyant city. Happily, Barcelona is also acclaimed for its café culture, so you’ll have no problem finding an appealing venue in which to recover from visual overload once you’ve explored a few of its highlights. See breathtaking buildings: the Modernista style was Catalonia’s spectacularly curvaceous answer to Art Nouveau and the city is generously dotted with the works of its acclaimed exponent Antoni Gaudí ‒ his iconic Sagrada Familia basilica is one of nine UNESCO-listed sites here. Take in the museums of two 20th-century greats, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, who both lived in Barcelona. Stroll down the famous boulevard La Rambla, with its flower sellers and street entertainers. Step into the past in the Gothic Quarter, where you’ll also see Roman remains. Then for a 21st-century take, browse the sleek stores along Passeig de Gràcia and join those enjoying the city’s beaches – there are nine to choose from.
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Spain’s vibrant capital is a powerhouse of art and gastronomy and, with its gracious boulevards and parks, it is also one of Europe’s leafiest cities. At its heart is UNESCO-listed Buen Retiro park; join Madrileños ambling there, then walk just five minutes west to the Prado museum, crammed with masterpieces by Velasquez, Goya and more. It is one of Madrid’s ‘Golden Triangle’ of galleries, with Thyssen-Bornemiszia museum (spanning the 13th to the 20th centuries) and Museo Reina Sofia (don’t miss Picasso’s Guernica) nearby. West again is opulent Palacio Real, where state functions take place. Some of the 3,418 rooms are open to visitors; time your visit well and you’ll see the Changing of the Guard, too. For a take on life today head to Santiago Bernabéu stadium, home to Real Madrid, and then snack your way around expansive Vallehermoso market. Savour more formal Castilian cuisine at El Restaurante Botín, founded in 1725. Stay in style at the Mandarin Oriental Ritz Madrid, the grande dame of the city’s hotel scene.
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From flamenco dancers to sherry makers, white hilltop villages to Renaissance palacios, Andalucía encapsulates quintessential Spain. Set between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and stretching from gleaming, seaside Cadiz in the southwest to picturesque, mountainous Siles in the northeast, this is the second largest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. It is the ideal destination to indulge in a Mediterranean diet ‒ the region is the world’s largest producer of olive oil and is said to be where tapas originated in the 1800s. Take in some of its 600 miles of coast; explore the Sierra Nevada mountain range, home to the highest peaks in Spain; glory in Moorish architecture in Granada, Córdoba and Seville. At the latter visit the cathedral, the Alcázar castle and the breathtaking Giralda minaret then take in the old Jewish Quarter and Casa da Pilatos 16th-century palace. Stay at Seville’s Alfonso XIII hotel, exuding grandeur as well as Andalucian character, or the classy villa, El Refugio, nestled in the rolling hills of the Sierra Nevada.
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Craggy mountains dip down to sapphire waters, pastel-coloured villages sit atop lush hills, palm trees sway beside sandy shores: it’s with good reason that the largest of the Balearic islands is often called the jewel of the Mediterranean. Mallorca is fringed by more than 260 beaches, with pine forests and olive groves inland and the Tramuntana mountains skirting its northwestern coast and offering lovely walking country. Explore picturesque Pollença in the north, complete with art galleries and cafés. Enjoy the handsome town of Sóller in the west, and take the tram down to the old fishing harbour of Port de Sóller. Marvel at the island’s remarkable cave systems; about 200 have been discovered, with several open to visitors ‒ one of the most extraordinary is Cuevas del Drach in Porto Cristo. Visit the capital, Palma, home to the beautiful Moorish Almudaina royal palace and 13th-century Santa Maria cathedral. Stay across the bay at Cap Rocat, an ancient fort transformed into a super-stylish hotel, or the peaceful villa, Can Canals, hidden away in a tranquil orange grove.
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With its sleepy villages bathed in Mediterranean sunshine, its tucked-away coves and its miles of quiet sandy shores, Menorca is a haven of calm. There is natural diversity, too: from orchids to oleanders, 200 types of flowering plants thrive here, and the island was declared a UNESCO reserve in 1993. You’ll get an overview of this most low-key of the three main Balearic islands from the top of Monte Toro, the highest point at 358m. There’s plenty of intriguing history to explore as well. The island is dotted with megalithic sites ‒ head to Talatí de Dalt to see some of the most dramatic. Stroll the medieval streets of Ciutadella in the west and stop at one of the excellent restaurants to sample the local delicacy of lobster soup. In juxtaposition in the east is the capital, Mahón, with Spain’s oldest opera house, much colourful colonial architecture and a vast natural harbour (the best way to see it is by boat). Stay amid olive groves at rural Torre Vella Fontenille hotel, complete with Moorish gardens, or Villa Eulalia, perched on the edge of a bustling harbour and golden beach.
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With white-sand beaches, striking rocky outcrops, fabulous sunsets and rambling fincas, or country estates, this Balearic island has a magical quality. Ibiza may be famous for its party vibe but beyond the club scene there’s a world of quaint fishing villages and rural charm. Boho appeal, too: in the 60s Ibiza became a haven for sun-seeking flower people and there’s still a soulful legacy of this. Take in one of the weekly ‘hippy’ markets, held across the island, with colourful handicrafts, jewellery and local food; the biggest are at Es Caná and San Carlos. Visit Ibiza Town (also known as Eivissa) with its wonderful Old Town and café culture. Four miles south is bird-rich Ses Salines nature reserve; take a walk here and you may see flamingos. To the west is traditional San Josep de sa Talaia set in lovely landscape and giving on to beautiful beaches such as those of Cala Comte. Stay in the bohemian north at Six Senses, a sanctuary of wellbeing, luxury and sustainability, or secluded Villa Bosque, tucked away in the woodlands..
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Twisting between northern Spain’s Cantabrian mountains and the Sierra de la Demanda range, the River Ebro has carved a wide, sheltered valley where vines have been grown since Roman times. Today La Rioja has more than 500 wineries, and there is, of course, a fine choice of bodegas offering cellar visits and tastings. Away from the vineyards, mainland Spain’s smallest region is also rich in culture and natural sights. Explore the Sierra de Cebollera nature reserve, home to otters and wild boar. Visit La Rioja Biosphere Reserve, with its canyons and gorges. Walk part of the famous pilgrimage route, Camino de Santiago, that passes through the Ebro Valley. Marvel at remarkable buildings, from the 12th-century cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada and the 11th-century Suso and Yuso monasteries to modern wonders such as Santiago Calatrava’s Bodegas Ysios. You can even stay in a contemporary masterpiece of a winery: check in to Hotel Marques de Riscal designed by Frank Gehry and complete with a vinotherapy spa.
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Steeped in a distinctive, centuries-old culture, and with its own language (the oldest in Europe), northern Spain’s Basque region feels a proud world apart. Known as Euskadi locally, it offers spectacular seascapes, soaring mountains, rural charm inland and a superb dining scene. At its heart, dynamic Bilbao is a must-visit for its abundance of galleries. Chief of these is the Guggenheim, a cutting-edge creation by Frank Gehry which showcases modern art and sculpture. About 22 miles northeast is the islet of Gaztelugatxe, famous for its hermitage church of San Juan – the setting for Dragonstone in the Game of Thrones. Enjoy a dramatic walk here, crossing the sea over a footbridge and zig-zagging up a path of 241 steps. An hour and a half’s drive east along the coast is picturesque, epicurean San Sebastián. Take in a few of its vibrant pintxo bars, which pair local wines with exquisite bite-size snacks, and book a table at one of the many Michelin-star restaurants here. Stay in town in Belle Époque glory at Hotel Maria Cristina.
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From hidden coves and long sandy beaches (black, golden, white ‒ take your pick) to lunar-like landscapes and verdant mountains, the Canary Islands present a kaleidoscope of striking scenery. Just 65 or so miles off the coast of northwest Africa, this archipelago has 300 days of sunshine a year. La Palma is the greenest; Gran Canaria is renowned for sandy shores and tropical vegetation; Lanzarote is famous for volcanoes; La Gomera offers craggy mountains and lush walking trails; Fuerteventura is great for sand and surfing. Tenerife, the largest, is fringed with more glorious beaches while its interior is dominated by an active volcano, Mount Teide. At Teide National Park a cable car whisks visitors to a platform near the top from where they can enjoy a guided walk – sunset trips include a stargazing experience, too. For more natural wonder head to the northwest where spellbinding Masca Gorge offers fabulous views and spectacular rock formations. Stay at the island’s landmark Ritz Carlton Abama hotel, with Moorish-inspired architecture and an idyllic west-coast location.