Spain is a large country that occupies most of the Iberian Peninsula along with its neighbour, Portugal. Renowned as a budget sun, sea and sand holiday destination for half a century, the country offers so much more to tourists and is trying to shake off the ‘sangria’ image and appeal to more upmarket holidaymakers by focusing on its historical and cultural attractions.
Spain has the second highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world which include the largest number of cities on the list. Only Italy has more UNESCO sites. These spring from the rich history of the country and its position as one of the gateways to Europe. Spain also had one of the world’s most extensive empires from North and South America to the Philippines and as a result, Spanish is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. In turn, immigration to Spain from its former colonies has enriched its culture and identity.
The south of the country shows strong North African influences from the time when the region was controlled by the Moors and Arabs. Many of the region’s famous buildings which we take to be Spanish are North African in design and names such as the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazars, fortifications build atop hills in many Spanish cities to maintain control and defend the region around it, come from the Arabic.
Northern Spain displays a more European style with influences from France and the Pyrenees evident there. You’ll also find the climate changes significantly as you move north. The Mediterranean coast has mild wet winters followed by sunny hot summers whilst the centre is hot and arid in summer giving way to bitterly cold and often snowy weather in the depths of winter. This is exacerbated in the mountain ranges such as the Sierra Nevada which hosts Spain’s ski resorts. Further north and toward the Atlantic coast and the Bay of Biscay, summers take on a more Northern European feel with less intense heat, more summer rain and mild but damp winters often accompanied by Atlantic storms.
Spain’s cities make for fabulous short break destinations. Two of Europe’s most popular are Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid has fabulous architecture surrounding majestic plazas and some of the world’s finest paintings on display at the Prado Art Museum. Barcelona is the home of Gaudi architecture and after marvelling at the Sagrada Familia, still only half finished after more than a hundred years of construction, you can look for the simpler applications of his art in the Bishop’s Palace or in the apartment blocks that dot the city. Then there are the bull rings with their heart-stopping bullfights, the flamenco dancing and the wonderful music of Rodrigo. You mustn’t forget the beaches too, whether the familiar ones of the Costa del Sol or the Costa Blanca or those found on Spain’s islands such as the Canaries or the Balearics.
Getting to this fabulous country is simplicity itself with a variety of means including ferry, car, train or plane, with flying the easiest and cheapest method. Almost all major airlines have routes to Spain as well as several budget carriers including Wizzair, Ryanair, Flybe and easyJet. The large number of operators means that prices are very low making last minute getaways very affordable. Almost every major airport, certainly on the coast, is covered and you’ll be able to choose from a wide range of resorts; from the loud brash party ones to quieter ones where evening entertainment is a stroll on a beach followed by a quiet drink in a local bar.
Getting around Spain is easy too with cheap domestic flights operated by Iberia and the budget airlines easyJet and Ryanair. These can come in very useful for the longer distances where travel by road can take the best part of a day. Ferry travel to Spain isn’t as popular as it used to be but still it’s possible to bring your car to northern ports such as Santander or Bilbao. To save money, you can also come as a passenger on the ferry and hire a car at the port. Driving all the way down through France is another option whilst many put their car on the train and accompany it, getting off near their destination and using their car to get around.
The train is a good way of getting around the country with RENFE, the Spanish rail operator, having a comprehensive rail network covering most of the country. Tickets are reasonably priced and several high speed lines mean that journey times can be quick. Buses are also a good option and run regularly between most cities and big towns. There are several operators but each route is run by only one company so make sure you buy your ticket from the correct office. Buses are punctual and make good time along the routes whilst enabling you to see more of the country.
Car hire is extremely popular in Spain and very low car rental rates, especially out of season, increase its popularity. Most visitors to the country consider hiring a car to see more than the beach or their hotel pool. With so much to see in Spain, there’s almost certainly something nearby that a hire car will help you investigate. Rather than pay costly tour operator excursion prices you can hire a car for a week, often for less than the price of a day trip for a family. Be warned though that driving in the main cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia can be a nightmare with congestion and poor driving manners accompanied by bad habits and where possible you should consider leaving your car on the outskirts of the city and use public transport.
Spain deserves more of a look beyond the bars and beaches and if you want a different holiday, enriched by the culture of the people and its history then Spain should be your first choice. For ideas on what to see and do around the country take a look at our mini guides to the areas around the airports found as links from this page and use them to plan a unique holiday.