At first sight, Britain's favourite foreign country looks extremely full this summer. Hoteliers on the costas of Spain report average occupancy of 95 per cent, making it tricky to find a bargain – or even a space on the beach when you get there. Happily, in a country more than twice the size of the UK, you can still find your own secret place in the sun – with uncrowded cities, countryside and coastline easily accessible.
Air fares to many Spanish airports are extremely high this summer, but the capital is easily accessible at good fares. To Madrid, easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) has plenty of availability this month from Gatwick and Luton at £150-£200 return.
Once you arrive, leave town: it is well worth exploring the constellation of fascinating towns that ring the city. You can reach them by train in an hour or less. Of these, Aranjuez – to the south – is the most intriguing. Its "cultural landscape" has been recognised by Unesco, and comprises some fabulous Spanish Bourbon architecture.
Aranjuez was a favourite of the monarchs, and Madrid's first railway line led direct from the capital to the gates of the royal palace.
Today, you can explore the palace and its beautiful gardens beside the Tagus river, then visit some of the churches, mansions and restaurants that decorate the town.
Almost all the flights from Britain to the largest island in the Canaries serve Tenerife South. But this summer the Spanish airline, Iberia (020 3684 3774; iberia.com), launched non-stop flights from Heathrow to the northern airport, Los Rodeos – an alluring new gateway.
The airport is on the doorstep of La Laguna, the former capital now designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. The cobbled streets and quiet courtyards resemble the historic centres of Latin American cities – because La Laguna was a kind of prototype for expansion in the New World.
Take the tram from here to Santa Cruz, the sunny capital of Tenerife, which is a great place to base yourself. Even the city's grandest hotel, the recently refurbished Mencey (00 34 922 609 900; grandhotelmencey.com), costs only €117 for a double (without breakfast) this month – much less than the top hotels in the south. And while the beach is not exactly on the doorstep, a short trip on bus 910 will take you to Playa Las Teresitas.
The mighty Pyrenées separate the Iberian peninsula from the rest of Europe, and the highest ridge marks the border between Spain and France – for almost all its length. But the Val d'Aran is a spectacular exception: a Spanish valley on the "wrong" side of the mountains, more easily reached via Toulouse than Barcelona. It is a linguistic aberration, too, with Aranese trumping both Catalan and Spanish as the main language.
In winter, the main attraction is Spain's finest skiing (with the King himself a regular visitor). That means in summer you can find accommodation easily and cheaply – even at the luxurious state-run Parador de Vielha (parador.es), which has doubles for €115 per night (without breakfast), if you stay for five nights. This will give you plenty of time to explore the cute capital, Vielha, and the villages that straggle along the valley to east and west. You can also indulge in some spectacular hiking on well-marked trails, one of which leads back into France.
A little-known new flight, from Luton to Vigo, mainland Spain's western-most city, has opened up southern Galicia this summer. The link, on Air Nostrum (bookable through iberia.com) takes you to a city that is cultured, gritty and highly affordable. It has an attractive beach, and just next door is the Museo do Mar, which occupies a former canning factory that now describes Vigo's tempestuous relationship with the sea.
Vigo claims to be the largest fishing port in the world, and plentiful fresh seafood is a strong attraction. The city is also an excellent starting point for wider exploration of the rias (inlets) that carve the shoulder of Spain so dramatically.
A lazy and rewarding trip is to take one of the regular ferries across to the resort of Cangas (day return €4.45). There's no rush back – the sun sets later in Vigo than anywhere else in the country.
Rising from the dry-roasted plains of north-central Spain beside the Ebro river, Zaragoza was put on the map by Expo 2008 – a festival celebrating water and sustainable development – that put a fresh new face on Zaragoza's rich 2,000-year history. It also created a chic 21st-century place to stay, the Tryp Zaragoza Hotel (00 34 976 287 950; solmelia.com), beside the Expo park.
Roman, Moorish and Renaissance strands are all in evidence, but at the heart of the tradition of the Maños – as Zaragozans are known – is the story that the apostle St James preached the Gospels on the south bank of the Ebro.
On the night of 2 January, AD40, the Virgin Mary travelled to the city to console and encourage the apostle. Furthermore she brought from Jerusalem a column (pilar) so that the first chapel could be built on it. Conveniently, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar has been built around said pillar, which is on display in the Chapel of the Virgin.
Fly to Zaragoza on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), which has four flights a week from Stansted.Reuse content