When the UK shut down for the Covid-19 pandemic, one country was on people’s minds more than any other: Spain. Brits missed the sunshine, the beaches, the excellent, well-priced food, and above all the vibrancy and warmth of the people. In 2019, more than 18 million holidaymakers from the UK chose to visit Spain, making it our most popular destination. With magnificent historic cities and spectacular national parks, as well as endless gold sand-lined coastline, Spain’s appeal also lies in its sheer diversity.
Best time to go
As you’d expect, most British visitors, especially families, come to Spain during the warm, sunny high season of July and August. Prices on the coast and in the islands are inevitably higher then, and beaches can get crowded. Cities, on the other hand, are cheaper, if uncomfortably hot.
During Semana Santa (Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday), most towns and cities are extremely busy, so if you want to avoid the processions, hit the coast or countryside. Otherwise, spring and autumn are good times to visit, as the weather is pleasant and, although local festivals can push up accommodation costs, holidays are generally more reasonably priced.
Top regions and cities
Mallorca and Ibiza
The Balearic Islands remain one of the most popular destinations for British tourists; Mallorcan authorities are trying hard to clean up the largest island’s image by taking steps such limiting alcohol served as part of all-inclusive holiday packages. As well as fabulous beaches, Mallorca has pretty inland towns backed by steep mountains. Clubbers’ favourite Ibiza has seen recent upscale hotel openings, like W and Six Senses, while Menorca is quieter, and tiny Formentera’s white-sand bays are even more untouched.
Still a favourite weekend getaway for Brits, cosmopolitan Barcelona is worth exploring for more than its nightlife. Climb Montjuic to the National Art Museum of Catalonia, which has a Turner exhibition until 11 September, and wander up Passeig de Gracia to see the extraordinary Gaudí buildings – Casa Batlló has night-time visits which include a rooftop concert – and, of course, the architect’s unfinished masterpiece, the soaring Sagrada Familia (be sure to book tickets in advance). Then take a trip to a Costa Brava beach town: isolated fishing village Cadaqués, where Dalí lived, or Sitges, a modernist resort with a lively gay scene.
Madrid may not be as cool as its Catalonian competitor, but the Spanish capital has a more down-to-earth feel. To see real madrileño life, head to barrios (neighbourhoods) like hip Malasaña and Chueca: stroll down bustling Gran Via, looking out for the iconic winged victory statue atop the Edificio Metropolis. Then take in the panoramic view from the Circulo de Bellas Artes roof terrace bar (Negroni optional), or head to Plaza Mayor and tapas at nearby Mercado de San Miguel. Art-lovers shouldn’t miss the three main museums: the Prado, Reina Sofia (home to Picasso’s searing and ever-relevant portrait of war, Guernica), and the Thyssen-Bornemisza.
So many Costa del Sol holidaymakers still hop off the plane without even stopping in Malaga. Big mistake – in terms of culture and gastronomy, from street art and the Contemporary Art Centre to big-hitting museums like the Carmen Thyssen, Picasso (Paula Rego show until 21 August) and Pompidou, and from creative tapas to Michelin stars, the city more than holds its own against rival Andalucian metropolises. Weekend street markets in seafront Muelle Uno, trendy Soho and cultural hub La Termica offer local artisan and retro pieces.
Best under-the-radar destinations
Sanlúcar de Barrameda
This year’s Gastronomic Capital of Spain is Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a charming coastal town in south-western Cadiz province. It’s best known for three things, two of which are a match made in heaven: manzanilla sherry, dry with a salty tang, and tortillitas de camarones (thin shrimp fritters). The third is Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition, which set out from here just over 500 years ago – only one ship returned, in 1522, and became the first to circumnavigate the globe.
Andalucia is renowned for its fabulous food and cultural riches, but head north to neighbouring Extremadura and you’ll find great gastronomy, historic cities and vanguard museums. Iberian pork from free-range purebred pigs is a stand-out ingredient (chef Jose Pizarro is from Extremadura), as is Extremaduran cheese – try sheep’s milk Torta del Casar. In Mérida, explore Roman ruins and visit the superb museum, while the charming medieval city of Caceres has narrow, cobbled streets, which contrast with the white, cubist Helga de Alvear Contemporary Art Museum, opened in 2021, where works by Klee, Kandinsky and Tapies are housed.
Far away from the Balearics, and other non-peninsula holiday mainstay the Canary Islands, are the tiny Islas Cies. Off the coast of Galicia in north-west Spain, this 7km-long protected national park in the Vigo estuary is reminiscent of the Scilly Isles, with no cars and broad sweeps of white sand with turquoise waters. Two of the three islands, Monteagudo and del Faro, are linked by the famous Rodas beach; the third, San Martiño, is not served by public transport. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled to preserve this natural paradise: first you need to apply for authorization in advance; then book your boat trip from Vigo, Baiona or Cangas; ideally, camp there for at least one night (permit needed). A hassle, but well worth it for the peace, unspoiled beauty – and spectacular hiking through yellow broom and pink rockrose.
Best things to do
Semana Santa in Seville
You don’t have to be religious to be awed by the Semana Santa processions in Seville – statues carried aloft on pasos (floats), accompanied by hooded figures and brass bands, criss-cross the city as they make stately progress, with frequent stops, from their parish church to the cathedral, and back again. Holy Week is celebrated all over Spain, but here the scale is larger, and the drama is more extravagant.
Pintxos crawl in San Sebastian
Walking around San Sebastian, nibbling pintxos (small dishes or skewers, literally “pierced”) in bars, is one of the best ways to spend an evening. The beautiful Basque seaside city is packed with atmospheric spots: try red pepper stuffed with spider crab or a lamb skewer at Gandarias, and be sure to try Txakoli, the local white wine.
Throw tomatoes at La Tomatina
Said to have started as a food fight during a religious celebration in the 1940s, La Tomatina, in the Valencian town of Buñol, is now an international festival attended by 22,000 people (you need a ticket to take part). From 11am until 12 midday on the last Wednesday in August, people fling over-ripe tomatoes at each other. White T-shirts are worn for maximum visual effect, and goggles help you to see through all the mushed fruit.
The best way to get around Spain is by train – the high-speed AVE, launched 30 years ago, links major cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Alicante, Valencia, Cordoba, Seville and Malaga (new service connecting the Costa del Sol’s capital with Granada launched in April). Two newly launched, fast, low-cost carriers – Avlo, operated by national train service RENFE, and French SNCF-owned Ouigo – now also serve the Madrid-Barcelona line, with Avlo offering services to Valencia too. They will soon reach southern cities like Seville and Malaga.
Iberia, Air Europa, Vueling, Volotea, easyJet and Ryanair all offer domestic flights within Spain.
Hiring a car gives you more freedom, but can be expensive.
How to get there
It’s possible to keep your carbon footprint down and travel to Spain by train, arriving the same day: take the Eurostar to Paris, then change to the TGV high-speed train which goes to Figueres, Girona and Barcelona.
You can also take the ferry, operated by Brittany Ferries, from Portsmouth to either Santander or Bilbao, or Plymouth to Santander. This is good option if you want to take your car.
The quickest and cheapest way to get to Spain from the UK is to fly: Iberia, British Airways, Vueling, easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair all offer routes from UK airports. Check AENA for the latest information on individual Spanish airports, the airlines that serve them, and their destinations.
Avoiding the high season in July and August will save you plenty of money – half-term in May or October is much cheaper, with milder temperatures. All-inclusive hotels will also help the budget; without a package, being flexible on your travel day will cut flight costs. And a home exchange is the ultimate budget-winner.
What’s the weather like?
It varies enormously throughout the country. In broad terms, winter is mild in the south and on the Mediterranean coast, and cold in inland central Spain, with high rainfall in the north. The spring has mild temperatures, with short but intense rainstorms in many areas. Summer is hot in the south and central plateau, warm in the north. The Canaries islands are mild all year round, while the Balearics have cooler winters and hotter summers.
What time zone is it in?
CET (British time +1, with the winter/summer switch at the same time).
What currency do I need?
Euros. Credit cards are widely accepted.
What languages are spoken?
Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician.
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