Spain offers a unique and always exciting cultural travel experience no matter which region you go to.
I have only one important word of advice, don’t go in August—it is miserably hot. I would have a car and driver to see each city rather than wander on your own, especially if you are there in the summer months. You can always go back to a region on your own, once you have seen the highlights.
My younger sister went to university in Barcelona, and my parents and I went regularly to visit her then toured other parts at the same time so I know it well. She was previously at the Sorbonne University in Paris and preferred the French food to Spanish. You have to taste it to believe it!
I think a very good way to see Spain for the first time is to take a cruise. You only unpack once, and there are some fantastic bargains for cruises, such as free airfare to Europe, two for one specials, and ship board credit to spend in the spa or shops.
This way you are seeing cities just for a day, taking some day excursions, and getting an overview of the culture. Every region is so different.
Barcelona’s No.1 attraction is Gaudi, the modernist Catalan architect. To acquaint yourself, go first to Park Guell, which was designed between 1900-1914. A must-see inside the park is the Casa Museu Gaudi, a museum which was once the artist’s home.
I love to take a stroll down the city’s most famous street, Las Ramblas, which has its most beautiful buildings. Barcelona Cathedral is also worth visiting. Barcelona also has wonderful shopping for leather shoes, handbags and coats, all very reasonably priced.
Bilbao in Northern Spain is visited because of the Guggenheim Museum. We used to stay in Santander, which is less crowded than other resorts. My parents were very fond of the Basque region in the north.
Madrid’s top two highlights are Plaza Mayor, and the lavish Palacio Real, Europe’s largest royal palace. My favorite hotel is the AC Palacio del Retiro. Hotel Villa Real is also good, and has a wonderful restaurant called East 47.
Valencia, Spain’s third largest city became popular after it hosted the America’s Cup Yacht race. It isn’t on my must see list, but if you are interested in the City of Arts and Sciences created by the architect Santiago Calatrava, rent a bicycle and take your camera.
My favorite spots are Córdoba, Seville and Granada, in the Andalusia region where you will experience wonderful music, food, history, architecture, and culture. Everyone should go to a Flamenco show. In Cordoba, Mezquita is the largest mosque in the country, and a World Heritage Site. It has a wonderful old Jewish quarter in the epicenter of the historic district.
Seville is best explored by foot. Head to the Parque de Maria Luisa, a large park which has absolutely gorgeous gardens. The Giralda Tower is a former minaret converted into a bell tower for the Seville Cathedral, which is the third largest church in the entire world.
Granada’s must see is the Alhambra, a fortress and palace complex that exhibits the country’s most significant Islamic architecture and continues to evoke awe from all its visitors. A great place to stay is the Hotel AC Palacio de Santa Paula, which is a 14th century convent.
I think the Spanish beach resorts are tacky, over-crowded, and not on my list of “must-sees.” Majorca is also a place I find very crowded and full of discount packages from Great Britain.
You can save as much as 40 percent by going on a group tour. There are some great small tour opportunities, and even women-only tours available. Otherwise, I would suggest you go between cities by train—don’t fly—and get private guides at each destination; you learn a lot more doing it this way. A visit in the spring or autumn is ideal.
Maureen Jones is president of All Horizons Travel at 160 Main Street in Los Altos. Members of her staff are experts in business travel, cruises, and all types of leisure.