Spain Will Delight Your Senses
With lively music, friendly people, delicious cuisine and a rich history across its varied landscape, Spain is one of those incredible places one can never get enough of, because each visit is never the same.
Most U.S. flights to Spain land in Madrid, so we rounded up some of the best ways to experience the country through all five senses, no matter which direction you decide to go. While Spaniards drive on the same side of the road as us, you might find taking the Renfe train or AVE high-speed train a more convenient option.
Read on to see how you can fully immerse yourself in Spain from the moment you touch the ground.
Madrid & nearby Heritage Cities
See: You’ll be saying sí (yes) a lot in Spain, especially when you start walking around the colorful capital city of Madrid and realize you’ve picked a great vacation spot. Stroll the 350-acre El Retiro Park or take a guided tour of The Royal Palace. See artwork by greats like Goya, El Greco and Rembrandt in the world-famous El Prado or Picasso’s famous Spanish Civil War painting, “Guernica”, in the Reina Sofia Museum.
Hear: Listen to the fountains in the gardens of Aranjuez. One of the largest gardens in Spain and full of Europe’s most important collection of cultivated trees, this World Heritage Site just south of Madrid has been a royal residence for the Spanish crown since the late 15th century.
Touch: Put your hands on one of the best-preserved elevated Roman aqueducts in Segovia, a World Heritage City northwest of Madrid. Built in the first century, this impressive construction has two tiers of arches, for a total of 167 arches, constructed completely without mortar.
Taste: Head to Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world still in continuous operation, founded in 1725 in Madrid by a French cook and his wife. Ernest Hemingway immortalized this place in “The Sun Also Rises” but you don’t have to take his word for it; the suckling pig and filet mignon are dishes your stomach won’t soon forget.
Smell: Enter any cake shop in Avila, the quintessential medieval spiritual city of the 16th century, northwest of Madrid, and smell the yolks (yemas) of Santa Teresa, which are candied egg yolks. They are a popular gift any day of the year, but especially on October 15, the feast day of Santa Teresa.
North to Bilbao & Basque Country
Distance from Madrid to Bilbao: About 5 hours by train or 4.5 hours by car
See: One of the largest cities in northern Spain, Bilbao is a cutting-edge metropolis in Basque Country. It has roots as an industrial port city surrounded by green mountains but started becoming revitalized in the late-‘90s with the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
Hear: Sighs of relief at La Perla Thalassotherapy Centre in San Sebastían as people enjoy the seawater and the views over La Concha Bay. Since its start in 1912, the spa has been accommodating European nobility (and the rest of us).
Touch: Under siege throughout its history, Pamplona’s 16th-century city walls not only withstood attack but are still well-preserved. Visitors today can walk the medieval walls or explore the old citadel.
Taste: With nearly 40 Michelin-starred restaurants, the Basque country dining experience is full of stars. From traditional to experimental dishes, the cuisine also tends to be less pricey than in other parts of the world.
Smell: The northern regions of Cantabria and Asturias are home to picturesque fishing villages, such as Cudillero, Castropol, Lastres and Santillana del Mar, which not only boast panoramic views of the sea and surrounding coastline, but also an abundance of fresh seafood. Cantabria in particular is known for its anchovies, believed to be the best in the country, due in part to their strong smell of olive oil, salt and fish.
East to Valencia & Barcelona
Distance from Madrid to Barcelona: 3 hours, 15 min by train or 6 hour by car
See: La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia, the Silk Exchange building in Valencia, built between 1482-1533 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. A late Gothic-style civil building in the city, the grandiose Contract or Trading Hall highlights the power and wealth of the mercantile city centuries ago.
Hear: Your footsteps as you walk the cobblestones in Girona’s Jewish Quarter, dating back to the 12th century and one of the most well-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe.
Touch: Climb the 504 winding steps of Gaudís unfinished art nouveau masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia Towers in Barcelona.
Taste: Reus is the birthplace of Catalan vermouth and no fewer than five vermouth makers still operate today. There’s even a free Vermouth Museum (technically a restaurant and bar with vermouth-related memorabilia throughout the dining rooms). Valencia holds the title of creator of the well-known Spanish rice dish known as paella.
Smell: The east coast of Spain overlooks the Mediterranean, so be prepared to smell the distinct saltiness of the sea.
South to Seville & Andalusia
Distance from Madrid to Seville: About 3 hours by train or 5 ½ hours by car
See: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alhambra is an ancient palace, fortress and citadel in Granada dating back to the eighth century. Surrounded by defensive walls, it encompasses nearly 26 acres on a hillside overlooking the city and is a grandiose Moorish palace unique in the world.
Hear: The Spanish guitar melodies and the passionate heels clicking at a flamenco performance in Seville, the birthplace of it all, are not to be missed. What started as a way for gypsies to express sadness about their lives has turned into a major genre of music and dance.
Touch: Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain (and the only European region with both Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines), encompasses the mountain ranges of the Sierra Morena and the Baetic Mountains. The area’s hilly terrain means there are many trails to hike.
Taste: While you’re bound to find Iberian ham no matter where you go, the villages of Jabugo in the Sierra de Aracena and Trevelez are famous for producing the tastiest cured ham in Spain, also known as Pata Negra. Wash it down with some sherry from Jerez de la Frontera, literally the only place in the world where it is produced. Andalusia is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, so you might want to pick up a bottle or two to bring home.
Smell: Orange trees line countless streets and plazas in Andalusia, particularly in Cordoba, which was Europe’s most sophisticated, religiously tolerant and cosmopolitan city in the 9th and 10th centuries. Stroll the streets in springtime to catch the soft scent.
West to Mérida & Extremadura
Distance from Madrid to Mérida: Nearly 8 hours by train or 4 hours by car
See: The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the alleged burial site of St. James the Apostle. Since medieval times, pilgrims from various countries annually travel for 30 days on foot via the Camino de Santiago (“the way of Saint James”) to the cathedral. The trail can be walked all year round, but April-June and September-October are the best months weather-wise.
Hear: The many bird sounds in the Monfrague National Park in the north of the Extremadura region, one of the best places for bird-watching in Europe. Expect imperial eagles, peregrine falcons, kingfishers and nightingales to name a few. Don’t forget your binoculars.
Touch: The walls of Alcazaba in Merida, the oldest Moorish fortress in Spain, dating back to 835 and now a UNESCO Heritage Site. While few remains of the original interior still exist, the original well did survive.
Taste: Torta del Casar and Ibores are two must-try cheeses in the region of Extremadura. Both unpasteurized, the former is made from sheep’s milk and the latter from goat's milk. Pair it with migas, fried breadcrumbs, a popular snack in the area.
Smell: Stroll the Jerte Valley in mid-March, when the valley is covered in a blanket of white from the millions of cherry trees blossoming on the mountain slopes and breathe in deeply.