According to the World Tourism Organization, Spain was the second most popular country for tourism in 2018, with 81.8 million visitors. The country is a favorite among European travelers, especially those from Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, who spend summer vacations in Costa del Sol or on the Balearic Islands. These regions are known for their warm weather and sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches, but there’s much more to see and do in Spain than relaxing on the beach. Below are five of the country’s most iconic and popular tourist attractions.
The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens
Located in Granada, the Alhambra and its nearby Generalife Gardens is one of Spain’s most popular tourist attractions and highlights the sophistication and beauty of Islamic architecture. In fact, the Alhambra complex, which includes numerous buildings, walls, towers, gardens, and a mosque, boasts some of the best-preserved elements of Islamic architecture worldwide. These include marble fountains, beautiful mosaics, and other intricate stone detailing. Additionally, an adjoining and unfinished palace built for Emperor Charles V speaks to the quality of High Renaissance architecture. The Generalife Gardens, meanwhile, offer a quiet and relaxing escape from the magnificence of architectural achievement.
The palace’s name, Alhambra, is derived from an Arabic root word meaning “red or crimson castle,” and it is believed to have been given this name due to the illuminating reflection on its walls from the light of torches. Originally built for military purposes in the ninth century AD, it was occupied by the Nasrid dynasty in 1238 and later became a Christian court in the late 15th century. By the 18th century, it fell into neglect and was viewed as a haven for criminals and beggars. That changed when it was declared a national monument in 1870. Later, the Alhambra was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
Officially known as the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família or the Holy Family Church of the Atonement, the Sagrada Família is one of Europe’s most unconventional churches in design. The foundation for the church was laid in 1882, and original plans involved the construction of a more traditional neo-Gothic building. However, these plans changed the following year when Antoni Gaudí took over as lead architect and employed the Art Nouveau style, but with several unique and perhaps even absurd elements. To that end, Gaudí’s plans were so grandiose in nature that he worked on what he considered his masterpiece until he passed away in 1926, at which point it is believed that only 15 to 25 percent of the design was complete.
Because the design is so intricate, in addition to the fact that several of Gaudí’s models were destroyed by vandalism at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, progress on the church stalled significantly. In fact, it remains unfinished to this day. There are plans to have it completed by 2026, the centenary of his death. Among other unique architectural flourishes expected upon completion is a spire symbolizing Jesus Christ that will make Sagrada Família the largest church building in the world.
Unlike the aforementioned attractions, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a relatively new structure, but a marvel in architectural achievement nonetheless. Inaugurated in 1997, the building itself was designed by American architect Frank Gehry, who utilized limestone blocks and undulating sheets of titanium to give the Guggenheim its signature curved, boat-like shape. Photographs of the museum simply do not do justice to its unique design.
Inside the museum, visitors are surrounded by cultural and artistic wonders and are presented with opportunities to learn about various art movements as well as the lives of popular artists. Some of the more iconic works of art found at the museum include Joseph Beuy’s “Lightning with Stag in its Glare” and Jeff Koons’ “Puppy,” the latter of which is a 40-foot sculpture of a young dog made entirely from flowers that sits outside of the museum. Guided tours of the Guggenheim are offered in six different languages.
La Rioja Vineyards
A visit to Spain isn’t complete without visiting the vineyards of La Rioja in northern Spain just south of Bilbao. Spain boasts more vineyards than any other country, and the La Rioja wine region is one of the best places to explore the picturesque Spanish countryside and discover some of its most beloved wines. Some of the best vineyards in the area include Bodegas Muga, Bodegas Marques de Riscal, Bodegas Roda, and Dinastia Vivanco, the latter of which is also considered one of the best wine museums in the world.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Around 60 kilometers outside of Madrid is San Lorenzo de El Escorial, which once served as the summer home of Spanish kings. The town offers views of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range and is an ideal locale for exploring nature, but its most well-known attraction is a massive complex that was originally conceived in the 16th century as a monument to the reign of Philip II. The complex includes a royal palace, church, monastery, mausoleum, museum, and library, all of which are joined by 16 kilometers of corridors. Other highlights include the private apartments of Philip II and Charles IV and the Panteón de los Reyes, an ornate burial vault dedicated for Spanish kings.