Andra Mateescu Gutierréz : 10 top Spanish city break holidays
For us sunshine loving Brits it may come as no surprise that Spain is officially our most popular holiday destination. But there’s so much more to this sizzling corner of the world than just blue skies and topping up our tans.
Apart from its wealth of historical monuments, Spain produces some of the finest wine in the world and in time-honoured tradition you’ll often get served free tapas with your drinks. As for its gastronomy, the country boasts mouth-watering dishes that will reinvent your idea of what good food is.
And as well as flamenco, bull-fighting and its adrenaline charged fiestas, sometimes just watching the world go by over a coffee in a charming plaza is what Spain does best.
Just like New York, Madrid is known as the city that never sleeps thanks to its vibrant nightlife. In fact, they say sundown is a like a gunshot that signals the start of a race to stay up and party until sunrise. Rammed with historical monuments, sprawling museums, stunning parks and more cafes and bars than you can shake a chorizo sausage at – Madrid has it all. People watch in Plaza Mayor, amble around the Prado Museum and stroll down the city’s main artery, Gran Via. Alternatively, explore the beautifully kept Retiro Park, visit the Egyptian Temple of Debod smack in the city centre or hang out in Puerta del Sol – Madrid’s answer to Piccadilly Circus. Feeling peckish? Visit Casa Botín, the world’s oldest continuously-running restaurant (open since 1725) or the indoor food market – Mercado de San Miguel – to fill your boots with tapas and a glass or two of wine.
Airport Connections: Many UK airports fly to Madrid with airlines including Air Europa, EasyJet, Brussels Airlines, British Airways and Ryanair. The Madrid-Barajas Airport is 11 miles (18 km) to the city centre.
Stylish, stunning and sun-drenched – Cadiz is one of Andalucía’s most underrated cities. Hiding behind its old city walls on a peninsula that juts out from the mainland, Cadiz is under the tourist radar – which is exactly why you should visit. Filled with grand open squares, palm-fringed promenades and countless back streets just waiting to be explored, Cadiz also boasts pristine beaches and plenty of fresh seafood. A great way to get your bearings and explore is to hire a bicycle and circumnavigate the city’s edges. Or better still, climb the Torre Tavira – the highest watchtower in the city to soak up the 360 degree views.
Airport Connections: Cadiz does not have an International Airport, but you can fly to Jerez Airport (27 miles/45 km away) and Seville Airport (82 miles/132 km away) with Iberia, Air Berlin and Ryanair from London Stansted and Edinburgh.
You can’t mention Madrid without its arch rival Barcelona. Famous for its iconic architecture, Spain’s second city is vibrant, bustling and fun – and unlike the capital, it has a Mediterranean beach where you can escape the heat of city life. The heart of Barcelona is the popular avenue La Rambla (an old river bed) that’s filled with restaurants, shops and street entertainers. While walking down this route to the lively port, you’ll also pass the medieval Gothic Quarter. This is a must see thanks to its centuries old buildings, narrow streets and grand, palm-tree filled plazas. However, no visit to this 2,000 year old city would be complete without seeing the La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which is not expected to be completed until 2041. Another popular attraction is the Port Cable Car that cuts across the city’s skyline to the Montjuïc hill above the city.
Airport Connections: Many UK airports fly to Barcelona with airlines including Air France, Iberia, EasyJet, Monarch, British Airways, Brussels Airlines and Ryanair. The Barcelona–El Prat Airport is 8 miles (13 km) from the city centre.
Santiago de Compostela
The Galician capital is the final destination for millions of weary pilgrims completing the Camino de Santiago each year. But you don’t have to walk 550 plus miles along this ancient Christian pilgrimage to visit this World Heritage City! Santiago has one of the most magnificent old towns in Europe, with a labyrinth of cobble stone streets laced with gothic buildings galore. A night time stroll here is recommended, as the medieval streets take on an old world vibe after dark. Eating is a wonderful experience in Santiago and the tapas bars are legendary. Head down Rua do Franco towards the cathedral for a mouth-watering selection of eateries where you’ll find that the “Galician-style octopus” goes down very nicely with the local Albariño wine.
Photo: Santiago de Compostela
Airport Connections: You can fly to Santiago’s International Airport with Vueling, British Airways, Flybe, Ryanair and Iberia from many UK airports. Santiago’s International Airport is 15 miles (9 km) to the city centre.
The last stronghold of the Islamic occupation of Spain, Granada (meaning pomegranate in Spanish) has a mesmerising mixture of Muslim and Spanish heritage. Home to the grand Alhambra Palace (Spain’s most popular tourist attraction) the city is overlooked by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range (pictured) – Europe’s most southern ski resort. What’s more, Granada is one of the handful of Spanish cities that still offer free tapas – making it a must for foodies. Those romantics among us might want to watch the sunset from the Mirador de San Nicolas in the Albaicin Quarter for a breathtaking view of the Alhambra Palace.
Airport Connections: You can fly to Granada with Vueling, British Airways, Flybe and Iberia from many UK airports. The Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaen Airport is 12 miles (19 km) away from the city centre.
Spain’s former capital until the mid-15th century, Toledo is home to a large chunk of the country’s monuments. It’s known as the city of three cultures as Arabs, Christians and Jews lived together for centuries behind its impressive city walls. The old town is a treasure chest of churches, palaces, fortresses, mosques and synagogues, earning it the reputation of an open air museum and a UNESCO Heritage Site award in 1986. Almost an island city as it is surrounded by the River Tajo on three sides, Toledo is small enough to explore on foot, although one of the best ways to discover the city is to literally get lost by wandering aimlessly around the city’s medieval streets. This is especially exciting at night as you feel like you’ve been transported back to the Middle Ages.
Airport Connections: Toledo does not have an airport, but you can fly to Barajas Airport in Madrid, which is 48 miles away (72 km) and well connected by Spain’s high speed trains.
Scorched by centuries of sunshine, the sultry southern city of Seville is known as the frying pan of Europe – with temperatures reaching up to 50c in the summer. But its cool city vibe, Moorish architecture and ancient streets make it the perfect city to explore over 48 hours. Seville, which is also the capital of Andalusia, is said to be the home of flamenco, so make sure you catch a show while in town. Places to enjoy a respite from the sun include the Cathedral, Plaza de Espana (pictured), the Alcázar palace (full of leafy patios and fountains) and the Jewish Quarter of Santa Cruz, a well-preserved Jewish District. There is an upside to the excessive heat for the sun-worshippers among us, high season is low season, meaning you can save around 30 per cent in the summer compared to spring and autumn rates.
Airport Connections: You can fly to Seville International Airport with Ryanair (from Stansted), EasyJet (from Gatwick), Flybe (from Birmingham) and Iberia (from Heathrow). The airport is 7 miles (11 km) from the city centre.
Salamanca lies 200 km west of Madrid close to the border with Portugal and is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. What’s more, its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while its lavish Plaza Mayor (pictured) is said to be one of the country’s most elegant city squares. Salamanca is also known as the Oxford of Spain, as the purest form of Spanish is spoken here. Meanwhile its university, founded in 1218, is thought to be the third oldest in Europe, attracting a large student population that keeps the city alive and buzzing with a youthful energy. Most of the architectural treasures in Salamanca are built from local sandstone and over the years have acquired a soft glow, giving rise to the title “the Golden City”. For a breathtaking view, circle the cathedral walls until you find the Patio Chico, the only spot where you can see both of Salamanca’s two great cathedrals, Vieja and Nueva next to each other.
Airport Connections: You can fly to Valladolid Airport with Ryanair and Air France, which is 78 miles (126 km) to the city centre.
The riverside city of Burgos is another important stopping point along the Camino de Santiago – and is often the city that most pilgrims vow to return to for a longer visit. Dominated by its 13th century gothic cathedral (the third largest in Spain after Seville and Toledo), it is the only one in the country to be awarded a World Heritage title by UNESCO. Many also claim that Burgos has the best gourmet tapas in Spain, while its strategic location between Ribera del Duero and La Rioja wine regions ensure that all food is washed down with some of the country’s finest wine. You can still see much of the old city wall, including its 16th century fortified gate – the Arco de Santa Maria – adorned with so many turrets and towers it looks like the entrance to a fairy-tale castle. Meanwhile, one of the most pleasant ways to get to know this city is to follow the tree-lined Río Arlanzón, as it winds through the city centre.
Airport Connections: There are no direct flights to Burgos from the UK, but you can fly to Bilbao airport, which is 98 miles away (157 km) away from the city centre.
While it’s not as touristy as its neighbours Seville and Granada, Cordoba is a must visit for any Hispanophile. Once one of the greatest cities of the medieval world, Cordoba was the capital of Al-Andalus, the Muslim occupied part of the Iberian Peninsula, and home to one of the grandest mosques in the western world. Today, the magnificent Mezquita (Mosque) of Cordoba is still one of the wonders of Europe – especially since a cathedral was built at its heart by the Christians during the re-conquest of Spain. The city is perfect for those who like to explore on foot as the narrow streets surrounding the Mezquita are filled with beautiful plazas, narrow side-streets and bustling tapas bars. Scorching-hot in the summer, May is the best month to visit as locals decorate their courtyards with potted plants and flowers during the Patios Festival – an annual competition that draws thousands of visitors. During the last week in May you can also catch the Feria de Cordoba, a week-long festival with plenty of sherry, horses and dancing.
Airport Connections: Cordoba doesn’t have an international airport. The nearest airports are Malaga (103 miles/167 km) and Seville (82 miles/133km). EasyJet fly from various UK airports including Bristol, Liverpool, Gatwick and Luton.
Andra Mateescu Gutierréz – Alicante/Spain