Traveller's Guide: The cities of Spain

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In the first of a five-part series in association with Lonely Planet, Anthony Ham explores the nation's metropolises

Spain has long been known for its alluring mix of "sun, sand and sangria", but like most stereotypes these essential tools of the Spanish summer tell only half the story. Yes, Spain has one of the loveliest coastlines in Europe. And yet, it's in the cities that the unmistakably Spanish character shines through with its beguiling mix of high culture and an unceasing celebration of all good things in life.

This is a country where loyalty to the traditional and openness to all that is new occur in equal measure. Instead of pulling the country in different directions, these impulses have come to define modern Spanish life, particularly in its cities where food, architecture, fashion and the arts sit in juxtaposition.

In Madrid, you find the world's oldest restaurant – dating back to 1725 – Restaurante Botín (00 34 91 366 42 17; botin.es; Calle de los Cuchilleros 17) where they serve exquisite cochinillo (roast suckling pig) in the vaulted cellar. Valencia has a modern City of Arts and Sciences centre (00 34 902 100 031; cac.es; combined €36.25) that resembles the upturned skeleton of a giant sea creature. In Barcelona, Gaudí's La Sagrada Família (00 34 93 513 20 60; sagradafamilia.org; Carrer de Mallorca 401; €17) is the world's most enduring work in progress. And the Moorish architecture of Seville speaks to another time.

But the appeal of Spain's cities is about more than food, architecture and other touchstones of Spanish life. The real secret lies in their astonishing variety of experiences and their ability to fuse Europe's most passionate country with a dynamic cultural milieu to produce a quota of startling attractions.

Madrid is the most Spanish of Spain's cities. It is, at once, one of Europe's grand capitals of art and high culture, yet it also shows Spain at its most hedonistic – Ernest Hemingway's old line that "no one goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night" still rings true. But this is also Spain's most welcoming city, home to a population whose roots lie elsewhere, the sort of place where everyone comes from somewhere else. The result is a refreshing absence of provincialism as summed up in the oft-heard refrain: "If you're in Madrid, you're from Madrid."

This cultural swagger is exemplified by Madrid's "Golden Mile of Art", for which you can buy a Paseo del Arte card (€21.60 from the first museum you visit).

The Museo del Prado (00 34 91 330 28 00; museodelprado.es; Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23; €14) is a world-class collection dominated by Goya and Velázquez. Across the road, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (00 34 902 76 05 11; museothyssen.org; Paseo del Prado 8; €9) is a peerless private collection that name-checks most European masters; temporary exhibitions in 2013 include Van Gogh, and Dalí and the Surrealists. Also nearby, the Centro de Arte de Reina Sofía (00 34 91 774 10 00; museoreinasofia.es; Calle Santa Isabel 52; €6) has Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso (including his Guernica) and Salvador Dalí.

Where to stay? Try the Hotel Meninas (00 34 91 541 28 05; hotelmeninas.com; Calle Campomanes 7) which has doubles from €119. In the supremely comfortable rooms, bold splashes of fuchsia and lime green contrast with dark wood floors and clean lines. Expect ultra-modern bathrooms, laptops and flat-screen TVs. Step outside the door and you're in the heart of old Madrid.

The home of paella

Valencia, on Spain's Mediterranean coast, is the best place to eat paella. The original dish was cooked with beans, chicken and sometimes rabbit, but try paella de marisco (with seafood) at La Pepica (00 34 96 371 03 66; lapepica.com; Paseo Neptuno 6). Beloved of celebrities over the decades, it sits on the waterfront and its breezy outdoor tables are booked weeks in advance in summer (about €25pp).

Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences (see intro) has an aquarium, science museum, Imax cinema and concert hall. Its architect, Santiago Calatrava, converted this riverbed site into an outstanding monument to light and space that contrasts with the distinguished medieval structures of the Carmen district, with its elegant Plaza de la Virgen, stately cathedral, and Unesco-listed La Lonja.

The Carmen district is, in turn, home to some of Europe's rowdiest nightlife. Start at Café Sant Jaume (00 34 963 91 24 01; Calle Cableros 51), a converted pharmacy. Move on to Radio City (00 34 963 91 41 51; radiocityvalencia.es; Calle Santa Teresa 19) for great cocktails and live flamenco. Then head to Terraza Umbracle (00 34 671 66 80 00; umbracleterraza.com; Avenida del Saler 5), a lounge bar in the City of Arts and Sciences.

For a stay that sums up the city, head to Hotel Jardín Botánico (00 34 96 315 40 12; jardinbotanicohotelvalencia.com) at Calle Doctor Peset Cervera 6, which has candlelit public spaces, original art and elegant doubles from €180.

High style in Barcelona

Stylish Barcelona is an open-air gallery of all that's avant garde, from the extraordinary architectural confections of Antoni Gaudí and the Modernistas to the zany, relentlessly creative fashions from its designers.

If you've previously ticked off Gaudí's creations, try a lesser-known Modernista masterpiece – the Palau de la Música Catalana, left (00 34 932 95 72 00; palaumusica.org; Carrer de Sant Pere Més Alt 6; €17). This extravagant concert hall combines curvaceous columns, mosaic tilework and stained glass.

Meanwhile black-clad Vinçon (00 34 932 15 60 50; vincon.com; Passeig de Gràcia 96) is filled with all manner of desirable home-furnishing, while Custo (00 34 932 68 78 93; custobarcelona.com; Plaça de les Olles 7) still sets the city's fashion standard, with bold, candy-bright colours and daring cuts in its streetwear.

The Hotel Banys Orientals (00 34 93 268 84 60; hotelbanysorientals.com) is similarly stylish; doubles from €105.

Tradition and innovation

Seville is the heart and soul of Andalucia and the best place in the country to hear live flamenco – Spain's passion for life encapsulated in song and dance. See for yourself at La Carbonería (00 34 954 21 44 60; levies18.com; Calle Levíes 18), where a converted coalyard has nightly live performances. Or try the spontaneous Casa Anselma at Calle Pagés del Corro 49 – one of flamenco's spiritual homes. Seville was once one of the cultural powerhouses of Islamic Al-Andalus. Remnants from that time merit the journey here on their own. The stunning tilework and views of the Giralda bell tower (00 34 902 099 692; catedraldesevilla.es; Calle Mateos Gago 1; €8) and the exquisite detail of the Alcázar (00 34 954 50 23 24; alcazarsevilla.org; Patio de Banderas; €8.75) stand out.

Seville has also turned its gaze to the future with Metropol Parasol (00 34 606 63 52 14; setasdesevilla.com; Plaza de la Encarnación 18; €1.20) – the world's largest wooden building. The sheer audacity of this otherworldly structure and its mushroom-shaped pillars is what lingers in the memory.

There's quirky, whitewashed charm at Un Patio en Santa Cruz (00 34 954 53 94 13; patiosantacruz.com) at Calle Doncellas 15; doubles from €65.

Sacred city

Endpoint of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, the city of Santiago de Compostela is one of Europe's holiest. Its centrepiece is the Catedral de Santiago (catedraldesantiago.es; Praza do Obradoiro). The intricate detail of the façade makes the exterior resemble a tapestry woven in stone, while the interior is a monument to Spanish Catholicism.

This being Spain, where the sacred rubs shoulders effortlessly with the profane, Santiago is also a culinary city held in high esteem by Spaniards. Many fine meals revolve around the sea, and restaurants such as A Curtidoría (00 34 981 55 43 42; acurtidoria.com; Rúa da Conga) and El Pasaje (00 34 981 55 70 81; restaurante pasaje.com; Rúa do Franco 54), serve up fine specialities such as pulpo a la gallega (octopus dusted with sweet paprika).

Santiago is also a good base for exploring Galicia, the Celtic-cultured, green-hued region of Spain's far north-west. The coast is a series of vertiginous cliffs and isolated fishing villages.

The palatial Parador Hostal dos Reyes Católicos (00 34 981 58 22 00; parador.es; Praza do Obradoiro) has doubles from €190 including breakfast. The rooms are sumptuous, the service faultless, and you couldn't be closer to the cathedral.

Urban reinvention

Few Spanish cities have transformed themselves in recent decades quite like Bilbao. Once a gritty industrial port, it is now a symbol for urban renewal. Its showpiece, the Frank Gehry-designed Museo Guggenheim (00 34 944 35 90 00; guggenheim-bilbao.es; Avenida Abandoibarra 2; €13), pictured, has garnered much of the international attention with the rippling titanium of its otherworldly exterior and its daring exhibitions.

But new draws have also brought attention to existing attractions such as the Museo de Bellas Artes (00 34 944 39 60 60; museobilbao.com; Plaza del Museo 2; €6), a fine arts museum showing masters from across Europe, and the Euskal Museoa (00 34 944 15 54 23; euskal-museoa.org; Plaza Miguel Unamuno 4), the world's premier collection devoted to Basque culture.

The presence of the Guggenheim (or "El Goog" to locals) has also breathed new life into the Casco Viejo. Bilbao's old quarter is home to innovative pintxos tapas bars such as Bar Gure Toki at Plaza Nueva 12 and Berton Sasibil (00 34 944 16 70 35; bertonsl.es; Calle Jardines 8).

And there's no classier place to stay in Bilbao than Gran Hotel Domine (00 34 944 25 33 00; granhoteldominebilbao.com; Alameda Mazarredo 61), which has doubles from €132. The rooms are sleek and chic with interiors designed by some of Spain's creative talents and views of the Guggenheim from some of its rooms.

Smaller is beautiful

Malaga has a growing reputation as Andalucia's culinary capital, as well as home of the marvellous Museo Picasso Malaga (00 34 902 44 33 77; museopicassomalaga.org; Calle San Agustín 8; €6), a fine cathedral, two Muslim-era forts and great beaches nearby.

Granada, one of Europe's most beguiling cities, has the peerless Alhambra (00 34 902 44 12 21; alhambra-patronato.es; €13), pictured, perhaps the most beautiful remnant of Moorish civilisation in Europe, while San Sebastian has graceful, airy Belle Epoque structures overlooking the perfect arc of its bay. But its eateries also have more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else. The pintxos tapas bars of its old town and the celebrity-chef restaurants in the hills have no rivals.

Then there's beautiful Salamanca with its honey sandstone, where life courses through the streets of this university town and its floodlit monuments, especially the extraordinary Plaza Mayor, magically illuminate the night.

The ninth edition of Lonely Planet's 'Spain' guidebook, published in March, costs £17.99

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