Where to go in Spain in 2016…
Tired of the crowds in Tuscany; feel like you have “done” the Dordogne; or don´t really fancy Turkey right now? Then Spain should be high on your bucket list. So, what are best things to see and do in Spain this year...? Once popular for little more than Sol y Playa and Golf, Spain is at last becoming known for its dynamic cities & historic towns, arts & culture, food & wines, nature & outdoor pursuits – and rivals anywhere else in Europe for its diversity and value for money.
Photo: Alcazar palace in Seville, filming location for Game of Thrones 6.
Cultural tourism is booming, especially in Andalucia, with 2015 being a record year for the Alhambra (Granada), the Mezquita (Cordoba), Alcazar palace (Seville) and Malaga´s old town. So the word is getting out – it´s time to get planning your trip..!
Read on for our Coast-to-Coast guide to the best places to visit in Spain in 2016 – with insider tips and event dates - a great suggested route for anyone dreaming of taking a Grand Tour in Spain this summer. Travelling from San Sebastian to Cadiz, you´ll be following in the footsteps of iconic French author, Alexandre Dumas (“The Three Musketeers”), who made the trip 170 years ago in 1846. His entertaining travelogue, “Impressions de voyage - de Paris a Cadix”, was published in 1847.
Photos: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers & From Paris to Cadiz.
The Spanish section of Dumas´ route, is a classic road trip from the European Capital of Culture 2016 (San Sebastian) to Europe´s oldest port city (Cadiz), via some of Spain´s finest cultural sites, historic cities, wine regions, countryside and coastline along the way. Hop on the AVE high-speed trains between the main cities - taking advantage of the new Renfe Spain Rail Pass - and rent a car where necessary to explore the untouched rural areas in between too. Enjoy driving on new, empty autovias and quiet, scenic backroads (all usually in great condition) as you travel down through Spain.
Photo: travel map showing AVE high-speed train network in Spain (Adif/El Mundo).
TOP 10 PLACES TO VISIT IN SPAIN IN 2016
1) SAN SEBASTIAN: this lovely coastal city is European Capital of Culture for 2016 and arguably Spain´s top foodie destination, with a range of cultural events planned all year.
Photo: stay on a vineyard in Ribera del Duero, near Burgos (Adabia Retuerta Le Domaine hotel).
2) BURGOS: a new AVE line (Valladolid – Palencia – Leon) has just opened, linking Burgos to Madrid. Hire a car to explore some top wine regions (eg Ribera del Duero) and splurge with a luxury stay on a vineyard, Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine, voted No.1 hotel in Spain (Tripadvisor). Return the car to Burgos and take the AVE to Madrid.
“If you ever go to Burgos, you must visit its immense cathedral, with its bas-reliefs; its wonderful iron-work choir screen; its dome like a Florentine jewel; its priceless art treasures..”. Alexandre Dumas, Paris to Cadiz (1847).
* Did you know? Arguably the most famous scene in one of the best movies ever made was filmed near Burgos. The memorable "trio" face-off scene in Sergio Leone´s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly was made there; while the rest was filmed in the Tabernas desert & Cabo de Gata near Almeria, Andalucia. The classic Spaghetti Western, with the classic soundtrack was released 50 years ago in 1966. Read more on top movie locations in Spain.
3) MADRID: visit Toledo, Escorial or Aranjuez as daytrips by train. Take the Cervantes train to Alcala La Henares 35km outside of Madrid, with actors telling the Don Quixote story, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel Cervantes. “Shakespeare & Cervantes 400” events are being held in Alcala La Henares, in Stratford-upon-Avon (UK) & the Hay Literary Festivals. The two iconic authors died within 11 days of eachother in 1616!
Photo: view of Toledo, Spain´s Gastronomic Capital in 2016.
4) TOLEDO: famous for its wonderful setting, medieval Jewish heritage and El Greco paintings, Toledo celebrates 30 years as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It´s also known for its tasty Manchego cheese, marzipan sweets and saffron and is Spain´s Gastronomic Capital for 2016. Foodie events are planned all year, including Tapas Festivals in June and November.
“If you ever go to Spain…go to Toledo, go to Toledo”. Alexandre Dumas: Paris to Cadiz (1847).
Photo: the Mezquita in Cordoba - medeival mosque and cathedral.
5) CORDOBA: arrive by AVE from Madrid (journey time only 1 hour 45 mins!). Undoubtedly one of Spain´s cultural highlights, with its mesmerizing Mezquita, “Juderia” old town, Roman bridge, riverfront cafes and popular Mercado Victoria gastro-market. Events to look out for are the Patios Festival (02-15 May), Noche Blanca flamenco fiesta (18 June) and annual Guitar Festival (1-15 July). Hire a car at the station to continue on to the stunning Sierras Subbeticas, only an hour´s drive away.
“An immense building whose vaulted roof rested on thousands of slender columns…and in the midst of it rises a great chapel, built there in 1528. As Christians we cannot regret the rise of Christianity, but as artists we grieve that the mosque was defaced in this way, instead of it being preserved as a monument unique in Europe.” Alexandre Dumas on the Mezquita, Paris to Cadiz (1847).
Photo: hiking up to a Moorish watchtower in the Sierras Subbeticas.
6) SIERRAS SUBBETICAS: use this area as your base in the middle of Andalucia to explore Cordoba, Granada, Jaen, Ubeda & Baeza, Priego de Cordoba and Antequera; to discover hidden white villages (Zuheros) and historic castles (Alcala La Real); and to sample local wines and the world´s finest olive oils. Stay at Casa Olea near Priego, ranked in the Top 25 B&Bs/Inns in Spain (Tripadvisor). Go hiking here, not hunting as Dumas did back in 1846 (in the Sierra Morena); or biking on the Via Verde reclaimed “Olive Train” railway.
The Sierras Subbeticas have just been designated a UNESCO Global Geopark, following the decision to give all Global Geoparks the same UNESCO Site status as World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves (Nov 2015).
* Priego de Cordoba: recently voted the prettiest town in Andalucia (Viajestic) and one of Spain´s top15 most beautiful towns by leading travel magazine (Viajar) and Tripadvisor. The home of Andalucian Baroque, with a beautiful medieval quarter and spectacular cliff-top setting.
Photo: 11th century Banos Arabes (Arabic Baths) in Jaen.
* Jaen: visit the Baños Arabes Cultural Centre, reopened after a €2 million project, Europe´s largest and best-preserved 11th century Arab Baths. Also in Jaen province, don´t miss the UNESCO World Heritage towns of Ubeda & Baeza; or the Fortaleza La Mota at Alcala La Real – once the gateway to the Moorish Kingdom of Granada, now one of Andalucia´s most impressive hill-top castles.
Photo: Fortaleza La Mota castle, Alcala La Real.
* Antequera area: still relatively off the tourist map but well worth exploring. Hike the popular, vertigo-inducing Caminito del Rey trail which reopened last year after an impressive restoration project. Visit the El Torcal natural park and Megalithic Dolmens - set to be added to UNESCO World Heritage List in July. El Torcal was used as a filming location for NBC´s new fantasy drama, Emerald City, based on the Wizard of Oz (opens Autumn 2016).
Photo: hiking the spectacular Caminito del Rey trail, near El Chorro.
7) GRANADA: following another record year in 2015, it is now fundamental to pre-book Alhambra tickets well in advance. Granada celebrates the 65th edition of its popular Music & Dance Festival (17 June to 08 July), with a Literary focus to mark 400 years since the death of Cervantes and 80 years since Garcia Lorca was killed during the Spanish Civil War. The new AVE line (Seville-Antequera-Granada) is expected to open at the end of 2016.
“Nowhere else in the world will you find in such a small expanse such fragrance, such freshness, such a multitude of windows, each opening on a corner of paradise. The very breath of Arabia still lingers in the air…”. Alexandre Dumas on the Generalife (Alhambra), Paris to Cadiz (1847).
Photo: sunset over the Alhambra palace, view from the Generalife, in Granada.
* Alhambra ranked in the Top 10 Sites in the World! The Alhambra in Granada has been listed at No.9 in Lonely Planet´s Ultimate Travel List (Top 500 Best Places to visit Worldwide), alongside the likes of the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu etc. I know we´re biased, but we would have included Cordoba´s Mezquita in the Top 10 also!
“The Court of Lions (Alhambra), a miracle of human creation, a dream brought to reality by an enchanter´s ring..”. Alexandre Dumas, Paris to Cadiz (1847).
Photo: 2016 festival poster for Seville´s Bienal de Flamenco.
8) SEVILLE: drop the car back at Cordoba station and take the train to Seville. Explore Seville´s atmospheric backstreets, plazas and historic sites – even more popular than ever now thanks to the “Game of Thrones Effect”. The forthcoming Season 6 (due April) was filmed in the Alcazar palace. If you want to see the world´s biggest names in flamenco, don´t miss the Bienal de Flamenco festival (09 Sep to 02 Oct).
Photo: Cadiz cathedral and old town waterfront.
9) CADIZ: continue by train to Cadiz (not by boat as Dumas did). A new AVE line (Seville-Cadiz) is expected to open later this year. Europe´s oldest port, Cadiz is full of “old world” charm and is the jumping off point for the Costa de la Luz beaches (El Palmar), white towns (Vejer de la Frontera), kitesurfing (Tarifa), Roman ruins (Baelo Claudia at Bolonia) and visits to Jerez de la Fontera (flamenco, sherry & horses) and Doñana National Park.
“The port of Cadiz, dazzling white between the blue of the sea and sky…the southern most tip of Europe.” Alexandre Dumas, Paris to Cadiz (1847).
Photo: Baelo Claudia Roman ruins by Bolonia beach, Costa de la Luz.
10) MALAGA: back in 1846, Dumas left Spain by boat from Cadiz to Algeria; but today, a flight home from Malaga or Seville is your more likely choice! Arguably Spain´s hottest cultural destination of the moment, Malaga has been re-branded “The City of Museums”, following the Pompidou and other big gallery openings. And its cultural circuit is set to be completed this year, with the long-awaited opening of the Malaga Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology housed in the Palacio de Aduana (Customs House).
Photo: Pompidou Malaga art gallery, in Malaga´s Muelle Uno waterfont.
CASA OLEA is an award-winning small hotel, located close to Priego de Cordoba in the Sierras Subbeticas mountains. Situated in the heart of Andalucia, half-way between Granada and Cordoba, ideally placed for day trips to the Alhambra and Mezquita, hiking and biking in the hills and olive groves.
Photo: Casa Olea boutique hotel near Priego de Cordoba, Andalucia.