When it comes to city breaks in Spain, Barcelona and the capital city of Madrid pretty much have a monopoly on the experience. Instagram is awash with feeds reeling off the latest photos of trips to the dugout of Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu or glimpses of the famous Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Yet while these are truly unforgettable experiences, there are so many great cities in Spain that get overlooked. Each offers unique insights into Spanish life. Whether that be absorbing the award-winning architecture of Bilbao, tasting the culinary delights in San Sebastian or dipping your toe in a hot spring in Ourense.
If you’re looking for something more off the beaten track, or simply wish to avoid the ‘big two’, then these Spanish Ciudades are serious contenders. Most are easily accessible via a quick flight from various UK airports with a short connecting train or bus journey. Without further ado, here’s the alternative guide to Spain’s greatest but most underrated cities.
1. Burgos, Castille y León
Sandwiched halfway between Madrid and the northern city of Santander, Burgos is a medieval city with a flair for culture and arts, having recently been a candidate for European Capital of Culture. The city’s gothic cathedral looms large over the skyline and is the centrepiece of the town’s rich old quarter. It’s also the only cathedral in Spain that’s independently recognized as a World Heritage Site. Whether you’re meandering through the cobblestone streets of the old Castillo (castle) or rummaging the street markets, it’s hard not to be enchanted by the city’s rustic appeal.
Once you’ve built up an appetite, be sure to pull up a stool at one of the city’s many restaurants and try the simply titled signature dish ‘Queso de Borgo,’ which roughly translates as fantastic cheese.
2. Córdoba, Andalusia
Often overlooked in favour of the larger Andalusian cities of Granada or Seville, Cordoba’s unique blend of cultural and culinary offerings means this white-walled city is more than worthy of any city break list.
Every May the Los Patios de Cordoba Festival sees the courtyards completely transformed with hundreds of colourful flowers and plants adorning the walls. Owners are often on hand to welcome you and the distant sounds of flamenco guitar can be heard throughout.
Delightful not just on the eyes, but on the tongue too, be sure to visit the bustling bistros and order cured Jamon (ham) and a side of mouth-watering champiñones al ajillo (grilled garlic mushrooms).
3. Bilbao, Basque country
Award-winning architecture, street fiestas and tapas bars galore are just some of the reasons to make Bilbao your next Spanish city break. Winner of the 2018 European City of the Year, Bilbao emanates fierce independence with its own unique take on Spanish life, as exemplified by the pintxos, the Basque take on traditional tapas bars. It’s also home to Europe’s largest indoor food market where you can try some of the best seafood dishes in the Basque country.
Of course, no trip to Bilbao is complete without a visit to the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, a modern architectural feat with enough curves, waves and arches to reimagine your outlook on buildings, and maybe just your thoughts on the best Spanish city.
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4. Cadiz, Andalusia
This Andalusian port city has hosted James Bond film sets and features a star-studded cast of golden sandy beaches, late-night tapas and a year-round carnival atmosphere. Don’t just take out word for it though. Cadiz has just been included in the New York Times’ list of 52 places to go in 2019 and the city continues to top TripAdvisor polls.
Arty types are fond of the old quarter’s Café Pelicano, Cadiz’s dedicated live music venue where you can listen to musical genres spanning various decades, from bluesy Jazz to 80’s rock n roll.
5. San Sebastian, Bay of Biscay
Located close to the French border in the picturesque Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian has evolved from a rural coastal town to become the cosmopolitan capital of the Basque country. San Sebastian offers a culinary experience like no other. It’s biggest draw is undoubtedly its Pintxos bars where standards are high but prices are cheap.
A coastal town with a propensity for water sports, you can try surfing, kayaking or stand up paddleboarding, and for the even more adventurous there are hillside hikes which reward you with some of the most stunning views from the top.
Revered as ‘the garden of Spain’, Murcia certainly lives up to the name tag with a stunning array of vineyards, natural thermal spas and coastal walks. You can venture along the 250km stretch of Mediterranean coastline of the Costa Calida, stopping off at the pretty coves and beaches along the way. The city is also home to a shopping precinct that can rival that of any major Spanish city, covering everything from Spanish designer boutiques to local artisans.
The best thing about Murcia is the crowds of tourists are yet to reach this remote part of Spain. If you’re considering moving to Spain, and Murcia ticks the right boxes, now is the perfect time to go.
7. Gijon, Asturias
Gijón is a large coastal city renowned for its nostalgic old fisherman’s quarter of Cimadevilla where small houses are packed tightly into winding narrow alleys decorated with colourful façades. The Roman baths located underground are a throwback to the city’s Roman heritage and remain a key cultural asset of the area.
If you’re keen to get out in the open air, the Playa de San Lorenzo beach is one of the most spectacular beaches on the northern coast full of colourful casetas (traditional beach huts).
8. Ourense, Galicia
Pronounced “oe-oo-REHN-say”, Ourense is the region of Galicia’s landlocked capital city and yet is probably the region’s least explored and visited city. All that is about to change with the advent of a high-speed rail network which will join the remote city up with Madrid and the rest of Spain’s major city network.
The Cañon do Sil is Ourense’s answer to the Grand Canyon; a deep gorge formed of rocks, water and winding bends. Of all the activities in Ourense, a dip in the thermal hot springs is undoubtedly the most popular. Some tubs are free to the public while others have nicer facilities and charge an entry fee.
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9. Tarragona, Catalonia
Tarragona is a coastal Catalonian city which is used to living in the shadows of its much bigger brother, Barcelona.
This compact city is built around the Roman centre of Tarraco, where Caesar Augustus once resided.
It includes such historical attractions such as the amphitheatre, Roman circus, and the cathedral, all within easy reach of each other.
Breakfast in Tarragona sees a reversal of the usual conventions around sweet and savory. With ‘xocolata amb xurros’, a churro with a dark chocolate dipping sauce is a must-try for those with an unabating sweet tooth.
10. Zaragoza, Aragon
Art, music, and science form the cornerstones of life in Zaragoza. The city is chock full of magnificent Moorish architecture, encompassing towering cathedrals and Roman amphitheatres. It’s also the gateway to the Pyrenees, and in the month of August is almost devoid of residents and tourists as people pilgrimage to the mountains or the nearby coast for a month’s relaxation.
Zaragoza is Spain’s fifth-largest city behind Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla and Valencia? Not many people are aware of this fact which means the capital of Spain’s autonomous region of Aragón is often overlooked.