10 Places to visit in Spain other than Barcelona
A few weeks ago my accountant in Montreal wrote me, asking me to help him out draw an itinerary for his wife and daughter who were planning a visit to Barcelona. I helped him out and gave him lots of recommendations. But I also asked him if they were going to visit other places in Spain – because, in all honesty, I think Barcelona is overrated and should not be the first and only place that comes to mind when planning a trip to Spain.
So where to go in Spain if not Barcelona?
In this post I explore 10 places that – in my subjective opinion – blow Barcelona away.
Besides being the most beautiful city in Spain, Seville is one of the most beautiful cities in the world with its colourful streets, tiled murals, cobblestones, and shady plazas and gardens. It is a peaceful, happy and exotic place where you can eat tapas and drink Tinto de Verano while cooling off.
Seville is a stupendous city full of sights. Highlights include the Real Alcázar (a Unesco World Heritage site and a residence of the Spanish Royal family), the Seville Cathedral (the 4th largest Cathedral in the World), and the gorgeous Plaza de España. But there’s so much more including some of the most beautiful palaces in Spain.
You can easily replace Barcelona with Seville, there’s just as many highlights but in a more compact setting. Seville is cheaper, cleaner, and the people are friendlier.
(We spent 2 months in Seville a few years back and are planning a return in the near future. A wonderful city).
Like Seville, Granada is a place where you step back in time.
The highlights are the Alhambra (among the most popular tourist destinations in Spain) and walking through the Albaycin (the old Moorish quarter built along a hill). Both of the above are UNESCO World Heritage sites. But there’s lots to see and experience in Granada including one of the best tapas scenes in Spain (where you get a free tapa when you order a drink) and where you can see flamenco being performed in a cave.
More: 48 Hours in Granada
Granada is not a big city and you can see everything in about 3 days. That gives you time to visit some of the other wonders in the area: places like Antequera (less than an hour away), Cordoba (1 ½ hrs by train), Malaga, Seville and Ronda.
Córdoba is one of our favorite cities in Spain. We’ve been back several times.
The highlight is the Mezquita (officially the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba). It’s the most spectacular historic site we’ve seen in Spain. Other highlights include the Alcázar (where Christopher Columbus meet with the Monarchs when planning his first trip to the Americas), the Roman Bridge and the many patios bursting with flowers that Córdoba is known for.
Like Granada, Córdoba is not a big city. 2 or 3 days is enough to see the highlights. But it can easily be combined with Seville (less than an hour away), Granada (1 ½ hrs away), Malaga, Ronda and Antequera.
Ask a Spaniard whether they prefer Barcelona or Madrid and most will say “Madrid”. Our Spanish reader Marziano: “It’s interesting that among Spaniards and in Spain, Madrid is preferred… but abroad Barcelona has a better image. If you ask a random person in the street about Barcelona… most people are going to tell you that is a city that is overrated, overpriced and dangerous..”
Madrid is a city of grand avenues and beautiful architecture, most from the 19th century. It is also a city of museums – if you love museums you can’t beat the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. Other highlights: Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, Retiro Park, the Gran Via, Puerta del Sol…
Madrid is also close to some fantastic towns/cities like Toledo, Segovia and Ávila (Toledo is 30 minutes from Madrid, Segovia and Ávila are just a little over an hour). A couple of them deserve a special mention (see below).
Toledo is incredible. It has an ancient history and was the capital of the Spanish Empire before the court was moved to Madrid in the 1500’s. It also has a spectacular geographical location in a bow of the Tagus river.
Toledo’s Primada Cathedral dates back to the early 1200’s and is one of the top Cathedrals in Spain. The Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes was built to commemorate Isabella I taking the throne of the Kingdom of Castile in 1474. The city has ancient synagogues, mosques, palaces as well as medieval walls and bridges. There is lots to see in Toledo.
How to organize a trip? If you have a week you could split it between Madrid and Toledo: Madrid for big city culture, Toledo for history. The two cities are only 30 minutes apart by train.
Some people make it a daytrip from Madrid – but we stayed here 2 days and wish we had stayed at least another.
Segovia’s old town is a walled city on a hill. Within huge, formidable walls lie Segovia’s Alcazar (a huge fortress/palace that served as inspiration for Cinderella’s castle), the Cathedral of Segovia (one of Spain’s Top 10 Cathedrals), and the stupendous Roman Aqueduct (built by the Romans in the 1st century AD, it brought water from the mountains 15 km away). On top of these 3 incredible sites there are palaces, churches, towers, and walks along the medieval walls. Visiting Segovia is like going back in time.
More: Visiting magical Segovia
A Unesco World Heritage site, Salamanca is famous for many things. Known as the “Golden city” for the sandstone used in the construction of its buildings, it has the third oldest existing university in the world, two Cathedrals (as well as the Convento de San Esteban), and one of the most beautiful plazas in all of Spain.
I would plan 3 days in Salamanca (although those on a Rick Steves-type itinerary can probably do it in 2). From here you have a bunch of places you can add: Ávila (which can be done in a day) or, a bit further, Burgos and León (I think a journey combining the cities of Salamanca, León and Burgos makes for a wonderful trip through Spain’s Castile and León region).
We were stuck in León for 4 months during Covid. This beautiful city has a special place in our hearts.
Highlights include León Cathedral (another of Spain’s top Cathedrals), the Convent of San Marcos (home of one of Spain’s best Paradors), and Plaza Mayor (one of the oldest town squares in Spain). But there are many more sights: churches, medieval walls, and beautiful squares (we love Plaza de Grano). León even has a building built by Antoni Gaudi (Casa Botines).
Lots more information and photos in this post: Highlights of a self-guided walking tour of León
I’d give León at least 2 days if rushing through.
It’s one of the prettiest cities we’ve seen in Spain. The highlight is without a doubt the Burgos Cathedral, one of the most decadent Cathedrals in Spain. It is in the center of a beautiful old town full of colourful squares and buildings and a beautiful promenade (Paseo del Espolón). Up a hill is the Mirador de Castillo (there are ruins of a castle here) where there are great views over town.
You can see the highlights of Burgos in 2 days (or 1 if you really rush it). But it’s a city to slow down and enjoy, Burgos is special (as I say, you can combine it with Salamanca and León or even just with Madrid which is 2 hours away by train)
Valencia (Spain’s 3rd largest city) is a beautiful city full of highlights – and is also safe, clean and compact.
It’s a cultural city with lots of Gothic architecture: Valencia Cathedral, La Lonja de la Seda (the medieval silk market – now a UNESCO World Heritage site), the ‘Torres de Serranos’ and ‘Torres de Quart’, the towers that protected the city from intruders. Valencia also has some of Spain’s most beautiful modern architecture, best exemplified by the City of Arts and Sciences complex (which includes Valencia’s aquarium, one of the best aquariums in Spain). It has a city park, the Turia, a 9.8 km park that winds through the city center as well as a Central market considered among the best food markets in all of Europe (if you didn’t know, Valencia is home to Paella). Lots more to see including the unique ceramics museum (located in an incredible building), the Plaza de Toros, and one of the most beautiful train station in Spain.
A great city (we almost ended up moving there) that is definitely worth a visit.
My point? Barcelona should not be the first and only place that comes to mind when planning a trip to Spain, there are plenty of great destinations (the above are places we’ve been. There are many more we’ve yet to visit).
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Ps. Still want to go to Barcelona? See this post: The Top Things to Do in Barcelona (and costs!)
Related: How to plan a Trip to Spain