When you visit Spain in the summer, you’ll get to experience a wondrous variety of cultures, landscapes, climates and cuisine. You’ll also get to explore palace gardens, turquoise coves, whitewashed Andalusian hamlets and oak-dappled countrysides. However you travel, it’s certain to be a summer to remember.
The Golden City of Salamanca
Like most university towns, Salamanca in northwestern Spain has a large population of young people who contribute to its lively culture. Nicknamed the Golden City for the color of its sandstone buildings, Salamanca glimmers with architectural, religious and gastronomic delights. Among a treasure trove of churches and convents, the Salamanca Cathedral reigns supreme with its elaborate carvings, frescoes, pinnacles and flying buttresses. Art lovers can tour the stunning Museo Art Nouveau y Art Déco Casa Lis —an art-nouveau museum housed in an urban mansion built on a former city wall—then wander past the 16th-century La Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells), a former palace that’s now a public library covered with stone shells. Shoppers can ply the Mercado Central (the city’s public market) every day and the El Rastro flea market on Sundays. In the late afternoon, head to Plaza Mayor, hailed as one of Spain’s loveliest public squares and known as “the city’s living room.” Settle in for a gelato or a drink at one of the surrounding cafés. When it’s time to eat, try some tapas at the nearby Café Corrillo. Tucked into one of the city’s charming narrow passageways, the café’s lovely outdoor terrace has been called “the most beautiful patio in Salamanca.”
Salamanca is also a haven of Ibérico ham. In a country where jamón (ham) is king, you’ll see it hanging in hocks and offered at every market and eatery. To see where it comes from, take a journey to the town of Guijuelo, 30 miles from Salamanca. Here, major ham-maker Julián Martín has developed the concept of jamónturismo (ham tourism), which allows visitors to see the process of ham and sausage-making from farm to table. Outfitted in a white lab coat, you’ll follow a Spanish-speaking guide through the ham factory and then be treated to a tasting. Be sure to go on a weekday when the factory is fully operational.
The Sistine Chapel of the Stone Age
The Cantabria region on the northern coast of Spain is renowned for its medieval architecture and archaeological sites. Among nine others, the Altamira Cave—just outside the picturesque village of Santillana del Mar, 30 miles west of Santander—is the most significant because of its prehistoric cave paintings and engravings. Dating back to 35,000 B.C., they’re recognized as some of Europe’s finest and oldest Paleolithic (Stone Age) finds. No other cave in the region features art as complex as the large-scale animal figures found on the ceilings and walls of Altamira. The drawings come to life with bison, horses, boar and red deer depicted in remarkable color, detail and technique. Humans with animal heads, handprints and various symbols provide an aura of mystery and intrigue. The use of textures in the rock wall adds to the artistry. Unfortunately, carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors over the years caused damage to the fragile, ancient drawings. As a result, the cave was closed to the public in 2001, but a replica was built at the nearby Altamira National Museum & Research Center. Go early or reserve in advance. Entry into the “new cave” is only allowed at fixed times in 10-minute intervals.
Add a visit to the El Castillo and Las Monedas caves just outside Puente Viesgo, about 20 minutes from Altamira. Even if you don’t understand the Spanish-speaking guides, you can enjoy the fantastic geological formations and paintings up close and marvel at their ancient mastery. Reserve in advance and wear good walking shoes.
Going the Costa Brava Way
If you visit Barcelona, drive up the Costa Brava coast to enjoy the wondrous Mediterranean scenery. Just south of Begur, you’ll find Aigua Blava, a small beach with an amazing turquoise cove. If you want to stay a while, check into the Parador de Aiguablava, an example of typical Spanish lodging that was built in the 1950s. Set high on a rocky ridge overlooking the bay, this traditional guest house features amazing views. Balconies and terraces let you admire the scenery, while a path takes sun worshipers down to the public beach. Indulge in a delicious hearty breakfast and then set out for the day.
Going inland northeast of Begur, you’ll find rural tradition still thriving in Peratallada, a medieval hamlet of labyrinthine passageways, rutted stone streets and sunny squares. The town’s moat is a testament to its past—Peratallada (meaning “hewn stone”) was once one of the most fortified towns in medieval Catalonia. While the private Peratallada Castle holds a prominent position in the old town center, the peaceful 13th-century Church of Sant Esteve just outside the village boasts a lovely tree-lined entry and welcomes visitors. The town is also an excellent place to try the area’s edible specialties. Superb small restaurants tucked into charming streets provide a myriad of choices for al fresco dining. Festa Major, the annual two-day summer festival in August, is marked by concerts and dancing, while the nearby town of La Bisbal is a draw for pottery lovers.
Atmospheric Andalusian Beauty
One of the majestic pueblos blancos (white villages) of southern Spain, Arcos de la Frontera presides over the surrounding valley like a crown jewel. The whitewashed houses of the lower “new town” make their way up the hillside to the upper “old town,” where they cluster around churches, a convent and a castle set atop a dramatic rocky ridge. The town’s de la frontera (border) designation indicates that Arcos was once on the front line of the fight to recapture Spain from the Moors (711–1492 A.D.). This fortified city still only has two entry points, both of which are protected by heavy gates.
Arcos has always been popular because of its plentiful water supply. Caves in the steep cliffs that plunge down from the old town were even populated during prehistoric times. Among the occupants of the city, Romans, Visigoths and Moors have all contributed to its unique culture and architecture. Today, potter’s workshops, painted ceramics, wrought-iron forges, traditional craft shops and a textile mill continue Arcos’ ancient artisanal heritage.
Look for the tourist information office in Plaza de Cabildo (the old town’s main square), pick up a walking map and ask about guided tours. Then start exploring the labyrinth of plazas and cobbled streets, which will take you by intriguing arches and whitewashed homes adorned with grilled windows and geraniums. Former noble residences feature carved and arched doorways. Many of the homes here have colorful tiled patios that once served as rain funnels to the wells below. Four official lookout points—including the one opposite the Santa Maria church at the breathtaking Peña Nueva cliff (aka the Balcony of Arcos)—let you gaze over the valley below, where olive and orange groves grow along the Guadalete River. Climb to the top of the San Pedro church bell tower for even better views. In May and June, fields of sunflowers light up the area, while locals celebrate the patron saint of Arcos with colorful flamenco festivals and a procession from August 4 to 5.
The Royal Gardens of Spain
Garden lovers have many grand options outside of Madrid. A bit farther north of the fantastic Segovia, La Granja de San Ildefonso enjoys a plum setting in the mountain foothills that once served as the hunting grounds of Castilian kings. It later became the home of Philip V of Spain (1683–1746), grandson of French Sun King Louis XIV and the first French-born monarch of Spain. During his two tenures as king, he constructed La Granja as a retreat and employed French designers for both his palace and gardens—the latter lasted over two decades. Translating as “The Farm,” La Granja is modeled after Versailles and is filled with fountains, cascades, basins, mythological sculptures and a garden maze. Today, its forested gardens make a cool escape from the heat of Madrid and provide a lovely place to wander after a tour through the palace.
If you’re heading south to Toledo, plan a side trip to Aranjuez. Near the Tagus and Jarama Rivers, the Aranjuez Palace holds a remarkable collection of porcelain, tapestries, ceiling décor and art, but the extensive formal gardens are its crowning glory. A wooded area, formal flowerbeds, vast green space and parade grounds provide plenty of real estate for walking. Meander under trees, past fountains and along riverside paths, or tour the gardens by Chiquitrén, a train that takes visitors through the immense Jardin del Principe (Garden of the Prince) into the historic center of Aranjuez. When you get hungry, make your way through the garden to the ivy-covered hunting lodge near the river. Now a restaurant, Castillo de 1806 prepares meals fit for a king. Ancient stone walls and archways mark the interior and set a romantic tone.
Home of the Toros Bravas
The Toros Bravas (fighting bulls) are a rich part of Spain’s cultural heritage. To better appreciate this fascinating tradition, visit a ganadería—a ranch/estate that breeds and raises bulls. The lifestyle and customs of the Andalusian countryside stay firmly entrenched in generations of vacqueros (cowboys), who have the utmost respect for the bulls.
Ganadería Miura, a 2,500-acre ranch outside of Seville, is one of Spain’s most revered. This historic estate debuted its first bull in 1849 and has built a lineage of first-class bulls known for their size, ferocity, cunning and independent character. Mentioned by Ernest Hemingway in his novel Death in the Afternoon, the Miura bulls also served as the inspiration for three Lamborghini cars: the Murciélago, the Reventon and the Islero (names of bulls that outdueled their matadors).
You’ll find bull ranches in Spain’s western regions of Castilla-Leon, Extremadura and Andalusia. Many of them—including the Miura ranch—are open to visitors, but you should book in advance. The Campo Charro area south of Salamanca and the areas around Seville and Cadiz are vital bull-ranching sectors. Located east of Cadiz is Acampo Abierto, run by bull, horse and sherry legend Álvaro Domecq (who also started the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art). Domecq’s ranch exhibits riding disciplines from cowboy-style to dressage, and presents horses and bulls in show form. Toro fans can also join specialized tours that provide guided visits to breeding farms. Alternately, you can see the lovely countryside by car and watch the toros graze.
A Fortress of the Ages
A quick 30-minute train ride from Valencia in eastern Spain will take you to Sagunto, birthplace of Joaquín Rodrigo, the country’s most famous classical composer. Before Rodrigo’s time, Hannibal the Carthaginian general (247–183 B.C.), the Iberians, the Romans and the Moors traversed this ancient piece of land.
From the rail station, you can walk the steep, winding streets of the town’s old Jewish quarter. Pass by cobblestones, trees and timeworn buildings on a hike up to the Sagunto Castle ruins. Spectacular views over the coast and inland mountains, along with ancient fortifications, reward your efforts. The ruins are free to visit and feature examples of Iberian, Roman and Moorish building and expansion.
The region’s most important city of the time, Sagunto was equipped with ramparts, a Roman forum and a theater. A former temple to Diana also lies among the ruins. Renovated for use today, the Roman theater still features parts of the original amphitheater. During the Sagunt a Escena festival in July and August, dance and musical productions transport viewers back to ancient times. The fortress is also illuminated at night if you want to take a romantic stroll.
Tips for visitors:
- Go early or late in the day during the summer to avoid the heat
- The site is closed on Mondays
- The site is only open until 2 p.m. on Sundays
The Wine Route of La Rioja
Wine finds fertile ground in Spain. Fantastic varietals grown at the bodegas (wineries) of the renowned Rioja region in northern Spain make it an ideal place for grape lovers. Visually stunning properties like the Hotel Viura are juxtaposed with converted medieval beauties such as the Hospedería de los Parajes.
Start off with a tour of the winemaking process at Dinastia Vivanco, where the Vivanco family has built the immense and modern Museo de la Cultura del Vino. It covers virtually everything there is to know about winemaking, with a concentration on La Rioja. A wealth of information is revealed through the incredible exhibits, displays and artifacts, including fascinating tidbits about cork and bottle making, and the opportunity to sniff ingredients. Top off the experience with a glass of wine and lunch overlooking the vineyards. Afterward, you can stroll the gardens, stop in at the gift shop and taste several of the wines at the adjacent bodega.
Reserve a guided English tour in advance, or use the provided earphones to translate the tour while you explore the museum. To visit other wineries in the region, get a Rioja Winery Pass that allows you to reserve an English tour on the date and location of your choice.
Travel Tips: Spain
If you want to get the most out of a summer trip to Spain, read on. We’ve complied our favorite tips in one place so you can learn how to hop the train, hit the flamenco festivals, dress like the locals and order the best tapas.
Flamenco & Fiestas
An integral part of the culture, festivals occur often in Spain, even in small villages. Aside from Semana Santa in Seville (April), you’ll find the best flamenco in small-town festivals and contests between the end of June and mid-September. Many are staged in a bullring or an open field, and start late in the evening and go until the wee hours of the morning. Check with local tourist offices to see what’s happening. Some noteworthy festivals:
- Potaje: End of June in Utrera, southeast of Seville
- La Caracolá: Mid-July in Lebrija, between Seville and Jerez
- Noche Flamenca de Albaycin: In August in Granada
- Festival de Cante Grande: In August in Ronda
- Los Viernes Flamenco: Friday evenings throughout August in Jerez
- Concurso Cante Jondo Antonio Mairena: Early September in Mairena del Alcor, just east of Seville
- Fiesta de la Bulería: Mid-September at the Jerez bullring
- Bienal de Arte Flamenco: Month-long festival staged every two years in September in Seville
The Train in Spain
Renfe Operadora operates Spain’s excellent rail network. High-speed AVE trains transport passengers between major cities in record time—just under 3 hours from Madrid to Barcelona (384 miles/619 km), and under 2 1/2 hours from Madrid to Seville (331 miles/531 km). Like passengers on a plane, riders check in with a boarding pass, go through security and sit in an assigned seat. Great discounts are offered with a 7-day or 14-day advance purchase. Riders can also try to get some of the last-minute deals that are available.
In Madrid, the metro will whisk you to and from the airport in 30 to 45 minutes for just 5 euros (approx. $7 U.S.), which is far less than a cab. In Barcelona, you can catch the local Renfe train from El Prat Airport and transfer to the metro. El Prat (BCN) is Barcelona’s international airport and is only 8 miles (14 km) from the city center. Barcelona-Girona Airport (GRO), often serviced by low-cost carriers like Ryanair, is almost 62 miles (100 km) north of Barcelona and has no metro connection—passengers must get to Barcelona by bus or find their way to the Girona rail station.
- Daily from 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
- Last train from the airport is at 2 a.m.
- Sunday through Thursday from 5 a.m. to 12 a.m.
- Friday from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.
- Saturday: 24 hours a day
The Later Side of Life
Spain is famous for its late nights and midday siestas. The dinner hour normally starts after 9 p.m., primetime TV begins at 10 p.m., and a vibrant nightlife scene commences at midnight in places like Madrid, Barcelona and university towns like Salamanca. As a result, the locals don’t often miss their mid-morning coffee break and midday siesta.
Although the siesta culture is changing as larger supermarkets, department stores and souvenir shops remain open throughout the day, it’s best to adapt and plan to eat lunch between 2 and 5 p.m. In many towns, even information centers close and only bars and restaurants are open during this time. Take a stroll or siesta in a park, or retreat from the heat of the day in your hotel and resume sightseeing when the locals are back in action.
What to Wear
Prepare for very hot, dry weather during the Spanish summer, especially in inland cities like Madrid and Seville. Pack lightweight, breathable tops, T-shirts, capris, skirts and dresses. In general, Spaniards dress quite tastefully, so if you want to blend in, reserve shorts for the beach and tennis shoes for the gym. If you go sleeveless, bring a shawl in order to visit cathedrals and churches, and keep modesty in mind—visitors in shorts are often denied entry. Comfortable walking shoes are required for Spain’s ancient cobbled streets, while a pair of flat sandals or wedges are perfect for going out. Bring a light cardigan for evenings on the coast and air-conditioned restaurants. A swimsuit, cover-up, hat and sunglasses are a must for the intense sun. A water bottle and a fan are worth their suitcase space.
Delicious Regional Specialties
If you want to immerse yourself in the culture of Spain, sample the regional specialties when you have the chance. Depending on where you go, you’ll have plenty of options, including:
- Andalusia: Pescaito frito (fried fish) in Málaga, salmorejo (rich, creamy tomato gazpacho), gazpacho, seafood, olives, Jabugo ham and sherry wine
- Asturias: Fabada asturiana (Basque bean stew)
- Barcelona: Mar i muntanya (sea and mountain cuisine) with beef, lamb, game or seafood mixed with dried fruit; Crema Catalana (Catalan crème brulée); and mel i matò (cream cheese and honey)
- Castilla y Leon: Cochinillo asado (roasted suckling pig), cordero lechal (baby lamb) and stews
- León: Tapas such as cecina (beef jerkey) and morcilla (black pudding)
- San Sebastian, Basque Country: Pinchos (bites of skewered olives, cheese, ham or shrimp on small slices of bread)
- Valencia: Arroz (Spanish rice) and paella valenciana (chicken, tomatoes, sweet pepper, olive oil and saffron)
Tricks of the Tapas Trade
Tapas are a way of life in Spain and you’ll find a great variety of tapas bars in Seville, Madrid and Barcelona. Trying one is a cultural experience. Some tips:
- If a tapas bar is full of locals, the food will be good
- In Barcelona, tapas restaurants are called tascas
- Locals often eat standing at the barra (counter) because it’s cheaper
- Don’t wait for bartenders to notice you—when you want to order, you’ll need to get their attention
- Be friendly and polite, and try to order in Spanish
- Racion is a full plate
- Media racion is a half-plate