When we think about Spanish cities, the first ones to come to mind are usually Madrid or Seville. Maybe Barcelona too. In the map of the most beautiful villages in Spain we advocated for hidden gems scattered through this rich, fascinating land. This time, we will follow a similar path: our map of the most beautiful cities in Spain.
We will start our journey in the province of A Coruña. Here, the green Galician landscape hosts this city that seems to be born to shine under the flashlights, photographed from the different lookout points surrounding her, like a Hollywood star glowing in front of the cameras in a natural way.
A network of paths coming from all directions intersects in Santiago, a web of pounding veins that thousands of pilgrims follow every day, under the sun and the stars, in order to reach the sanctuary of the apostle known as James the Great (Santiago el Mayor in Spanish). Indeed, the endpoint of all variants of the Camino de Santiago is the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, a unique Romanesque temple guarding the relics of the apostle. Originally, the cathedral was a Roman mausoleum from the 1st century where the remains of Santiago were buried.
The Camino de Santiago has transcended its original sense of spirituality and it has become a journey of self-discovery for many people—an experience to discover new places and connect with the world. In a sense, our journey through the map of Spain shares the same goal.
Either following the Camino or not, our steps will guide us to the fresh coast of the Basque Country. This elegant city in Gipuzkoa is dressed in wind and seafoam, with its bright buildings and the emblematic white railing framing its most beautiful beach.
In fact, the beach of La Concha is a wonder of silky sand from which we can admire the homonymous bay, a stunning blue landscape guarded by the mountains Urgull and Igeldo. Right in the middle of the bay, the Santa Clara Island rises like a little paradise, with its own woods, paths and beaches.
The streets in Donostia are full of sounds, scents, and life, and there are always people outside, ordering zuritos or eating pintxos. Hence, the harbour and the old town are must-sees for anyone who wishes to take a bite of the city’s lively atmosphere.
On another note, we cannot ignore the rich culture of Donostia. Not in vain was is named the European Capital of Culture back in 2016. Among the most relevant cultural events that take place here, we should mention the San Sebastián International Film Festival, attended by many Hollywood stars, or the Jazzaldia, the San Sebastián Jazz Festival. If we would like to say goodbye with a touch of art, we could visit the collection of sculptures called The Comb of the Wind, a series of pieces of steel that rip the waves between rocks and cliffs.
We are now reaching the centre of the peninsula, more specifically the province of Salamanca in Castile and León. Crossed side by side by the Tormes river, Salamanca displays a network of bridges and riverside walks that offer a lovely stroll. Besides, the Roman bridge provides a stunning panoramic view of the river’s banks.
The renowned University of Salamanca, whose history encompasses more than 800 years, is one of the oldest institutions in Europe. It was built under the reign of Alfonso IX of León in the early 13th century, and its old library breathes timelessly among age-old books, manuscripts, and wooden bookshelves.
In contrast to the magnificence of the main square or Plaza Mayor, we can find unique spots like the historical building Casa de las Conchas, or the modernist mansion Casa Lis, a gem with stained glass windows revealing a different side of the city. On a more literary note, we might want to visit the gardens called Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, inspired on the book by Fernando Rojas The Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea.
We will smoothly slide on the map until we land in Extremadura. The city of Cáceres, in the province of the same name, was declared a World Heritage City in 1986.
The streets and squares of Cáceres are drenched in history. Indeed, here we find a most interesting mix of different cultures; more specifically, the Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures. Hence, visiting its ancient stone buildings, particularly the ones inhabiting the old town, always means to travel to times past.
Having that in mind, it would be nice to walk through the Old Jewish Quarter, a rich historical area where the Jewish and Muslim communities lived together for years. Arco de la Estrella (“the star’s archway”) is another interesting sight in the old town. This baroque monument, built in the 18th century over a 15th-century structure, constitutes the entry to the monumental city of Cáceres. Some of these historical spots, such as Arco de la Estrella, the square of Santa María and the slope of La Compañía, have staged famous films and TV shows like the very popular Game of Thrones.
Our flight through the map takes us to the province of Toledo in Castile La Mancha. This beautiful city resting on the shores of the Tajo river, whose old town stands on a smooth cliff, is without doubt one of the most charming ones in Spain. Just like many other cities on this list, Toledo is considered a World Heritage Site.
If we walk through its cobbled streets, stepping up and down its narrow slopes, we will discover a trident-shaped heritage: a Christian, Jewish and Muslim heritage. The rich history of the city, traversed by multiple battles and conquests, has left us delightfully hybrid architecture where churches, mosques, and synagogues blend in forming a unique colour palette. Moreover, we could add that there are plenty of remains from the Roman period in Toledo.
This city proves that one can travel through time in only a few steps. Crossing the walls through the gate of bab al-Mardum, built around the 9th century, we will walk along a Roman road until we reach the mosque that is currently called Cristo de la Luz, which dates back to the 10th century. And all this only in the span of a few metres!
On the opposite side of the old town, we will find the synagogue of El Tránsito, a stunning 14th-century temple with beautifully carved walls which also hosts the Sephardic Museum. Moreover, the Primatial Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo at the very heart of the old town, displays a mesmerizing picture of Christian architecture, with its broad central nave, high vaults, and bright golden sculptures.
Our map will now guide us to sunny Andalusia. If we land on the natural lookout point of Córdoba, to the northwest of the city, we will be able to see a green plain with orange-coloured houses scattered through it. Resting next to the Guadalquivir river, not far from the mountain range of Sierra Morena, Córdoba has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.
At the roots of this city intertwine Roman, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian branches too. Thus, we will find that Córdoba is crossed by Roman bridges, Arab baths, Jewish quarters, and Christian castles, among other buildings which traverse the city’s history in its most remarkable moments.
The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba is a clear example of that. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1984, it was originally a Visigothic building. Its walls keep elements of Umayyad, Gothic, Renaissance and baroque architecture. It is divided into two main areas, the courtyard or sah, and the prayer hall or haram. Before we leave this architectural jewel behind, we cannot forget to visit its hypostyle hall and admire its signature picture of bicoloured columns and arcades.
We might have left Córdoba, but there is still more Andalusia for us to taste. At the foot of the breathtaking mountain range of Sierra Nevada, Granada spreads its ancient wings over the depression of the Genil river.
If there is a historical building in Granada which has transcended time and space, it must be the Alhambra. There is no need to say we are talking about a World Heritage Site here. Its roots go back to the Nasrid dynasty that ruled over the Emirate of Granada, and experts believe it was first built in the 9th century. The Alhambra has been rebuilt several times over the centuries, for example by the Nasrid ruler Muhammed V, thanks to whom we can enjoy the sight of the popular Court of the Lions. Nevertheless, only when we personally visit this treasure from the past are we able to admire its true beauty and historical value.
Another of the most remarkable gems of Granada is the Generalife, a palace of retreat of the Nasrid monarchs. Its surroundings are certainly inviting for someone who seeks a place for rest, since this palace encompasses gardens, labyrinths and orchards where peace of mind is always only a stroll away.
We might also enjoy a bewitching panoramic view of Granada and the Alhambra from the lookout point of San Nicolás, located in the neighbourhood of El Albaicín. This area, one of the oldest ones in the city, allows us to breathe in the essence of Granada through its charming white houses and narrow pebbled streets.
Palma de Mallorca, or simply Palma, makes up our last stop. This Mediterranean jewel is both the capital of Mallorca and of the Balearic Islands.
Surrounded by crystal-clear coves, Palma emerges from the sea like a white line on the horizon. We shall walk from the harbour to its old town, where we will find an endearing amalgam of medieval buildings, modernist structures, beautiful squares, Arab baths, and flowery courtyards.
We should definitely visit the Palma Cathedral, a treasure of Gothic architecture rising, tall and golden, in front of the sea. The very Gaudí worked to improve its interior lightning, contributing to the spellbinding atmosphere where the light flowing through the stained glass gets magically cast on the columns and sculptures, weaving a hypnotic sight of lights and shadows.
The shadows become longer, and our journey begins to weight on our shoulders. It would be nice to sit on a terrace in the old town, and rest there for a while. We might close this chapter by enjoying a Majorcan delicacy: an ensaimada. Bite by bite, we will let this cake melt in our mouth, and reminisce our adventure through some of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen.