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The 11 Best Cities in Spain to Visit for History, Culture and Good Eats

Spain is Europe’s second most popular European destination, clocking in with nearly 83 million visits a year. Well, that’s not a surprise, because Spain is a treasure chest stuffed full of UNESCO heritage sites, ancient history, unusual museums, balmy beaches, great food and even greater wine.

The best cities in Spain all have at least a couple of those treasures on offer, and we’re going to help you hunt down those treasures with this curated list of cool Spanish cities.

Royal palace of Madrid

The 11 Best Cities in Spain to Visit

This list of the best cities in Spain covers most of the country’s main cultural regions and many of its key historic and gastronomic sites. We’re not playing favorites, so the list ordered roughly from north to south.

Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, exterior and metal cladding


Bilbao is located near Spain’s northern coast and is the unofficial capital of Basque country. It’s also the gastronomic center of the region. Those little nibbles are called pinxos here, not tapas. And you better get that right or you’ll get some serious side-eye from the barkeep.

Bilbao was just a typical, modern city– that is until Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim museum transformed the city into a major tourism hub. The city isn’t huge and you can easily spend two days exploring it before moving on to one of the other cool cities in Northern Spain.

Top attractions:

  • Plan to spend at least a half day exploring the Guggenheim museum, both inside and out.
  • Spend your evening pinxo-hopping in the old town sector across the river. The nightlife is very lively and the pinxos are delicious.
  • Take the Funicular de Artxanda up to the top of Parque del Funicular for great views overlooking the city.


Oviedo is the capital of Spain’s Asturias region. It’s one of two regions with a Gallic history (Galicia is the other). So don’t be surprised if you round a corner to find a crew of bagpipers in period clothing giving an impromptu concert. Typical foods in Asturias include cider, and sausage stews along with a strong cheese-making culture.

Oviedo has a strong Christian foundation, and it boasts some of Spain’s oldest churches. It’s also the gateway city to Spain’s oldest Camino de Santiago route; the Primitivo. And Oviedo is also a very pedestrian-friendly city.

Top Attractions:

  • Tour the Oviedo cathedral basilica. It was founded in 781 AD and has a lovely cloister and a mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
  • Visit the nearby Museum of Fine Arts with its small but excellent collection of Spanish art, including some surprisingly modern offerings.
  • Trek out to the UNESCO heritage Naranco churches. There are two churches on the site, which date back to ~840 AD. Not only is the architecture graceful, but the site overlooks the city.
Camino de Santiago Burgos Cathedral square

Read also: How to Get to Saint Jean Pied de Port for Your Camino


Burgos is located in the large Castile y Leon region. The city sits squarely on the Camino de Santiago Francés route, and many pilgrims start in Burgos. But even if you aren’t a pilgrim, the city is worth seeing for it’s old town rabbit warren, the cathedral and cool museums.

Burgo’s north/central location made uniquely suited as a trading center and it became a major Catholic site in the 11th century.

Top Attractions:

  • The Oviedo cathedral is quite the Gothic confection. Someone seriously forgot their vow of poverty with this gilded wonder. The main chapel and choir are impressive enough, but the side chapels are also stunning.
  • The Museum of Human Evolution is a fascinating exploration of Spain’s role in human evolution. The museum has remains of the first hominins in Europe and educational displays on evolution.
  • Not much is known about the Castillo de Burgos, but the views of Burgos from the top of the hill are worth the hike.
Santiago de Compostela cathedral in the morning light
Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is one of the most important Spanish cities to visit for anyone interested in religious shrines. The basilica was built to preserve the remains of St. James. Faithful pilgrims (and even secular hikers) have been making pilgrimages to Santiago since the Middle Ages.

Santiago is also the capital of Galicia which, like Oviedo, has Gallic roots. You’ll hear the bagpipes here too, along with the Galician dialect. Popular foods include pulpo (octopus), mussels, Galician empanadas and the conical Queixo De Tetilla cheese.

Top Attractions:

  • The cathedral is three attractions in one. The museum has excellent exhibits on the building’s history and architecture, along with great views overlooking plaza Obradoiro. And even if you aren’t Catholic, it’s worth attending one of the twice daily pilgrim masses. If you’re lucky, they’ll be swinging the botafumeiro, which is an enormous incense burner that theatrically swings across the enormous cathedral. And when mass is not in session, you are welcome to wander the interior and visit the shrine.
  • Plaza Obradoiro fronts the cathedral. From there you’ll see a steady stream of happy, exhausted pilgrims achieving their goal. The city also does an excellent job of programming cultural and musical events on the square.
  • Wander the old town rabbit warren. You can spend an evening just wandering the shops and tapas bars that fill the medieval streets south and east of the cathedral.
Park Guell in Barcelona, with mosaic tiles.


Barcelona is a popular Spanish city to visit for first-timers. It’s the capital of the autonomous Catalan region and is known for its medieval old town and crazy Gaudí architecture. Barcelona makes a great base of operations for day trips to Girona (whose medieval architecture was used for Game of Thrones filming sites) and down the coast for nice beach time.

Top attractions:

  • Take a Gaudí architecture stroll, which should include the one-of-a-kind Sagrada Familia cathedral and the whimsical Park Guell (pictured above).
  • Gorge on some good eats at the Boqueria Market.
  • Skip the Picasso museum (they don’t have his best works) and do something more contemporary like visiting the MACBA contemporary art museum or taking a street art tour.
Madrid Las Letras hotel view


Madrid is Spain’s capital and its most metropolitan city. Many visitors to Spain find themselves choosing Barcelona over Madrid, but we think that the city has a lot on offer. Madrid has several world class museums, lovely parks, cool street art and a unbelievably lively street scene.

We also like Madrid because you can use it as a base of operations for visiting other beautiful cities in Spain. Our article on day trips from Madrid, covers cities within 2 hours that have roman ruins, royal palaces, medieval walls, river gorges, modern art and more UNESCO sites than you can shake a stick at.

Top attractions:

Check out our three day Madrid itinerary for details, but here are some highlights:

  • Do the trifecta of world-class museums with The Prado (classic art), the Reina Sofia (Picasso’s Guernica) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (modern art).
  • Stroll Retiro Park and the botanical garden, making sure to stop into the Crystal Palace.
  • Explore Madrid off the beaten path with a street art tour.
Palma de Mallorca cathedral, with ocean and beach
Palma de Mallorca.

Palma de Mallorca

Palma de Mallora is primarily known for it’s beach scene but it also has a strong historic quarter, cool caves and quaint beach towns within reach.

Top attractions:

  • The Cathedral of Santa Maria de Mallorca is a gothic birthday cake with beautiful stained glass and lovely grounds.
  • Visit the Joan Miro museum. He was a pioneering artist in the surrealism movement.
  • Stroll the magnificent manor house and gardens at Jardines de Alfabia.
Cordoba Spain at night, with historic buildings and bridge


Córdoba is one of the best cities in Spain for sheer volume of UNESCO heritage sites. They have 4! Its location in southern Spain meant that it served successive waves of Jewish, Arabic and Christian peoples. And each left a cultural and religious mark on the city’s architecture.

Córdoba, Granada and Sevilla are each within a fairly easy train ride from one another and together they make a great southern Spain trip.

Top Attractions:

  • The Córdoba Cathedral Mosque is a stunning example of Moorish architecture. It was built as a mosque in 785 AD and was converted to a cathedral in 1326.
  • Take a walking tour of the Jewish quarter and learn more about the 14th-century Córdoba Synagogue.
  • Another UNESCO site worth visiting is the Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos. It was built in the 1300’s as a fortress later became a residence for Isabella and Ferdinand.
Cool Spanish Cities: Plaza de España in Seville, with arches.


Seville offers a great mix of history and gastronomy. The city boasts three UNESCO sites and even through Seville is a tourist destination, it doesn’t feel as rushed as Barcelona.

Seville is the cultural heart of Andalucia and was one of the largest cities in the 16th century. So there is a robust old town, perfect for strolling the tapas bars.

Top Attractions:

  • The Space Metropol Parasol at La Encarnación square is a super-cool architectural honeycomb with a walkway offering great views of Seville, especially at sunset.
  • The Royal Alcázar of Seville is an active royal palace. It was built in the Moorish-influenced Mudéjar style and the interior is studded with complex mosaics. The strolling garden ain’t too shabby either.
  • The Plaza de España was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American exposition. It sits in the spacious Parque de María Luisa and the architecture features graceful arches and a huge fountain.
The Alhambra Granada Spain, with castle


Granada has a lot of layered history. It was settled by the Iberians, Romans and Visigoths. It then experienced Muslim rule before being converted into a Catholic city in the 13th century. The Alhambra (picture above) is the crown jewel of Granada and is one of the most popular tourist sites in Spain. But there’s plenty more in Granada to keep you busy for a few days.

Top attractions:

  • The Alhambra was the palace of the Moorish rulers and was the last stronghold before Christianity took over. It ultimately became the royal court for Isabela and Ferdinand. The sprawling palace complex includes gardens, the Nasrid palaces and the Alcazaba fortress.
  • Take a tour of the cave houses of Socromonte. They are located in the former “Gypsy” quarter and are now an ethnographic museum.
  • For great views of the Alhambra and Granada, head up to the Mirador de San Nicolás.
City view of Cádiz from the cathedral


Cádiz has an even older history than the other Spanish cities on this list. It was first settled by the Phoenicians, then the Carthagians, then the Romans, who were then booted by the Moors. In addition to that, they’ve got a great Andalusian food scene, a weird puppet museum and some of the nicest beaches in Spain. This is why Cádiz is one of our new favorite cities in Spain to visit.

Top Attractions:

Here’s a guide for how to make the most of Cádiz as a day trip from Seville. Highlights include:

  • The Museo de Cádiz has artifacts from all of the abovementioned eras and it provides excellent insight into the region’s history.
  • Cádiz is a very walkable city and we recommend taking a walking tour, which will fill you in on more historical context and architectural highlights.
  • Be sure to leave some chill time to hit the beach. Cádiz has miles and miles of wide, soft sand beaches which face the Atlantic. You can hit up La Caleta in Old Town, or head down the peninsula to Playa la Victoria.

More to Explore in Spain

  • Quite a few of these cities sit on a Camino de Santiago route. If you are keen to explore doing a Camino, check out our article on why we think it’s so worth it.
  • Plan your trip to Spain using one of these cool guidebooks.

Other Cool European Cities

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