19 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Spain
Spain is a dream destination for travelers. The grandeur of a caliph's palace, the sun-drenched days spent on Mediterranean beaches, and the stamp of a flamenco dancer's heels. You can find the soul of Spain in tourist experiences like these, which represent the country's rich history, fascinating culture, and enchanting natural beauty.
From the bustling street life of La Rambla in Barcelona and Plaza Mayor in Madrid to the forest of columns and Moorish arches disappearing into the silent expanse of Cordoba's Great Mosque, Spain exudes a vibrant energy and a captivating blend of past and present. And if you get off the main tourist routes and venture into less tourist-oriented towns, you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Plan your sightseeing and find interesting things to do with our list of the top attractions in Spain.
- 1. The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens, Granada
- 2. Barcelona's Sagrada Familia and Gaudí Sites
- 3. The Great Mosque of Córdoba (La Mezquita)
- 4. Seville Cathedral and Alcázar
- 5. The Prado and Paseo del Artes, Madrid
- 6. San Lorenzo de El Escorial
- 7. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
- 8. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
- 9. Plaza Mayor, Madrid
- 10. Plaza de España and Parque de María Luisa, Seville
- 11. Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, Valencia
- 12. Beaches of Gran Canaria
- 13. La Rambla, Barcelona
- 14. The Costa del Sol
- 15. El Teide, Tenerife
- 16. Toledo's Old City
- 17. The White Towns of Andalucía
- 18. Ibiza
- 19. Ronda
1. The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens, Granada
No matter how much you have read or how many pictures you have seen of Granada's Alhambra palaces, this Moorish pleasure palace will still take your breath away. The Nasrid dynasty's royal palace is the artistic highlight of Spain's Islamic period, when Al-Andalus - as they called Andalucía - represented the epitome of culture and civilization in medieval Europe.
The Alhambra complex includes several buildings, towers, walls, gardens, and a mosque, but it's the indescribably intricate stone carvings, the delicate filigrees, the magnificent tile-lined ceilings, the graceful arches, and serene courtyards of the Nasrid palace that will haunt your dreams.
That said, the adjoining palace built for the Emperor Charles V, even in its unfinished state is the finest example of High Renaissance architecture in Spain. And Generalife's terraced gardens offer a peaceful respite from the grandeur, and splendid views back at the rest of the Alhambra.
Author's Note: The Alhambra is large, requires a great deal of walking, and takes time to see. Don't plan on a quick visit. Be sure to book tickets well in advance. This is Spain's most visited tourist attraction and tickets sell out weeks in advance during busy times.
Travelers should set aside at least a half day to visit the Alhambra palaces and several days to explore the tourist attractions of Granada. Besides the Alhambra, other highlights of Granada include the UNESCO-listed Albaicín, the medieval Moorish quarter; the 16th-century Capilla Real de Granada (Royal Chapel); and the Sacromonte quarter, where flamenco performances take place in gypsy caves.
2. Barcelona's Sagrada Familia and Gaudí Sites
Antoni Gaudí took the architectural style known as Art Nouveau a step further, even, some have argued, into absurdity. The fanciful and outrageous buildings he created in Barcelona have become landmarks, the most emblematic tourist attractions of this Catalan city.
Foremost is the Basílica de la Sagrada Família, officially the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família or the Holy Family Church of the Atonement. One of Europe's most unconventional churches, it is also unfinished, so as you look down from its tower, you can see the work in progress below.
You may search in vain for absolute straight lines in Gaudí's Casa Milà, his last and most famous secular work; it resembles a piece of sculpture more than a functional building. Be sure to ascend to its roof – the chimneys are said to have inspired the image of Darth Vader from Star Wars.
The fantastic Casa Batlló, an iconic Gaudí building with mask-shaped balconies and an undulating façade, presents Magic Nights outdoor concerts on the building's rooftop terrace.
Parc Güell overlooks the city from a hillside, the views and gardens framed by fantastical creatures – salamanders, fish, an octopus – and designs in bright ceramic-chard mosaics. A fanciful towered house near the entrance is largely covered with colorful ceramic pieces.
Gaudí's monuments appeal even to children and to adults who don't care a thing about architecture, for one simple reason: they are just plain fun to look at.
3. The Great Mosque of Córdoba (La Mezquita)
Once the principal mosque of western Islam and still known as La Mezquita, Córdoba's Great Mosque is one of the largest in the world and the finest achievement of Moorish architecture in Spain.
In spite of later alterations that carved out its center to build a Catholic cathedral at its heart, the Great Mosque ranks with the Alhambra in Granada as one of the two most splendid examples of Islamic art and architecture in western Europe.
Building materials from Roman and Visigothic buildings were used in the construction, which began in 785, and by 1000, it had grown to its present dimensions, its prayer hall with no fewer than nineteen aisles. No matter where you stand or in which direction you look, its rows of columns and rounded Moorish arches line up in symmetrical patterns.
La Mezquita is found in the city center, close to many major attractions in Cordoba. Stroll down to the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge) and the Puerta del Puente, or find a place to eat along the riverfront.
Some of the other highlights include the flower-bedecked patios in the Judería (old Jewish quarter) near the Great Mosque; the Palacio de Viana, a 15th-century aristocratic palace; and the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, the former Caliphal Palace that Catholic king Fernando III took over in the 13th century. Narrow, winding streets; small squares; and low whitewashed houses fill the Judería, lending a Moorish atmosphere inherited from its past.
4. Seville Cathedral and Alcázar
You can't miss the Seville Cathedral. This enormous structure is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and dominates the city center.
While you can appreciate the cathedral from the outside, you need to step inside and walk beside the massive columns to really get a sense of the size. The Cathedral of Seville has more interior space than St. Peter's in Rome. The 37-meter main altar consists of carved statues completely covered in gold. The monumental tomb of Christopher Columbus is held aloft by a quartet of larger-than-life figures.
A masterpiece of Almohad architecture, La Giralda began life as a minaret and is all that's left of the city's Great Mosque, destroyed to build the cathedral.
The Alcázar opposite the cathedral was begun by the Moors in 712 and redesigned after the Christian Reconquest by Pedro I in ornate Mudéjar style (blending Gothic and Muslim architectural elements). The rooms and salons are breathtaking, with fanciful embellishments such as intricate tiled walls and patterned ceilings.
Shaded by fragrant orange and lemon trees, the dreamy Alcázar gardens were pictured in the Game of Thrones series. Fans of this show may recognize the fountains from the Kingdom of Dorne's Water Gardens.
Bordering the Alcázar on the east is the Barrio de Santa Cruz, the former Judería (Jewish quarter), a neighborhood of whitewashed homes, iron balconies, and flower-filled courtyards.
5. The Prado and Paseo del Artes, Madrid
One of the top tourist attractions in Madrid, the Prado alone ranks with the world's top art museums for the riches of its collections. But add the Reina Sofía National Art Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, and the CaixaForum, all along Madrid's mile-long, tree-shaded boulevard, and you have what may be the world's highest concentration of priceless art treasures. It's no wonder this is known as El Paseo del Arte, Boulevard of the Arts.
The Prado has the world's largest collection of Spanish art, an impressive continuum from 12th-century medieval works through the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century, and is especially noted for its works from Spain's golden age by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya.
But its riches are not all Spanish; other highlights are the medieval murals and retablos, paintings by Flemish and Dutch artists (be sure to see the fantasy world of Hieronymus Bosch and works by Rubens and Brueghel), and Italian art (Botticelli, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, and Tintoretto).
Highlights of the Museo Reina Sofía's impressive 20,000-piece collection are Picasso's Guernica and works by Miró, Dalí, Dubuffet, Braque, Serra, Calder, and Magritte.
6. San Lorenzo de El Escorial
San Lorenzo de El Escorial, about 45 kilometers northwest of Madrid, was the summer home of Spain's kings, and in 1563, work was begun here on a huge complex, which would include a monastery, church, royal palace, mausoleum, library, and museum, all conceived as a monument to Philip II and his reign.
The result is a staggering collection of attractions, built around 16 courtyards, its rooms and structures connected by 16 kilometers of corridors. At its core is the church, the highlight of which is Herrera's 30-meter-high retablo, made of jasper and red marble and approached by a flight of 17 steps.
Along with the vaulted and frescoed ceilings by Tibaldi in the rooms off the lower cloister, highlights of the monastery are the Panteón de los Reyes (the Baroque burial vault of the Spanish kings) and the library, a grand room also adorned with Tibaldi frescoes.
In the palace, be sure to see the Bourbon Suite, where the state apartments of Charles IV are decorated with rare furnishings and 338 tapestries. Beyond are the art-filled private apartments of Philip II. The Picture Gallery below has a large collection of fine paintings, including works by Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Velázquez, and El Greco.
Official site: https://el-escorial.com
7. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
You really have to see this building to believe it - no photograph has ever done justice to this symphony of shapes, so alive that they seem ready to take wing. American architect Frank Gehry used blocks of limestone and undulating sheets of titanium to turn the notion of modern architecture on its ear.
So thoroughly did he succeed that two new terms were born from it: "The Bilbao Effect" - the ability of a city to turn its fortunes around by constructing a single world-class building - and "architourism," a whole segment of the travel industry revolving around landmarks of contemporary architecture.
Inside the 24,000-square-meter galleries of the museum are temporary exhibitions and rotating displays of its own collections of modern art. Highlights include works by Anselm Kiefer, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol.
Besides the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao has other interesting cultural attractions: the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (Museum of Fine Arts), the Casco Viejo (Old Town), and the gourmet dining scene. Bilbao is renowned for its Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurants, including Nerua in the Guggenheim Museum; Ola Martín Berasategui, which serves contemporary Spanish cuisine based on fresh market ingredients; and Atelier Etxanobe, which offers creative haute cuisine.
8. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
The magnificent cathedral of Santiago (St. James) in Santiago de Compostela was built to house and honor the relics of the saint, and it has been the ultimate destination of pilgrims since the Middle Ages. (Today, the historic town of Santiago de Compostela still draws modern-day pilgrims and also is a top travel destination in the Galicia region of Northern Spain).
One of the outstanding monuments of Early Romanesque architecture, the cathedral was built between 1060 and 1211, and despite the Baroque transformation of the exterior in the 16th to 18th centuries, the interior is still in the purest Early Romanesque style.
You'll see both of these periods at play as you enter the west front, through one of Spain's most impressive church facades. Step inside to face the Pórtico de la Gloria, part of the old west front now concealed by the 18th-century facade. This triple doorway is one of the largest and most magnificent collections of Romanesque sculpture in the world.
The focal point of the interior is the elaborately decorated Capilla Mayor, built over the Apostle's tomb. In the center of the high altar of jasper, alabaster, and silver is a 13th-century wooden figure of the Apostle, richly adorned in precious metals and gems.
On either side, narrow staircases lead up behind the figure so that pilgrims can kiss the Apostle's cloak - culminating their pilgrimage. In a crypt under the altar, the Apostle's remains are in a silver casket.
9. Plaza Mayor, Madrid
The throbbing heartbeat of Spain's vibrant capital city, Plaza Mayor has played an important part in Madrid's everyday life since the 16th century, when Philip II entrusted the task of designing it to his favorite architect Juan de Herrera, builder of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
Today one of the top cultural attractions of Madrid, the Plaza Mayor has for centuries served as the stage for ceremonial events – the proclamation of a new king, the canonization of saints, the burning of heretics – and public entertainment such as chivalric tournaments and bullfights.
The cafés spilling out onto the plaza's pedestrian-only stone pavement, and the restaurants shaded under its arcades are Madrid's living room, popular meeting places for Madrileños and tourists alike.
As the center of Madrid's social life, the area around the Plaza Mayor is one of the best places to stay in Madrid.
10. Plaza de España and Parque de María Luisa, Seville
Built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 to celebrate the various regions of Spain, the Plaza de España is an impressive semi-circular pavilion surrounded by colonnades. Beautiful panels of colorful decorative tiles representing each of Spain's provinces are set overlooking the long pool, which is crossed by bridges. It's a popular place to visit for a stroll or to row a rental boat around the pool and under the bridges.
The Plaza de España is the focal point of the vast Parque de María Luisa, a half mile of gardens, lawns, and shaded walks stretching alongside the river opposite central Seville. You can rent a pedal car or ride though in a horse-drawn carriage. Busy any day, on Sundays the park overflows with families.
The best way to see the giant trees, flower beds, pools, gazebos, and the man-made rock mountain with a waterfall is to stroll through the park, following the side paths into hedge-surrounded gardens. At the far end of the park, you'll find a small but rich archeology museum with Visigoth jeweled crosses and ancient gold work.
11. Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, Valencia
When Valencia diverted the course of the river that had repeatedly flooded the city, it was left with a broad, flat riverbed spanned by bridges. It was upon this clean palette that the brilliant Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava created a breathtaking ensemble of structures that have become a magnet for aficionados of contemporary architecture.
Not only the buildings, but the museums, arts venues, and aquarium (by Félix Candela and the only building not designed by Calatrava) form a series of tourist attractions in Valencia that rank among Spain's most popular.
Europe's largest oceanographic aquarium, L'Oceanogràfic, was built in the shape of a water lily with buildings dedicated to different aquatic environments from the tropics to the poles.
12. Beaches of Gran Canaria
The largest of the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria is best known for the golden-sand beaches that line most of its southern coast. Playa de Las Canteras is in the capital city of Las Palmas, popular with families for its calm waters, protected by a natural breakwater of volcanic rock.
The largest beach, and the liveliest, is the Playa del Inglés at Maspalomas, which abounds with cafés, restaurants, shops, play parks, and other amusements. At one end is one of the archipelago's natural wonders, a vast protected area of gigantic sand dunes. These reach as high as 12 meters and are constantly shifting as they are shaped by the wind and the sea. To complete the desert illusion, you can ride through this desolate and other-worldly landscape on a camel.
The water is relatively warm on this coast, and so clear that it's popular with divers. There's an underwater park at Arinaga and diving schools at Playa del Inglés and several other places along the coast. Or you can see the fish and other sea life from a cruise on a glass-bottomed boat. The south coast is also popular for windsurfing and sailing.
Read More: Top Things to Do on Gran Canaria
13. La Rambla, Barcelona
Strolling along La Rambla on a summer evening, you might think that every single one of Barcelona's inhabitants was there with you. It's definitely the place to be after work on a summer evening or on a weekend. This tree-lined boulevard cuts a green line - not a very straight one - through the city center, stretching northwest from the Columbus Memorial near the port.
The section to the Plaça de Catalunya is lined with plane trees, its wide pedestrian zone flanked by a narrow road on each side. Along with its flower and bird markets, La Rambla has a number of book and newspaper stands, as well as restaurants and cafés with open-air tables. Pavement artists, street musicians, living statues, and impromptu performers all add to its lively atmosphere.
One of the highlights of La Rambla is the Mercat de la Boqueria (91 Rambla), a traditional covered marketplace that sells fresh produce, meat, fish, bread, cheese, and other specialty foods. Locals come here to shop for ingredients to prepare home-cooked meals. Tourists will appreciate the chance to sample regional delicacies served at the market's tapas bars.
14. The Costa del Sol
Long a destination for sun-starved northern Europeans, the Costa del Sol is a seemingly unending stretch of beaches and cities along Spain's southwestern Mediterranean coastline. The summer weather here is exceptional, with long, hot days, and steamy fun-filled nights.
Must-see cities along this stretch include the glitzy and glamourous Marbella with its famous harbor chock full of luxury yachts, and Malaga, with its restored downtown and the stunning Alcazaba perched on the hilltop. If you prefer something a bit smaller, check out the small-town charms of Neerja.
Fun cities aside, it's the beaches that are the major draw here. The soft, golden sand lapped by azure waters makes it almost impossible not to go swimming. In fact, the Costa del Sol is home to many of Spain's best beaches, each with their own special vibe.
15. El Teide, Tenerife
One of the highlights of the Canary Islands, Tenerife has many attractions. But El Teide is what makes the island truly special.
The highest peak in Spain, this ancient - but still simmering - volcano is also one of Europe's top natural wonders. The Pico del Teide and the Caldera de las Cañadas, a gigantic volcanic crater, together form the Parque Nacional del Teide, at the center of the island of Tenerife. In listing the park in 2007, UNESCO cited its natural beauty and "its importance in providing evidence of the geological processes that underpin the evolution of oceanic islands."
You can explore El Teide in several ways. You can drive or hike across the inside of the caldera - the crater floor - 12 miles in diameter and a barren moonscape of colored rock formations that's like driving into the center of the earth. You can climb El Teide's cone, but an easier way to get close to the top is by an eight-minute cable car ride. On a clear day, views cover the entire archipelago and can extend to North Africa - the nearest land mass to the Canary Islands.
Read More: Best Beaches on Tenerife
16. Toledo's Old City
Toledo is a fantastic city to wander around and get lost in its narrow streets. The layout of the town, with its irregular pattern of streets and numerous blind alleys, reflects its Moorish past, and the architecture of the Christian period is represented by the numerous churches, convents, and hospices. This makes the Casco Histórico (Old Town) a kind of open-air museum, illustrating the history of Spain, and it has been listed by UNESCO as part of mankind's cultural heritage.
Moorish, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture mingle and blend into a city that El Greco captured in one of his most famous paintings. High on a granite hill and surrounded on three sides by the deep gorge of the Tagus River, the medieval city of Toledo presents a stunning profile; approaching it from below is an unforgettable sight.
With its richly decorated interior, the splendid Gothic Catedral de Toledo is one of Toledo's top tourist attractions, and the two synagogues in the atmospheric old Judería (Jewish quarter) are ornate in the Moorish style. While in the Judería, be sure to see the church of Santo Tomé for its El Greco masterpiece.
You can easily visit Toledo as a day trip from Madrid (just an hour away by train), but it's also a nice place to spend a night, so you can linger later into the day and soak up the atmosphere in the evening.
17. The White Towns of Andalucía
Poised like dabs of white frosting atop the steep crags of southern Andalucía, the White Towns (Pueblos Blancos) are not just beautiful, they speak of this region's long and fascinating history. West of Gibraltar, mountains rise straight from the sea, and among them hide these hilltop whitewashed towns.
Most spectacular is Arcos de la Frontera, whose plaza beside the Gothic church ends vertiginously in a 137-meter cliff, affording views across a valley of olive, orange, and almond orchards. Its maze of winding cobbled streets lead past cafes and craft shops selling ceramics and pottery to a Moorish castle.
A total of 19 of these villages of small white houses are in the area around the Grazalema Nature Reserve. Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra are two others worth seeing. A good base in the region is Jerez de la Frontera, home of flamenco and Andalucian thoroughbreds. Watch these horses' precision ballet at the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art, and for authentic flamenco, visit Centro Cultural Flamenco.
One of the most photographed towns is Setenil de las Bodegas, where many of the buildings are built into or beneath the rock walls.
Ibiza is well known the world over as a place to come to have a good time in the sun. Blessed with exceptional beaches and lively towns, the island has been attracting a youthful set for decades. During the day Ibiza's beaches are packed with people enjoying the sun and surf, and at night certain areas are entertainment hotspots where DJs spin the latest tunes.
However, what many people don't know is that Ibiza is also a great place to soak up some history. Take a stroll along the cobblestone streets into the UNESCO-listed old quarter of Dalt Vila where you'll find a surprising number of well-preserved Gothic Catalan buildings. Up above it all is the fortress, offering stunning views.
If you up for a bit of adventure away from the crowds, head to the tranquil coves of Portinatx. Lay your towel out on the soft sand and enjoy the peace and quiet.
The ancient city of Ronda is one of the highlights of a visit to Spain's Andalucia region. Perched impossibly on a rocky outcrop complete with a historical bridge and well-preserved old town, this city just begs to be photographed.
Ronda is exceptionally easy to walk around, many of the major sights are a short stroll from one another including the Puente Nuevo bridge over the 100-meter-deep Tajo de Ronda gorge, the Plazas de Toros bullring, and La Cuidad, the old Moorish town center.
Spend a day wandering the sights and then settling into a prime patio seat on the Plaza del Socorro. Fans of Ernst Hemingway may recognize certain areas from his book For Whom the Bell Tolls.