Whether you crave a spiritual pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or prefer to follow in Don Quixote's fictional footsteps, you can find your perfect route

I fancy a long walk

Spain's best-known route is the Camino de Santiago, the path that has been followed since the early ninth century by pilgrims visiting the shrine of St James in the fine cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (catedraldesantiago.es). There are several different routes to the city, from the western end of the Bay of Biscay and from the Pyrenees. The best access point is Biarritz in France, accessible on Ryanair from Stansted – and the same airline will take you home from Santiago. The main city along the way is Léon; stay at the magnificent Parador de San Marcos (00 34 987 237 300; parador.es), itself an ancient monument.

A coastal variation begins in the attractive border town of Hondarribia, just across the border from Hendaye in France, and runs west, staying close to the shore and passing through the varied landscapes of the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias.

At Gijón, on the Bay of Biscay, just before it cuts inland, the Camino de Santiago encounters the historic north-south artery, the Ruta de la Plata, or Silver Route. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with precious metal: historians believe the name comes from an Arabic term meaning "paved road".

The Ruta de la Plata was originally built by the Romans to link their Iberian capital, Mérida, to the garrison towns of Astorga and Léon further north; gradually it was extended to the province of Asturias, where there happened to be silver mines, and the port of Gijón – and south as far as Seville, which linked, via the Guadalquivir river up with Mediterranean ports.

Astorga is one of the highlights of this journey. In addition to the Roman heritage dotted through the city, it has a cathedral that is part-baroque, part-Gothic, and a Bishop's Palace designed by the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The Astur Plaza Hotel is a pleasant three-star establishment located on the main Plaza de España (00 34 987 61 89 00; asturplaza.com), with some of the rooms overlooking the square itself.

Continuing south, just before the route's halfway point is the beautiful city of Salamanca, an ancient university town, whose centre is a glorious collection of ornate carvings, elegant squares and two beautiful cathedrals.

The heart of the city is the Plaza Mayor, a vast space enclosed on four sides by three storeys of elegant façades, built on top of typical Spanish arcades. In the evening, this is the focus of city life, with local people coming here for an evening stroll or a drink with friends.

Just before the Ruta de la Plata reaches its end in Seville, it intersects with another fascinating trail, the Ruta Bética Romana.

Betica who?

The region of Baetica, roughly equivalent to the modern province of Seville, was important to the Romans, and there are plenty of visible traces of their legacy. Among the most striking are the ruins at Italica, 10km north-west of Seville, whose amphitheatre was one of the largest in the Roman empire. There is plenty left to see here, including the baths and several important houses, their mosaic floors still clearly visible. Italica (00 34 955 996 583) opens 9am-5.30pm Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-4pm on Sundays. Admission is €1.50, or free to anyone with a passport from an EU country. Seville is accessible from Liverpool and Stansted with Ryanair; once you are in the city, take the bus to Santiponce from the Plaza de Armas.

From Cádiz as far as Córdoba, the Ruta Betica Romana follows the tracks of another Roman highway, the Via Augusta, which, at nearly 1,600km, was the longest road in the Iberian peninsula. It carries on from Córdoba, cutting inland to Valencia before following the Mediterranean coast north to the Pyrenees.

Some of the best Roman remains on this coast can be seen in Tarragona, which was occupied for three centuries. The original city walls were more than 3km long; now only 800 metres remain. Just outside them, built into the curve of the hillside, is the amphitheatre. It opens 9am-9pm daily except Monday in summer, 9am-5pm daily except Monday from October to Easter. The €2.45 admission ticket also allows entrance to the History Museum, the walls and the Circus. Four kilometres outside the city is Las Ferreres aqueduct.

Tarragona has plenty of places to stay. Among the best, for both location and facilities, is the Husa Imperial Tarraco Hotel at Passeig Palmeres (00 34 977 23 30 40; hotelhusaimperialtarraco.com), poised above the beach and the amphitheatre, with excellent views from every balcony. To reach Tarragona, fly to Barcelona, then take the train down the coast. Or fly Ryanair to Reus from one of several UK airports, and take a quick onward train ride to Tarragona.

Any footsteps I can follow?

The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha may not be everyone's ideal travelling companion, but in the course of his three journeys, the 17th-century adventurer explored much of the heartland of Spain.

In 2005, to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the great romance by Cervantes, the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha devised a route through many of the places Quixote visited with his companion Sancho Panza and his trusty nag, Rocinante.

The Don Quixote Route (donquijotedelamancha2005.com) is not so much a pilgrimage through literary landmarks as a chance to follow a trail through parts of the Spanish interior, south and east of Madrid, that are often overlooked by visitors.

The 2,500km route is divided neatly into 10 sections, and the emphasis is on green tourism, covering varied terrain that includes mountains and river valleys, volcanic craters and wetland, and plenty of native wildlife.

Aficionados of Spain's most famous literary eccentric might want to explore the village of El Toboso, birthplace of Don Quixote's beloved Dulcinea. A typical Spanish village with sleepy streets and whitewashed buildings, El Toboso's main attraction is the Dulcinea House Museum at 1 Calle Don Quijote (00 34 925 197288). This is a former farmhouse, furnished in late 16th-century rural style, believed to have belonged to the woman who was the inspiration for Cervantes' fictional heroine. The house opens 10am-2pm and 4.30-7.30pm Tuesday-Saturday from mid-March to mid-October, 10am-2pm on Sundays; 10am-2pm and 3.30-6.30pm Tuesday-Friday in winter. Admission is 60 cents.

To enter into the Quixotic spirit, book a room in a 17th- century mansion that would no doubt have been known to Dulcinea. The Casa de la Torre (00 34 925 56 80 06; casadelatorre.com) has been restored somewhat since the Don's day, and now offers comfortable rooms to visitors from €91 including breakfast.

In the course of his travels, Quixote attacked a group of ferocious giants, identifiable to the less fanciful eye as windmills. Three of these "giants", recently restored to working order, are still where the knight saw them, just outside the town of Campo de Criptana, not far from El Toboso.

A less eccentric travelling companion?

The 19th-century American writer, and one-time Minister for Spain, Washington Irving made a journey between Seville and Granada that has been commemorated by naming a route after him.

Irving was fascinated by Andalucia's mix of Spanish and Muslim heritage, and wrote a collection of short stories set in the region. Highlights of the Route of Washington Irving include Osuna, whose centre is an impressive collection of monumental buildings that testify to its prosperous past; and Antequera, a small town with a Moorish castle and Mudejar bell-tower. You can make the journey today by rail, one of Spain's loveliest train trips.

Andalucia is criss-crossed by the Routes of al-Andalus, four itineraries that celebrate Spain's Moorish heritage and converge on Granada, which remained in Muslim hands longer than any other city on the Iberian peninsula. Its highlight is, of course, the Alhambra, the impressive fortress complex (alhambra-patronato.es) that dominates the city. It opens 8.30am-8pm daily, and 10am-11.30pm Tuesday-Saturday from March to October; 8.30am-6pm daily and 8am-9.30pm Friday and Saturday the rest of the year. Admission costs €12, and tickets can be booked in advance by calling 00 34 934 92375 or through alhambra-tickets.es. Within the historic walls of the Alhambra are a series of palaces and gardens, as well as one of the loveliest hotels in Spain: the Parador de San Francisco (00 34 958 22 14 20; parador.es). Double rooms start at €310. Breakfast is an extra €17 .

Routes into Granada from Córdoba, Seville, Algeciras and Navas de Tolosa all navigate their way through some of the lesser-known towns of the Islamic Empire. These include places such as Ubeda, whose u olovely old quarter, with its squares, churches and attractive houses, is an unexpected delight; and Ronda, whose location, at the top of a dramatic ravine, is one of the most scenic places in the region.

Could someone organise a journey for me?

Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel.co.uk) has put together a couple of trips on the trail of the conquistadors. One takes you through northern Extremadura, home territory of Francisco Pizarro, who conquered Peru. The other leads through western Andalucia and southern Extremadura in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus, who set sail from Palos de la Frontera, just outside Huelva. This trip ends in Seville, in whose cathedral Columbus has a tomb, although it is unlikely that his bones are inside it. The eight-night holiday is available from £762, including B&B accommodation, car hire and three dinners; flights to Seville are extra.

Anyone preferring to let a luxury train take the strain could opt for a trip on El Transcantábrico (00 34 985 981 711; transcantabrico.com), Spain's indulgent narrow-gauge train, which takes eight days to travel from Leó*to the coast at Bilbao, then along the north coast towards Santiago.

Departures are on 4 and 11 April 2009, and then every Saturday from 2 May until 24 October; prices start from €2,600 per person, which includes all excursions and full-board accommodation with wine.

For a video preview of the journey, watch Ben Ross taking it easy in the Independent Traveller film, Tale of Two Travellers: tiny.cc/kclbj.

On the trail of Spanish artists

Picture postcards...

Short journeys on the trail of a number of Spain's best-known artists are an interesting way to discover both their art and the surroundings in which they painted.

...from Toledo

This lovely walled city was for many years the home of El Greco, and his pictures can be seen in a number of places around the town. These include the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo (00 34 925 222930), as well as the Hospital de Tavera at 2 Calle Cardenal Tavera (00 34 925 220451) and the church of Santo Tomé (00 34 925 256098, santotome.org), which contains one of his masterpieces, The Burial of Count Orgaz.

Halfway between Toledo and Madrid is the village of Illescas where several El Greco paintings, commissioned for the Hospital of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, at 2 Calle del Cardenal Cisneros (00 34 925 54 00 35), are still on display in the surroundings for which they were intended.

...from Aragon

Goya was born in the Aragonese village of Fuendetodos, 40km south of Zaragoza, in a small cottage that is now open to the public, although visitors need to cross the village to the Museo de Grabados (00 34 976 14 38 30) in order to see examples of his work. These include The Disasters of War, inspired by the French invasion of Spain. Goya studied in Zaragoza, and his work can be seen in the city: on the ceiling of the Basílica del Pilar and in the headquarters of the Ibercaja bank at 16 Calle San Ignacio de Loyola (00 34 976 76 76 76), as well as in the Provincial Museum of Huesca (00 34 97 422 0586) and in the church of San Juan el Real in Calatayud.

...from Catalonia

Salvador Dalí was born in Figueres, lived the last years of his life there, and was buried at the Theatre-Museum that bears his name and contains many of his works (Plaça Gala-Salvador Dalí 5; 00 34 972 67 75 00). But much of his adult life was spent on the coast near Cadaqués, where he met his wife, Gala. He is commemorated there by a statue on the seafront, and several of his paintings hang in the local museum. They lived at Port Lligat, in a lovely waterside house that was both home and studio (00 34 972 25 10 15).

However, Gala spent much of her time at a bolt-hole bought for her by her husband: the castle of Púbol (00 34 972 48 86 55), recognisable immediately as having a Dalí connection through the elephant statues, with the long, spindly legs of giraffes, that adorn the garden.