Interesting Cities to Visit in Spain
The Spanish capital is both the geographic and economic center of the country. Although it’s the largest city in Spain, it boasts a local vibe that can be attributed to well-defined neighborhoods. Just north of the city center is the predominantly LGBTQ+ neighborhood of Chueca where many of the gay bars and nightlife can be found. La Latina to the south boasts famous tapas bars and patios, while Barrio de Las Letras is home to the museums. A few must-see sights include the Egyptian Temple of Debod, the royal palace, the Plaza Mayor, the oldest restaurant in the world (Sobrino de Botín) and the San Miguel Market.
With its port for cruise ships, close proximity to France, and cosmopolitan atmosphere, it’s no surprise that the Catalonia region (starring Barcelona), welcomes the most international tourists annually. As a result, Barcelona tends to feel more touristy, especially around top attractions like Las Ramblas, Park Guel and Sagrada Familia. Locals speak both Spanish and Catalan. Aside from the Gaudi architecture, one of its biggest defining factors is the city’s beach and coastline. Plus, a gay hotspot is just a 40-minute trip down the coast to Sitges, a quaint, small beach town.
Spanish for pomegranate, Granada is home to one of the wonders of the modern world, the Alhambra. This palace and fortress complex is an architectural marvel constructed in the 13th century and worth the better part of the day to visit. In the hilltops across from the Alhambra is the Albayzin neighborhood that houses Sacramonte, a modern-day gypsy cave enclave where you can see flamenco shows. Compared to larger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, food and drink can be cheap. In fact, one can go a whole night without buying food as generous tapas are usually included with a drink.
Seville is the epitome of Spanish culture. The images most people associate with Spain, like flamenco dancers in big flowy dresses, bullfights and colorful architecture can all be found here. It is truly the essence of southern Spain. A few not-to-miss sights include the historic Real Alcazar, magnificent Seville Cathedral and impressive Plaza de Espana. If you’re around for the Feria de Abril, pull out your albonicos (paper fans) and dress in your finest traditional garb for an incredible celebration.
This is where Spanish celebrities, royalty and the upper class go for the summer. San Sebastian is a seaside destination in the north that has a subtle elegance without being pretentious. From the old-school promenade at La Concha Beach to the five-star Maria Cristina Hotel, a touch of luxury can be found everywhere. Head down to the Parte Vieja (old town) for the famous pinchos (large tapas) that are done up with a modern, sophisticated twist. Seafood straight from the sea will also be on the menu and absolutely worth it. Views from atop Monte Urgull are stunning and a panoramic way to end the day.
Interesting Attractions to Visit in Spain
CAMINO DE SANTIAGO (WAY OF ST JAMES)
As a predominantly Catholic country, it’s no surprise that many cultural attractions have religious affiliation and origins. Since 812 AD the Camino de Santiago has attracted religious pilgrims down dozens of routes, all leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in its namesake city in northwest Spain. Today, over a quarter million visitors annually follow the historic trails, hiking, cycling and horseback riding with scallop shells marking the way. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for the massive botafumeiro, one of the largest censers in the world, which swings at high speeds while emitting incense every Friday and at certain solemnities.
SEMANA SANTA (HOLY WEEK)
Holy Week takes place the week before Easter Sunday and is a solemn time of penance. This celebration is marked by various processions in which members of religious brotherhoods and fraternities wear cloaks and hoods while carrying tronos (floats or thrones) with life-size depictions of the Passion. Religious chants, prayers and incense fill the air as dozens of these floats parade down the streets of cities all over Spain. The atmosphere of this week differs throughout the country, but the most grandiose processions occur in the southern Andalusia region in places like Granada, Málaga and Seville.
FERIA DE ABRIL (APRIL FAIR) IN SEVILLE
About two weeks after Holy Week, the six-day long Feria de Abril pays homage to Seville’s rich culture. Ironically it often takes place in May depending on the date of Easter. Locals dress in traditional outfits, including flamenco dresses for the ladies, and ride around in carriages or on horseback. It can feel like taking a step back in time. An entire village is set up with over 1,000 casetas, large canvas tents housing food, drink and music. Although a few public tents exist, most are private and owned by local families and organizations. If you’re lucky enough to befriend a local and get an invite to one of the private tents, you’ll experience the celebration to the fullest with drinks flowing and Sevillanas dancing all night long.
FIESTA DE LOS PATIOS (COURTYARD FESTIVAL) IN CÓRDOBA
For two weeks in May, locals open up their homes to welcome visitors into their private courtyards for a festival and contest of botanical beauty. Imagine whitewashed courtyards boasting fountains, trees and small adornments that are overflowing with colorful blooms. It is a sight to be seen. Although this time of year in southern Spain can be hot, it’s worth exploring these hidden gems. Take a break to sip local wine such as Manzanilla, a dry white sherry and eat traditional tapas.
LA TOMATINA FESTIVAL (TOMATO BATTLE)
Are you brave enough to join in the World’s Biggest Food Fight? On the last Wednesday of August each year, thousands of tomato-wielding warriors fill the streets of Bunol, a small village just 38km (24 miles) west of Valencia. The event is ticketed and limited to 20,000 people. It’s easiest to book accommodations in Valencia and take the train or bus into Bunol the day of the festival. Trucks literally bring tons of over-ripe tomatoes to Plaza del Pueblo where the fight lasts only about an hour.
LA BATALLA DE VINO DE HARO (THE WINE FIGHT IN HARO)
Although Spanish wine is best consumed in a glass with tapas, this ultimate celebration of wine takes place between the 27th and 30th of June every year atop a mountain in La Rioja, one of the Spain’s most renowned wine regions. The festivities begin the night before as the small town turns into a massive party leading to the wine battle the following morning. The best options for accommodations is to reserve a spot at a nearby campground. Don’t worry, many tour companies will provide the campsite essentials.
LAS FALLAS FESTIVAL IN VALENCIA
Awaken your inner pyro at this festival full of fireworks, flames and destruction. Every year from March 15-19, the city of Valencia practically explodes with one of the biggest parties in Spain. Celebrating the arrival of spring and the patron saint of carpentry, Saint José, each neighborhood creates larger-than-life installations (ninots) that are filled with fireworks and destined to be set ablaze on the last night of the festival (la Cremá). However, judges spare one winner to be saved from a fiery demise. Hotels book up months in advance given this spectacle’s international appeal.
Experiencing Spanish Food
Typical dishes vary by region, yet most Spaniards follow a Mediterranean-style diet including fresh seafood, meat, vegetables, olive oil and wine or beer. Spain is best known for tapas (small plates) and pinchos (slightly larger tapas in the north) that can range from cheese or meat on a slice of bread to a small portion of meatballs or croquettes (deep-fried rolls of vegetables, meat or fish). Cured meats such as jamon, chorizo, and salchichón are often paired with hard cheese like Manchego and a variety of olives for a tasty charcuterie. Try to catch a menu del día (prix fixe menu) for a filling lunch with several courses and a drink for an incredible value.
Other not-to-miss foods include tortilla Española (a potato and egg casserole), pulpo a la gallega (medallions of cooked octopus topped with olive oil, salt and paprika), and salmorejo or gazpacho (cold tomato soups). To try Spain’s famous paella, steer clear of touristy spots in major cities and if possible head to Valencia for the authentic Paella Valenciana made with vegetables, chicken and rabbit. While many tourists ask for sangria, opt for an equally refreshing local favorite, tinto de verano, a drink with red wine, lemon soda and sometimes a splash of rum. Local beer and wine vary by region and are very affordable compared to many other countries.
Safety Considerations for LGBTQ+ visitors to Spain
Spain is one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world, boasting a harmonious mix of rich tradition and liberal views. Same-sex relations were made legal in 1979 after the rule of Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco came to an end. In 2005, Spain was one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage. Although both culturally and legally accepted, LGBTQ+ travelers in Spain should still follow typical safety considerations and be mindful of their environment. Public displays of affection may still not be welcomed by some more conservative locals, especially those of an older generation. In larger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, it’s not difficult to find gay-friendly and gay-owned and operated accommodations and tour companies.
LGBTQ+ Travel Tips for Spain
Pride Orgullo) in Madrid is one of the largest in the world. The weeklong celebration leads up to the Pride parade attracting over 1.5 million spectator from across the globe. Other notable Pride celebrations take place in Barcelona, Sitges, and Maspalomas in the Canary Islands. WE Party and other circuit festivals can be found in major cities around Spain, often correlating with Pride festivals.
Regardless of season, explore the bars and nightlife of the LGBTQ+ neighborhoods: Chueca in Madrid and Eixample in Barcelona. Just a short trip away from Barcelona is the seaside village of Sitges, a notorious gay hotspot all summer long. Other popular gay destinations include Torremolines, Gran Canaria, Ibiza and Benidorm. In the winter, check out Spain’s main gay ski event Snow Queer Festival in the Pyrenees north of Barcelona.
Ryan is a twenty-something world traveler, happy-hour seeker, and social media marketer at a Chicago-based Fortune 500. For two years after university, he called Madrid home and traveled extensively throughout the diverse landscape of the country. Now, he regularly visits his old stomping grounds and explores new ones. He has five years of experience in social media and writing in digital ink for the travel and hospitality industry.