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Spain, Western Europe’s second largest country, evokes images of whirling flamenco dancers, ritualistic bullfights, medieval Moorish palaces and sunny beaches. Located on the Iberian Peninsula, next door to Portugal, the partying pais — the Spanish word for country — is known for its relaxed lifestyle, late-night meals and all-night party scene. But there is more to the country than clubbing and siestas.
Spain is home to art that spans millennia, from prehistoric cave art to portraits by Velasquez, the proto-modern work of Goya and the stylistic versatility of Picasso. Travelers will be fascinated by the architecture here, including the Roman aqueducts and churches, the cave homes of northern Andalusia, the fantastical Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona and the sinuous lines of Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum.
The diverse landscape is punctuated by the rugged Atlantic coast and the gentler waters of the Mediterranean, five snow-capped mountain ranges that draw skiers and mountain bikers and marshes and deserts. In the interior, shepherds still watch over their flocks and the famed black Iberian pigs wander freely, feeding on the acorns that give them their distinctive flavor.
Visitors to Spain need never miss out. In a single country they can find romance, history, natural beauty and some of the finest food in the world. Ole!
Spain has the second largest number of UNESCO Heritage Sites and the largest number of World Heritage Cities of any nation in the world.
In the south of Spain, Andalusia holds many reminders of old Spain. Cadiz is regarded as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in western Europe, with remnants of the Roman settlement that once stood here. Nearby, Ronda is a beautiful town situated atop steep cliffs and noted for its gorge-spanning bridge and the oldest bullring in Spain.
Cordoba and Granada hold the most spectacular reminders of the nation's Muslim past, with the red-and-white striped arches of the Mezquita in Cordoba and the stunning Alhambra palace perched on a hill above Granada. Seville, the cultural center of Andalusia, has a dazzling collection of sights built when the city was the main port for goods from the Americas, the grandest of which being the city's cathedral, the largest in the country. And in Barcelona, check out its pseudo-medieval Barri Gòtic neighborhood.
Spain's two largest cities hold the lion's share of Spain's most famous artworks. Madrid's Museum Triangle is home to the Museo del Prado, the largest art museum in Spain with many of the most famous works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya as well as some notable works by Italian, Flemish, Dutch and German masters. Nearby sits the Reina Sofía, most notable for holding Picasso's Guernica but also containing a number of works by Dalí and other Modernist, Surrealist and abstract painters.
Barcelona is renowned for its stunning collection of modern and contemporary art and architecture. This is where you will find the Picasso Museum, which covers the artist's early career quite well, and the architectural wonders of Antoni Gaudi, with their twisting organic forms that are a delight to look at. A day trip from Barcelona is the town of Figueres, noted for the Salvador Dalí Museum, designed by the Surrealist himself.
The historic cities of Spain are drenched in the past, but offer modern amenities. If you're a cruise passenger, the only way to see the capital, Madrid, is with a visit before or after your cruise, but it's worth the trip. Madrid has open plazas and top art museums, from the Prado to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Seville, the capital of the province of Andalusia, has more than a trace of its Roman past and Moorish occupation, and it is the location of the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.
In Granada, buy tickets in advance for the popular Alhambra, an intricately designed palace/fortress built in the 13th to 14th centuries. Valencia is famous for its orange groves and enormous vegetable market. See Don Quixote’s windmills in La Mancha.
Highlights of Barcelona are its Gothic Quarter, Seu (old cathedral) and Las Ramblas, the main shopping and dining thoroughfare. The Balearic and the Canary islands are also part of Spain, as are Ceuta and Melilla.
Spain’s Mediterranean beaches are its top attraction. The resort areas lining the Mediterranean coastline through Catalonia and Andalusia are Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca and Costa Brava.
Along the seacoast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. Other popular choices include gambas ajillo (garlic shrimp), pescado frito (fried fish), buñuelos de bacalao (breaded and deep fried cod) or the ever-present paella dishes.
The entry level to Spanish food is found in bars as tapas, which are a bit like starters or appetizers but are instead considered side orders to accompany your drink. Some bars will offer a wide variety of different tapas; others specialize on a specific kind (like seafood-based). A Spanish custom is to have one tapa and one small drink at a bar, then go to the next bar and do the same.
Spain is a country with great wine-making and drinking traditions. The most famous reds come from Rioja region, less known but also important come from Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Toro and Jumilla. The varietel Valdepenas offers good value for the money, and Belondrade y Lurton is regarded as the best white wine in Spain.
The best time to visit nearly all of Spain is in the spring and fall. The Atlantic coast may be an exception to this as it experiences heavy rains in October and November. Overall, in terms of weather and crowds, the best months to visit are May and October.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport to enter Spain.
Language: Spanish is the official language of Spain; however, in major tourist cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, and near major cruise ports, English is widely spoken.
Currency: The Euro.
Safety: Spain is a safe country, but you should take some basic precautions in public places. Beware of pickpockets in public, and don't leave valuables in a rental car.
Have you been to Spain? Please share a story, tip or discovery. What was the highlight?
WikiVoyage contributed to this article.
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