9 of the best cities to visit in Spain – and where to stay

From up-and-coming foodie destinations to long-time coastal favourites, there’s a wealth of variety across Spain’s best cities

Chris Wilson
Wednesday 20 December 2023 22:46 GMT
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The fact that Spain is a wonderful holiday destination is not news to anybody, with the wonders of its Mediterranean coastline, rugged islands and beach resorts explored by tourists the world over.

But while destinations like Barcelona and Mallorca have been welcoming large numbers of tourists for decades, many of the country’s main cities remain under-explored by tourists.

Even the capital flies under the radar for many, with plenty of potential visitors unaware of its wealth of artistic and cultural heritage, as well as beautiful hotels and world-famous restaurants. Alhough growing in popularity, the beautiful beaches and fantastic cuisine of cities like Valencia and San Sebastian are often passed over.

With the knowledge that a country so blessed with wonderful regions can be difficult to plan a visit to, we’ve rounded up a list of the best cities to visit in Spain, along with a recommendation on where to stay.

Barcelona

Barcelona benefits from year-round good weather, with temperatures around 14C even in January

It will not take long to realise that Barcelona is a unique city in Spain, characterised as much by Catalan influences as it is by Spanish, and also by a desire to be different.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the city’s architecture. The main landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo and Park Guell, are the work of one man, Antoni Gaudi, who championed the region’s own ‘Catalan modernisme’ style. The most popular districts, such as the Gothic Quarter and areas around the Old Town, are also drastically different to Madrid’s 17thcentury historic centre. While the presence of beaches is nothing unique for Spain, they have the added bonus of being unusually close to the city centre.

Catalan art is also more on the eccentric side, with the works of Dali and the city’s most famous adopted son, Pablo Picasso, proving that a forward-thinking attitude has existed in the city for centuries. See pieces from both at the Museu Nacional d’Art and the Picasso Museum. Unsurprisingly, the city’s main festivals are also a little unusual; visit in September for La Merce to see performances throughout the city and the region’s famous ‘construction’ of human towers.

Where to stay

The city is blessed with fantastic hotels, but the Iberostar Paseo de Gracia is perhaps the best for combining comfort and location. Situated at the end of the Paseo de Gracia – Barcelona’s answer to the Champs-Elysees – and just at the top of La Rambla, it is ideally placed for exploring the city on foot. It features modern, stylish rooms and a magnificent rooftop terrace with a pool, making for comfortable evenings and the opportunity to enjoy a cocktail with sweeping views over the city.

Read more on Spain travel:

Valencia

Valencia is Spain’s third largest city

Valencia may feature less on the tourism radar – as it stands – than cities like Seville or Malaga, but this is unlikely to be the case for long. A city brimming with Spanish character, it is centred around its Old Town and three picturesque plazas, running from the vast Ayuntamiento Square to the charming Plaza de la Virgen, which borders the popular Carmen barrio.

Along with Ruzafa in the south, Carmen is one of the city’s nightlife centres and a popular place for locals to eat, drink and peruse various shops. Out of town, the El Cabanyal neighbourhood marks the beginning of Valencia’s beachfront, with the nearly two-mile walk up to Patacona showcasing the best of the city’s beaches and chiringuitos.

Though the ease with which you can walk through it is one of Valencia’s best characteristics, a cycle through the five-mile Turia Park is popular among visitors. The route ends at the City of Arts and Sciences, the modern-day symbol of the city that contains strikingly avant-garde buildings, large gardens and Europe’s largest aquarium.

Where to stay

Located in the centre of Valencia’s Old Town, the Vincci Palace balances luxury and accessibility, with an excellent location and affordable price point. Sitting within walking distance of almost all the city’s main sights, it contains classy interiors, with a blend of modern decor in the rooms and art deco touches in the bar and common areas.

Madrid

The Spanish capital welcomed around six million tourists in 2022

The Spanish capital may sometimes be overlooked by tourists flocking to Barcelona or Mallorca, but this is the place to go to experience authentic Spain, away from the influences of mass tourism. The city is home to several of Spain’s main cultural institutions, from the art of the Reina Sofia to a plethora of tapas bars.

The modern heart of the city is Gran Via, a mile-long avenue with impressive 20thcentury architecture and home to the city’s main shopping area. Close by lies the historic heart of Madrid, running from near the 16thcentury Plaza Mayor to the vast Royal Palace.

On the other side of the central area lies the sprawling Retiro Park, a popular hangout for locals and tourists alike and a gateway to the city’s famed ‘Golden Triangle’ of art museums, where aficionados can see works from Picasso, Goya and Velazquez at the Reina Sofia and El Prado. In between these areas lies ‘local’ Madrid, in the neighbourhoods of Malasana, Chueca and La Latina, where madrilenos gather for long lunches, evening drinks and tapas crawls.

Where to stay

Situated at the bottom of Gran Via, the Dear Hotel Madrid has an excellent location for first-time visitors and those looking to explore as much the city as possible. A hotel with delightfully simple, modern interiors and comfortable, spacious rooms, its affordability, exceptional breakfast options and rooftop pool set it apart from nearby competitors.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian is often referred to as Donostia, its Basque name

San Sebastian features many of the characteristics that have made Spain so popular with foreigners, but the addition of a now world-famous food scene and one of the country’s most famed beaches means that it is beginning to pop up on the radar of more and more tourists.

It is one of few cities that is seemingly built around its beach, spread across the waterfront of La Concha Bay and creeping back into the surrounding mountains in a sea of varied architecture, from Belle Epoque buildings to a Baroque basilica. The Old Town with its mazy streets is home to a variety of pintxo bars, which serve a popular Basque variation of tapas (the quality of which is exceptional across the board).

And while this affordable Spanish cuisine, found on almost every street corner, has undoubtedly contributed to the city’s burgeoning reputation as a foodie destination, the proliferation of Michelin stars is probably the city’s most noteworthy feature: San Sebastian boasts the second highest number of stars per capita of any city in the world.

Where to stay

With an idyllic location on La Concha Bay, and a rooftop overlooking the golden sands and the azure waters of the Bay of Biscay, Lasala Plaza is the ideal place to stay for easy access to the Old Town and some of the best views over the city. Though housed in a magnificent 20th century building, its rooms and interiors are suitably modern, with muted tones and great views over the Old Town and the Bay.

Seville

Seville can see average daily highs around 38C at the height of summer

Supposedly the warmest city in continental Europe, Seville has long welcomed tourists looking for sun in the off-seasons, and remains popular year-round as it caters for a broad range of holidaymakers, from culture vutures to partygoers. And despite recently having to remind tourists to behave appropriately, Seville couldn’t be further from a tacky, overrun destination for boozed up Brits.

It is a city that manages to blend extensive Moorish influences with its role as a bastion for Spanish history and culture, boasting landmarks like the enchanting Alcazar palace, one of Spain’s largest still functioning bullrings or the city’s grandiose Cathedral and Giralda tower. The Old Town may be as busy as any in Spain, but it is for good reason; its cobbled streets are teeming with small squares and tasty tapas bars, with just a small walk taking you to plazas filled with locals out for an evening drink.

Venturing a little further out will take you either to the banks of the Guadalquivir River or to the Maria Luisa park, where the magnificent Plaza de Espana and parts of the 1929 Iberian-American Expo stand as stark reminders that this is, first and foremost, a city with tangible cultural heritage and some of the most beautiful architecture in the country.

Where to stay

Choose the H10 Casa de Plata for a relaxing stay in the centre of the city, just 10 minutes away from the Alcazar and other attractions. Like Seville, the hotel blends typically Spanish decorations – think courtyards and white-washed walls – with a small dose of Moorish flair, including ceramic tiles and water features. The recently added terrace and rooftop pool complete the hotel.

Malaga

Malaga traces its foundation back to around 770 BC

A seaside alternative to Seville, Malaga offers similarly impressive cultural sights along with long stretches of golden sand on beaches like Malagueta and Caleta.

The city’s main landmarks are the Alcazaba, a palatial complex that dates back to Moorish times, and the Gibralfaro Castle, both of which sit in the hills overlooking the city, offering panoramic views of Malaga alongside the opportunity to learn about its history.

In town, the city’s historic centre is a place to start exploring, with a mixture of wide boulevards and narrow streets containing churro shops, small cafes and a host of historic landmarks, including Picasso’s childhood home and a museum dedicated to him. Calle Larios is the centre’s beating heart, with the roads leading off it containing several historically important churches, palaces and convents.

Where to stay

The Only You hotel sits less than a mile from the Alcazaba, Gibralfaro Castle and the Cathedral, providing simple access to the beach and the city centre. Its eighth-floor roof terrace is a highlight, but a range of elegant modern rooms – some of which come with fantastic terraces of their own – means that you’ll be equally comfortable in your room as you are sipping a cocktail overlooking the coast.

Palma

Nearly half of the Mallorcan population live in Palma

Perhaps Spain’s most famous island, Mallorca showcases Balearic beauty in abundance, and Palma provides the island’s heartbeat. It is home to a variety of Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture , the most impressive of which is the vast La Seu cathedral and the imposing Almudaina palace, with a charming pedestrianised historic centre providing even more character and plenty of bars and restaurants to sample in the evenings.

As well as walking across famous Old Town streets such as Calle Apuntadores, Via Veri and the Paseo del Borne, popular attractions include the Es Baluard Museum of Modern Art and the Miro Foundation, a sister exhibition to the artists’ museum in Barcelona. Food markets at Santa Catalina and Olivar are frequented by locals and tourists alike, while a walk along the marina at Paseo Maritimo is not to be missed either.

Another part of Palma’s allure is the ease with which you can take a day trip, with coastal areas and towns reachable within 30 minutes by car. Some of the most popular destinations include port towns like Pollenca and Andraxt, or beaches such as Cala Mayor, Palmanova and Cala Comtessa.

Where to stay

To experience the best of the city and the beaches, opt for the Portixol Hotel just west of the city centre. Reachable within around half an hour on foot from the Old Town, this beachfront paradise has a beach club-esque pool and terrace area, a gourmet restaurant and its own spa and wellness centre. Rooms have a loose maritime theme and come with balconies that offer great views of the harbour and mountains.

Zaragoza

Zaragoza is often referred to as Saragossa in English

This northern city remains undiscovered by many who visit Spain, but it should be on the tourist must-see list whether you’re a veteran of the country or a first-time visitor. Sat on the banks of the Ebro River, it is as picturesque a city as any in the country, with photos of the Pilar Basilica – an important pilgrimage site for many Spaniards – an enduring image of the country and its often magnificent religious architecture.

Like many of its counterparts, Zaragoza is home to a labyrinthine Old Town that provides an insight into the city’s history at every turn. Start at the Zaragoza Museum in Plaza de los Sitios if you want to learn more, before getting lost in a maze of Mudejar architecture, Roman ruins – including the archaeological remains of the Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta – and the customary tapas bars and watering holes (El Tubo is the place to go for the best eateries and most lively bars).

The city is known as the one-time home of Francisco Goya, one of the country’s most beloved artists, and many of his works, from etchings to frescoes, are scattered throughout the city, notably in the Museo Goya-Coleccion Ibercaja.

Where to stay

The NH Ciudad de Zaragoza is located close to the banks of the Ebro, less than 10 minutes from the Basilica, with many rooms overlooking these two defining points of the city. Interiors are muted and somewhat pared-back, but the spacious rooms and ideal location will give you a comfortable stay with easy access to the best parts of the city.

Bilbao

The Nervion River winds its way through Bilbao

The Basque Country’s industrial port city may be a less glossy alternative to San Sebastian, but a culture perfectly preserved by a fiercely proud population makes this city as characterful as any in Spain. Alhough it still retains a sense of the industrial, the winding Nervion River and mountain backdrop gives the cityscape some pizzazz, and in recent times the city has made considerable investment in tourism too, with the notable addition of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 suddenly putting it on tourism radar.

It doesn’t boast the beaches of neighbouring San Sebastian – the best are found away from the city in areas like Larrabasterra – but it shares some characteristics, most notably a penchant for pintxos and a slew of normal-looking restaurants that serve what will likely be the best meal you have this year (the stalls in the indoor Ribera market are a good place to start).

Where Bilbao does gain points over its rival, however, is within the atmospheric cobbled streets of its Old Town (Casco Viejo), one of the largest in Spain. Best experienced during the ‘Semana Grande’ celebrations in August, the heart of the area includes Bilbao’s original seven streets, which date back to the 1400s and today house countless bars and tapas taverns.

Where to stay

The Barcelo Bilbao Nervion lies just north of the Casco Viejo, sitting serenely on the banks of the Nervion and close to the Guggenheim. Rooms are smart and simple, with an on-site restaurant allowing you to sample some traditional Basque cuisine.

Read our reviews of the best Spain hotels

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