Vacations in Spain: Summer, Sun, and Sangria in the European south!
There are so many great destinations in Spain, it would be easy to travel there every year. From the museums of Madrid to the architecture of Barcelona to the small towns of Andalusia to the beaches of Ibiza: the list goes on and on. Every corner of the Mediterranean country, which offers culture, urban centers, and beaches, is worth seeing. A vacation in Spain is sure to be a well-rounded, which is why it's one of our favorite European destinations.
When it comes to beach vacations, a high percentage of visitors travel to the Canary Islands, the Balearic Islands, the Costa del Sol, and the Costa Brava. With almost 5,000 kilometers of gorgeous coastline, its no wonder these spots are so popular.
The Spanish interior is no less spectacular than the coastal regions, but besides the major cities, there are many small towns worthy of exploration. Many areas are also ideal for a day-long or multi-day hiking trip. In addition, its easy to combine a beach trip in Spain with a sightseeing, cultural, or adventure tour. So if you're considering a trip to Spain, don't hesitate! There is no bad time of the year to visit Spain.
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Destinations for your vacation to Spain
As a general rule, you can't go wrong booking a trip to any region of Spain. The coastal areas off the Mediterranean and the major cities are perhaps the most popular and famous, but many other places have their own unique charm.
The coasts of Spain
Let's start with the "wild coast", the Costa Brava in northern Catalonia, which, although it can be rough in parts, is fairly peaceful around the tourist centers of Roses, Blanes, and Lloret de Mar.
Further south, Valencia lays claim to the equally famous and popular Costa Blanca.
The Costa del Sol near Malaga is a sunny destination, even in winter. You'll find many British people tired of the cold back home who have settled here.
Less well known is the coastline on the border with Portugal: the Costa de la Luz. The beaches of the Atlantic, like the Playa La Caleta for example, have been popular with the locals for years, but have only recently been discovered by tourists.
The Galician coast on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain is rainier and greener than the south. The bay is much cooler than the Mediterranean and only suitable for swimming in the summer months. Galicia and Asturias, with their mountainous hinterlands and pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, are a mecca for hikers and nature lovers alike.
The interior of Spain
The interior of Spain may be in the shadow of the coastal regions, but it has plenty to offer. Although Andalucía recieves a steady flow of visitors due to its warm weather and Moorish architecture, Estremadura, the region on the border with Portugal, brings in far fewer tourists tourists despite its striking landscapes and the famous jamón ibérico (a type of cured ham).
The same can be said of the central Spanish region of La Mancha, northern Navarre, and the mountainous Aragon region. The only exceptions is Madrid in the Castile region.
Pirate Tip: The Spanish mainland is very hikeable. There are several long-distance trails to try out, such as Extremadura to Salamanca, or paths through the mountainous Picos de Europa National Park in the north.
The Spanish islands
It's hardly surprising that tourists flock to Mallorca in the summer, given the beauty of the island. The spring is a great time to visit as well, as the island is coming to life and the sun shines nearly every day.
The neighboring island of Menorca, with its compelling rock formations, technicolor waters, and wind-swept landscape, is another tourist hotspot.
Ibiza, blessed with overwhelming scenic beauty and a mild Mediterranean climate, is regarded as one of the party capitals of the world.
The Canary Islands, while geographically part of Africa, have been the dominion of Spain for centuries. Tenerife, Lanzarote, La Gomera, and Gran Canaria are all of volcanic origin and offer spectacular scenery and beaches.
The Top Attractions in Spain
1. Plaza Mayor in Madrid
Plaza Mayor (main square) in the center of Madrid is one of the top tourist attractions in the Spanish capital. In the 15th century, this plaza was the central marketplace of the city. Today you can enjoy delicious Spanish food in the many restaurants and enjoy the unique architecture. Plaza Mayor is also worth a visit in winter: this is where you'll find the traditional Christmas markets.
2. National Park El Teide on Tenerife
It's not just the mainland that has a lot to offer: El Teide National Park and the Teide volcano in the heart of Tenerife are also (deservedly) on the list of top tourist destinations in Spain. In 2007, the national park, which is a popular hiking area, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Incidentally, the volcano Teide is also the highest peak in Spain. Ride the cable car to reach near the summit.
Pirate tip: For access to the summit you need an extra permit (strictly limited). If you'd like to climb the summit, be sure to book the permit in advance.
3. Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Regla on Fuerteventura
On Fuerteventura, one of the most beautiful churches in the Canary Islands is waiting for you. You will find it in the city of Pájara, where you can marvel at the ornate decorations of the exterior façade. Admission is free.
4. Alcazaba and Roman theater in Málaga
The city of Málaga has two impressive historic buildings: the Alcazaba is an ancient fortification dating from the 11th century and just beneath it is the Roman Theater. In the Alcazaba, you can explore various exhibitions today and take in a great view of the city and the harbor.
5. La Sagrada Família in Barcelona
No Spanish holiday is complete without a visit to the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. The symbol of Barcelona is impressive enough in pictures, but you have to get a closer look to see why this church is one of the most popular attractions in Spain. Designed by the artist Antoni Gaudí, the church is still not completed to this day, which only adds to tourists' fascination with the building.
Our pirate tip: It's best to book tickets in advance to avoid waiting in the long, slow lines outside the church.
6. Old Town of Valencia
You should not miss the beautiful old town of Valencia in Spain. Especially worth seeing are the main square of the city, the Plaza de la Virgen, and the Cathedral of Valencia. But these other buildings in the old town are also worth a quick peek:
- the old city gate Torres de Serranos,
- the silk exchange
- the Palace Marqués de Dos Aguas
Plan a Beach Vacation in Spain
Home to gorgeous islands, including Ibiza, Cabrera, Majorca, and Gran Canaria, Spain offers some of Europe's finest and cleanest beaches.
- Playa de Silencio in Asturias is one of Spain's most exquisite beaches, known for its natural rock formations and silver sand.
- Cala Agulla on the island of Majorca is a great place to bask in the tropical weather in summer and early fall, and indulge in plenty of water sports.
- Known as the Caribbean of the European continent, Playa De Ses Illetes in Formentera is worth a visit for its turquoise water, sand structure, and numerous bars and restaurants.
- Located in the town of Tarifa, Playa de Bolonia beach is an ideal place for hiking along the sand dunes or admiring an awe-inspiring view of the turquoise water. This beach is also excellent for kite surfing due to its crashing waves and strong winds.
When to Visit Spain
The best time to travel to Spain is from March to May and September to November. During these periods, you'll likely encounter smaller crowds, cheaper accommodations, and comfortable city weather. The summer is best for swimming and sunbathing, but late spring and early fall offer reasonable temperatures for this, too.
The 14 best foods to try in Spain
- Where to eat them: Madrid & Barcelona
Tapas are an absolutely essential food experience, and you can find them pretty much anywhere you go in Spain. These small plates are meant to be split with friends, and tapas culture is especially strong in the big cities like Madrid and Barcelona. You’ll usually encounter two varieties of tapas in tapas bars. Pinchos are individual slices of bread with different toppings like sardines drizzled in, chunks of thick tortilla, or slices of salty cheese (just to name a few). Porciones are small plates for sharing—some of the items on this list, like pimientos de padrón, are typically served as porciones.
2. Tortilla espanola
- Where to eat it: Everywhere
While Americans may associate the word “tortilla” with the thin, flat “pancakes” made with flour or cornmeal that are used in many Mexican dishes, tortilla española is actually a type of omelette. Referred to as a "Spanish omelette" in English, this dish is prepared using potatoes, eggs, and onion (usually). The result is a sort of crust-less quiche, usually more than an inch or two thick, and sometimes as hefty as a large wheel of cheese. Tortilla espanola is usually served by the slice, and is especially good sandwiched between slices of bread to form a bocadillo. If you’re looking for an American-style omelette, you’ll want to order a tortilla francesca, or a French omelette.
- Where to eat them: Madrid
Croquetas are one of those foods that exist in one form or another in many countries across the globe (the closest U.S. equivalent would be a crab cake.) In Spain, you can expect a crispy outer crust and a warm, gooey center filled with thick, cheesy bechamel and your choice of filling. The most typical options are jamón, bacalao (cod), or shredded chicken.
4. Patatas bravas
- Where to eat them: Madrid
Where Americans have french fries and ketchup, the Spanish have patatas bravas. Literally defined as “brave” or “wild” potatoes, these crispy morsels drizzled in a spicy tomato sauce are the perfect accompaniment to a late-night caña (small beer). Grab a couple porciones to share with friends.
- Where to eat it: Andalusia
Gazpacho is the perfect summertime dish: cool, refreshing, and not too filling. This chilled soup uses juicy summer tomatoes and stale bread as its base, making it an easy dish to whip up on a summer afternoon. Gazpacho is usually a mix of the base ingredients and a puree of raw seasonal vegetables like cucumber, pepper, and onions. Buy it fresh in a café or restaurant or pick up a carton at the supermarket to take on a picnic. For a thicker alternative with a similar flavor, try the lighter-colored salmorejo.
- Where to eat it: Valencia
One of Spain’s most iconic foods is paella, the savory, saffron-infused rice dish prepared with vegetables, seafood, or meat (and sometimes all three). Paella is traditionally cooked in a large round pan in hefty portions—you’ll find it difficult to order a paella for one—and the most common variants are paella mixta (a mixture of meat and seafood), paella de marisco (seafood only), and paella de verduras (vegetables). If you want to try something a bit more out of the ordinary, go for a paella negra, sometimes called an arrós negre, a version of the dish prepared with squid ink that lends it a deep black tint. Pirate tip: if you like cooking with saffron, one of paella’s key ingredients, it’s worth picking some up on your trip—it’s much cheaper in Spain than in most places in the United States.
7. Pan con tomate
- Where to eat it: Balaeric Islands
Sometimes the simplest dishes are also the tastiest. Pan con tomate is literally just “bread with tomato”, and has many variants across the regions of Spain, such as the pa amb oli (“bread and oil”) of the Balearic Islands. Pan con tomate is easy to make—just toast two pieces of bread, rub with a cut tomato, and top with olive oil and salt, and throw a handful of marinated olives on the side to up the salty goodness. Be sure to save some extra bread to dip in a bit of (preferably handmade) alioli, a highly-addictive garlicky mayonnaise spread that you’ll usually find as an pre-meal appetizer.
8. Pulpo a la gallega
- Where to eat it: Galicia
Although it may seem like an unusual combo, this mixture of fluffy potatoes and tender, briny squid drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with paprika just works. Share a plateful with a friend over a glass of red wine for an afternoon snack that’s a step up from your typical roast potatoes or calamari.
9. Churros con chocolate
- Where to eat it: Everywhere
It’s a testament to the delicious nature of fried foods that churros have spread across the globe. The varieties are endless: some are filled with sweet cream, some dusted with cinnamon sugar; some come as thin loops, others as hollow columns. In Spain, churros are best eaten dipped in a cup of hot chocolate, a thicker variety somewhere between the wintery beverage we know and a hot pudding.
10. Crema catalana
- Where to eat it: Catalonia
Another sweet treat, crema catalana is the cousin to the French crème brûlée, the main difference being that crema catalana is thickened with cornstarch and typically not made with cream. You’ll find this dessert on menus across Catalonia (and the rest of Spain), and it’s worth trying a bite of this creamy custard topped with a crackly layer of caramel.
11. Fabada asturiana
- Where to eat it: Asturias
Green, mountainous Asturias to the north is a great choice for outdoorsy travelers, as well as those looking to escape the brutal heat that typifies much of Spain in peak summer. Due to its climate, which is on the cooler side compared to its southern neighbors, the cuisine in Asturias tends towards heartier dishes, as exemplified in fabada asturiana. Fabada asturiana is a stew made from white beans and different types of pork, from ham hock to chorizo, and is best accompanied with a local cider, an Austurian specialty.
12. Pimientos de padrón
- Where to eat them: Galicia
These small green peppers, from the area of the same name in Galicia, are the perfect salty snack to accompany a refreshing glass of beer. The peppers are often prepared by frying in a pan with plenty of olive oil and a generous portion of salt until isoft with a smoky, blistered skin. Padrón peppers are available in many places in the U.S., meaning you can try out the recipe for yourself back home.
13. Queso manchego
- Where to eat it: La Mancha
Spain has its fair share of delicious cheeses—queso mahon, from the town of Mahon in Menorca, is another good bet—but queso manchego is perhaps the most famous. Made from Manchega sheep’s milk, the end result is a sweet but nutty cheese that pairs well with fig spread and crisp crackers or warm bread.
14. Cured pork, in all its forms
- Where to eat it: Everywhere
Chorizo, jamon iberico, fuet, jamon serrano, morcilla...the list goes on and on. The Spanish have perfected the art of cured pork products, and whether it’s a thick slice of spicy chorizo or a delicate sliver of melt-in-your-mouth jamón serrano, it’s hard to go wrong. Seek out the local specialty wherever you’re staying, or order a plate with a variety of options to find your favorite.